|Rebels celebrating victory in Tripoli, Aug. 23, 2011
Not so fast: US-NATO the clearest victors in Libya
Last week, with a large part of Tripoli taken from loyalists, it finally looked as though, sooner than expected, the rebel forces were winning in Libya. Despite the illegality of the US-NATO intervention and the considerable number of deaths, casualties and infrastructure damage caused, it has evidently both helped the rebels gain control more quickly and prevented Qaddafi from massacring his own people. This is of course fortunate. Perhaps we were wrong to oppose the no-fly zone. Once the rebels requested it, it might have been immoral to deny it, despite the loss of independence for the rebels that results. But it's hard to see this as a clear victory for Libya.
Photographs in major western media showed young men celebrating victory. It seemed like a joyous moment, the apparent overthrow of a dictator, the anticipation of a new freedom. Not as pretty a sight as the crowds in Tahrir Square in Egypt's relatively peaceful revolution, yet cheering to see that the bloodshed may not go on very much longer. But the premature way a victory has been declared recently in the western press is suspicious. Qaddafi hasn't stepped down or been captured yet. While rebels were celebrating in Tripoli August 23, Qaddafi's son Saif al-Islam had escaped again and was free on the street there taunting them. Victory can't be declared as long as Qaddafi forces still control parts of Tripoli, or certainly did when the celebrating began. Things are still very difficult in Libya.
In the first place we do not know who the rebels are. Gilbert Achcar has called that "the one billion dollar question." The US-NATO allies have chosen to anoint one leading rebel element, the TNC, the Transitional National Council, to make things look orderly. They're aware of the need to avoid the perceived disaster of Iraq, where the army was disbanded, the Baath Party purged from the bureaucracy, the seeds of total disorder and factional conflict thus sown immediately following the invasion. It's not so clear what governmental infrastructure there is to preserve here, however. We don't even know where Qaddafi and his sons are. Unlike the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt Qaddafi has not shown an inclination to step down. On the other hand, when he is truly out, Libya has a better chance of starting from scratch, since it has relatively little governmental or military structure. A dubious advantage, perhaps. But Egypt seems to have had almost too much structure, since the military has wound up continuing to control the country just as it always did. Uncertainty about who the various rebel groups are in Libya and how potential political leaders may be variously allied with them makes everything uncertain.
|Sail al-Islam al-Qaddafi free in Tripoli, Aug. 23, 2011
Some Middle East analysts, like Michigan professor and blogger Juan Cole, are cheerleaders for the US-NATO intervention in Libya's revolt and are claiming a great result. Others like Phyllis Bennis and Conn Hallinan, are extremely sceptical of this supposed "victory." The basic objections are not surprising, and so are the justifications, for intervention. Even Hallinan acknowledges Qaddafi "has a crazy streak." To many he looks simply crazy through and through. But the fact that a ruler is a dictator or even a madman is not a justification for overthrowing him from outside. Or rather, it is a kind of justification, but we can't just overthrow every regime we don't approve of. In fact interventions are highly selective. And this is particularly evident with the Arab revolts. So let's not kid ourselves. The Libyan intervention is a matter of self-interest. It might have been immoral to refuse it, but it's still opportunistic, not democratic.
The US is involved in the Libyan revolt for alliances and obligations, because Libya's location makes it so important to Italy and France, and the US wants to keep these key NATO allies indebted for help in its other wars, notably Afghanistan. More than that, the overwhelming concern, as in the case of Iraq, is obviously oil, of which the US is by far the major world consumer. Juan Cole called this idea "daft," quaintly using antiquated British slang. Not very daft for oil to be a concern when we are talking about the twelfth largest world producer and the largest producer in Africa. As Hallinan and Bennnis point out it's not the oil deals themselves that will change significantly but the specific contracts. The companies, Total, BP, and the rest, will remain the same, but the rebels will make "sweetheart deals," as Hallinan puts it, since they're beholden to the NATO allies and the US for holding the purse strings. Hence the NATO intervention will be of great economic benefit to western oil consumers and particularly the US.
Cheerleaders like to soft-pedal the fact, but despite Obama's claiming this isn't war and downplaying American involvement, the US has played a key role throughout the Libyan conflict. Make no mistake, the US will be one of the chief economic beneficiaries in the long term -- and also a military one. Hallinan stresses the role in these events of the new unified American military command for Africa, created in 2006, called Africom. He calls the Libyan intervention Africom's "coming out party." Africom will mean massive intervention in Africa. Behind this are plans for huge land grabs and competition among the world's most powerful and and fastest rising economies, including China and India, for the wealth of cheap resources, cheap land, and cheap labor that the African continent offers. Now that America's traditional alliances with the dictatorial right wing Arab governments are being undermined by the destabilizing effects of the Arab Spring, a new economic, military, and paramilitary stranglehold on Africa may compensate and help offset that, as well as helping resolve the US's current economic woes. The sweetheart deals may include Libyan bases as well.
While the American empire may be in decline as the late Chambers Johnson argued in his Blowback Trilogy, the US still seems to be the one to emerge unscathed from conflict. Despite its heady glimpse of liberation from tyranny, Libya still remains stuck in some ways in a no-win situation. Perhaps the western powers had a moral obligation to respond to the rebels' request for intervention. But this aid in turn has to be paid for in economic and military domination -- a price Egypt has avoided by carrying out its own revolution. The future of Egypt's revolution may be infinitely complicated, but the revolutionary spirit there seems solid, and greater independence from the US and Israel so far evident. The US-NATO Libyan intervention further extends the long reach of American economic and military power whose newest focus is Africa.
|Demonstrators, Tahrir Square, Cairo