Western forces are tightening their grip on the conduct of the fighting against the Gaddafi regime in Libya, with Britain, France and Italy committing advisors to help rebel forces.
When the United Nations voted to endorse the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya, the Western powers were adamant that there would be no “boots on the ground”.
Yet we are now seeing the beginnings of mission creep—where minor military involvement escalates towards all-out war. Western special forces and CIA operatives have been operating in Libya for some weeks. Now the advisors are being sent in.
Sections of the ruling class already want to go further. Former British foreign secretary David Owen is urging British and French troops to create a “safe haven” around Misrata, the main rebel-held town in the country’s west.
As The Guardian in London put it: “But how long before allied troops so deployed were themselves drawn into direct engagements with pro-Gaddafi forces, be they regular army, mercenary or civilian?”
Globally, our rulers are far from united around this increasingly aggressive strategy. Germany joined Brazil, China, India and Russia in abstaining in the UN vote that authorised the no-fly zone.
The Guardian reported: “Most of NATO, despite numerous joint statements, is sitting this out. Of its 28 members, 14 are said to be ‘actively participating’ but only six are doing any fighting. Of the 22-country Arab League … only Qatar and the UAE have shown up for duty.”
Barack Obama confirmed the US’s support for military action against Gaddafi: “There will be times when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and our values are. In such cases, we should not be afraid to act”—but took care to add, “the burden of action should not be America’s alone”.
In practice, this has left France and Britain to lead the Western charge across the Mediterranean, with the US playing a more cautious role.
The military intervention is not about saving civilians—there has already been “collateral damage” from Western bombing raids. Rather, it is about bringing the Libyan revolution under control and increasing the West’s ability to influence the broader revolt in the Arab world.
Social versus military struggle
The Libyan rebels made progress in the opening phase of the revolution by calling for democracy and economic justice and splitting Gaddafi’s armed forces.
The Economist reported on February 24: “All across eastern Libya, youth committees of the February 17th revolution have sprung up. At former checkpoints, now burnt-out hulks, and at the border, youths joined by army deserters wearing vests saying ‘No to tribalism, no to factionalism’ stop cars to ask for donations of blood.
“In Tobruk, an eastern port town of 120,000, volunteers with red berets have occupied the mataba, the headquarters of Mr Qaddafi’s local militia, and turned it into a storehouse stacked with donated supplies for the thousands still camped in the central square.
“Other volunteers guard the port, local banks and oil terminals to keep the oil flowing and ward off looters. Teachers and engineers in the foyer of a local hotel have set up a committee to collect weapons, and another committee in Sattah, near Beida, has collected clothes, food and blankets for hundreds of captured government troops held in a school.”
As the rebels’ advance westwards to the capital Tripoli stalled, more conservative elements, including former Gaddafi officials, came to the fore, calling for Western intervention. This shifted the focus towards military rather than social struggle—a military struggle the rebels cannot win without Western aid.
France and Britain, having committed themselves to overthrowing Gaddafi, are forced to increase their military involvement, further sidelining the young radicals who started the revolution.
This is why normally staunch anti-imperialists, such as scholar Gilbert Achcar and Middle East expert Juan Cole, have got it wrong in backing Western intervention.
The fate of the Libyan revolution hangs in the balance. If Western boots hit the ground in numbers, Gaddafi will at some point go but a regime friendly to neo-liberalism will emerge.
The real hope for change lies with the young revolutionaries who launched the struggle. The lesson of the successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt is that by appealing directly to Gaddafi’s troops, calling for oil money to be redirected from palaces and arms deals to jobs, education and welfare, they can tip the balance against the dictatorship. But this also means challenging the interests of the Western governments so keen to “liberate” them.
By David Glanz