NATO’s massive military campaign in Libya, which is taking place under the guise of a “humanitarian” effort to “protect” civilians, is at bottom an attempt by the U.S., Britain, France and other lesser imperialists to secure valuable oil and natural gas reserves and depose Muammar Qaddafi, a sometimes troublesome client.
During the four decades he has ruled Libya, Qaddafi (unlike Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, the recently deposed dictators of Tunisia and Egypt) has exhibited considerable independence from imperialist control. Qaddafi modeled himself on Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, who seized the Suez Canal and galvanized mass support in the Arab world in the 1950s by posing as an implacable enemy of imperialism and Zionism. In the 1970s Qaddafi, a self-styled “socialist” who routinely denounced the Saudi royals and other pro-imperialist Arab rulers as thieves and Zionist lackeys, nationalized Libya’s oil and gas industry. Under Qaddafi’s regime some of the profits from the energy sector, which accounts for the vast majority of the country’s exports and government revenues, were used to provide education and healthcare for the population.
The oil majors were never happy with Qaddafi. In 2007 Amy Goodman interviewed retired
American general and former NATO head Wesley Clark, who revealed that Libya was on the
Bush administration’s hit list in 2001. “About ten days after 9/11, I went through
the Pentagon and I saw Secretary Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz. I went
downstairs just to say hello to some of the people on the Joint Staff who used to work for
me, and one of the generals called me in. He said, ‘Sir, you’ve got to come in
and talk to me a second.’ I said, ‘Well, you’re too busy.’ He
said, ‘No, no.’ He says, ‘We’ve made the decision we’re
going to war with Iraq.’ This was on or about the 20th of
“So I came back to see him a few weeks later, and by that time we were bombing in Afghanistan. I said, ‘Are we still going to war with Iraq?’ And he said, ‘Oh, it’s worse than that.’ He reached over on his desk. He picked up a piece of paper. And he said, ‘I just got this down from upstairs’—meaning the Secretary of Defense’s office—‘today.’ And he said, ‘This is a memo that describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.’”
—Democracy Now, 2 March, 2007 Qaddafi managed to reach a modus vivendi with Washington by agreeing to actively cooperate in the “war on terror” abroad and impose IMF-style “structural adjustment” policies at home. Soon Libya was reopened for foreign investment, many state-owned enterprises were sold off and food subsidies and other “socialist” measures scaled back. While these concessions were enough to remove Libya from the hit list for a time, the Obama administration could not pass up an apparent opportunity to gain direct, unmediated, access to Libya’s extensive oil reserves (currently estimated at 44 billion barrels—more than any other country in Africa).
The fall of Ben Ali and Mubarak led Qaddafi to fear that he might be next. Like Tunisia and Egypt, Libya has a lot of unemployed youth and there have been signs of popular unrest. When demonstrators occupied government housing projects in several cities in January, the regime responded by offering to set up a $24 billion development fund.
According to a Saudi-owned publication, when Qaddafi learned of plans for a “Day of Rage” on 17 February (the fifth anniversary of the brutal suppression of a previous protest) he personally intervened in an attempt to halt it:
“Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has dealt with the calls being issued by the National Conference for the Libyan Opposition and Libyan activists for a Libyan ‘Day of Rage’ to take place on 17 February, modeled on similar events in Tunisia and Egypt, by issuing an unprecedented warnings [sic] against any attempts to create chaos and instability in Libya.
“In the last few days, Gaddafi privately met with Libyan political activists, journalists, and media figures and he issued severe warnings that these professions would be held responsible should they participate in any way in disturbing the peace or creating chaos in Libya.”
—“Gaddafi ready for Libya’s ‘Day of Rage’,” Asharq Al-Awsat, 9 February
The National Conference for the Libyan Opposition (NCLO) was established in 2005 at the
initiative of the CIA-connected National Front for the Salvation of Libya, set up in 1981
by Mohammed Youssef Magarieff, a former official who had broken with the regime two years
According to Bob Woodward’s account in Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA
1981-1987, Magarieff was linked to the CIA via Sudan’s President Nimeri.
