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Nato over Libya - the tide begins to turn

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Imperialism has intervened into Libya not to save the revolution, but to co-opt it, writes Simon Hardy

It is happening again. After weeks of debate and climb down concerning international military action against Gaddafi, suddenly - almost out of nowhere - a UN resolution was agreed and bombing commenced. But it is OK they say - this is one of the good wars.

Of course it is hard to believe what the imperial powers say these days. After the WMD's and the Abu Ghraibs and all the uncounted dead across Iraq and Afghanistan it seems that they like to get their hands dirty on a regular basis and will happily lie to justify it. But it is OK they say - we learnt from our mistakes.

As the tomahawk missiles and B2 bombers rain down destruction on Libya one is entitled to ask some questions. Most importantly we must ask why now, why here?

The apparent imminent defeat of the Libyan revolution was ostensibly the cause. The political debate in the western world fell into the usual patterns with the usual terms and categories. Humanitarian. No-fly zone. Civilians. Threat. These buzz words are fired out at press conferences like bullets from machine guns. They speak to our hearts and our compassion but they are also lies. The entire operation is a cynical manipulation of truth and people. The Libyan revolution was clearly on the verge of some kind of strategic, perhaps even permanent, defeat - unable to stand up to Gaddafi's mercenaries and praetorian guards. But this was not the reason for the intervention.

The decision making process which led the West to justify intervention was very revealing. Don't forget that when Ben Ali was on the verge of being overthrown in Tunisia the Sarkozy government offered to send in French special forces to protect him and put down the uprising. Skip forward three months and France is suddenly apparently on the side of the angels, instead of defending a nasty tyrant from his people now they are defending the people from a nasty tyrant. The western world was cautious and concerned about the uprisings in countries where they had long term invested interests (Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia) but now it seems they have made a decision to support some of the movements. The reason why they support the revolution in Libya is simple. Whilst it is true that Gaddafi came in from the cold a few years ago, he has never quite been 'on message'. His supposed anti-imperialist past always left a sour taste in the mouth of the western elites, although they were happy to wash the taste out with Libyan oil. But they always knew that Gaddafi could be sacrificed more easily than Mubarak if someone potentially better came along. Gaddafi is no Mubarak as far as the US is concerned. The rebellion in Libya rapidly became a civil war and the West clearly came out for the rebels when they had almost surrounded Tripoli. Overstretched and under equipped, however, they were unable to resist Gaddafi's counter attack and they were forced to retreat and retreat. The factors that could be used to justify an intervention began to align.

Along with the rush to war, there is a necessary obliteration of memory, which must take place to manufacture consent for the action. Turn back the clock a month before the rebellion started in Libya. The western world was supplying military equipment and training to the Libyan army. We were educating the sons of the elite, and Gaddafi himself, in the privileged academic institutions of central London. We were trading happily with the regime. Everything was sunny in the garden. Suddenly it changed - suddenly the friendly dictators of yesterday are the monsters of today, a road that is familiar to the Taliban and Saddam Hussein who came before. Of course, socialists always knew Gaddafi was a monster - we never pretended otherwise. The hypocrisy lies with the imperialists and how they now seek to manipulate the new situation to their own advantage. Just don't ask too many questions about what things were like before the UN resolution was passed.

It is the sheer scale of military power which is central to the power relations here. The hypocrisy of the west's actions must be drowned out by a constant barrage of military reports, the hope is that people become so interested in the war as a news story, as a spectacle, that they forget any critical questioning of why it is happening.

In the age of shock and awe (the modern day blitzkrieg) extreme displays of violence and military power are essential to a declining imperial power. Especially when it has lost much of its legitimacy through its neo-colonial attitude toward Afghanistan and Iraq and the sheer brutality of the war on terror, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and the recent “kill team” photos. The shock doctrine of modern capitalism requires massive salvos from warships and war planes, it requires the regime that has broken ranks with official policy to be humbled and broken bloodily and crudely. Asking the imperialists to do a surgical strike to take out key installations is like asking a bull to tip-toe through a china shop.

The UN authorised coalition began to show cracks within days of the assault starting. Although it was French war planes that first took to the skies above Libya, it was clearly the US, through its command and control centre in AFCOM, which directed the operations. For its own reasons, domestic as a well as foreign, the US began to look around for someone else to take charge. This revealed the divisions within the coalition even more; France did not want NATO control, Turkey did not want offensive actions, Germany had not supported the UN resolution, following the US lead, Britain did want NATO control. The outcome was a potentially unwieldy agreement that NATO would oversee the no-fly zone (an objective already achieved, largely by US forces) while Britain, France and the US would be responsible for attacks on ground forces.

The war was clearly another display of the kind of shock and awe tactics that the US has perfected, made possible by the sheer size and scale of their military capacities. Of course, don't forget that every Tomahawk missile fired pays 10 teachers' salaries for a year. Nevertheless, even in times of austerity the missiles are fired, repeatedly. The aim is clearly to destroy Gaddafi's military, to leave his regime weak and isolated. The sheer ferocity left many governments feeling uneasy. Russia and China, who had abstained on the UN resolution in order to allow it to pass, tried to justify their positions by saying they regretted their actions when they saw what the west was really up to. Was it really so difficult to predict?

