On Saturday afternoon French warplanes were the first to bomb Libya, in what one can only describe as open imperialist aggression. This was followed by US and UK ships and submarines launching 110 Tomahawk Cruise missiles. The French are strengthening their position by sending their Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier into waters off the Libyan coast.
Denmark, Norway, Spain and Canada are also sending planes. Italy is providing air bases and ports, while also preparing its own planes. Qatar is sending four planes making it the first Arab country to provide forces to bomb Libya, while other Arab countries – no doubt Saudi Arabia will be among them – are also preparing to send forces.
Since Saturday there have been further bombing raids, presented to the world as a mission to help the rebel held part of Libya against Gaddafi’s jets. Initially the rebels in the east declared they needed no help from outside. Once it became evident that Gaddafi had managed to hold together a significant force, and the revolution had stalled (See Why has the revolution stalled in Libya?), the idea that a no-fly zone imposed from the outside would be the answer gained ground. However, even the Provisional Council continued to insist that no foreign troops should set foot on Libyan territory. In fact, the revolutionary youth in more than one occasion produced banners against foreign intervention.
This explains why the UN resolution is carefully worded, on the one hand excluding “occupation” – with an eye to what we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan – and on the other authorising the use of “any means necessary” to “protect civilians”. Those who called for the no-fly zone are now getting more than they had bargained for. In revolutions and wars there are no short-cuts.
Already in the first couple of days we can see that this operation is not merely to impose a no-fly zone. They have also targeted troops, tanks and other military hardware on the ground, as well as specific buildings in Tripoli.
As Gaddafi advanced towards Benghazi and other cities, a cry went out that the “international community” must “do something” to help the people of Libya against Gaddafi’s forces. The idea was presented that it would be an operation limiting itself to stopping Gaddafi using his superior air power against the rebels. This was merely the excuse with which they were able to muster UN Security Council support for the operation. It is clear now that their aims go much further than merely imposing a no-fly zone.
Arab League, China, Russia: Having your cake and eating it
Faced with such a massive show of firepower, the Arab League now seems to be having second thoughts, or at least it is showing signs of internal division. Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, has said that the jet and cruise-missile strikes "differ from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone," criticizing the “severity” of the strikes and stating that they were only supposed to “protect civilians”. Only a few days earlier it was the very same Arab League that had voted in favour of a no-fly zone and called on the UN to sanction one.
How does one explain Amr Moussa’s sudden cold feet? It is clear that the sight of what amounts to fundamentally NATO forces bombing yet another Arab country is provoking widespread opposition among ordinary Arabs, and those Arab governments that are seen to be backing the bombings will start to feel the pressure from their own people.
This morning, no doubt after getting his arm twisted by his imperialist masters, Amr Moussa zig-zagged again, playing down any divisions on this question and issuing a joint statement with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, declaring that, "We are all united on the issue of protecting civilians."
China, Russia and India have also criticised the bombings, stating that the “indiscriminate” bombing raids go further than what was stated in the United Nations resolution. A spokesperson of the Russian foreign ministry called for a ceasefire, complaining that the air raids had hit non-military targets, killing many civilians, as well as damaging a medical centre. China said it “regretted” the military action and respected Libya’s sovereignty.
It appears the Russian and the Chinese want to have their cake and eat it. They are two powers that have the right to veto any UN resolution. They preferred to abstain, which in practice amounts to support, as they knew that if they abstained the resolution would get passed. The Indian government has issued a statement that says that, “It regrets the air strikes that are taking place. The measures adopted should mitigate and not exacerbate an already difficult situation for the people of Libya.”
Reassuring public opinion
To reassure all these concerned ladies and gentlemen, the British Foreign Office has explained that:
"Unlike Gaddafi, the coalition is not attacking civilians. The UN resolution authorises all necessary measures to protect the Libyan people. For the No Fly Zone to be enforced safely, it is necessary to carry out carefully targeted operations against Libyan air defence capabilities. All missions are meticulously planned to ensure every care is taken to avoid civilian casualties. We will continue to work with our Arab partners to enforce the resolution for the good of the Libyan people.”
