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Libya for Libyans

Since NATO began bombing Libya in March, the global peace movement has been split into two camps. One side portrays the bombing campaign as a “humanitarian intervention” to protect Libyan civilians, comparing it to 1990s attacks on Serbia. This side tends to downplay reports of civilian casualties from the bombings and rebel attacks, and depicts the Libyan rebels as armed pro-democracy protesters. The other side asserts the NATO actions have more to do with oil than with human rights, and that the West exercises a double standard by backing dictators in Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere. This side tends to depict Qaddafi as an anti-imperialist (which the US has been gunning for since Reagan’s 1986 bombings), and the Libyan rebels as Contras motivated by tribal loyalties or jihadism.

Some war opponents (such as myself) agree that Qaddafi is a tyrant who has lost his past anti-imperialist credentials–by collaborating with conservative politicians and the CIA– and sympathize with pro-democracy protesters. But we still oppose the NATO bombing–on the grounds that two wrongs don’t make a right. Toppling a murderous dictator should not be a rationale for imposing Western domination. The most important period in the Libya War is not during the fighting, but after the fighting ceases, because that is when we will see if Libya will continue as a truly independent country, or follow the path of Iraq and Afghanistan.

No matter what our stand on the NATO intervention, the antiwar movement could unite around a common demand of letting Libya continue to be ruled by Libyans. If the motives for NATO intervention were so humanitarian, and the revolution so democratic, then surely the NATO powers would now renounce any spoils of war for themselves. They could now withdraw completely from Libyan military, economic and political decision-making, preferring to leave those decisions to the Libyan people themselves. Specifically, Western powers should renounce the use of Libyan military bases, let Libya’s oil economy primarily benefit the Libyan people, and avoid the temptation to steer Libyan politics and station advisors in Libyan government ministries.

No Foreign Military Bases

One of the patterns of recent U.S. military interventions is that they have left behind new, permanent military bases that have expanded the U.S. military sphere of influence into the Middle East, Central Europe and Central Asia. The bases are not simply stationed in order to wage the wars, but the wars are wages in order to station the bases. The bases enable the U.S. to further interfere in domestic politics, and serve as a tripwire for military intervention. The string of new bases from Bosnia to Afghanistan not only host military personnel, aircraft and surveillance, but private security contractors who have become the mercenaries of the 21st century.

Under the Libyan monarchy, U.S. had a key military base just outside Tripoli.  At least 4,600 Americans were stationed at Wheelus Air Base, which was run by the Strategic Air Command. The U.S. Ambasador to Libya called the base “a Little America…on the sparkling shores of the Mediterranean.” The Americans left in 1970, eight months after Qaddafi came to power, and the installation was taken over by the Libyan Air Force, which sustained damage in Reagan’s 1986 bombing attack. A decade later, the base became the Mitiga civilian airport.

The U.S. had no permanent military bases left in Africa, until Djibouti agreed to host a base after 9/11. The Pentagon set up its Africa Command in 2008, but no African country has so far agreed to host AFRICOM headquarters (even the traditional U.S. client state of Liberia), so the HQ is still in Stuttgart, Germany. The Libya War was AFRICOM’s first combat action, and the Pentagon will probably seek a new Libyan home for AFRICOM.

NATO forces have had “zero casualties” in Libya, while many Libyans have died in their civil war. The Obama Administration is hoping that the bombing campaign helps to lessen the “Iraq Syndrome” that (like the so-called Vietnam Syndrome) made the public averse to foreign interventions. For the first time in world history, an overconfident country feels it can wage war with absolutely no risk to its own forces–guaranteeing that it will intervene in more wars. Clinton’s zero-casualty Kosovo War made the Afghanistan and Iraq wars more likely, and Obama’s zero-casualty Libya War could make U.S. citizens more likely to accept a future intervention in Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, or beyond.