Woodward cites a 5 December 1983 CIA report that Magarieff “believed that Sudan and
the U.S. were his only friends….he said that following another period of training
he hoped to mount a campaign against Libya that would give his organization more
credibility.” Woodward writes “until this happened [CIA chief William] Casey
would not be able to get a presidential finding supporting the anti-Qaddafi
movement.” The National Front for the Salvation of Libya apparently lost little time
“The LNSF claimed responsibility for the daring attack on Qadhafi's headquarters at Bab al Aziziyah on May 8, 1984. Although the coup attempt failed and Qadhafi escaped unscathed, dissident groups claimed that some eighty Libyans, Cubans, and East Germans perished. According to various sources, the United States Central Intelligence Agency trained and supported the LNSF before and after the May 8 operation.”
—"LIBYA: a country study,” Federal Research Division, Library of Congress
In Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, and other smaller centers, the recent NCLO-initiated protests routed Qaddafi loyalists and left rebels in control of the eastern part of the country. Undoubtedly many of the demonstrators were motivated by hatred for an oppressive regime and a desire for “freedom” and “democracy” and presumably imagined that they were participating in semi-spontaneous mobilizations similar to those taking place elsewhere in the region. But unlike in Tunisia or Egypt, the Libyan uprising seems to have been effectively directed from the beginning by a mélange of conscious pro-imperialists, disaffected elements of the old regime and Islamist reactionaries. This may explain why the Wall Street Journal (23 February) was far more positive about the Libyan protests than it had been about those in Tunisia and Egypt: “The U.S. and Europe should help Libyans overthrow the Gadhafi regime.” The same sentiment was echoed by the rest of the corporate media, as well as by practically every reactionary Arab regime.
The rationalization for military intervention in Libya recalled the “humanitarian” concerns used to justify the NATO/U.S. bombing of Yugoslavia in 1995 and 1999. As many critics have observed, no equivalent calls have been made for the protection of protesters in Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia or other reliable client states, just as none were heard when the Zionist military was massacring Palestinians in Gaza two years ago.
Initially the revolt against Qaddafi appeared to have considerable momentum. Two Libyan pilots flew their fighter planes to Malta and reports circulated that military units were refusing orders and some were even going over to the protesters. Various diplomats broke with the regime, as did some key domestic figures, including air force head Aref Sharif and Interior Minister Abdel Fattah Younes. On 21 February, in an apparent attempt to boost the opposition, British Foreign Secretary William Hague publicized rumors that Qaddafi had fled the country.
The loss of Benghazi and a wave of defections from the regime created widespread expectations that the government would soon fall, but within a matter of days, Qaddafi managed to consolidate his support and launched expeditions to recapture rebel-held territory. Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya, citing unpublished reports from Libya, provided the following account of how this was achieved:
“Amongst the ranking members of the military, Mahdi Al-Arab, the deputy chief of Libya’s military staff, was said to have renounced Qaddafi. Al-Arab, however, has modified his position by saying that he does not want to see Libya spiral into a civil war that will allow foreign intervention and tutelage. This is why Al-Arab prevented the people of his city, Zawarah, from joining the revolt and going to nearby Tripoli….
“On February 23-24, 2010 [sic] he [Qaddafi] met with the leaders of the three biggest tribes in Libya (Werfala, Tarhouna, and Wershfana), to secure their support. His own tribe, Qaddafa is supporting him and it seems that the Madarha and Awlad Slieman tribes are also supporting him.”
—“Libya: Is Washington Pushing for Civil War to Justify a US-NATO Military Intervention?,” Global Research, 25 February
Nazemroaya also reported that Qaddafi promised to “step down in about one year” and not attempt to install one of his sons in his place.
Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, where the protests were mass popular expressions of opposition to brutal oppression, the conflict between Qaddafi loyalists and the rebels headquartered in Benghazi amounted to a small-scale civil war between qualitatively equivalent capitalist factions. Marxists take no side in such conflicts, although we of course oppose the killing of civilians by the combatants. The entry of the NATO powers, however, transformed this conflict into a struggle between a neocolonial country and several imperialist powers (and their indigenous proxies). Class-conscious workers must oppose this reactionary colonial war in every possible way, including labor strikes against the production and transportation of war materiel.
