“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx
Apr 30, 1986
The United States government is once again escalating its attacks against Libya. For years now, the U.S. has portrayed and denounced Qadaffi as an exporter and protector of world terrorism. This time, the U.S. is accusing him of being an accomplice to the Palestinian bombings in Europe which left some Americans dead as well. The Reagan administration has stepped up its assault against Libya in the aftermath. First an economic boycott was declared, and all Americans living in Libya were ordered to leave. Then the U.S. 6th Fleet sailed to Libyan waters, with fighter planes and bombers carrying out threatening maneuvers.
Today the conflict between the U.S. and Libya has taken on the appearance of being one of the major conflicts in the world between imperialism and an underdeveloped country. The U.S. government has given it this appearance, but it is one Qadaffi has gladly accepted, and reinforced with a flourish. He has portrayed himself as the leader of a fight of the Arab peoples, and even of all the African and Middle Eastern peoples, against imperialism.
What is this anti-imperialism of Qadaffi? In what sense is he a threat to the interests of the United States?
Colonel Qadaffi came to power at the head of a military coup d’etat in September of 1969. At the time, Libya was ruled by the tribal monarchy of King Idris. This regime, even though it had been formally independent since 1951, was the complete creation of Great Britain at the end of World War II. King Idris simply headed a caretaker state for imperialism. When oil was discovered in Libya in the mid-1950s, Idris gave all the oil concessions to foreign companies to own and operate. Only a small share of oil revenue remained in Libya through taxation, and that was used to feed the corruption of the swelling government bureaucracy.
A group of young military officers, among them Colonel Qadaffi, was formed in opposition to this foreign domination of Libya. This grouping, which was to become the RCC (Revolutionary Command Council), was strongly influenced by the Arab nationalism of the times, and especially by Nasserism. This section of the petty-bourgeoisie had the desire to rid Libya of imperialism’s political domination, which was maintained through the old ruling tribal structures. They wanted to end the complete drain of the newly developing oil wealth out of their country by imperialism. In the name of liberating a part of the Arab Nation from colonialism and imperialism, these officers seized power. They used their control of the military apparatus, without any social mobilization, to assert their domination over the government bureaucracy and put themselves at the head of the nation.
Some of the first acts by the new regime were aimed against the foreign domination of Libya. Immediately after the RCC came to power, Qadaffi ordered the British and the Americans to evacuate their military bases inside Libya. Thousands of Italians, who had lived in Libya since the colonial period, were expelled. Qadaffi, expressing the desire of Libyans to control their own oil resources, demanded that the oil companies raise the amount paid to the Libyan government for their concessions. A few years later, the oil concessions were nationalized in their majority. With these actions taken against foreign domination, Qadaffi was able to secure a more solid financial basis and some popular support for his regime, and thereby to gain a margin of independence for the Libyan state from imperialism.
Imperialism undoubtedly would have preferred that these events had never taken place. Yet the actions taken by Qadaffi were finally of little real substance. Great Britain had already evacuated most of its military by 1966 under agreement with King Idris. The U.S. had already agreed in 1964 to do the same. As far as the oil companies were concerned, they simply increased the final sale price of oil to cover the increased payments to the Libyan state. Furthermore, Qadaffi’s demands coincided with an intention the oil companies already had to increase world oil prices as a means to dramatically increase their profits, which is what happened in this period. When it came to the nationalizations, Qadaffi was only picking up suit behind other governments in the region, including pro-U.S. regimes like Saudi Arabia. And as was done in these other Arab countries, which were pro-U.S. or pro-British, the Libyan-based oil companies were compensated, and moreover, given long term leases for operating the oil wells and purchasing the crude.
Qadaffi claims to have gained independence for Libya. In fact, Libya remains directly tied into the imperialist economic order. The accumulated oil wealth is turned right back to Western corporations for the purchases of technology and management know-how. Huge state development contracts have with very few exceptions been given to Western corporations, with the foreigners invited back in to run the projects. The former colonial power, Italy, has led the way. Other oil money has been invested by the Libyan state back into the developed economies themselves. For example, the Libyan state holds 13 per cent of Fiat stock in Italy. This investment is mostly to the benefit of the Italian company as it provides it with more capital, but it also stands as a symbol that Qadaffi’s regime shares in the benefits from the exploitation of the Italian workers.
