Libya: What Revolution? Whose Revolution?

"The London Conference on Libya" (29 March 2011) -- No Libyans invited

From UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s opening speech at the London Conference on Libya, 29 March 2011:

“Today is about a new beginning for Libya – a future in which the people of Libya can determine their own destiny, free from violence and oppression.

But the Libyan people cannot reach that future on their own.

….we must help the Libyan people plan for their future after the conflict is over…

…As one Misurata resident put it: “These strikes give us hope”.

Today we must be clear and unequivocal: we will not take that hope away.

It’s never too early to start planning co-ordinated action to support peace in Libya over the long term.

…we must help the people of Libya plan now for the political future they want to build…

A new beginning for Libya is within their grasp….

…and we will help them seize it.”

If David Cameron had been known for modeling his speeches on old Monty Python films, then he might be praised for his witty and clever genius in devising such a politically and morally fraudulent speech such as the one above. He opens with gushing sentiment about a “new beginning for Libya,” hailing freedom from violence even as his jets pound Libyan targets. As always before, the British love to set an example on how politics are to be done, and it was usually with a good whipping followed by tutorials on how to best mimic the master, with powdered wigs, robes, and a broken sense of self. The Libyan people cannot reach that future on their own–they are dependents and apprentices, they must be aided, gathered together, and schooled. Remember that this is a struggle cast as one between all of the Libyan people versus one man, Muammar Gaddafi, Cameron can thus seek refuge in a single token Libyan voice that praises the master for the air strikes–bombs give hope, and the master is generous: he will not take those bombs away. We–and the we here is us, not a Libyan collective “we”–must begin to start planning for what comes after for Libya, and we must do so in the absence of Libyans, not even our closest hangers-on, who were not invited to the conference (except for one defunct ambassador). We will seize that “new beginning” for Libya, and then, like the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdous Square, orchestrated by U.S. Marines, we will hand over the moment to the locals. Indeed, Dick Cheney must still be wondering if he had a prolonged wet dream in looking at the news footage of Libyan crowds in Benghazi cheering the start of the U.S.-led air war against Libya.

Like a 19th portrait of European Monarchs

“Ultimately, the solution must be a political one,” David Cameron opines with all of the sincerity of a choir boy, and to maintain an air of piety he reminds us, “it must be for the Libyan people themselves to determine their own destiny.” Well, apparently, it is not for them to decide. First of all, many of them have obviously decided to stand with the regime–they form an invisible species in the view from London. Also invisible are those Libyans that the Colonial Coalition will recognize, whose “Interim Transitional National Council” was not invited to participate at the conference. Cameron adds that this self-determined Libyan political solution, “requires bringing together the widest possible coalition of political leaders….including civil society, local leaders and most importantly the Interim Transitional National Council….so that the Libyan people can speak with one voice.” Who will bring them together? Some quickly fashioned TNC that cannot come up with even the basics of a political plan that remotely sound like they have been derived from Libyan realities? And who will bring them together, who are the planners? The actual participants in London’s imperial conference on Libya, besides multilateral institutions such as the UN, NATO and EU, were: Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Morocco, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Tunisia, Turkey, UAE, and the U.S.A. While one can certainly appreciate the urgent and immediate need for Estonia to have a voice on the future of Libya, one has to wonder how anyone could miss the obvious Eurocentricity of the whole affair.

For his part, William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, was unable to come up with any two statements that did not contradict each other. Speaking after the conference, these are the kinds of proclamations Hague made: “We agreed that it is not for any of the participants here today to choose the government of Libya: only the Libyan people can do that”–and yet: “Participants agreed that Qadhafi and his regime have completely lost legitimacy and will be held accountable for their actions.” Participants agreed to that? And they speak with the voice of all Libyan people, in deciding who is legitimate? If the regime had in fact lost as much as is claimed, there would be no regime. “The Libyan people must be free to determine their own future,” then followed by, “Participants recognised the need for all Libyans…”–if it is all up to the Libyans, then there was no need for this “London Conference” of non-Libyans.

In a joint statement with French president Nicolas Sarkozy, before the conference, David Cameron only adds to this comedy: “A lasting solution can only be a political one that belongs to the Libyan people. That is why the political process that will begin tomorrow in London is so important. The London conference will bring the international community together,” so that “the people of Libya can choose their own future.”

A Libyan Plan, You Say

As for that Libyan blueprint for change, it does not sound like a document that was anything other than “cut and paste” from various international charters. In A Vision of a Democratic Libya the “Interim National Council” (other times referred to as the Transitional National Council, or TNC) elaborates, briefly, a blueprint for a Libya where rights are conceived entirely within the framework of a Western discourse of individual civil and political liberties, thus ignoring the social and economic rights that had been advanced and protected under the Gaddafi regime. The plan leaves a privileged space for the private sector, and the Council’s staffing with neoliberal economists is not merely incidental. The plan calls for forming political parties–because Libya has been free of that cancer–and then having parliamentary elections, as if this is what a democracy is about. Given a clean slate, they will slather it with corrupt and bankrupt Western ideas and institutions. The draft is thus a very valuable document, as a testament to the intellectual slavishness of these so-called “revolutionaries,” who can neither think for themselves nor, as is now blazingly evident in broad daylight, act for themselves. In their plan, the right to tweet now trumps the right to eat.

