A Q&A on Libya

This is an abridged version of a longer Q&A prepared for ZNet, which can be viewed at www.zcomm.org.


1. Is Qaddafi a socialist and/or anti-imperialist? Was he ever?


Socialists believe that people should democratically and collectively control all aspects of their lives. Qaddafi has ruled Libya as an absolute dictator—the very antithesis of socialism—for more than four decades. The fact that he calls his political system a direct democracy is as relevant as the fact that East Germany used to call itself a people's democracy or that the Pentagon calls itself the Defense Department.


It is true that Libya, because of its oil wealth, has a relatively high human development index (HDI), a UN-developed measure that takes account of income, literacy, and life expectancy. But this no more makes it socialist than the even higher HDIs of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait, or Saudi Arabia with an equivalent HDI make any of them socialist.


When Qaddafi deposed the Libyan king in 1969, U.S. policymakers judged him to be thoroughly anti-communist and a useful bulwark against a more radical regime. For example, he turned over for execution the leaders of a left-wing coup attempt against the pro-U.S. regime in Sudan and aided pro-Western Oman in its war against the Dhofar guerrillas. "I guess we were kind of euphoric about him at first," said former Secretary of State William Rogers.


But Qaddafi soon came into conflict with U.S. oil companies and challenged other imperial interests in the region, turning himself into a major enemy of the U.S. government. Washington accused him of terrorism—which was true, though on a smaller scale than that being carried out by the U.S.-backed Salvadoran regime—and tried its best to undermine his rule.


In 2003, Qaddafi agreed to end his weapons of mass destruction programs and his support for terrorism, and to pay $1.5 billion to settle the Lockerbie bombing case, in return for re-establishing ties with the United States. Qaddafi then became a close partner with Washington in its "war on terror." In 2009, Senators McCain, Lieberman, and Graham met with Qaddafi, praising him as an "important ally" in the "war on terror" and promising to help his air force secure delivery of eight transport planes. Qaddafi had also developed especially warm relations with the right-wing Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, including shared family business investments.


2. If Qaddafi is not socialist or anti-imperialist, is he a progressive in the Arab world?


Qaddafi has lent support to several progressive struggles over the years. But he also has been a leading backer of many of the most brutal and corrupt dictators in Africa, as well as murderous insurgents such as Liberia's Charles Taylor and Sierra Leone's Foday Sankoh. When the Arab Spring came to Tunisia, Qaddafi declared that Ben Ali was the best leader Tunisians would ever have.


Some have been impressed that Qaddafi's body guards are all female, but more telling is the fact that his regime arbitrarily detains women in "social rehabilitation" facilities for alleged transgressions of moral codes, locking them up indefinitely without due process.


The Libyan government told the UN's Committee to End Racial Discrimination (CERD) that, "It is possible to state categorically that there is no racial discrimination of any kind in Libya," because Libya has no "religious or ethnic communities that are defined by their religion, race, language, gender, colour or political affiliations." CERD, however, noted the rather glaring "discrepancy" between Libya's claim and "information indicating that Amazigh, Tuareg, and Black African populations live in the country." Far from being colorblind, Gaddafi has collaborated with the right-wing Berlusconi government in Italy in blocking African refugees from Europe, declaring in Rome in 2010: "[W]hat will be the reaction of the white and Christian Europeans faced with this influx of starving and ignorant Africans…. We don't know if Europe will remain an advanced and united continent, or if it will be destroyed, as happened with the barbarian invasions."


3. Who is the opposition to Qaddafi in Libya?


As in all the uprisings occurring across the Arab world, the opposition in Libya is very broadly based. It includes students, human rights activists, Islamic fundamentalists, tribal elements, low income working people, better off lawyers, doctors, engineers, etc., some small business people, as well as defecting members of the government, including some of those who resigned in outrage over Qaddafi's attacks on civilians and others trying to save their skins.


The various components of the opposition differ on many issues, but what unites them is a belief that Qaddafi must go and that the Libyan people are entitled to some sort of democratic society. Their program calls for regular elections, civil liberties, women's rights, and religious freedom.


The opposition seems to have no significant left presence. And a Libya that reflected the views of its people would surely have a substantial Islamic influence. But a Libya with the possibility of democratic contestation would allow for the rebuilding of the left, something impossible under Qaddafi.


The more the opposition becomes dependent on military means, the more influence will be accorded to those within their ranks with military skills, which means defecting soldiers, those with experience fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, or those connected to past paramilitary groups. The more dependent the opposition becomes on Western powers, the more influence will be accorded to those with connections to and views compatible with these powers.


