Featured Post

The white-Left Part 1: The two meanings of white

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Libya on the Brink

The new congress elected 25 June held its first official session Monday in Tobruk as the rejected Islamist dominated congress vows to continue meeting in Tripoli. 4 August had been set as the date for the power transfer. Because the Islamists have controlled the General National Congress since the last election and like the power, this transfer is being strongly resisted. This has also lead to fierce fighting over control of the Tripoli Airport which has long been under the control of militias protected by the Islamists dominated congress. Meanwhile the renege General Khalifa Haftar has been leading a much needed struggle against the Islamist militias but he is not trusted by most Libyans because of his past Qaddafi and alleged CIA ties. Few want to see a new strongman running Libya.

The violence in post-Qaddafi Libya has reached new peaks in recent weeks, many on the "anti-imperialist" Left have been gleefully predicting total collapse, pointing to their opposition to UN and NATO intervention and saying "I told you so." They find it convenient to forget that this is not what they predicted at the time.

At the time they predicted the NATO air campaign would lead to NATO "boots on the ground" and an occupied Libya which would also become the new home of AFRICOM. They called the Transitional National Council a puppet organization and predicted that any future government enabled by NATO's support would necessarily be an instrument of Western imperialism that would sell-out the Libyan people and their resources. As Carl Davison wrote me about the NATO project on 11 July 2011:
What it really means is to use NATO air and sea power to destroy Gadaffi and his regime and supporters, regardless of 'collateral damage.' And its turning out not to be easy without trained and disciplined 'boots on the ground.' Whether Obama and NATO are willing to take that step is what they are up against, and that is the step Kucinich is trying to block--and I agree with him. Their initial claim that Gadaffi could be wiped out with a week or two of air strikes has been proven wrong. The question for you and Gilbert [Achcar] is whether you are willing to go the distance to supporting a NATO invasion and occupation, and still call the results progressive.
NATO invasion and occupation isn't what happened. What happened was closer to chaos. The revolution utterly destroyed this weird tribal-based fascist state that Mummar Qaddafi had constructed over a 40 year period along with his army. Everyone had to study his 29 page "Green Book" to graduate. That was the only state most Libyans knew. Libya itself has only been independent since 1951. The state is being reconstructed from scratch, much of it by trial and error, and while there have been two successful national elections in the past three years, the state has remained weak and stability has been a dream.

The principal reason for this is the many armed groups that sprung up during the revolutionary war and those that have formed up since. These groups range from revolutionary secular militias who have vowed not to give up their guns until they know revolutionary democracy will prevail in Libya to Islamist jhadist groups and criminal gangs. There are many other lesser problems but they don't include massive damage to infrastructure from NATO bombing or NATO occupation and overt manipulation of the body politic.

The problems they are having are part and parcel of every revolutionary aftermath. Anyone doubting that should review the decade of French history between the Estates-General of 1789 and the 1799 coup by Napoleon Bonaparte. That's not what the "anti-imperialists" predicted when they "told us so," but in as much as what they did predict did not come to past, they will take what they can and following the logic that NATO support enabled them to overthrow the Qaddafi dictatorship therefore NATO must be held accountable for everything that happens in Libya today.

You see, these "anti-imperialists" didn't mind when Mummar Qaddafi sent in helicopter gunships to settle tribal disputes. They never wrote one word about it. Or about the massacres in his prisons, or about the mass graves that have been found since. They didn't mind about it. But now they are all up in arms about the chaos following his overthrown and blame Obama. Well the Daily Beast responded to their nonsense on Saturday:
It’s Not the USA that Made Libya the Disaster it is Today

Decades of rule by Gaddafi left Libyans with a collective case of PTSD, or something very much like it.

03 August 2014
Ann Marlowe
One pilot friend in Zwara pointed out that just “two Apaches,” attack helicopters, would intimidate the militias into a ceasefire. A Libyan businesswoman friend sighed and said that if only the U.N. or U.S. had put a foreign advisor in every government ministry, things might have worked. Libyans tweeting in English started pleading for international intervention. My reply is always that they had better be careful about what they wish for: help like the Turkish who ruled them for hundreds of years, the Italians who invaded in 1911 and put a third of the population in concentration camps, or perhaps the British and European contractors, lawyers and bankers who allowed the Gaddafi regime to loot the country blind?

This isn’t to say Libya’s current crisis is the fault of others. To the contrary: since the 2011 ouster of Gaddafi, the world has cut Libya a lot of slack. No, the blame for the mess rests squarely on the shoulders of Libyans, especially but not limited to the governing class.

That’s what’s hard to convey to hand-wringing Americans, who are inclined to see every world drama as about us. We did not have much involvement with Libya under Gaddafi, we did not launder his money, and we did not have boots on the ground in the revolution. For the most part, Europeans flew the NATO bombing runs that pounded Gaddafi’s troops; we refueled them.