After their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan the U.S. and other imperialists are reluctant to openly invade another predominantly Muslim country. While the rebel forces are dismissed by many analysts as a negligible factor, the overwhelming dominance of NATO airpower (as well as the probability of some sort of imperialist military presence on the ground The Sunday Mirror [London] reported on 20 March that “Hundreds of British SAS soldiers have been operating with rebel groups inside Libya for three weeks….” is obviously creating very serious difficulties for the Qaddafi regime. There has been considerable speculation about a possible partition and the recognition of Benghazi as the capital of an “independent” protectorate in Libya’s oil-rich eastern region. The rebels’ Transitional National Council appears to be laying the basis for turning over the country’s petroleum resources to their imperial godfathers:
“Libyan rebels in Benghazi said they have created a new national oil company to replace the corporation controlled by leader Muammar Qaddafi whose assets were frozen by the United Nations Security Council.
“The Transitional National Council released a statement announcing the decision made at a March 19 meeting to establish the ‘Libyan Oil Company as supervisory authority on oil production and policies in the country, based temporarily in Benghazi, and the appointment of an interim director general’ of the company.
“The Council also said it ‘designated the Central Bank of Benghazi as a monetary authority competent in monetary policies in Libya and the appointment of a governor to the Central Bank of Libya, with a temporary headquarters in Benghazi.’
“The Security Council adopted a resolution on March 17 that froze the foreign assets of the Libyan National Oil Corp. and the Central Bank of Libya, both described in the text as ‘a potential source of funding’ for Qaddafi’s regime.”
—Bloomberg.com, 22 March
We do not pretend that the Qaddafi regime is in any way progressive. It is not. But getting rid of Qaddafi’s corrupt and brutal dictatorship is the job of the workers and oppressed masses of Libya—not foreign colonialists and their local proxies. Over 70 years ago, the great Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky outlined the Marxist attitude on this issue:
“In Brazil there now reigns a semifascist regime that every revolutionary can only view with hatred. Let us assume, however, that on the morrow England enters into a military conflict with Brazil. I ask you on whose side of the conflict will the working class be? I will answer for myself personally—in this case I will be on the side of ‘fascist’ Brazil against ‘democratic’ Great Britain. Why? Because in the conflict between them it will not be a question of democracy or fascism. If England should be victorious, she will put another fascist in Rio de Janeiro and will place double chains on Brazil. If Brazil on the contrary should be victorious, it will give a mighty impulse to national and democratic consciousness of the country and will lead to the overthrow of the Vargas dictatorship. The defeat of England will at the same time deliver a blow to British imperialism and will give an impulse to the revolutionary movement of the British proletariat.”
—“Anti-Imperialist Struggle is Key to Liberation,” 23 September 1938
Various conservative commentators, including former U.S. Marine Eric Margolis, have noted the obvious parallels between the current NATO campaign in Libya and the U.S.-led assault on Iraq in 2003:
“As in the case of Iraq , the assault on Libya was preceded by a huge barrage of anti-Gadaffi propaganda and steaming moral outrage by western media and politicians. American TV crews rushed to Libya to witness the wicked colonel get his comeuppance. None went to Bahrain or Yemen.”
—Eric Margolis: A New Crusade, 21 March
George Friedman of the pro-imperialist think tank STRATFOR describes the Transitional National Council as “a very diverse and sometimes mutually hostile group of tribes and individuals, bound together by hostility to Gadhafi and not much else.” He considers them to be little more than “a Western puppet”:
“The West’s ability to impose order on them without governing them, particularly in a short amount of time, is difficult to imagine. They remind me of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, anointed by the Americans, distrusted by much of the country and supported by a fractious [imperialist] coalition.”
—“Libya, the West and the Narrative of Democracy,” STRATFOR, 21 March
Many liberals who were taken in by the “humanitarian” cover story and supported the idea of a “no-fly” zone professed shock when this morphed into air strikes on Libyan military units. Leftist supporters of the Benghazi-based “Libyan Revolution” find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to explain why those who embrace NATO’s military intervention should be viewed as anything other than imperialist stooges. Earlier there had been reports of some elements of the anti-Qaddafi coalition expressing opposition to foreign intervention, but this sentiment apparently evaporated as Qaddafi’s forces advanced.