As far as the TNC is concerned, their plan was not so much “revolution” as resinsertion of Libya into a neoliberal global regime. The forces needed to achieve that are those of Western war corporatism and militarism: NATO, Special Forces, USAID, and now the CIA…with all of their wonderful human rights achievements in Serbia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.


What Libyan Action Looks Like

With each passing day since the passage of UN Security Resolution 1973 (UNSCR 1973), the force and direction of the “opposition” and “revolution” against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi becomes more clearly marked with the imprint of a U.S.-led NATO/UN initiative. It is not Gaddafi who is running out of options: he is in his country and has vowed not to leave. The mounting frustration over the obvious–and abundantly predicted–failures of the No-Fly Zone/air strikes is steadily leading to an escalation of foreign intervention, that desperately begs Gaddafi to leave, so that the “Coalition” does not have to take the obvious next steps: arming the insurgents (which would violate the very same UNSCR 1973 that the Coalition expects Gaddafi to respect), which might produce no significant results, or too little too late; or, invading and occupying. Whatever “popular uprising” against Gaddafi some insisted had happened, or would happen, has yet to materialize. The insurgents cannot advance beyond their limited areas of core support, and even there the air strikes cannot help them (witness the continued cases of violence within Benghazi itself, attributed to “sleeper cells” of the regime’s Revolutionary Committees).

Western media make it abundantly clear, often with supporting statements from the “rebels” themselves, about who is now the leading force in action against the government of Libya. Typically, for almost a week now, AP reports have begun (similar to articles on this site) with banner images of U.S., French, or British jets–this being one example:

Given this week’s retreat of the “rebels,” images like the one above would be followed lower down in an article with an image like this, also from AP’s reports:

Whose destiny is being authored here, and by whom? Coupled with the images of insurgents fleeing in a panic, statements such as the following are printed by the news media:

“Where is Sarkozy?” the rebels in Bin Jawwad, Libya, lamented on Tuesday when they did not get the air cover that they had come to expect and that had been ordered by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, President Obama and other Western leaders.

Or this:

“If they keep shelling like this, we’ll need airstrikes,” said Mohammed Bujildein, a 27-year-old rebel fighter.

And, as we are told by journalists that “the retreat Wednesday looked like a mad scramble: Pickup trucks, with mattresses and boxes tied on, driving east at 100 mph (160 kilometers per hour),” we are introduced to a “Col. Abdullah Hadi,” rebel in retreat:

“I ask NATO for just one aircraft to push them back. All we need is air cover and we could do this. They should be helping us,” Hadi said.

Robert Burns, the AP’s National Security writer, draws this conclusion: “Fresh battlefield setbacks by rebels seeking to oust Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi are hardening a U.S. view that the poorly equipped opposition is probably incapable of prevailing without decisive Western interventioneither an all-out U.S.-led military assault on regime forces or a decision to arm the rebels.” They will likely decide to arm the rebels, as the last stop before an all out invasion–and with regime change will come nation-building, the establishment of an international protectorate, and those humanitarians who cannot afford to even look after their own kids just adopted themselves a new country.

More Foreign Intervention: From Start to Finish

Everyone who has been critical of intervention, from the earliest calls for even a limited no-fly zone, knew that the NFZ would simply be opening the door to ever increased foreign military intervention–because all such previous half-measures pursued to seek grand objectives had done so as well. Some critics were wrong on only one account: direct, covert intervention had already begun, before the NFZ was even tabled at the UN and passed on 17 March. From a Washington Post report of 10 March we learn that USAID teams had already been inserted in rebel-held territory. From 04 March in a report published by the Voice of America (VOA)–“Covert Action to Target Gadhafi?“–we find the earliest indications of what has now been confirmed as fact, that the CIA was undertaking covert action in Libya. By covert action, VOA reminds us of what that officially includes:

“Simply defined, covert action is any U.S. government effort to change the economic, military, or political situation overseas in a hidden way. Intelligence professionals consider it to be different than clandestine operations, which cover more traditional espionage and counterintelligence activities. Covert action can encompass many things, including propaganda, covert funding, electoral manipulation, arming and training insurgents, and even encouraging a coup.”

Even earlier, in a report from DEBKAfile from 25 February, we are told:

“Hundreds of US, British and French military advisers have arrived in Cyrenaica, Libya’s eastern breakaway province, debkafile’s military sources report exclusively. This is the first time America and Europe have intervened militarily in any of the popular upheavals rolling through the Middle East since Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution in early January. The advisers, including intelligence officers, were dropped from warships and missile boats at the coastal towns of Benghazi and Tobruk Thursday Feb. 24, for a threefold mission:

1. To help the revolutionary committees controlling eastern Libyan establish government frameworks for supplying two million inhabitants with basic services and commodities;

2. To organize them into paramilitary units, teach them how to use the weapons they captured from Libyan army facilities, help them restore law and order on the streets and train them to fight Muammar Qaddafi’s combat units coming to retake Cyrenaica.

