Back in 1986, the United States attacked the former US military base where Muammar Qaddafi was living when the United States attacked Tripoli, Libya in 1986. The attack was supposedly in response to a terror attack in a Berlin disco that killed some US service men. According to the White House, the attack was sponsored in some way by the Libyan intelligence. Ignoring for the moment the fact that US intelligence services have killed their own share of foreign troops, agents and civilians with little or no retribution, let it be said that this attack most certainly had other motivations besides the deaths of a couple GIs.
The response to the attack by other governments outside of the Arab world was mostly positive. The media was equally supportive. For example, the British newsweekly The Economist wrote, “the time had arrived to use some kind of force against Colonel Qaddafi. Unless this week’s bombing causes him to stop sponsoring terrorists, the time will come when it will be right to use more force and, if necessary, to overthrow him.” (Economist April 19, 1986) Similar statements varying only in their degree of western jingoism could be found in media outlets throughout Europe and the United States.
In recent years, Mr. Qaddafi had retreated from his earlier support of groups labeled terrorist by Washington. He had also retreated from some of the principles he elucidates in his Green Book. Furthermore, his government had made several economic and political deals with former enemies, especially Great Britain. A primary reason for these changes, at least from London’s side of the table, had to do with Libya’s oil and the west’s need of that oil.
The revolution led by Qaddafi overthrew the 1951 British-installed monarchy in 1970 and in 1973 nationalized the oilfields owned by British Petroleum. Italy had controlled the country from 1911 until its defeat in World War Two. After 1970 and the nationalization of the BP oilfields, other nations and oil companies were made to pay higher prices for the oil they were removing from Libya. The monarchy went into exile. Muammar Qaddafi began an overhaul of the nation’s economy and international political alignments, becoming a champion of the Palestinian and other national liberation struggles. By doing so, he incurred the wrath of most of the west. Hence the ready attack on his home in 1986.
Unfortunately for many of the Libyan people, the human rights of Qaddafi’s government were less than stellar. According to Amnesty International, protests were often put down harshly and certain opponents of the regime were killed extrajudicially. There were occasional spells of time where the Libyan government backed off from its more repressive practices. In 1988, it renounced the death penalty and outlawed torture. This period ended by 1990 and was followed by ever-increasing repression, especially against Islamist organizations.
Naturally, in the case of countries like Libya, whose enemies are extremely powerful and not above subverting governments they dislike, the question of covert actions by its enemies arises. Although few if any such endeavors can be documented, one can be fairly certain they have occurred. In fact, one can be certain, they are occurring as I write. How else does one explain the capture of seven British SAS commandoes by rebel forces on March 6, 2011?
The current battle going on in Libya seems to be the result of a confluence of elements and circumstances. The primary element is simply that enough of the Libyan people have had enough of Qaddafi’s regime. To put it simply, he has overstayed his welcome. Whatever positive things he did for the people and nation of Libya have now been overshadowed by his regime’s repression and the ruling party’s authoritarian ways. The chances for his government’s survival diminish by the day. That being said, the question of what will replace it remains open. There are many elements to the Libyan opposition and just as many foreign governments eager to get a piece of the action for their own gain.
Foremost among those foreign governments are the United States and Great Britain. Both nations have their military stationed nearby. In fact, as the capture of the SAS commandoes illustrates, Great Britain definitely has troops on the ground. It seems fairly safe to assume that the Pentagon does too. This is apparently not enough. On Sunday, March 6, 2011, John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, called for the creation of no-fly zones in Libyan airspace. Of course he quickly got some qualified support from two influential Republican senators — John McCain of Arizona and minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Meanwhile defense Secretary Robert Gates is on record saying that installing a no-fly zone is tantamount to going to war because, for the safety of US pilots, Libyan air defense installations would have to be bombed. Kerry’s responded to Gates’ objection on the CBS show “Face the Nation’’ on March 6th, 2011 telling the interviewer that the US could “crater the airports and the runways and leave them incapable of using them for a period of time,’’ to ground Khadafy’s air force. According to Kerry, a no-fly zone over Libya is not an unwanted military intervention into that country’s ongoing strife.
Now, I’m not sure where Mr. Kerry and his cohorts get their definition of military intervention from, but if fully armed fighter jets from another country are flying in your airspace after “cratering” your runways, that seems to fit the definition of military intervention. Furthermore, unless Washington, London and Rome can find some element of the resistance willing to become their pawn and “ask” those nations to intervene, the imposition of no-fly zones would be unwanted. The arrest of the British SAS troops seems to suggest that at least some of the rebels want nothing to do with imperial interventions. Given this, Mr. Kerry’s definition does not even meet the minimal requirements for squirrelly definitions set by Bill Clinton when he uttered the words to the effect: “It depends what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”
Let’s go back to that oil. While there are other motivations involved in the western interventionists’ call to intervene in Libya, including genuine concern for the fate of the Libyan people, oil has got to be near the top of the list. Since Britain was apparently having no problem with the deals it made with Qaddafi’s government for Libyan oil, there must be something beyond the presence of the oil that is at stake. Indeed there is. It is controlling how that oil is distributed and at what price. Just like in Iraq, the western powers most interested in intervening are concerned about the flow of oil in their direction. Washington and London want to decide who gets Libya’s oil and they want to put China and India below their own nations on that list. In addition, the uncertain trajectories of other nations also experiencing popular unrest in the region make the idea of a Libya with a debt to Washington and London (and potentially under their control) even more appealing. Despite the failure of the military adventure in Iraq, at least in terms of controlling who gets Iraq’s oil is concerned, these two capitols are quite willing to attempt a similar exercise in Libya.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org