No Foreign Economic Domination

If Iraq is any guide, the Western reconquest of Libya could lead to new frenzy of privatization, particularly in rebuilding the energy and water infrastructure damaged in the bombing and civil war.  Qaddafi himself has carried out neoliberal economic policies, but has left the key pillar of the economy in state hands. Although Western oil companies have long been present in Qaddafi’s Libya, so far the National Oil Company (NOC) controls about 50 percent of the oil resources. Qaddafi threatened in 2009 to nationalize the rest, as well as to invite in Russian and Chinese competitors. Now that Qaddafi is out of the picture, Western companies see a new opening in the rebel-led government. But would a new rebel government prefer that the profits for Libyan oil go to foreigners, instead of Libya’s own development? If their revolution is truly democratic, part of a real democracy would be that the profits from Libyan oil benefit the Libyan people.

In a November 6, 2007 U.S. Embassy cable “Growth of Resource Nationalism in Libya” (recently released by Wikileaks), staffer Chris Stevens warned that “the removal of U.S. and UN sanctions and Libya’s attendant opening to the world have prompted a resurgence of measures designed to increase the Government of Libya’s control over and share of revenue from hydrocarbon resources.” He also relayed “a growing concern in the International Oil Company community that NOC, emboldened by soaring oil prices and the press of would-be suitors, will seek better terms on both concession and production-sharing agreements… Libyan labor laws have also been amended to ‘Libyanize’ the economy in several key sectors.” Stevens concluded that “Effective U.S. engagement on this issue should take the form of demonstrating the clear downsides to the Government of Libya of pursuing this approach, particularly with respect to attracting participation by credible international oil companies in the oil/gas sector and foreign direct investment.”

Whether or not the Libya War has been another Western war for oil, in the case of France toppling Qaddafi is the last battle in its war for uranium. African uranium is to (nuclear energy-reliant) France what Persian Gulf oil is to the United States. Since the 1970s, French forces have battled Libyan troops in the uranium-rich Tibesti Mountains of northern Chad, a region coveted by both countries.  It comes as no surprise that France led the charge to dismantle Qaddafi’s nuclear program and then to eliminate him, thereby having unfettered future access to the region’s nuclear fuel.

No Foreign Advisors

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. positioned “advisers” in the ministries of the new governments it installed in power. These advisers have led the privatization of industries, and made the governments economically dependent on foreign aid and NGOs, and corporate expertise and infrastructure, rather than training the population how to develop their own economy. The same pattern may reoccur in Libya, though perhaps in the guise of the United Nations and foreign NGOs. It will be telling to see if the Libyan rebels’ transitional government can demonstrate true independence on foreign policy, for example on the questions of Palestinian statehood and bolstering the African Union.

Western security advisers also tend to exacerbate internal differences (religious, ethnic, and tribal) by dividing the population into “Good Guys” who cooperate with Western plans, and “Bad Guys” who oppose them. As shown in Iraq and Afghanistan (not to mention Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, etc.) these divisions do not correspond to a commitment to human rights.  Yesterday’s thuggish friends can easily become today’s thuggish enemies, or (as in case of Libyan jihadist rebels) the other way around.  Even if they try to reconcile warring factions, foreign advisors also tend to leave out civil society (such as the women, the youth, and elders who have traditionally had an internal peacemaking role), giving a voice only to warlords who have their own militias.

If the Western powers wish to portray their war aims as humanitarian, they should renounce any designs for military bases, economic control, or government advisers in Libya. But I’m not holding my breath. Some of the Libyan rebel leadership have enjoyed close relations in exile with U.S., British and French intelligence agencies (much like the Western-rehabilitated Qaddafi), and show no signs of reigning in foreign oil companies. The global human rights community has to hold both Qaddafi and rebel forces accountable to the Libyan people, and demand that their own governments not pressure Libyans to accept a long-term foreign presence. The global peace movement can continue its debate over the war, but unite around the demand of “Libya for the Libyans.”

Dr. Zoltan Grossman is a professor of geography at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He is a civilian Member of the Board of G.I. Voice, an antiwar veterans group that runs the Coffee Strong resource center for soldiers outside Fort Lewis: http://www.coffeestrong.org  His website is at http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz and he can be reached atgrossmaz@evergreen.edu  

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Zoltan Grossman is a professor of Geography and Native Studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, who has been a warm body in peace, justice, and environmental movements for the past 35 years. His website is http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz and email is grossmaz@evergreen.edu

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