For the majority of the Libyan people, the workers and the poor, the new regime has changed little. Even if in some areas there have been a few benefits, it is far from the liberation that Qadaffi claims. Yes, there is less direct political control by imperialism. But this has been replaced by the dictatorial control of the RCC. No opposition to Qadaffi’s regime is allowed at all. Political organizations, other than the official state one, are banned. Strikes are illegal, as are any demonstrations other than those called by the state. When strikes have taken place, such as in 1972 when the oil workers went out against the then foreign-owned companies, the Libyan military crushed them. The only unions allowed are those of the regime, which act as arms of the state to control the workers. There have been repeated arrests and assassinations of opponents to the regime, from the working class, the left, competing Islamic and nationalist groups, and also from within the military command itself. Sacrifices continue to be demanded of the workers and the poor, and a continual military discipline is imposed on the population to secure them.
All of these attacks by the RCC against the population are carried out, of course, in the name of the fight against imperialism. They are said to be necessary in the face of the threats by imperialist enemies at Libya’s borders and off its shores. In this sense, the current threats made by the U.S. government could be helpful to Qadaffi’s regime in reinforcing its rule against its own population.
The Libyan state of Qadaffi, compared to that of King Idris, has been able to establish a degree of independence for itself from imperialism, and to force imperialism to give it a larger share of the oil wealth drained out of Libya. But the Qadaffi regime has not threatened the basic interests of imperialism. In fact, the Libyan regime has always gone out of its way in practice, even when it has been under verbal attack, to maintain agreements and act responsibly towards imperialism’s basic interests. The symbol of this is that large U.S. and European corporations continue to operate inside Libya, even when it appears on the political level that the U.S. and Libya are irreconcilable enemies.
Outside of Libya, Qadaffi also claimed he would change the face of the region. But this has not happened either.
Qadaffi has always spoken not only as the head of the Libyan people, but also as the defender of the oppressed, the spokesman of the Islamic peoples and as the leader of the Arab Nation. He stresses the need for traditional Islamic values in opposition to those of Western civilization. He often appeals to the common identity, to the common language and the common culture of the Arab peoples. Qadaffi expresses a sentiment widely held by the peoples of the region against the interference of Western imperialism. He speaks of the need for an Arab unity, and a common fight against the foreigners who have divided them up in order to rule over them.
It is certainly true that if the Arabs were united as one people, from Morocco to Iraq, they would have more strength against imperialism and change the relationship of forces between the people of this region and the world powers. It is precisely why historically imperialism has gone to great lengths to divide up the Arab people, and to put or to maintain in place artificial national boundaries. This division, today enforced not only by imperialism but also by the different Arab regimes, is the foundation from which imperialism is able to enforce its rule in the Middle East.
This is why each time there is a leader who proposes a wider unity of the Arab people, he is attacked by imperialism. This was done with Nasser before, just as it is done with Qadaffi today. It is not that Qadaffi creates the anti-imperialism and nationalist sentiment in the Middle East; it exists because of imperialism. But to the extent that he reflects and expresses this sentiment, Qadaffi can also reinforce it. It is why the U.S. would undoubtedly prefer to see Qadaffi out of the picture, replaced by the likes of a Fahd or a Hussein, who would act more directly as the head of a caretaker state in the interests of imperialism.
The actual practice of Qadaffi, however, even when he gives an expression to this Arab national feeling, does not go in the direction of a wider Arab unity in a fight against imperialism. Qadaffi has proposed mergers of various sorts with other states in Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia and Chad. But the unity Qadaffi has proposed is merely the agreement between rulers of the different regimes. It is a unity of those at the top to join their state apparatuses in order to reinforce each other, in part against imperialism, but also against their own populations. This perspective towards unity has had two consequences. First, because each of these state apparatuses wants above all else to defend its own particular interests and its own existence, this kind of unity is doomed to fail. Every agreement Libya has had with another state, even when agreements to merge have been signed, has always broken down.
Second, Qadaffi’s perspective of state unity opposes his regime to the peoples of the whole region. Qadaffi pretends to speak in the name of the common interests of the Arab masses, but in fact, it is unity at the top that he has sought. Qadaffi at one point gave aid to the Polisario guerrillas, but then turned around and dropped it as soon as the Moroccan regime was ready to make a new alliance with Libya. In the Sudan, Qadaffi supported the opponents of the regime, only to end the support when the Sudanese government agreed to enter into merger talks with Libya. Qadaffi then turned over a plane full of opposition leaders to the Sudanese government, which then proceeded to murder them all.
