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“OUR message to them is this: there are better days ahead for Libya … A new beginning for Libya is within their grasp and we will help them seize it.”
Those were the words of David Cameron at the “London Conference on Libya” he convened just over eight years ago in March 2011.
Basking in the limelight, he waved the figleaf of a UN security council resolution, whose narrow remit had already been breached on day one of the bombing campaign led by France, Britain and the US, and outlined a policy of regime change flagrantly at odds with international law.
Few outside of the anti-war movement seemed to care about that. Just a dozen MPs, organised by one Jeremy Corbyn, had voted against the war. Every daily paper with the exception of this one enthusiastically supported it.
This was to be a genuine humanitarian intervention, supposedly preventing a “massacre in Benghazi,” the major city in the east of Libya, which was just “hours away,” according to French foreign minister Alain Juppe.
And then, miraculously, the combined airpower of the major Nato states was to become the instrument of a popular and progressive revolution.
Muammar Gadaffi was overthrown and later lynched. Cameron got his picture with a handpicked adoring crowd in Benghazi (as Tony Blair had done in Kosovo 12 years earlier), the consumate actor looking like he was understudying for Anthony Quinn in Lion of the Desert.
And as we predicted in the Stop the War Coalition the cameras moved on — to Syria, where Cameron pushed repeatedly for Britain to get more fully in on the act of yet further war and regime change, in the name of a humanitarianism that had apparently delivered the Libyan people from hell.
Scroll forward eight years. On Sunday US forces were dramatically evacuated by transport boats from Tripoli. At the time of writing Libya stands on the brink of what the UN’s envoy calls a “full-scale conflagration” as the forces loyal to the eastern warlord Khalifa Hifter advance westwards into Tripoli, battling the agglomoration of militias that make up the laughably titled government of national accord, whose writ runs barely beyond the city centre.
On Monday the only functioning airport in Tripoli closed as Hifter’s forces moved in. Foreign nationals are being evacuated. It is a major escalation that shows no sign of abating.
But to say this is some kind of descent into chaos would be to miss the point. Chaos and armed clashes beween a bewildering array of militias led by rival warlords, often declaring their areas of control virtual city states, have characterised Libya — or the broken country that was once Libya — ever since the Western-led intervention ensured the overthrow of Gadaffi.
With no regard to what they said at the time, news outlets from the BBC to the papers of record routinely talk about eight years of warlordism and shattering of the country.
That is what the anti-war movement said would be the outcome — that any possibility of a progressive outcome to civil revolt at authoritarian rule would be aborted by Nato-led regime change. We said that it was based upon subborning any such civilian sentiments and collaborating with a plethora of reactionary elements — some from the old regime living in Libya or abroad — who they did not understand but who they thought would advance their interests.
There has not been a single day of peace in Libya since Cameron and co proclaimed the overthrow of tyranny. On and off we have had images, however, of concentration camps run by militias holding black African migrants as the EU has outsourced part of its Fortress Europe mechanism to rapists, torturers and slave traders.
That’s not rhetoric. It is the description of the UN refugee agency and international aid organisations.
The anti-war movement was right about Libya. Indeed, in September 2016 a Tory-dominated Commons committee delivered the most damning indictment of Cameron’s war and a total vindication of the arguments the Stop the War Coalition put against it at the time.
It is an indication of the fixation of the British Establishment and its media on trying to destroy Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party that today this report is sunk in the memory hole and no official recognition is given to him for being right back in 2011, when the same smears about being “a friend of dictators and terrorists” were hurled.
The foreign affairs select committee found the result of the French, British and US intervention was “political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gadaffi regime weapons across the region and the growth of Isil [Islamic State] in north Africa.”
The Libya link to nihilist terrorists under the Isis umbrella was so tragically revealed in the Manchester Arena atrocity during the 2017 general election.
French journalists have demonstrated that Juppe’s claim — resting on the popinjay philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy — that a massacre in Benghazi was imminent had no corroboration from the intelligence services. The same was true in Britain. The Commons committee, giving the benefit of the doubt, said: “If the primary object of the coalition intervention was the urgent need to protect civilians in Benghazi, then this objective was achieved in March 2011 in less than 24 hours.
“This meant that a limited intervention to protect civilians drifted into an opportunist policy of regime change by military means.”
Far from high humanitarian purpose, the committee found there was no planning for civil and social reconstruction after the war — a war that in fact never ended.
Instead what we’ve seen is a merry-go-round of international conferences and diplomatic intrigues trying to piece together some balance of barbarism between dozens of factions.
The central goals have been twofold: organising control over Libya’s oil industry to the advantage of companies such as Italy’s ENI and using the most barbaric methods to stop refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach the continent whose imperial military and economic policies have shattered their lives in the first place.
That has brought rivalries among the great powers and regional aspirants to a head.
Last year the former north African colonial powers of France and Italy held rival “peace conferences” in Paris and Palermo, choosing a different selection of favoured warlords.
France has tilted more to Hifter as a potential strongman who might force a paper integration of the country (a Gadaffi MkII) and, crucially, support French military efforts in the region ostensibly to fight Islamist extremism. Egypt and Saudi Arabia back him for similar reasons.
France has 4,500 troops in the Sahel region to the south and west of Libya, joined by German forces. There is a hidden war in Mali. And in the name of European unity the Irish government, not a member of Nato and supposedly with a pacific, neutral foreign policy, has deployed special forces alongside the French and Germans.
Anyone who considers European military interventions some progressive advance on the US’s should take note.
Italy has cleaved to the unstable grouping of militias in the oil-rich west of the country. The neofascist Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has franchised to them stopping refugees setting out for Europe and has negotiated preferential oil contracts for ENI.
A shattered, failed state in which competing powers in shifting alliance with reactionary militias now seek to assert their interests. That is the fruit of the Libya war. As Barack Obama bitterly pointed out, Cameron and Britain soon lost interest — though British governments have tried to keep their hand in in Tripoli.
Now the house of cards is coming tumbling down.
There really ought to be a reckoning in Britain about this — a start would be an opposition-led debate in the Commons (though it is only Corbyn, John McDonnell, Caroline Lucas and handful of others from the parliament of 2011 who could speak without shame).
More importantly, now is the time to strengthen the Stop the War Coalition and to take its arguments more widely into the labour movement and base of society in Britain.
The genuinely popular upsurges in Algeria and Sudan today show what the most astute Arab thinkers pointed out in 2011: that the processes that drove the “Arab Spring” are deep and ongoing, fuelling a whole historical period beyond the immediate ups and downs of revolutions, counter-revolutions and efforts to contain it.
There is another continuity. The ongoing Western policy of manifold interventions that reached a new level with the “war on terror.”
Again we face spurious humanitarian justification for intervention — sanctions, bombing, war, support for favoured regimes or demonisation of those out of favour.
Too much of the left eight years ago fell for the idea that just this once, and just in this special circumstance, great power intervention would be an instrument for progressive change. In fact it crushed that possibility.
No-one should make the same mistake again.
The anti-war movement in Britain was right about Libya — just as it was about Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria… and is today about Yemen and the aggression against Iran.
Kevin Ovenden was an officer of the Stop the War Coalition in 2011.
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