3. To prepare infrastructure for the intake of additional foreign troops. Egyptian units are among those under consideration.

If correct, then that would mean that as little as a few days after the street protests had begun, a U.S. and European decision to directly intervene had already been taken. Now the New York Times reports that “Several weeks ago, President Obama signed a secret finding authorizing the C.I.A. to provide arms and other support to Libyan rebels, American officials said Wednesday” (see: “C.I.A. Agents in Libya Aid Airstrikes and Meet Rebels” 30 March 2011). From “current and former British officials,” we learn that “dozens of British special forces and MI6 intelligence officers are working inside Libya. The British operatives have been directing airstrikes from British jets and gathering intelligence about the whereabouts of Libyan government tank columns, artillery pieces and missile installations” (NYT). (See also: Reuters.)

This is not likely where matters will end. The U.S. commander of NATO, Admiral James Stavridis, “left open the prospect of an international force entering Libyan territory,” when he testified before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. Asked about whether NATO could send ground troops into Libya, this was his response:

“I wouldn’t say NATO is considering it yet, but I think that when you look at the history of NATO, having gone through this, as many on this committee have, with Bosnia and Kosovo, it’s quite clear that the possibility of a stabilization regime exists. And so, I have not heard any discussion about it yet, but I think that history is in everybody’s mind as we look at the events in Libya.”

From 10 March, James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, stated to U.S. senators: “This is kind of a stalemate back and forth, but I think over the longer term that the (Gadhafi) regime will prevail.” Given the unsatisfactory performance of the rebels, whom Clapper likened to a “pick up basketball team,” choices are limited. To the extent that the U.S. has resolved to remove Gaddafi, the likelihood of an all out invasion–not just the few boots on the ground that have already been in Libya for weeks–seems inevitable.

The U.S. is no longer hiding that it is its hand that is shaping action on the ground, and that the purposes go far beyond anything that could be construed as “humanitarian.”


Anything would be better than Gaddafi, say distant foreigners who have never been to Libya, know nothing about it, and were not even saying a word about Libya before 17 February. In response to criticisms of their mysteriously selective and apparently hypocritical humanitarian concerns, they now usually respond that just because “we” do not intervene everywhere, and “save lives” everywhere, does not mean that “we” should not do so in Libya. No, what it means is that you continue to refuse to provide a logical account for your choices. The reason for that is that the logic is not a humanitarian one, but a crudely ideological one that is fueled by media hype and the imperial preconditioning that came with decades of U.S. demonization of Gaddafi. Libyans don’t mean anything to them, they ultimately could not care less: what’s important is a collective “win,” for America to feel good about itself again–and never far from any of the American “humanitarian” justifications, one will usually find an admission that it feels good to see America acting as a force for good (“for a change,” some of them might add, to add that thin patina of intellectual distance, courageous writers and dynamic “thinkers” that they are). What is quite common, among the liberal imperialists, is this steadfast objection to any “boots on the ground.” Well, some boots are on the ground. How many did you need to be counted before you could be counted on to speak out, courageous humanitarian?

They achieved something at least–like concerns that U.S. military spending may not be sufficient in the U.S., nor in the U.K. where now, in the midst of severe austerity measures that target lower income groups, the complaint is that not enough is being spent on the RAF.

Humanitarian imperialism is part of a complex, that reduces to military humanism, heightened militarization of politics and public consciousness, increased support for war corporatism, and a skewed morality that works to produce an immediate economic blowback. What is most humanitarian, in fact, is what is of least concern to various Avaaz petitions and London conferences: diplomacy, cease fires, peace talks, and political solutions.

3 thoughts on “Libya: What Revolution? Whose Revolution?

  1. John Allison

    It seems a good time to contemplate the significance of this Libyan Guernica in the light of cultural relativity; in light of the limited reality that has been constructed by the USans that allow them to be so sure that God is on their side and everyone who disagrees with their construction is a Bad Guy.
    Consider these dated but timeless quotes:

    “Physical reality seems to recede in proportion as man’s symbolic activity advances. Instead of dealing with the things themselves, man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself. He has so enveloped himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythological symbols or religious rites that he cannot see or know anything except by the interposition of [an] artificial medium.”
    Ernst Cassirer, 1956, An Essay on Man. p. 43

    “We know enough about language to understand that variations in the grammatical structures of languages will result in variations in what may be called “worldview”. How people think about time and space and about things and processes will be greatly influenced by the grammatical features of their language. We dare not suppose therefore that all human minds are unanimous in understanding how the world is put together; but how much more divergence there is in worldview among different cultures can be imagined when we consider the great number and variety of tools for conversation that go beyond speech. For, though culture is a creation of speech, it is recreated anew by [or better, the culture is ” renewed within …”, J.A.] every medium of communication ….”
    Neil Postman, 1984, Amusing Ourselves to Death; Public discourse in the Age of Show Business. p 9

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