4. Has the opposition conducted pogroms against African immigrants in Libya?


There have been credible reports of serious abuse in opposition held-areas, particularly of workers from sub-Saharan Africa who have been falsely accused of being mercenaries recruited by Qadaffi. There have also been opposition killings of prisoners of war suspected of being mercenaries.


According to Na'eem Jeenah, executive director of the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa, "Certainly, Qadaffi has used, in the past, mercenaries from other parts of Africa and our information is that some of these are likely involved in the current situation on Qadaffi's side." But this is obviously not a justification for mistreating foreign workers or prisoners.


There is a long history of anti-black racism in Libya and such attitudes no doubt are present among the opposition. The Qadaffi government has contributed to the spreading of these retrograde views. In 2000, government officials blamed African migrant workers for rising crime, disease, and drug trafficking, and dozens of these workers were killed in the streets. The vast majority of migrants interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported having "seen or experienced physical harassment or violence…often with little intervention by the police," and sometimes carried out by the police.


Racism and racial discrimination must be unequivocally condemned, as must the mistreatment of prisoners. But there is no basis for claiming that the reports of mistreatment represent the basic nature of the opposition. The initial reports of killings have not been repeated, the rebel's Interim National Council has aired a statement promising to respect the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, and there is video showing opposition members protecting an alleged captured mercenary from abuse.


5. What are the overall aims of U.S. foreign policy?


In President Obama's speech regarding Libya he was quite forthright about this. We cannot intervene everywhere there is injustice or even threat of massacre, and we should not, he told the public. We should only employ our assets where our "interests and values" are at stake, he decreed. And then two sentences later, he reported that "we must always measure our interests against the need for action."


So at the very most "values"—which rhetorically suggest freedom, dignity, etc., but in government-speak typically mean open markets, private ownership, etc.—enter in only after it has been determined that "our interests" warrant actions. But who does "our" refer to? And what is meant by "interests."


Presidents and pundits alike claim "our interests" are humane and caring—since claiming so helps to engender support for pursuit of sordid interests. However, this is no different from other imperial powers claiming their interests are humane, including even the most blatant butchers and bandits. In the end, U.S. policymakers pay attention to popular and international dissent only insofar as either could threaten future elite aims. Profits and power trump all other concerns. Humanitarianism arises only as rationalization, or sometimes tangentially when consistent with the dominant aim.


6. What have been the more general U.S. aims in the Middle East and North Africa?


The region is rich in oil and oil is the energy source and lubricant of international commerce and transport, both private and military. A primary goal in the area, therefore, is to exploit, and even more, to control the distribution of oil. We know this is the aim in the region not solely because it corresponds to logic and to our understanding of the involved institutions and actors, or because it is utterly obvious from U.S. actions for decades, but also because U.S. policy admits it: the State Department stated in 1945 that Middle East oil was "a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history."


Friendly dictatorships are welcome. Hillary Clinton, well before the recent events, described U.S. hopes for Libya: "I am very pleased to welcome Minister Qadaffi [a son] here to the State Department. We deeply value the relationship between the United States and Libya. We have many opportunities to deepen and broaden our cooperation. And I'm very much looking forward to building on this relationship." And, indeed, the relation has been undeniably warm and cozy since 2003.


Of course one could also point elsewhere in the region, to Egypt's Mubarak, to the Saudi royal family, and so on, to see how our supposed and widely proclaimed humanitarian impulses fair against the contrary implications of "our interests." In typical times, U.S. support for dictators and even kings is considered wise, prudent, and even moral because it abets "our" agenda of profit and power which, in the region, largely means controlling access to oil and supporting supine regimes willing to further our interests.


When the Arab uprisings occurred, Washington's priority predictably shifted to mitigating the associated dangers, or, if possible, channeling them into paths benefiting U.S. power and profits. This has called for different choices in different places. In Egypt the U.S. had to basically watch, and now the U.S. works, no doubt double-time, to try to insinuate Egyptian actors friendly to U.S. corporate interests into the new government. In Bahrain it has meant accepting the Saudi Kingdom's repressive intervention to try to forestall dissidence, due to the extreme costs of failing to retain influence there, including possibly losing the option of housing the Fifth Fleet.


7. What are the most likely U.S. aims in Libya? Why did the U.S. intervene?


In Libya, given Qaddafi's instability, the large opposition, and the danger of a massacre that could be "blamed" on the U.S., the U.S. was forced to take action against its preferred agenda for the area, which was stable docility imposed by authoritarian regimes, including Qaddafi's.


Note that it wasn't the tally of dead Libyans if Qaddafi entered Benghazi that mattered to U.S. policymakers, as it would matter to a humanitarian, but it was instead the cost of being accused of ignoring Libyan pleas for help, as well as the effect on Europe of a flood of immigrants—both concerns brazenly admitted by Obama himself. He said: "We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi—a city nearly the size of Charlotte—could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world…. It was not in our national interest to let that happen…. A massacre would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya's borders."