Under the name of unity against Zionism, Qadaffi was ready to ally with Idi Amin of Uganda and Bokassa of the Central African Empire at the very times when these regimes were brutally slaughtering their own populations. Qadaffi even sent Libyan troops into Uganda to help buttress Amin against his own population. We have also seen Qadaffi, the proclaimer of a common Arab identity, use a very tightly controlled immigration policy for his own ends. To put pressure on the Tunisian government, for example, Qadaffi took the jobs of some 40,000 Tunisian workers employed in Libya, and expelled them from the country.
What we see coming from Qadaffi has nothing to do with a real unity of the Arab peoples for a united fight. Such a unity could come only by carrying out a fight against the state apparatuses throughout the region, most of which were put in place by imperialism, and all of which act as the immediate enforcers of the exploitation and oppression of the masses, and as the guarantors of the divisions among the Arab population.
But Qadaffi goes precisely in the opposite direction from this kind of fight. In his Green Book of wisdom, he states that the world is divided by nations and religions, and not by classes. This is his ideological cover which masks the reality that also within the Arab world and within the Muslim world there are two distinct groups of people: the oppressed, and the oppressors. Qadaffi, like the others, is the head of a state which stands against the oppressed. What we see over and over again with Qadaffi is the maneuvering of a nation state, trying to maintain its own particular interests. Nothing more.
This is also true when it comes to the Palestinians. Qadaffi may give a few arms and a place to train to Palestinian terrorist organizations, like the one of Abu Nidal, which seem to be the most radical. Through this, Qadaffi can appear as the protector and defender of the Palestinian cause. But what is needed is the widest unity of the workers and oppressed of the region, including those inside Israel, to carry on a fight for their common interests against all the regimes in the region which survive off their divisions, and off the oppression of the Palestinians. It is only through this means that the right of the Palestinians to live in their homeland, without facing the attacks and the oppression from either Zionist Israel or the Arab states, will be achieved. But this policy of uniting the oppressed of the region against their state apparatuses is precisely the one Qadaffi opposes. It is a policy that the terrorist organizations which Qadaffi aids don’t support either, no matter how radical they appear. What they are doing, at best, is creating a military apparatus in charge of fighting in the Middle East and around the world maybe for the Palestinians, but also in place of them.
Qadaffi is no real defender of the Palestinian cause, no more than are the other Arab regimes in the region. They all have the same basic policy of giving some support to this or that group, when it serves their state purposes. The only difference with Qadaffi is that he is more extreme in his words than the others. But he can afford to be. He has more room to maneuver by virtue of the fact that geographically Libya remains far from Israel, far from the real conflicts and wars that have shaped the Middle East, and also far from the real problems of the Palestinians.
Today the duel between the U.S. government and Qadaffi remains at the level of rhetoric and symbols, with both sides making the best use they can out of it.
The U.S. government initiated the current assault on Libya for a likely variety of reasons: perhaps in part it was done for the impact it would have in maintaining a U.S. pressure throughout the Middle East; perhaps in part it was done by the administration to appear tough in the eyes of the population here, facing the deaths of Americans it is in no position to prevent; and perhaps it was done in part simply to have another external enemy for the administration to use in pushing through its military budget, at a time when it prefers to hold down its anti-Sovietism.
On the side of Qadaffi, the current attacks by the U.S. have also proven useful. So long as the attacks remain verbal, he can use them to reinforce his image as an anti-imperialist and as the defender of the Arab cause.
How long this duel of words will continue without crossing over into a military conflict remains to be seen. How far the U.S. government intends to push Qadaffi today is still unclear. But it appears that despite the usefulness of this war of rhetoric, the margin of maneuverability could be narrowing. On the side of the U.S., escalating threats and warnings can only go on so long before they backfire, and appear as a paper bluff which makes the U.S. appear more impotent.
What makes the U.S. hesitate in attacking Qadaffi militarily, is the fear that it could set off much greater problems. A U.S. intervention in Libya risks inflaming the whole region even more against the U.S. than it is now; it risks a reaction of the peoples of the region against the pro-U.S. regimes like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, which already face a fragile situation. Making threats to pressure Qadaffi to try to limit terrorism against Americans is one thing; carrying out a war against Libya which could engulf the entire Middle East is something all together different. Today it seems the most unlikely choice.
A regime like Qadaffi’s arose by giving an expression, albeit a deformed one, to the nationalist and anti-imperialist sentiment of the Arab peoples. It was by leaning upon these sentiments that Qadaffi was able to gain some sovereignty for his state apparatus against imperialism, to gain a little place for himself in their wold. Today it is these same sentiments in the Arab population – which are the real worry for the U.S., more than Qadaffi – that allow a Qadaffi to survive.