Well, I erred back in February when I predicted that there would be no imperialist intervention in Libya. If there’s anything we’ve learned about Libya, it is that crystal ball gazing, even if informed by a Marxist perspective, is prone to error.
Just one month ago, the leading voices of the anti-anti-Qaddafi left were predicting that the rebels were history, chief among them Alexander Cockburn who wrote on July 15:
Recent pro-government rallies in Tripoli have been vast. Libya has a population of about six million, with four million in Tripoli. Gaddafi barrels around the city in an open jeep. Large amounts of AK-47s have been distributed to civilian defense committees. Were they all compelled to demonstrate by Gaddafi’s enforcers? It seems unlikely.
Franklin Lamb, Counterpunch’s correspondent in Tripoli, agreed with that assessment a little over a month ago but has become disabused of it now:
Reports of Saif and Mohammad Qaddafi’s capture supports the idea that the government here wildly exaggerated its solid support and that the public largely believed them. Already among the few staff and some kids who come early the jump the hotel fence and use the swimming pool, and their trademark chants of “Allah, Mohammad, Muammar, Libya wa bass” have ended their chants and now support for ousting “the leader” is widespread. Most hotel staff at my hotel appear crestfallen.
The outpouring of support for Qaddafi’s departure by the same crowds who seemed to adore him at Green Square the past five months I have been monitoring them is surprising but perhaps reveal why all powerful despots are often more form than substance and can collapse quickly under certain conditions.
One hopes that the anti-anti-Qaddafi left might ruminate on this collapse. With all their constant reminders of how beloved Qaddafi was for creating such a wealthy country based on oil profits, there might be an imperative to think about the importance of freedom over and above material well-being. This is especially true since each and every one of these anti-imperialists are so protective of their own free speech rights when it comes to the FBI and other American repressive forces. Could you imagine what Alexander Cockburn would do if he was arrested for writing an “anti-American” blog and sent to prison for a year? What difference would it make if someone reminded him that America made it possible for him to afford a fleet of classic cars?
Cockburn, who is probably the highest profile member of the anti-anti-Qaddafi left, was rather churlish toward Juan Cole. After the rebels assassinated one of their top military leaders Abdel Fatah Younis, he said the following on July 29:
This is one of the greatest humiliations of NATO in its history (also, to be petty, a terrific smack in the eye for the analytic and political acumen of a prime propagandist in progressive circles for the rebels, Prof. Juan Cole, whose blogs on Libya have been getting steadily more demented.) Incidentally, they keep calling for Ghadafi to “step down.” In constitutional terms, which is what NATO must keep in mind, I believe he did some time ago.
There are two points that must be made here. Younis was Qaddafi’s right-hand man for forty years before joining up with the rebels. As Minister of the Interior, he was in charge of repressing just the kind of people who were now taking orders from him. He was arrested on July 28 for smuggling arms to Qaddafi loyalists. In retrospect, maybe his assassination was more of a sign of rebel strength than weakness. In terms of “constitutional terms”, the only thing that can be said is this. A constitution is not just about the rules and regulations of the executive branch of a government. It is also about the rights of a citizenry to choose that executive. One understands that such niceties might matter little to Alexander, but they do to people who faced prison terms and torture for exercising such rights.
While I disagreed with Juan Cole’s support for NATO intervention, I think—like Gilbert Achcar—that he has made some interesting points about Libya. In fact, unlike those who backed Bush’s war on Iraq (Hitchens, Berman, Makiya et al), neither Cole nor Achcar have broken with the left. I especially recommend Juan Cole’s latest post on Libya titled Top Ten Myths about the Libya War. It should not come as any surprise that I have debunked the same mythology here frequently, including number ten in Cole’s list:
10. This was a war for Libya’s oil. That is daft. Libya was already integrated into the international oil markets, and had done billions of deals with BP, ENI, etc., etc. None of those companies would have wanted to endanger their contracts by getting rid of the ruler who had signed them. They had often already had the trauma of having to compete for post-war Iraqi contracts, a process in which many did less well than they would have liked. ENI’s profits were hurt by the Libyan revolution, as were those of Total SA. and Repsol. Moreover, taking Libyan oil off the market through a NATO military intervention could have been foreseen to put up oil prices, which no Western elected leader would have wanted to see, especially Barack Obama, with the danger that a spike in energy prices could prolong the economic doldrums. An economic argument for imperialism is fine if it makes sense, but this one does not, and there is no good evidence for it (that Qaddafi was erratic is not enough), and is therefore just a conspiracy theory.
While nobody could possibly deny that NATO intervention made the fall of Qaddafi possible, the tendency to write off the rebel campaign as inconsequential must be scrutinized carefully. History will probably record that the battle for Misrata was as critical to the outcome we see today as the battle of Stalingrad was for Russia. And as Juan Cole points out, “Misrata fought an epic, Stalingrad-style, struggle of self-defense against attacking Qaddafi armor and troops, finally proving victorious with NATO help, and then they gradually fought to the west toward Tripoli.”
I would only question whether NATO’s help was key to the rebel victory, although it was certainly a factor. If you take a close look at news reports from late April and early May, there are constant references to NATO’s ineffectiveness. For example, the Daily Telegraph reported on April 19:
NATO forces have a challenging task ahead of them. Gaddafi is astutely destroying Misrata by avoiding the amassing of his forces in a way that makes them vulnerable to allied air attacks. His long-range weapons, which the rebels do not have, suffice for now: more than 50 civilians are killed every day, and there is no escape for the population since Misrata is surrounded on three sides by Gaddafi’s forces, and the sea.