In clear English, that means “we have UN backing and we are going to bomb whatever targets we feel are necessary”. The resolution passed last week by the UN Security Council was ambiguously worded, precisely so that later it could be used to justify any amount of bombing. The wording "take all necessary measures" already implied that this was going to be more than a no-fly zone. Air strikes and actions such as bombing tanks and other forces on the roads were clearly envisaged as part of the aims of any force being sent to bomb Libya.
The problem the imperialists had was getting sufficient backing from so-called “public opinion” for an all-out war against Gaddafi. Working people in countries like the USA and Britain are tired of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are fully aware of the fact that they were lied to. Remember Blair and Bush banging away about weapons of mass destruction, which could even hit Britain within 45 minutes! Then we were told there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. People rightly do not trust their governments, after so many lies.
Now we are being told that the official aim of the no-fly zone is to stop Gaddafi using his airpower against the rebel held areas of the country. The point is this: Gaddafi’s ground forces are much better equipped and better trained than those under the control of the Interim Council in Benghazi. Let us assume that the imperialists limit themselves to simply hitting Gaddafi’s air forces – something which they have already gone well beyond. Thus weakened, the rebel forces will want to attack the areas controlled by Gaddafi. Should they fail in this, what will the UN-backed force do then? Inevitably they will have to attack Gaddafi’s ground forces, as they already have started doing.
Ground forces inevitable at some stage
Although, some of Gaddafi’s air power will have been destroyed in these first bombing raids, his ability to wage war has been far from removed. Most of his advance towards the east was done mainly by ground forces.
As an Al Jazeera report explained, “Assumptions of what air power alone can achieve against ground forces have usually turned out to be overrated; witness for example the relatively small amount of damage done to Serbian armoured forces by NATO in 1999. Results in Afghanistan in 2001 were better, but in that case the integration of Special Forces allowed air power to be targeted in the most efficient way.
It later added that:
“…the promise of no ‘boots on the ground’ may eventually have to be revisited, despite the potential repercussions, if only to put Special Forces observers in amongst the rebels. Otherwise it is hard to see how this campaign will be effective, at least within built up areas where most fighting is taking place.” (Al Jazeera, Strikes on Libya - a military perspective, 19 March 2011)
The UN resolution sanctions ''all necessary means" to protect civilians. “Regime change” is not mentioned in the resolution, but in reality that is what they are now aiming at. As George Friedman writing for Stratfor, the online intelligence publication, states:
“Gadhafi’s primary capabilities are conventional armor and particularly artillery. Destroying his air force and isolating his forces will not by itself win the war. The war is on the ground. The question is the motivation of his troops: If they perceive that surrender is unacceptable or personally catastrophic, they may continue to fight. At that point the coalition must decide if it intends to engage and destroy Gadhafi’s ground forces from the air. This can be done, but it is never a foregone conclusion that it will work.” (The Libyan War of 2011, March 19, 2011)
And for all those who may have thought aerial bombardment could alleviate the suffering of the Libyan people, the same writer states coldly the following: “Moreover, this is the phase at which civilian casualties begin to mount. It is a paradox of warfare instigated to end human suffering that the means of achieving this can sometimes impose substantial human suffering themselves. This is not merely a theoretical statement. It is at this point that supporters of the war who want to end suffering may turn on the political leaders for not ending suffering without cost. It should be remembered that Saddam Hussein was loathed universally, but those who loathed him were frequently not willing to impose the price of overthrowing him. The Europeans in particular are sensitive to this issue.
And, contradicting all the statements being made about this being merely a mission to impose a no-fly zone, in another article published by Stratfor we find the following: “The decision has been made that the mission is regime change in Libya. The strategic sequence is the routine buildup to war since 1991, this time with a heavier European component. The early days will go extremely well but will not define whether or not the war is successful. The test will come if a war designed to stop human suffering begins to inflict human suffering.”
