The Libyan Tragedy: Lessons for the Western Left

January 1, 2012

By Tim Anderson

One might have thought that with the “humanitarian’ pretexts for the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan fairly fresh in the mind, the western “left’ might have hesitated before backing (or refusing to oppose) a similar stunt in Libya.

Apparently not. Perhaps caught off guard by the rapid development of events, many of those who consider themselves “left’ or progressive, in the western-imperial cultures, happily joined in the big-power-orchestrated chorus against “dictator’ Gaddafi. In doing so they helped legitimise the overthrow of one of the more independent regimes in the middle east, and helped extend big power control of the region.

Never mind some quibbles over the carpet bombing and eventual public torture and murder of Gaddafi himself. Never mind the complaint that a “no fly zone’ should not have meant missile attacks. The damage was done. By joining in the chorus against this western-designated “dictator’, they effectively backed his very public torture and murder, along with the destruction of an independent political will in that small country.

The consequences of the “humanitarian intervention’ in Libya were pretty well understood by most of the left in developing countries (i.e. in most of the world). Fidel Castro, notably, expressed scepticism about Gaddafi’s political philosophy and some of his practice, but strongly opposed any NATO intervention (1). The western “left’, by contrast, was fragmented and confused on matters of basic principle.

I suggest here some lessons for a western “left’ that seems to have found itself deeply embedded in imperial culture:

1. Beware the “humanitarian’ pretexts for war and imperial intervention against “dictators’

The “civilian massacres’ by Gaddafi were invented. The insurrection, armed by NATO from day one (2), was being put down by the Libyan army, and the “rebels’ cried “we are civilians’ as they were being beaten. Others claimed attacks, such as the alleged air strikes on civilians of 22 February, were simply fabricated (3). After a while, the armed insurrection could be “justified’ by reference to the Libyan government’s earlier attacks on “civilians’. Later on the cluster bombing of the town of Misrata, by NATO, was falsely blamed on Gaddafi (4). The western “left’ should have recalled that most imperial wars and interventions were started on similar false pretexts. If Gaddafi and a relatively independent state could be wiped out so easily on such a pretext, the same could apply to many dozens of other independent states.

2. Beware of wishful illusions over a heroic “rising of the masses’

There was no such spontaneous uprising in Libya. The opposition factions were well established (if disunited) before 2011 and the creation of the NATO-backed “National Transitional Council’ (NTC): Islamic groups, exile groups armed by the US from the 1980s, Benghazi clans, including those linked to the deposed monarchy (5) along with technocrats who recently defected from Gaddafi’s government and wanted fuller engagement with western capital (notably Mahmoud Jibril and Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, along with the late Abdul Fatah Younis, murdered in July by his TNC colleagues) (6). It is no coincidence that those same groups, having prevailed only because of NATO air power, are now warring, not only with Gaddafi loyalists, but amongst themselves, over the spoils (7).

3. “Eccentric’ foreign leaders are not fair game for murder

Gaddafi certainly ran a different political system to the alleged western “democracies’ (which reify a nominal vote plus corporate dictatorship). While the point of international relations has never been whether outsiders agree with a national system, the Libyan system did have some advantages. Libya under Gaddafi, had a high degree of social inclusion and social citizenship. There was a free education and health system, cheap energy and credit and most owned their own homes. Libya’s human development ranking under Gaddafi was by far the best in Africa (8). Further, a UN Human Rights Council report in January 2011 recognised and supported a range of human rights developments in the country (9). All that was gone after the NATO-backed insurrection, complete with missile and drone attacks, carpet bombing, the slaughter of tens of thousands (western audiences have become accustomed to this) and the public assassination of the leader of a non-aggressive regime. Branding a foreign leader a “dictator’ has become the new “license to kill’.

4. Why see “humanitarian intervention’ as a desirable development?

The only regimes advocating “humanitarian intervention’ are the imperial powers and the former colonists (10). We know what their track record is (11). They habitually seek to control resources and markets, and to dominate entire regions. Why should any intelligent human being believe in the “Santa Claus’ theory of international relations? It should have been no surprise to anyone that the NATO-dependent rebels, early in the conflict, offered a large swag of their country’s strategic resources to a certain NATO member, in exchange for military backing (12).

