Revolution #228, April 3, 2011

From A World to Win News Service

Western powers grab for Libya

The following is a shortened version of an article we received from A World to Win News Service:

March 21, 2011. A World to Win News Service. The Western powers now bombarding Libya like to pretend that their so-called humanitarian intervention is something new in the world. It would be something new and amazing if the U.S. and Europe were fighting to liberate an oppressed people, but that's not what's happening.

What has now been rebranded as "humanitarian intervention" is just as old as what apologists for nineteenth-century colonialism called the "white man's burden." And it is no more new than the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, similarly touted as acts taken to rid the people of tyrants, which in fact just brought those peoples even more misery and on top of that foreign occupation.

Our indictment of the Western powers rests on two main arguments based on evidence whose truth would be difficult to deny: what these powers have done in the past, from the late nineteenth century through now, and why they have decided to respond to the Arab spring by singling out Libya for attack. Taken together, an examination of these two questions demonstrates that the West's current actions represent not a break with their colonial past but continuity.

To start out with the present, without upholding Gaddafi in any way, what has he done to Libyans that other Arab rulers have not done to their own people?

The repression in Bahrain is at least as vicious as in Libya. We are talking, after all, about a movement that initially demanded nothing but legal reforms and not the dismantlement of a regime. Yet Bahrain's security forces have responded with a viciousness rarely seen anywhere else, opening fire on crowds with pistols, rifles and .50 caliber machine guns. Their specialty has been the use of shotguns firing bird shot pellets, so that the number of seriously wounded people is enormous.

People everywhere were rightly outraged when Gaddafi's forces drove up to a Tripoli demonstration in an ambulance and then jumped out shooting. The same thing has happened on an even larger scale in Manama, Bahrain. The security forces there surrounded and burst into the main hospital complex, beating and shooting patients, threatening and beating medical staff, and even arresting a surgeon as he operated on a wounded patient. They are still occupying that hospital and preventing anyone from entering or leaving.

What kind of "humanitarian intervention" did the world witness in Bahrain? Troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates poured across the border in tanks and armored vehicles to support the beleaguered monarchy.

U.S. President Obama rang up the Saudi and Bahraini monarchs and gave them some personal advice. What he told them is not known publicly, but we do know what his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: she called for both sides in Bahrain to abstain from violence and, when asked, specifically refused to oppose the Saudi invasion. While she called for "dialogue," she refused to criticize the regime for arresting the leadership of what used to be the legal opposition, or for banning demonstrations and any other political activity. She didn't even threaten to cut off U.S. military aid to Bahrain.

Why? Because of Bahrain's strategic importance at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, the dependability of its rulers from the point of view of Western interests, and especially the importance of Saudi Arabia in keeping the region backward and American-dominated.

The very fact that the Bahraini royal family represents a privileged Sunni elite ruling over and against a Shia majority makes this regime extremely dependent on U.S. and British support and therefore pliable to their wishes. This kind of ethnic politics in the interests of empire is much like what the British did in South Asia and Africa.

Even the Western media gives the Bahraini rulers the kind of free pass it never gives Gaddafi. Parroting the U.S. and UK official narrative, the Shia movement for their rights is presented as a "sectarian conflict," completely ignoring the question of justice. This is not very different than portraying the Sri Lanka Tamil struggle against being crushed by the Sinhalese rulers or the Black South African struggle against white apartheid as simply unfortunate ethnic rivalries.

The main reason why Bahrain exists as an independent country in the first place is because Britain took it from Iran and allied with the clan that has ruled it for more than two centuries.

And exactly how "independent" is a country that is little more than a parking lot for the U.S. Fifth Fleet? What is that fleet even doing there in the first place?

And why, exactly, does Saudi Arabia exist, if not because Britain found it useful to bring it into existence and because it has been of such service to the UK and U.S.? And why is the rule of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia by god's earthly representatives any better than the same kind of rule in Iran?

In short, for the West, right and wrong are defined by interests—imperialist interests.

Regimes like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are not necessarily what the U.S. and UK would like to have. Clinton said she was “alarmed” by Bahrain events, and that's probably true, not because of the loss of life but because they make for unwelcome political instability and come at an inconvenient time for the West.

But what kind of society does the U.S. & Co. seek to perpetuate throughout the Middle East, including Libya?

Clinton said she was “thrilled” to be in Cairo's Tahrir Square during the referendum held by the military, which doesn't mind letting people get distracted by the choice of making minor adjustments to the legal order. Most of the clauses in question had to do with limits on a president's term in office, largely irrelevant now that history has vetoed Mubarak's bid to be president for life. The military also added to the constitution a ban on any president marrying a non-Egyptian woman. This is a stinking expression of male chauvinism (it means that a woman president is unthinkable) and religious intolerance, as if what was wrong with Mubarak and his predecessor Anwar Sadat was that they were married to women whose mothers were English Christians. One thing the military did not put up to a vote is the constitutional clause defining Sharia [Islamic law based on the Koran] as the main basis for Egyptian law.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the military's choices for this referendum gave its seal of approval for the vile male attacks on women who gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square to celebrate International Women's Day and call for women's rights a week before Clinton's visit. Is this what “thrilled” Clinton? Or was it the fact that the junta hasn't dropped the generations-old state of emergency or released all political prisoners?