Across the Middle East and beyond, governments and peoples watch nervously. Could this happen to us? A liberal might argue that this kind of action will force regimes to respect democratic rights and not massacre their people. Actually this is not the message. The message is that these regimes better get into line with the US, not just some of the way - but all of the way. After all, there are massacres happening in Yemen and Bahrain and plenty of terrible things happening in Saudi Arabia. But there is no UN resolution authorising a no-fly zone over Saudi Arabia or sanctioning “all means necessary” to prevent the Saudi King Abdullah from repressing “his” people. Only a couple of days into the bombardment, Israel (the favourite child of the imperialists) attacked the Gaza strip, injuring 20 people including 7 children. Again, there is not a UN no-fly zone over Gaza, no aerial combat between French and Israeli fighter jets. The privileges of some of the dictators and the Zionist state protect them from any real challenge from the west. Crucially, it protects them from having to legitimise themselves using the liberal buzz words of the humanitarian interventionists.

Those who - for good intentions - support the no-fly zone and military bombardment, are misunderstanding the central dynamic of what the conflict is about. This is not about saving the civilians, never mind saving the revolution. This no-fly zone is intended to destroy the essence of the revolution, the people's struggle for control over their own lives and their own country. It is intended to allow a regime change to occur, if necessary, but only in such a way that the people become subordinated to the imperialists and their new allies in the country. To the extent that the imperialists are responsible for bringing down the Gaddafi regime, they will be able to determine who replaces him. The rebels who take power in such a situation will be politically and morally weak, indentured permanently to the imperialists, reliant on them, dependent on them for their existence. By the time the rebel forces get to Tripoli they may be led by utterly pro-imperialist figures - ready for Libya to become a client state of France, Britain or the US. This would reinforce the myth that imperialist intervention is necessary to resolve such situations, that nothing can be done without Washington and that the western powers are somehow benevolent.

This war is being waged to reassert the dominance of the imperialists. Imperialist intervention, even on the side of the insurgents, is reactionary and must be opposed. It will strengthen the pro-imperialist trend within the revolution in Libya (and elsewhere) and allow the imperialists to posture as defenders of democracy when they are no such thing.

Within the rebel camp, there is clearly a growing disparity between the Transitional National Council (TNC) operating a slick media machine from the Benghazi court house, and the enthusiastic but disorganised fighters, many of them youth, who are on the front line. The stories of the rebel fighters, lightly armed and with no real military experience, launching headlong attacks on the entrenched positions of the Gaddafi forces shows the problems facing the revolution. Its strength and dynamism is undoubtedly represented by those fighters and the masses of the people who support them but, without the force of a working class insurrection in the big cities, the struggle in Libya is starkly reduced to the military question; who has what weapons and what training. The TNC in Benghazi does not seem to be directing very much apart from press conferences, and the generals and leading dissidents who went over to the rebellion at the beginning appear to have gone to ground. Certainly it is not clear who is directing the rebel army's actions, other than the genuine enthusiasm of revolutionary youth.

What to do about Gaddafi?

Some on the left have blindly supported Gaddafi from the beginning, claiming that he was some kind of progressive. They pointed to his various anti-imperialist outbursts over the years and his limited redistribution of oil money to various quarters. When the rebellion began, they were quick to dismiss it as pro-imperialist or pro-monarchist, choosing to ignore both the context of the uprising (the Arab revolutions generally) and the clear desire of ordinary people to overthrow a dictatorship, no matter how allegedly benevolent. Are the rebels ideologically homogenous? Certainly not, but they are clearly in the same mould as those who occupied Tahrir square and demonstrated in Tunis to bring down Ben Ali.

Others on the left decided to support Gaddafi when the bombs started falling, calling on all the Libyans to form an anti-imperialist united front. This position assumes that the working class should automatically side with those targeted by imperialism, irrespective of political context or the war aims of either side. What would be the agreed objective of this anti-imperialist united front? What immediate aim do Gaddafi and the Libyan workers share? Are the workers and the poor of Libya supposed to make common cause with Gaddafi so that he can continue his repression of their revolution?

The overriding question in Libya today is not “Who are the imperialists attacking?” It is “How can the Libyan Revolution succeed in overthrowing Gaddafi's regime?” A united front with Gaddafi in this situation would be literally impossible. Certainly, those who live in the countries whose forces are taking part must launch a campaign against the bombings. Within Libya, we oppose the calls on the imperialists to intervene but that does not prevent the forces of the democratic revolution taking advantage of the impact of the imperialists' intervention against Gaddafi. It would be bizarre, indeed, to refuse to continue the campaign against Gaddafi's repressive apparatus because it had been weakened by imperialist action! We recognise that the rebel forces are entitled to get hold of weaponry from whatever sources they can, but our strategy would be to call on their brothers and sisters in Egypt and Tunisia to come to their aid with weaponry and people who can support the fighting. The rebels should also take advantage of the new situation to press ahead – organise themselves into more effective combat units and seize lost territory.

It is reported that Gaddafi has said that he will “open the arsenals and arm the people” in order to defend Tripoli from a threatened imperialist invasion. Within the territory that he controls, supporters of the democratic revolution, to the extent that this is possible, should demand that the arms should be distributed immediately and that a popular and democratic militia should be established. If the imperialists do attempt any ground attacks, these militia could operate a principled united front with Gaddafi's forces – both to defeat any attempt at occupation and to strengthen their own ability to overthrow Gaddafi and his regime.

If Gaddafi could successfully use the imperialist attack to bolster support for his regime and to wear the rebels down, then this would have an important, and negative, impact on the Arab revolutions. If the imperialists bomb Gaddafi into submission then it could reconsolidate their power in the region and divert the Libyan revolution into a safe, acceptable pro-imperialist regime.

The underlying message from the UN is clear - the Libyans could not emancipate themselves, now the we must do it for them. Hypocrisy still dominates their actions - their message to the people of Saudi Arabia is “Do not rise up, accept your place in the world as subjects of King Abdullah and his armed forces.” Only when imperialist capitalism is destroyed as a world system and all their disgusting servile governments have been overthrown can the people of the middle east - in fact all people - truly find peace and freedom.