Detailed short run U.S. goals in Libya are impossible to know for sure, but the broad overarching goals seem quite obvious. By providing military support, weapons, and anything else Washington can offer, without incurring undo risk to U.S. profits and power, the United States hopes to wind up with a new government headed by pro-U.S. sectors and individuals with minimal disruption to U.S. interests in the region.


8. What is the CIA's role in the opposition?


Given that U.S. motives are to insure that post-crisis outcomes are as positive as possible for U.S. regional dominance with zero regard for the well being of Libyans, we can pretty confidently deduce the role of the CIA in Libya, which will be to do a certain amount of tactical activity, perhaps including some assassinations or other violent activity, but mostly to gather information and to create personal and working ties and develop connections to possible new government officials and influential actors in Libyan society. They will also presumably help with targeting for air strikes.


No doubt the CIA had, even before the uprising, contacts among dissidents and even greater numbers of contacts with the Qaddafi government. This does not mean that the opposition can be seen as a pawn of the CIA any more than it means that Qaddafi's government, which had been working closely with the CIA since 2003, was or is a pawn of the CIA. Still more untenable is to claim that the popular uprising against Qaddafi was a CIA plot. That the CIA will try to get the best possible outcomes for U.S. elites is a truism. How well it will succeed, or fail, depends on many variables, not least informed opposition.


9. Why in general should we oppose intervention by Western powers in the affairs of other states?


There are many reasons to reject foreign intervention. People should be allowed to decide their own affairs without outside intervention. The act of a people pursuing their own interests develops their capacity for self-determination in a way that even (improbably) humanitarian outside intervention cannot.


If the outside intervention is military in nature, even if it is improbably well-intended, it may undercut opportunities for peaceful resolution. And military actions (whether from inside or outside) tend to strengthen the hand of those with military means, not those with the best values. Even with initially good intentions, outsiders will almost always act to further their own interests, and only secondarily (if at all) those of victimized people. In addition, outside interventions will often strengthen the hand of the outsiders (unless they get horribly bogged down, as happened to the United States in Vietnam and Iraq, or the Soviet Union in Afghanistan), increasing their capabilities for future unjustified interventions elsewhere.


10. Was Libya an exception to the general arguments against intervention?


Even wise absolute principles sometimes break down in extreme cases, particularly when the principles themselves are derived from contextual considerations.


Qaddafi's forces were on the outskirts of Benghazi, the opposition stronghold with some 700,000 people. His military units had repeatedly used violence—including air power—against unarmed demonstrators. Qaddafi didn't try to argue that the killings were the work of overzealous subordinates; rather he declared that he had done nothing that Israel hadn't done in Gaza—maybe true, but hardly an exoneration for anyone who cares about justice. Qaddafi declared as well that anyone who didn't love him didn't deserve to live and that he would hunt down his opponents house to house: "There will be no mercy. Our troops will be coming to Benghazi tonight."


One of course doesn't know what would have happened had Qaddafi's forces taken Benghazi. But the prospect of a major atrocity was entirely plausible. The Libyan opposition asked for a no-fly zone, while rejecting any foreign ground troops. It seemed that a limited military action that declared a no-fly zone and kept tanks away from Benghazi could save many lives without incurring too many of the adverse consequences of intervention. A well-defined and limited military action would not give foreign powers the ability to make crucial decisions, would not be long enough to evoke a nationalist backlash, and would cause minimal collateral damage.


Other means of averting a massacre were proposed—diplomacy, arming the rebels, etc.—but none seemed to offer good prospects of addressing the imminent threat.


11. What about UNSC Resolution 1973?


Had there been a UN resolution narrowly tailored to address the immediate threat of massacre and carefully constrained to avoid putting things in the hands of the leading Western powers, this might have been an exception to the usual arguments against intervention. Resolution 1973, however, was not narrowly tailored at all. It appropriately authorized steps to protect civilians and precluded foreign occupation, but it left the definition of these things entirely up to the states that took it upon themselves to take "all necessary measures." Although the intervening states had to report to the Secretary General on what actions they were taking, and "coordinate closely" with him, it provided no real mechanisms for doing so.


Consider a few decisions that were made. In establishing a no-fly zone, should hundreds of targets across the country be struck? In Bosnia there was a UN-imposed no-fly zone where planes and anti-aircraft facilities were not preemptively attacked. Thus, it is possible to institute a no-fly zone without first launching multiple attacks. Was this possible or advisable in the Libyan case? That is debatable, but why should the matter be left up to the U.S. government to decide?