Libya’s descent into infighting and extremism following its 2011 NATO-enabled revolution is neither an argument for American intervention in troubled countries nor an argument against it. Nor does it lend support to generalizations about Islamic extremism—though it is not irrelevant to its dissolution that Libya is a Muslim country. Instead, as I’ve come to realize while working as a consultant to a branch of the Libyan government, the weakening of the state is a direct consequence of the culture Libya developed after 42 years of a chaotic dictatorship. More...
In point of fact, NATO did exactly what it was commissioned to do and then it went home. Like a good Samaritan who stops a thug from beating someone up, it isn't responsible for what happens to the would-be victim later. NATO put an end to Qaddafi's murder of civilians, this was their mandate, and because Qaddafi refused to refrain from wanton attacks on civilians even to the end, NATO could only fulfil its mandate and go home by putting Qaddafi down.

The Left should learn from its mistakes, not double down on them

We can take Richard Seymour's writing on Libya at Lenin's Tomb as and example of the Left's main error on Libya, which is its failure to learn from its mistakes. Lenin's Tomb has now demonstratively been wrong on Libya but rather than examining its past analysis for errors, it ignores them and doubles down on its generally negative assessment of the Libyan Revolution. Let's examine the record:

In March 2011 this was its best-case scenario for the Libyan revolution, which it thought unlikely:
The best-case scenario is that people are killed to little avail, and the former regime elements in the transitional leadership have just diverted energies and initiative down a blind alley. I suppose you might object that the best-case scenario is that the air strikes exclusively kill the bad guys, turning the initiative in favour of the revolutionaries, allowing them to sieze power, build a liberal democratic state, and the cavalry heads home. And the band played, 'Believe it if you like'.
My assessment of what did happen is that the air strikes killed 90-95% "bad guys," did turn the initiative in favor of the revolutionaries, allowing them to seize power, and then the cavalry flew home. The process of rebuilding the state virtually from scratch, and not in the way Lenin's Tomb envisioned, is ongoing and continues to be the center of political struggle.

In April 2011, Lenin's Tomb offered the opinion that after NATO intervention only a puppet government could emerge:
Can I just risk a modest proposition? NATO, the CIA and the special forces belonging to the world's imperialist states are not forces of progress in this world. Does anyone disagree with that? If not, then it follows as surely as night follows day that the successful cooptation of the Libyan revolution by NATO, the CIA and special forces is a victory for reaction. It's no good hoping that the small, poorly armed, poorly trained militias of the east of Libya, who are now utterly dependent on external support, will somehow shake themselves free of such constraints once - if - they take power.
Lenin's Tomb thought the most likely outcome would be a deal brokered by NATO that left the Qaddafi state machinery in place:
they [NATO] offer a prolonged civil war at best culminating in a settlement with Saif and his sibling.
Given events in Syria, I wouldn't call Libya's civil war "prolonged" and Saif's relation to state power is detention awaking trial. Lenin's Tomb elaborates:
Yes, I know. A negotiated settlement would be a step back from outright victory for the rebels. But that is an increasingly improbable outcome anyway, and I thought we were trying to save lives here? And as it happens, a diplomatic solution seems to be exactly what is on the cards now.
Lenin's Tomb came to the conclusion early that the Libyan Revolution had been converted into the US War on Libya:
The opposition leaders are now adjuncts to a NATO strategy which may not even have been disclosed to them. Let's at least give credit where it's due. This is NATO's war. And that means, this is Washington's war.
As things developed, the US never flew more than about 17% of the strike missions in what Lenin's Tomb had called "Washington's war," so Lenin's Tomb changed its position accordingly, in April predicting a Qaddafi victory unless NATO put in troops:
The US is pulling out of the air war, amid divisions and recriminations, and is saying that it will not engage in the training or arming of the rebels. In short, it is retreating from any explicit military involvement in the Libyan revolt. This may amount to an admission of failure.

Qadhafi's recent recovery in some parts of the country may be reversed, but he is unlikely to lose the core western territories that he now commands. Is this the kind of stability that is sought? A constant war of attrition between two slightly better matched forces? What's the alternative, apart from a land invasion?
Lenin's Tomb thought "Washington's war" would ultimately result in a re-constituted Qaddafi regime. This was said in August before the uprising in Tripoli vanquished the Qaddafi forces even as the revolutionary armies were converging on the city from four sides:
Their weakest point had been the failure of the revolt to spread to Tripoli, which seemed unlikely to fall to the sorts of relatively light bombing sorties that NATO was deploying. Aerial bombing was no substitute for the spread of the revolution, which was actually receding as the initiative passed into the hands of Africom planners and others. Leading politicians in the UK and France were admitting that Qadhafi would not be driven out by military force, and calling for a negotiated settlement.