The first two days of bombing have already claimed the lives of many civilians. So much for defending the “civilian” population! The imperialists have no real concern for the lives of ordinary people. The fact that they claim to be protecting civilians in Benghazi is merely a ruse to get the backing of public opinion. They will kill many civilians in Tripoli and other areas they feel need bombing. Kevin Connolly, reporting for the BBC from the rebel-held city of Tobruk has already explained that “it is not clear if the allies can attack Col Gaddafi's troops operating in the centre of Misrata without harming the very civilians they have come to save.”
What the imperialists are out to do is remove Gaddafi, as they removed Saddam Hussein in the past. Prior to the Libyan revolution, they had managed to bring Gaddafi on board. He was collaborating with them in all fields and they felt no reason to push for “regime change”. And yet Gaddafi’s was one of the most brutal in the region, with anyone who expressed opposition risking imprisonment, torture and death. What was important for the imperialist was not the nature of the regime, but the fact that Gaddafi was opening up the economy to western investment. The economy had been partially privatized and more was on its way.
With the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and the wave of protests that risk unseating more of their friends, the imperialist felt powerless to intervene. Gaddafi’s Libya has given them the excuse they were seeking. They have used the “humanitarian” card to justify what is outright imperialist aggression against a small country.
This war is aimed at cutting across the revolutionary wave that is sweeping the Arab countries. Obama claims that it will be a short campaign of just a few days, but this is clearly false. A few air raids are not going to achieve their aims. It will require sustained bombing and eventually they will be sucked in even more, possibly with ground troops. In the process many civilians will be killed. No doubt we will soon be hearing statements about the “unfortunate” bombing of civilians. We will hear that disgusting phrase about “collateral damage”.
Imperialist powers jostling for positions
This war is also about different imperialist powers intervening to carve out their own spheres of influence and also as a counter-weight to their own internal problems. Foremost in all this is Sarkozy, the President of France. A recent opinion poll shows that 71% of French people are unhappy with the performance of Sarkozy, his worst approval rating since he came to office in 2007. He has in fact become extremely unpopular in France, after his government introduced severe austerity measures last year which saw 3.5 million French workers on the streets protesting.
France was the first country to recognise the Interim Council in Libya as the official government of the country. And it was the most vociferous in pushing for the no-fly zone and also the first to actually bomb targets in Libya. We have to see what manoeuvres lie behind this. In recent years, France as a former imperial power has seen it influence dwindle, losing spheres of influence, particularly in Africa. In this they were in conflict with US and British imperialism. By being the most gung-ho in pushing for intervention in Libya, Sarkozy no doubt thinks he can regain some lost influence... and oil in Libya. His actions have nothing to do with humanitarian concerns.
Cameron is in a similar position in Britain, also suffering a sharp fall in public approval in the recent period. His popularity ratings have been “falling over a cliff” as some have put it. As his government continues to push forward with draconian austerity measures, Cameron is facing growing workers unrest, as we will see this coming Saturday in London with what promises to be one of the biggest demonstrations since the 1970s, if not bigger.
Thus both Sarkozy and Cameron could do with something that could distract attention away from the internal problems in their respective countries and direct people’s minds on intervention in Libya. At the same they can strut across the world stage, claiming to defend human rights and democracy around the world. No doubt, the governments of Denmark, Norway, Canada, and even little Qatar, can do with a bit of distraction from their own internal affairs.
The United States was wary of getting sucked into another military campaign in an Arab country. Public opinion has significantly changed towards the war in Iraq, where now a majority considers it was wrong, and the same applies to the war in Afghanistan. That explains why until the last minute [Tuesday of last week] the Obama administration wasn’t so keen on voting for a no-fly zone over Libya.
On Friday, the Wall Street Journal described the situation thus: “Just last Monday, when Nicolas Sarkozy urged Hillary Clinton to get the U.S. behind an international intervention in Libya, she demurred. The U.S. Secretary of State warned the French president that a war could be risky and bloody, say officials from both countries who were briefed on the exchange.
