100 days of war on Libya


26 June will mark one hundred days of NATO’s war on Libya. It began with 112 cruise missiles fired from US and British submarines on 19 March 2011. Since then, NATO forces, led by Britain and France, have made 12,070 sorties on Libya, an average of over 120 per day, including 4,569 strike sorties in which missiles and bombs were launched, almost 46 a day. By 26 May the Libyan ministry for health said 718 civilians had been killed and 4,067 wounded; that is, over 10 civilians killed on average per day and 58 wounded. It has cost the British state over £250 million, while it slashes benefits and public services. The working class has every reason to oppose the war, yet there is hardly any opposition to the war in Britain or France.

What we get are articles saying that Libya is ‘turning into the best shop-window for competing aircraft for years’. For example, ‘the Typhoon and Rafale up against each other’, and now the Apache takes on the French Tiger and Gazelle helicopter gunships and British and French ex-special forces mercenaries demonstrate their services to potential buyers.

When NATO launched the attack on Libya we said this was the 46th separate military intervention by British forces in the Middle East and North Africa since the end of the Second World War. We did this to emphasise that this attack was consistent with British foreign policy in the region since the First World War and before and that this region has been vital for British, French and later US imperialism. It is worth noting that on the British left, almost alone, it is the RCG that has the politics to motivate us to actually bother to count the number of times British forces have intervened abroad.

Secondly, we said that the revolt in Tunisia, Egypt and across the region was not just a revolt against corrupt, dictatorial regimes; it was a revolt against the conditions being imposed upon the masses by the global crisis of capitalism. These two understandings: the consistency of British military intervention in the region to protect imperialist interests and the context of a regional revolt against the crisis of capitalism and imperialism underpin and shape our analysis of the specific war on Libya. To these we can add the intensified competition among the imperialist powers for control over Africa and its resources, and the manoeuvring and increased distrust between the imperialist powers, who now begin to act and sound like rivals; what was imminent is becoming apparent.

Distrust and irritation between the imperialist powers

The US, British and French governments have been able to treat the terms of UN Resolution 1973, authorising NATO’s  intervention in Libya to protect civilians, with complete contempt and openly say that Gaddafi must go. Protection of people has turned into regime change as the stated objective without another UN resolution being required or forced by the other permanent UN Security Council powers, Russia and China. It is worth recalling the 17 March UN vote when Germany sided with Russia, China, India and Brazil against the US, Britain and France in not voting for the Resolution, but neither Russia nor China used their veto.

In April, Germany proposed sending a European Union force, EUFOR, on a ‘humanitarian’ mission to Libya. This would have required a UN sanction of approval, but it was not forthcoming because it would have been independent of the US, Britain and France – and NATO. Perhaps now it is worth recalling the words of NATO’s first Secretary General General Lord Ismay, when he said the purpose of NATO was, ‘To keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.’ Now the Soviet Union has gone, Germany is reunited and no longer accepts being ‘down’.

This May the German defence minister announced plans to increase the number of German soldiers available for overseas missions. There are up to 5,300 German soldiers in Afghanistan (9,500 British) and 52 of them have been killed there. Germany is now the world’s third biggest arms exporter, exceeding Britain.

On a visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels on 10 June, US Defence Secretary Gates made some revealing comments; they reflect growing tensions between the NATO powers and within the US ruling class. Gates said the European states must increase money and resources available to NATO or NATO will face a ‘dim, if not dismal, future’. He chastised NATO countries for not having the military capabilities for what are US-led operations; ‘the mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country – yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference’.  Gates praised Britain, Norway and Denmark by name and said, ‘Today just five of the [NATO] 28 allies – the US, UK, France, Greece, along with Albania – exceed the agreed 2% of GDP spending on defence.’ The targets of Gates’ criticism are acknowledged to be Germany, Poland, Italy, Spain and Turkey, who are deemed not to have shown sufficient willingness to commit resources to this British, French and US-led war on Libya.

The British Royal Navy’s First Sea Lord Sir Admiral Mark Stanhope said that for the Royal Navy the war could be unsustainable if it went on for another six months, and he confirmed that the Royal Navy had asked the US for additional supplies of Tomahawk missiles for its submarines. The head of the RAF also said that the air force was overstretched. General Sir David Richards, head of the armed forces, appeared to counter Stanhope by saying ‘we can sustain this operation for as long as we choose’. That is precisely the point, as long as the British state chooses to increase spending or arms, as such as the Financial Times have been urging the ConDem government to do for months.

Two former colonial powers in North Africa have chosen to intervene in Libya militarily, to use military force to secure territory and resources. The Transitional National Council (TNC) in Benghazi has assured Britain and France that they will be rewarded with oil contracts if the Libyan government is overthrown. Germany, it seems, is prepared to use its greater industrial and exporting capacity to secure influence in the region, but that may change, as the EUFOR proposal, which would have consisted of mainly German troops, suggests. Shortly after the US Defence Secretary’s statements the German foreign minister visited Benghazi and said that Germany would open a diplomatic mission there. Was this to placate the US or to gain position in the event of regime change in Libya, or probably a bit of both?