I think we would see a recomposition of the old regime, without Qadhafi but with the basic state structures intact. The former regime elements would become regime elements, within a pro-US, neoliberal state with some limited political democracy.
Lenin's Tomb, and much of the Left, was wrong on Libya

Its not just that Lenin's Tomb misjudged the situation, we all do that from time to time, but that he so badly misjudged the situation on the side of reaction, on the side of counter-revolution. At a time when the Libyan forces rallied against the fascist dictatorship needed all the support they could get, practical as well as moral, Richard Seymour, we now know wrongly, predicted failure on all fronts.

Of course, as revolutionary Marxists, it is incumbent on us to always tell the truth to the people and never take the ultra-left road of advocating a struggle that can't be won. So we should be cautious in setting doable goals so the people can go from victory to victory, but I think the far greater "danger," if you can call it that, is the outright avocation of the failure of the revolutionary forces when that is not called for by the facts. I put "danger" in quotes because it isn't a danger for the forces of counter-revolution generally, it is what we expect them to do, but it is an embarrassment to Lenin that someone taking his name should also take that stand.

With its predictions of a negotiated settlement leaving the Qaddafi regime largely intact, NATO boots on the ground and a puppet government controlled by Washington, all proven wrong by history, one might hope that a historical materialist would get busy examining the basic assumptions that led to these counter-revolutionary conclusions.

To have at precisely the moment when the revolutionary forces are engaged in desperate battle and need all to rally to their cause and have heart, have faith in their eventual victory, to at that moment incorrectly predict failure and defeat, to so publicly underestimate the strength of the revolutionary forces and the revolutionary possibilities of the situation has to be ranked as a first rate failure for a Leninist. Such a failure should be the subject of serious examination. Not so with Lenin's Tomb, instead it calls for an outcome congruent with its initial vision, it calls for a US occupation of Libya [Correction (9 Aug 2014) I incorrectly attributed this quote to Richard Seymour whereas, as he points out below, he merely reprinted and miss-attributed [see note below] Richard Haass on Lenin's Tomb without comment. I missed the attribution at the top. My bad.]
Now Nato has to deal with its own success. International assistance, probably including an international force, is likely to be needed for some time to help restore and maintain order. The size and composition of the force will depend on what is requested and welcomed by the Libyan National Transitional Council and what is required by the situation on the ground. President Barack Obama may need to reconsider his assertion that there would not be any American boots on the ground; leadership is hard to assert without a presence.
Because he stopped the rapist, Lenin's Tomb saddles him with on-going responsibility for the victim. First Lenin's Tomb, along with much of the Left, charged that NATO was going further than the UN resolution allowed by continuing operations until Qaddafi stopped killing civilians. Now this "non-interventionist" is demanding what the UN resolution specifically dis-allowed - NATO boot's on the ground - in the name, not of stopping the wholesale slaughter of civilians, but of meddling in Libyan politics.

Is Richard Seymour's desire to be proven right in his earlier predictions of NATO boots on the ground so strong that he would welcome them in to Libya to "restore order" while the murder rate is still less than in the city of Chicago?

Yes, revolutions, like most births, are messy, painful affairs, but we can't move forward without them and this is no time for calling upon the Libyans to retreat from theirs.

Update 8 Aug - Note on Richard Seymour's use of Richard Haass in his blog:
As I corrected the record above I incorrectly attributed the words of Richard Haass to Richard Seymour. For this I apologize. This happened because of my sloppy reading of Lenin's Tomb reprint of Haass without comment, which I generally take to imply approval. I missed the attribution at the top which reads "This is from the head of the Committee on Foreign Relations."

But on closer inspection, I find that this attribution by Richard Seymour is also false and misleading. Richard Haass is the head of the private "Council of Foreign Relations," but not naming him makes is sound like the comments are coming from the far more powerful head of the Senate "Committee on Foreign Affairs" and gives them far greater weight. He should make the correction before this blog posts up coming 3rd anniversary.

Click here for a list of my other blogs on Libya


  1. "it calls for a US occupation of Libya"

    Most of the reading of my blog's commentary is disingenuous or pointmissing, and I mostly don't care. However, *this particular claim* is an outright falsehood, and needs to be retracted. At no point did I 'call for' a US occupation of Libya. That is exactly the sort of endgame that I was and remain opposed to.

    The quote that you cite and incorrectly attribute to me is from Richard Haas, the head of the Committee on Foreign Relations, as stated in the post.

    Please correct your post.

  2. Most of my reading of your blog was spot-on so you won't comment on that but in one case I made an error in attribution so you will jump all over that.

    Why did you post a piece written my "the head of the [sic] Committee on Foreign Relations" without comment or critique? If it wasn't in an approving way, was it in an "I told you so" way?