“Yet by the weekend, France, the U.S. and an international coalition stood poised to take ‘all necessary measures’—code for military strikes—in Libya, under United Nations authority.
“In hindsight, the meeting at the Elysée Palace in Paris was the launch point for four frantic days of diplomacy that turned the Obama administration toward intervention, western and Arab diplomats say. A lot of factors drove the shift, they say, including the administration's concern about being out of step with the changes sweeping the Arab world and of being outmaneuvered by the U.K. and especially France, both more aggressive advocates of intervention.” (Wall Street Journal, March 19, 2011) [Our emphasis]
From all this, we can see how this aggression against Libya is not dictated by any concerns for the people of Libya. It is about a group of imperialist gangsters coldly calculating how they can best defend their interests in North Africa and the Middle East.
Do not fall for imperialist rhetoric
Workers and youth around the world should not be fooled by all the rhetoric about the so-called humanitarian aims of the military intervention in Libya. It is always the case that when imperialist powers go to war, they do so by first preparing public opinion. This time it is about the poor people of Benghazi.
In Iraq public opinion was prepared with a barrage of propaganda about weapons of mass destruction, and also that Saddam Hussein was an “evil dictator”, which he was of course, but they conveniently ignored their own past good dealings with the terrible dictator. In Afghanistan, first they backed the Islamic fundamentalists against the Russians, and then when these turned on the Americans in the form of the Taliban regime, they discovered the need to defend the Afghan people. Now they are defending them by bombing them to pieces.
Their hypocrisy is further laid bare when we look at Bahrain, as we have already mentioned in previous articles. The Bahraini regime is using British arms to crush its own people. Where is Cameron’s desire to intervene here?
To be fair on the man, it is true that has intervened… in February in the “democratic” parliament of Kuwait where he admitted that the West had been “wrong” to prop up some of the dictators now in the process of being overthrown. But while Cameron was making his speech more than 100 British companies were participating in a massive Middle East arms fair hoping to do some good business with some of these selfsame dictators. And it was British defence minister Gerald Howarth who was leading the British delegation of entrepreneurs.
In Yemen we have an equally brutal dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose security forces last week killed more than fifty people. Any sign of a UN resolution coming up? No, just a few speeches expressing regret at such incidents. Their minds are now concentrated on the situation in Libya.
Effect of bombing on Gaddafi regime
But what has been the effect of the bombing inside Libya, in particular in Tripoli? As we have already explained, the fact that the Interim Council called for a no-fly zone, giving the UN the excuse it needed to intervene, has allowed Gaddafi to use this to present the rebels as stooges of the west, as agents of foreign powers who want to take over Libya. Now that the bombing has started it seems that this effect has been multiplied. As western bombs fall on Tripoli and other parts of the country, undoubtedly killing many civilians and destroying important infrastructure, support for Gaddafi will be strengthened.
In the East meanwhile the leaders of the Interim Council have tied their fortunes to the intervention of imperialist powers. In this they have betrayed the revolution. They have put the fate of the Libyan people in the hands of France, Britain, the USA and other smaller powers. None of these powers are intervening to defend the revolution. And if they should successfully remove Gaddafi, the government they help put in power will not defend the interests of the Libyan workers and youth. How can Cameron and Sarkozy attack the workers in their respective countries and then go and defend the Libyan workers?
The present Interim Council has clearly indicated that it leans towards the west, it wants good relations with the west, and it will guarantee their investments in Libya, and so on. It would end up being a puppet government of the western imperialist powers, nothing more, and nothing less. Whenever and wherever new regimes have come to power on the back of imperialist bayonets, these have not won the freedom of their people, but merely enslaved them to the same old master as before. That is what the imperialists are aiming for. That is why the workers and youth of the world, struggling against their own capitalist classes, must oppose this imperialist aggression of Libya. The task of overthrowing Gaddafi belongs to the people of Libya and to no one else.