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The U.S. vs. Libya: On the horns of a dilemma

Published Mar 9, 2011 3:48 PM

This article is based on a talk given March 4 at a meeting of the New York branch of Workers World Party.

The U.S. imperialist ruling class is on the horns of a dilemma over what to do about Libya. In modern terms, it finds itself in what could be called a lose-lose situation.

Ever since a movement of junior officers deposed Libya’s monarchy in 1969, and especially since its leader, Moammar Gadhafi, nationalized Libya’s oil, the imperialists in the U.S. and in Europe have wanted to get rid of him.

They tried to weaken his regime with economic sanctions, decades of CIA training and financing of opponents in exile, and in 1986 a direct air assault on Tripoli and Benghazi in which 60 people were killed by U.S. bombs — one of them Gadhafi’s infant daughter.

The pressures on Libya were so great that in 2003, after the U.S. carried out its “shock and awe” assault on Iraq, Gadhafi made political and economic concessions to imperialism, opening up areas of the Libyan economy and ending state subsidies on many needed items. But while imperialist heads of state then congratulated Gadhafi and seemed to accept his regime, none of this was enough, especially for the U.S.

When the protests against the U.S.-backed dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt began at the end of 2010, and grew into such huge mass demonstrations that even Washington was forced to call on Hosni Mubarak to step down, the idea grew in Western circles that now was the time to dislodge Gadhafi. This seems to have struck a chord with some elements in Libya, especially in the eastern city of Benghazi, which is situated near Libya’s major oil fields, pipelines, refineries and ports. Protests began. However, they very soon morphed into a well-armed rebellion against the Libyan government aimed at seizing control of the country.

While the U.S. and other imperialist powers have been involved in brokering a change of faces in Egypt and Tunisia in order to retain the same basic power structures — which are unacceptable to millions of people — they have cheered on the armed opposition in Libya since the beginning.

What is their dilemma? It is this: After several weeks of fighting, Gadhafi has not been overthrown and has strong support in Tripoli, the capital city where one-third of Libya’s population lives. The rebel forces appear to be in retreat — and may not all have the same aims. The Western media cites those who have been calling for intervention.

If the imperialists openly intervene to secure the military overthrow of Gadhafi, this would undermine their carefully orchestrated efforts to appear to side with the people of the region while urging nonviolence. This problem has been openly discussed, although in more veiled language, in the U.S. capitalist media.

Biggest U.S. stakes are in the Gulf

So which is more important to them, Libya — or Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Bahrain, Yemen, Kuwait, Oman — and possibly even Saudi Arabia, if the revolts spread?

We ourselves have pointed out that U.S. oil corporations are salivating over the prospect of gaining control over the 47 billion barrels of oil under the desert sands of Libya. At the present time, the U.S. imports no oil from Libya. (Nevertheless, prices are being opportunistically hiked here at the gas pumps, supposedly because of the Libyan crisis.) Even more important to the billionaire class, U.S. oil companies like ConocoPhillips, Marathon, Hess and Occidental Petroleum, while profiting from the exploration, drilling, pumping, refining and exporting of Libya’s oil, have much larger interests elsewhere.

Libya’s proven oil reserves, the largest in Africa, pale in comparison to those in the U.S.-aligned and -armed Gulf states — some 700 billion barrels, not counting Iran.

Mass uprisings are shaking many of these states despite heavy repression — which gets very little attention in the Western media compared to Libya. The social gulf in these countries between rich and poor, haves and have-nots, is immense compared to Libya, where oil income has been used to attain the highest human development index in Africa.

Certainly, the governments of these top-heavy oil states, like the absolute monarchy of King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, or the emirate of Kuwait run by the al-Sabah dynasty, are inherently unstable. They would have been overthrown long ago were it not for their powerful protector — the billionaire-dominated U.S. government, with its far-flung navy and web of bases around the world.

However, with all its powerful weapons and hundreds of thousands of invading troops, the U.S. has not even been able to crush a resistance movement in impoverished Afghanistan or set up a stable comprador regime in Iraq. And these two aggressions, along with U.S. backing for Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestinian land, have turned public opinion in the region sharply against U.S. intervention.

When Barack Obama was elected president, the strategists for imperialism hoped they could reverse this erosion of U.S. influence in the Arab world. They went on a charm offensive that in style was very different from the anti-Muslim agitation of the Bush period. Perhaps the masses saw this as an opening to rise up against dictators like Mubarak without triggering an automatic U.S. intervention.

So which will it be? Will U.S. imperialism show its fangs again and, perhaps with the support of Britain, France, Germany and Italy, declare a “no-fly” zone over Libya in order to paralyze Gadhafi’s air force while rebels try to advance and take the capital? It’s a possibility, but one fraught with dangers for imperialism. First of all, the rebels may not be able to do it. Then the question of sending imperialist ground troops would be on the table, which could embroil the U.S. and its allies in another quagmire.

On March 2, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a former head of the CIA, testified to Congress. He rather sharply answered the “loose talk” of those clamoring for a no-fly zone, saying that would require massive air strikes against Libya’s air-defense system as well as against its air force.

Gates, Obama and others are hoping that U.S. and U.N. sanctions, clandestine operations, a simmering civil war, gunboat diplomacy and a hostile imperialist media will put enough pressure on the Libyan people that the imperialists can achieve their objectives. However, they will not rule out military intervention.

Britain was just caught sending a team of MI6 intelligence officers and Special Forces soldiers into eastern Libya, reportedly for a meeting with rebels. But farmers in the area caught the British agents after their helicopter landed in the middle of the night and handed them over to the rebels, who then released them. (Guardian [Britain], March 7) It was an embarrassment for the British government — and undoubtedly also for those rebels who had been in secret negotiations with them.

The imperialists have tried to use the mass popular rebellions in the region as a cover for carrying out their own operation against Libya — but it is fear of pushing these rebellions even further in an anti-imperialist direction that has so far restrained them from open intervention.

E-mail: [email protected]