Misrata’s predicament is further complicated by the type of weapons Gaddafi’s forces are deploying. These include Grad surface-to-surface missiles as well as cluster shells which have been banned by most governments. The multiple “bomblets” from these shells are designed to kill and injure groups of massed troops or, in this instance, a highly vulnerable and largely unarmed civilian population.
Despite his superior weaponry and the professionalism of his troops, Qaddafi failed to subdue the rebels who mostly found their own way to victory in Misrata through trial and error as the NY Time’s TJ Chivers reported on his blog.
Those who have spent time among Libya’s rebels will recognize these scenes and the type of young men in them. These men were not professional soldiers when their war began. Rather, they became almost accidental gunmen. They were civilians who, after public demonstrations against Colonel Qaddafi slipped into war, found themselves fighting against their nation’s own army for control of their home city. Sometimes — as here — that fight was carried out house by house.
When such men have put their lives on the line against what they regard as a dictatorship, it might be expected that they would be little inclined to follow orders from a Transitional National Council in Benghazi that was never elected as Alexander Cockburn’s brother Patrick reported on Counterpunch today:
It is an extraordinary situation. The Transitional National Council (TNC) in Benghazi is now recognised by more than 30 foreign governments, including the US and Britain, as the government of Libya. But it is by no means clear that it is recognised as such by the rebel militiamen who are in the process of seizing the capital. The rebel fighters in Misrata, who fought so long to defend their city, say privately that they have no intention of obeying orders from the TNC. Their intransigence may not last but it is one sign that the insurgents are deeply divided.
Well, if the division is between those who are in the overwhelming majority and who have taken risks with their lives on the battlefield and those notables in Benghazi who are on the phone each day with the CIA, it not only seems understandable but one that the left should not have any trouble picking sides on. Yesterday the Guardian reported:
Tensions are inevitable in a revolutionary administration starting from the ground up, but the confusion and bickering in the aftermath of the killing bode ill for the NTC’s claim to be a government of all Libyans.
This claim has already been all but rejected by Misrata, Libya’s third city, whose inhabitants are scathing of Jalil’s rule and of the poor performance of NTC army units. Commanders in Misrata recently underlined to journalists that they do not accept instructions from the NTC.
Jalil’s task of imposing order will suffer further because his forces in the east of the country played no part in the twin rebel offensives now closing on Tripoli.
It is rebels in the west – from the Nafusa mountains and Misrata – that have captured Zawiya, 30 miles west of the capital, Garyan, 40 miles south and Zlitan, 80 miles to the west. Their commanders and politicians will, if they storm the Libyan capital, demand a greater say in what is currently a Benghazi-centred administration.
Speaking of rebels in the west, the full story of Berber fighters has yet to be told but an article in today’s Los Angeles Times marks a significant step in that direction:
The uprising in the Nafusa Mountains was so little noticed early on that the fighting often barely merited mention as the world focused on dramatic events in and around Benghazi and Misurata.
In the end, however, the western rebels’ tenacity and proximity to Tripoli seemed crucial in breaking down what the government had long boasted was a virtually impregnable wall of security around the capital.
As insurgent offensives stalled near Benghazi and Misurata, fighters made up of Arabs and ethnic Berbers, or Amazigh, tenaciously gained ground in the west. There is no indication the western fighters possessed superior firepower or were better trained than their undisciplined comrades in the east. But geography was certainly an ally.
In the east, rebels struggled to move forward in flat desert terrain that proved advantageous for Kadafi’s artillery and rocket launchers, often well concealed from allied aircraft. In contrast, the western fighters engaged in a guerrilla war on turf that was intimately familiar to them. Supplies arrived via a captured post on the Tunisian border.
By June, the mountain fighters had largely gained control of the highlands and were filtering into the plains that led to the coast and the capital, the ultimate prize. Tribal links to lowland populations probably aided their advance. Government officials in Tripoli betrayed no sense of alarm.
And, finally, a July 16 article from the same newspaper explains why they joined the revolution. It speaks volumes about the potential of this movement to transform society:
Kadafi has ruthlessly denied the existence of Libyan Berbers, even insisting on calling them Arabs during a rare June 2008 visit to the mountains and allegedly orchestrating a violent attack on the town of Yafran later that year.
“You can call yourselves whatever you want inside your homes — Berbers, children of Satan, whatever — but you are only Libyans when you leave your homes,” a contact of the U.S. Embassy said Kadafi had privately told the leaders of the community, according to a State Department document published by WikiLeaks.
“Tamazight was forbidden. You might lose your life or freedom if you spoke out for your rights,” said Abdullah Funas, a Libyan Berber who previously served as a diplomat and now is an opposition leader in the mountain town of Jadu. “We spoke it in our homes and that’s it.”
Kadafi and his deputies tried to play the two groups against each other.
“When he’s coming to us, he was saying, ‘Watch out for the Berber; he wants to run you out of the western mountains,'” said Mokhtar Fakhal, a town elder in Zintan. “When he went to the Berbers, he would say, ‘Watch out for the Arab; you were here first.’ That’s why we hated each other.”
Berbers in these mountains said they were inspired to wholeheartedly join the uprising that began in mid-February when they saw the Arabs put aside decades of privileges Kadafi had bestowed upon them and join the rebellion that began in the country’s east.
Zintan and Kikla, another Arab town, “from the very first day decided they would use their weapons against Kadafi,” Bouzakher said.
Now Arabs openly call for Berber language rights. Arabs and Berbers train together on military bases in preparation for battle. They join up on front lines.