Another European former colonial power in North Africa, Italy, with the largest corporate investments in Libya, those of Eni, has a chief executive who says he is happy to do business with both the Libyan government and the opposition in Benghazi. He is confident that, whatever the outcome, Eni will be in a strong position to exploit the oil. Italy is among 12 states that recognise the TNC, the others are the US, France, Britain, Australia, Spain, Gambia, Senegal, Malta, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.



Lack of opposition

How do we explain the lack of opposition in Britain to the war on Libya? There are a number of factors to consider: the ruling class media has successfully demonised Colonel Gaddafi and presented the war as about him. Many people in Britain now seem to accept the British state being in a permanent state of war as normal – it has been waging war relentlessly since 1991! Also, at the outset, with the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, there was an authentic anti-government response in Libya, with protests on the streets. This may well have been encouraged by pro-imperialist assets (we can speculate - it should  be noted that on 2 November 2010 Britain and France signed a defence and security agreement, including joint exercises and practicing counter-terrorism, military and intelligence cooperation). Either way, the initial protests will have been partly in response to deteriorating social conditions brought on by neo-liberal policies adopted by the Libyan government for over a decade and which increased inequalities.

Figures on the left, notably Gilbert Achcar, condemned the Libyan government’s repressive response to the revolt and described the NATO intervention as ‘humanitarian’, to prevent a massacre of civilians in Benghazi. The French Socialist Party, the French Communist Party and French Greens all endorse the war and the TNC as the ‘only legitimate representative of the Libyan people’.

Another factor to note is that Britain, France and the US wage this war without casualties. It must be about 40 years since a US combat plane was brought down in action. The argument is that, for the aggressor, casualty-free wars are easier to wage. However, we see the death toll of British soldiers in Afghanistan rising almost daily, and still there is no real movement against the war in Afghanistan.

Reading the left press, for example of the SWP, there is a nominal condemnation of the war, but always balanced with an obligatory condemnation of the Gaddafi regime. The NATO powers are waging war to get the oil and secure a base next to Tunisia and Egypt, we are told, but Socialist Review (April 2011) refers to ‘the revolution in Libya’ and warns that ‘compromises (made by the opposition) are in danger of allowing Western imperialism to hijack and derail the revolution’. Further, opposition calling for Western intervention ‘opens up a second danger – allowing Gaddafi’s regime to present itself as an opponent of imperialism. This could isolate the revolution from the wider movement for change across the region and harden the elements in the regime that are still wavering’. This SWP article supports the opponents of the Libyan government as revolutionaries.

In the May 2011 Socialist Review Richard Seymour describes an authentic revolt being poorly organised and this giving ‘the US and some of its European allies the opportunity to cohere around a strategy which had so far eluded them. They could take control of this process, and shape it in a manner that suited their interests.’ ‘The US and some of its European allies’ – not even Britain by name! There is no attempt made whatsoever to identify Britain’s and France’s role in the war on Libya – it is all about the US.

The last issue of the Socialist Worker to carry an item on Libya was on 21 May 2011. With the kind of analysis presented by the SWP it follows that opposition to the war on Libya is not a SWP priority, still less opposition to Britain’s war on Libya.

We have seen the failure of the Stop the War Campaign, and no doubt its failure as a campaign to recruit to the SWP’s ranks. For the SWP and others on the British left their priority is campaigning against the ConDem government and that means alliances with Labour Party members and trade unionists that either support the war on Libya or remain silent on it because it would hamper the alliances they seek to build. Campaigning against the British state’s war on Libya would conflict with their campaign against the ConDem government, which has priority. So we are left with anti-imperialism or an alliance with the labour aristocracy, beneficiaries of imperialism.

Peter Taafe, of the Socialist Party, in an exchange of opinions with the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), who support the NATO war on Libya, does take a principled stand against the war and sees it for what it is, an attempt by imperialism to sustain its control over the entire region. However, when using the comparison of British troops entering the North of Ireland in 1969, then directed by the Labour government, Taafe misrepresents the Militant’s position. Militant was the forerunner of the Socialist Party and previously inside the Labour Party, Taafe says that, ‘Militant opposed sending in British troops to “defend” Catholic areas of Belfast and Derry.’ In fact, Militant argued, ‘A slaughter would have followed in comparison with which the blood-letting in Belfast would have paled into insignificance if the Labour Government had not intervened with British troops.’ (Militant, September 1969). So the past is re-written and hindsight is a wonderful thing. The question remains: are we really going to oppose the war on Libya or not?

Trevor Rayne


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