Who is claiming to “liberate” Libya?

To look at the other leg of our indictment, look at just who it is that is bombing Libya.

The attack leader was France, which already had its warplanes in the air when the Western nations met to consider a course of action. They started bombing even before the March 19 meeting was finished.

France previously demonstrated its regard for humanitarian values when its aircraft and troops killed as many as a million Algerians during its war to prevent Algerian independence only 50 years ago. While piously proclaiming the need for “international intervention” in Libya today, France vigorously opposed that independence movement's calls for UN intervention to stop French bombardments of Algerians.

In today's France, only the most ignorant or willfully blind would argue that President Nicolas Sarkozy has any respect for the lives and rights of Arabs in Libya when he has deliberately expressed flagrant contempt for those of Arab and African immigrants or their children in France.

Some youth in Paris' heavily-immigrant suburbs compare Sarkozy's undisguised lust for blood in Libya to his infamous threat to “clean out the scum with a power hose” in the country's ghettoized housing estates where the hopelessness produced by French society is most ruthlessly enforced by the police. Sarkozy's declaration of war against immigrant youth helped spark the 2005 ghetto rebellion. For all the confusion that reigns among these youth today, there is a stark truth in the connection they see between what the French rulers are doing to them and what they are trying to achieve in the Arab world.

If Sarkozy is so anxious to take the lead in Libya, it is at least partly because France has been weakened in its former colonies and neocolonies in Africa and the Middle East.

The same logic applies to the UK, much of whose empire has been absorbed by the U.S., despite a record of violence against the world's peoples whose extent and length in Asia and Africa has no parallel in human history.

This relationship with the U.S. has both allowed the UK to retain more of the benefits of empire than might have otherwise been the case, and also made it have to settle for less than what it might otherwise want. Libya is a particularly promising morsel for Britain, whose leading enterprise, BP (formerly known as British Petroleum), purchased the rights to extensive offshore exploration and drilling from Gaddafi. Having a strong hand in deciding what kind of regime will be set up next in Libya is of great importance to the UK, even while it is also paying much attention to regaining political influence in neighboring Egypt.

While Sarkozy has talked the loudest, UK British leaders have been the most active in visiting Egypt and the Persian Gulf to pick up the threads of British influence that have been somewhat frayed by American domination of these countries. While France had the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia in its pocket, backed the Moroccan monarchy and had a strong hand in Algeria, and the U.S. had Mubarak, the UK was reduced to competing with Italy for Gaddafi. Britain's three governmental parties may disagree on how to handle the treatment of various sectors of society at home, but they all agree that Britain's particular part of the world financial crisis requires deeper and more extensive exploitation of the Third World.

As for the U.S., its slightly ambivalent position reflects its complicated interests in today's Middle East and its already overextended involvement in two wars. While American politicians and pundits (especially during the Bush government) have recognized that most of the regimes the U.S.'s regional domination depends on are unsustainable in the long run, Washington has become wary that big changes, especially in the context of today's popular upheaval, may be unfavorable to its interests, both in its conflict with Islamic fundamentalism and in allowing the European powers—who are both allies and rivals—to advance at the expense of a weakening American empire.

Further, as we have analyzed previously, the U.S. has its own broader interests in the region and in the world, and its logical, reactionary reasons for wanting to avoid being seen even more than ever as the invader and occupier it really is, especially because of a country it does not consider strategic. This explains the U.S. formulation that the U.S. will be the “leading edge” of the attack on Libya—asserting the leadership that comes from the fact that no other country or even group of countries can match its military strength—while also trying to avoid being at the center and differing with the UK and even more France about both the publicly admissible and real aims of this war.

Given the complexity of U.S. interests, the relative unity among the American ruling class is just as remarkable as that in the UK. Regardless of what they might prefer, they mostly seem to agree that the worst scenario, from the point of view of the empire, is one which might see further instability and challenges to U.S. domination in the region and the world.

In a word, what the West wants in Libya is control. The interests the monopoly capitalist rulers of all of these powers are pursuing have nothing to do with those of the Libyan and other Arab peoples or the world's people—or the most basic and long-term interests of the people in the “homelands.” Just the opposite: the aims of this war are the same ones that have motivated European and American policy and actions in the Middle East and elsewhere since the late nineteenth century: the establishment of spheres of influence to monopolize the exploitation of the peoples and their resources, and the establishment or defense of pliant regimes representing exploiting classes whose interests accord with their countries' economic and political domination.

A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.

What Humanity Needs
From Ike to Mao and Beyond