Referring back to a debate in 2011
The rebellions which became known as the “Arab Spring” began in Tunisia in December 2010, quickly spreading to Algeria, Egypt and other states. Mass movements demanding freedom and democracy took to the streets.
On Tuesday 15 February 2011 an uprising began against the ferociously repressive Libyan regime led by the weird and homicidal Muammar Qaddafi. On 19 February, in Benghazi, in the east of the country, part of the armed forces came over to the protesters.
Qaddafi denounced the rebels as “cockroaches” and promised to clean up Libya, “inch by inch, house by house, home by home, alleyway by alleyway.” Qaddafi had staged mass public executions in Benghazi and the rebels knew that if he re-took the town they would be massacred.
The UN authorised an operation, “to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack.” Reluctantly the Obama government in the US led a Western intervention. American and UK submarines launched cruise missiles and the French air force attacked Qaddafi’s tanks as they moved on Benghazi.
The Libyan oppositionists – perfectly reasonably, and as was their right - called for the West to impose a no fly zone, similar to that which had protected the Iraqi Kurds in the aftermath of the first Iraq war, while opposing the intervention of troops on the ground.
And the UN voted for an arms embargo on the Libyan regime and to freeze Qaddafi’s assets.
On 20 March a tiny Stop the War protest outside Downing Street demanded “No Western intervention” while having nothing to say in opposition to Qaddafi’s war on the democratic rebellion. Counterfire said, “Hands off Libya!” The CPGB-ML added (honestly and consistently, but absurdly) “Victory to Qaddafi!”
Socialist Worker wanted their cake, and wanted to eat their cake, too. SW headlined with “No to intervention in Libya! Victory to the Arab revolutions!” Not for the first time the two parts of an SW headline contradicted each other: without Western military help the Arab revolution in Libya would have been quickly killed off by Qaddafi.
And if Qaddafi won in Libya the broader mobilisations for democracy across the Arab world would have suffered a major, demoralising defeat, and the Arab dictatorships would have received a morale boost.
Nevertheless the SWP’s intellectual Alex Callinicos knew very well that the alternative to Western intervention was the mass murder of the rebels. But was the prospect of a massacre something that should even concern the left? In Socialist Worker Callinicos stated that, “the sad fact is that massacres are a chronic feature of capitalism.” The well-off academic, Callinicos, shrugged and wrote, “the revolutionary left is, alas, too weak to stop [massacres].” Callinicos himself was unlikely to be strung up from a lamppost outside his nice Islington home and could be relaxed about the prospect while enjoying a coffee and a spot of brunch.
Workers’ Liberty did not think we could stop massacres by ourselves, or could calibrate advice to the big powers so as deftly to stop massacres but avoid bad side-effects. But we wanted to rebels to beat Qaddafi. So, logically, we avoided slogans like “Stop the NATO bombing” which would help the Libyan regime. An AWL leaflet declared: “No illusions in West but ‘anti-intervention’ opposition is abandoning rebels”.
Is this “pro-imperialist”? No it is simply honest, nuanced and avoids the stupidity of positively advocating something which would lead to a disaster for the opposition.
Refusing to agitate against Western military action is not the same as supporting the Western powers. We didn’t. We advocated distrust of Cameron, Sarkozy and Obama.
To bolster “left” arguments against Western intervention it became common to believe that the West intended to occupy Libya to get Libyan oil. We said that was unlikely. Why would they bother, when it would be cheaper and easier to buy it on the market if Libya had any sort of functioning government? Indeed, we were right, and there was no occupation. The Western governments were more bothered about bourgeois stability than direct control of oil.
And finally, there is a justification used by the “Hands off Libya” left which only exists with hindsight. That is: Western intervention only led to chaos in Libya. It is true, of course, that Libya is now a failed state, partitioned by warlords, each backed by various malign regional and foreign powers.
However we are not mere observers of events, we are not bourgeois historians, people who exist to pick over debris. We comment as activists involved in the struggle, as political actors who – in this case – were defending our people, the Libyan insurgents, against a vile dictatorship.
We never claimed or even suggested that the Western military action would secure a good outcome; only that support (by implication) for a massacre in Benghazi would quickly and drastically close off possibilities of good outcomes. There was no assurance of a good outcome, but equally nothing inevitable about the chaos in Libya which exists now. By 2012 there were a vast number of political organisations, unions, and new papers and radio stations in operation. The election of July 2012 were relatively free and fair and democrats, rather than Islamists, won the poll.
The chaos that developed after 2012 was, in good part, a consequence of the general defeat of the Arab Spring.