The British Workers Power group has been among the most enthusiastic backers of the Benghazi rebels. On 19 March, as the imperialist bombing commenced, Workers Power continued to pledge its “unconditional support”:
“The rebellion against Gadaffi's dictatorship deserves unconditional support and that is not altered by the UN decision….
“Those who oppose powerful states have the right to get hold of arms wherever they can and to take advantage of any weaknesses in their oppressors' situation. That remains true even where the weaknesses are the result of imperialist action. If, under cover of the no-fly zone, Libyan insurgents and revolutionaries can retake positions, undermine the morale or the loyalty of Gadaffi's troops and even advance on the capital, Tripoli, that is a step forward for the Libyan revolution and should be welcomed.
“At the same time we must oppose the US, British and French attack. The imperialist attack allows Gadaffi to pose at home as defender of the nation. It gives him a popular cause where before he had none. Now he can try to rally part of the people and deploy them against the revolution.”
—“Victory to the Libyan Revolution!”
Workers Power’s celebration of the opportunities created for the “Libyan Revolution” by imperialist intervention unmasks its ostensible “opposition” to NATO’s military campaign as cynical posturing. This latest disgraceful political capitulation recalls its earlier cowardly refusal to militarily defend Bosnian Serbs against attacks by British, French and American warplanes in August-September 1995 (see “LRCI Splits Over Bosnia Betrayal,” 1917 No.17, 1996). In each case Workers Power determines its position not on the basis of Marxist principle but rather in accordance with what is currently popular.
A genuine struggle to uproot the hated and corrupt Qaddafi dictatorship must be linked to a broader mobilization against the entire system of global capitalism that subjects the vast majority of the world’s population to brutal exploitation. This must begin with unconditional opposition to any and all imperialist interventions in neocolonial countries like Libya.
The defense of Libya against imperialist attack is an issue of vital importance not only to working people and the oppressed in North Africa and the Middle East, but also to workers in the imperialist countries themselves. In “developed” and “underdeveloped” countries alike, the historical interests of working people are essentially identical.
The only way to liberate the enormous productive capacity of humanity from the destructive irrationality of endless bloody wars for division and redivision of resources and spheres of influence is through a chain of socialist revolutions that overturn the entire imperialist world order. These in turn require the construction of Leninist-Trotskyist parties deeply rooted in the proletariat and armed with the program of permanent revolution.
1 “About ten days after 9/11, I went through the Pentagon and I saw Secretary Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz. I went downstairs just to say hello to some of the people on the Joint Staff who used to work for me, and one of the generals called me in. He said, ‘Sir, you’ve got to come in and talk to me a second.’ I said, ‘Well, you’re too busy.’ He said, ‘No, no.’ He says, ‘We’ve made the decision we’re going to war with Iraq.’ This was on or about the 20th of September….
“So I came back to see him a few weeks later, and by that time
we were bombing in Afghanistan. I said, ‘Are we still going to war with Iraq?’
And he said, ‘Oh, it’s worse than that.’ He reached over on his desk. He
picked up a piece of paper. And he said, ‘I just got this down from
upstairs’—meaning the Secretary of Defense’s
office—‘today.’ And he said, ‘This is a memo that describes how
we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then
Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.’”
—Democracy Now, 2 March, 2007
2 According to Bob Woodward’s account in Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987, Magarieff was linked to the CIA via Sudan’s President Nimeri. Woodward cites a 5 December 1983 CIA report that Magarieff “believed that Sudan and the U.S. were his only friends….he said that following another period of training he hoped to mount a campaign against Libya that would give his organization more credibility.” Woodward writes “until this happened [CIA chief William] Casey would not be able to get a presidential finding supporting the anti-Qaddafi movement.” The National Front for the Salvation of Libya apparently lost little time establishing “credibility”:
“The LNSF claimed responsibility for the daring attack on
Qadhafi's headquarters at Bab al Aziziyah on May 8, 1984. Although the coup attempt failed
and Qadhafi escaped unscathed, dissident groups claimed that some eighty Libyans, Cubans,
and East Germans perished. According to various sources, the United States Central
Intelligence Agency trained and supported the LNSF before and after the May 8
—"LIBYA: a country study,” Federal Research Division, Library of Congress
3 The Sunday Mirror [London] reported on 20 March that “Hundreds of British SAS soldiers have been operating with rebel groups inside Libya for three weeks….”