Attacks were made on Libyan government command-and-control facilities, including a headquarters where Qaddafi may have been. (Recall that in 1986 the U.S. bombed Qaddafi's barracks in Tripoli and Benghazi, on the grounds that these were the command-and-control centers for terrorism.) Perhaps an argument can be made that it is justified to assassinate a leader if doing so will save large numbers of lives. But is this really the sort of decision that should be left up to London, Paris, and Washington to decide? In addition, and worst of all, the resolution does not specify when military action should stop. It is apparently up to the intervening powers to make this determination. So, in our view, Resolution 1973 was not the sort of limited and focused resolution that might have been justified to avert slaughter in Benghazi.


12. Have the U.S. and its allies adhered to the letter and spirit of Resolution 1973?


Even though resolution 1973 had inadequate controls to protect civilians on the actions of those taking the "all necessary measures," it had some restrictions, and these have been violated. For example, while hitting tanks that were about to break into Benghazi could be justified on the basis of saving civilians, hitting tanks in retreat or Libyan government forces in Sirte, one of the few places where Qaddafi had significant support, had little to do with protecting civilians from imminent massacre.


13. Can someone have favored a "no-fly" zone and the associated bombardment, yet advocate national self-determination and oppose imperialism? Can someone have opposed the no-fly zone, yet care about the fate of the opposition?


Both positions were possible and could have reflected fine and worthy values, based on differing calculations of unknowable costs and benefits.


Despite differences on the question of the no-fly zone, both sides could agree on several key points—support for the Arab revolution and no support for Qaddafi. Both sides could agree that there are powerful arguments against foreign intervention; that the negative costs are not outweighed in the case of helping one side in a civil war, however worthy, to defeat its opponents. Therefore, both sides could oppose the ongoing bombing, agree that the motives of the U.S., the UK, and France are geo-political self-interest, not humanitarianism, and that it is imperative to prevent them from subverting and/or bending events throughout the Mideast and North Africa to their own ends. Both sides can agree on opposing U.S. or any other foreign military bases in Libya and demand that there be no financial, political, or military gain for Washington and other outsiders as a result of the intervention.


14. How can anti-interventionist and anti-war activists who disagree about the initial Libya intervention work effectively together?


Those who oppose imperialism and Arab dictators, including Qaddafi, can work together on many points. There is no disagreement about this that precludes having a movement in which there are different views. This should be obvious. Indeed, if disagreeing about difficult contextual judgments implied an inability to work together in an overarching movement, we would be doomed. Of course, the different points of view on the initial no-fly zone need to be vigorously debated. But this doesn't mean denouncing each other as the enemy or impugning each other's motives or political credentials.


Instead, what is needed is a little humility toward the possibility of being wrong and, thus, a little willingness to take seriously other's views and a little recognition that people can have broadly similar values and ultimate aims, and see even the same evidence, yet arrive at different positions on important short term issues.


By contrast, folks with inflexible and unyielding mindsets will often split over their differences or maintain at best tenuous relations that obstruct successful organizing. More, they may regard people outside the movement with the same type of dismissive and denigrating judgments.


Nevertheless, the demand "Libya for Libyans, not outsiders," could galvanize movements opposed to military intervention and eager to prevent occupation.


15. What might succeed in limiting the Libyan intervention and preventing subsequent occupation?


Unfolding conditions in Libya will, of course, affect decisions. For movements to affect outcomes requires sending elites the message that if they persist in trying to control outcomes in Libya, opposition will grow to the point where the dangers of losing power and profits are more risky if they continue their policies than if they relent. For a movement to be very militant but small or shrinking will not send that message. For a movement to be very narrowly focused will also not pose a particularly serious threat. What will turn elites' head is a movement growing in size, visibility, militance, and diversity of aims—thus an ongoing threat to power and profits.


This suggests that movements should be multi-focus as much as possible, with demands on issues of foreign policy but also of race and gender, the economy, the legal system, etc. Movements should welcome diversity of all kinds as much as possible, but not at the expense of growth, and create movement relations that sustain members and deepen commitment rather than frustrating members. People will have diverse ideas about how to best accomplish all these ends, but if movements follow the precept of making room for difference, not least to discover, rather than merely to argue about, what works best, they can influence policy.


Michael Albert is a long-time political activist, co-founder of South End Press and Z Magazine, and founder of ZNet. He is the author of numerous books, including: Parecon: Life After Capitalism, Realizing Hope, Thought Dreams, and his activist memoir, Remembering Tomorrow. Stephen R. Shalom teaches political science at William Paterson University and works with ZNet and New Politics magazine, writing on issues of U.S. foreign policy and political vision. Among his books are Socialist Visions (editor), Imperial Alibis, and Which Side Are You On? An Introduction to Politics.