5. Beware the imperial role of UN agencies, including the ICC

While the UN’s Security Council did not authorise the bombing of Libya and “regime change’, it did give NATO the proverbial foot in the door. Other multilateral agencies, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (in the constant attacks on Iran) and the International Criminal Court (which appears to only prosecute African leaders) are now heavily compromised by the big powers. In the Libyan case the ICC head Luis Moreno-Ocampo even backed US accusations against Gaddafi which had embarrassed the Europeans (13). But then, as Wikileaks showed, as early as March 2009 Moreno-Ocampo had been collaborating with US diplomats over the management of political regime change in Africa (14)

6. What option do “we’ have during a violent crisis, such as that in Libya?

First, forget the royal / imperial “we’. It is precisely imperial culture that encourages us to believe we can judge the world and determine the fate of other peoples.

Second read the first article of the twin covenants of the International Bill of Rights, which was lifted directly from the UN’s “Declaration on Decolonisation’ (1960): “All peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.’

Next, get clear why colonisation and imperialism were declared to be at the root of the worst of all human rights violations.

Virtually all the imperial and colonial powers (Australia, Belgium, Dominican Republic, France, Portugal, Spain, Union of South Africa, United Kingdom, United States of America) abstained when the Declaration of Decolonisation was first put. Six years later self-determination came the founding principle of both the international covenants on human rights (the ICCPR and the ICESCR). The UN now refers to self-determination the “essential condition’ for the guarantee and promotion of all other rights, standing “apart from and before all the other rights’ in the Covenants. Nevertheless, in western discussions on “human rights’, the principle is ignored.

Educated people in developing countries understand that Libya – like Afghanistan and Iraq and other neo-colonies – will have to go through a renewed process of decolonisation. And that is the real tragedy of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

The neo-imperial theory of “the responsibility to protect’ attempts to rewrite the international order and to lend a gloss to brutal interventions. Yet imperial interventions never assist “human rights’. The Timor case of 1999 did nothing to undermine this principle of non-intervention (15). But after Afghanistan and Iraq we, the left in the imperial cultures, should have known better.


(1) Fidel Castro (2011) “NATO, war, lies and business’, see:

(2) Libya Rebels had NATO Weapons from Day 1 – Brand New in the box:

(3) “Airstrikes in Libya did not take place – Russian military’:

(4) Human Rights Investigation (2011) “Destroying Misrata to save it’, at:

(5) See for example Peter Dale Scott (2011) “Who are the Libyan Freedom Fighters and Their Patrons?’, at:

(6) For example the former Gaddafi ministers who rapidly became the western favourites and leaders of the NTC: Mahmoud Jibril (see:; and Mustafa Abdul-Jalil (see:

(7) Chris Stephen (2011) “Libyan scramble for -100bn in assets fractures the peace at Tripoli airport’, at:

(8) According to the 2011 Human Development Report (UNDP 2011: Table 1, p.128), Libya ranked 64th, well ahead of the next two African countries, its neighbours Tunisia (at 94th) and Algeria (at 96th).

(9) UN Human Rights Council (2011) “Report of the Working Group on the Universal

Periodic Review, Libyan Arab Jamahiriya’, 4 January, at:

(10 )All the major developing countries opposed the attacks on Libya — see: VOA (2011) “BRICS Nations Oppose Use of Force in Libya’, 14 April, at:

(11) William Blum (2011) “Killing Hope: US Military and CIA. Interventions Since World War II’, at:

(12) Granma (2011) “Transition Council promised 35% of Libyan oil to France in return for support’, at:

(13) (a) Ewan MacAskill (2011) “Gaddafi ‘supplies troops with Viagra to encourage mass rape’, claims diplomat’, at: then (b) “I.C.C. Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo: Gaddafi Personally Ordered Mass Rape, Bought Containers of “Viagra-Type” Drugs for Troops’, at:

(14) The Guardian (2010) “US embassy cables: ICC prosecutor alleges Bashir secret fortune of $9bn’, at:

(15) The sending of foreign troops to East Timor in 1999 was not an imperial intervention. The Timorese did not call in foreign air strikes against Indonesia, they fought and won that battle themselves, taking advantage of big changes within Indonesia. A diverse (eventually UN-backed) force was then called in to police an independence process that had already been won by the Timorese and conceded by the Indonesians.

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