What can the Libyans expect

Photo: Foreign and Commonwealth Office
British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary speaking to NATO Secretary General at the London Conference on Libya in March 2011

By Tom O’Donnell

The precise details of the imperialists’ victory in Libya are not yet clear. Their degree of direct involvement in any post-Gaddafi regime is similarly unclear, with some influential voices calling for a ‘peacekeeping’ role for Western armies. This would be an imperial invasion, having successfully suborned one side in the Libyan civil war.

The degree of imperialist control over any new regime is important. Clearly a key political motivation for backing the forces fighting against Gaddafi was to establish a foothold in the region following the advances of the Arab Spring, and thereby to establish a brake on the process at the very least. Economically, Libya’s oil output of between 1.5mn and 2mn barrels per day was also a key motivation, with the energy-hungry Western markets celebrating news of the assault on Tripoli with a small drop in oil prices. There is too the non-trifling issue of who will control Libya’s sizeable assets, including the tens of billions of dollars held in overseas bank accounts.

While the exact degree of imperialist control cannot be known in advance, it will be wholly pernicious in effect. To gauge the possible parameters of the defeat that will be inflicted on the population of Libya, we can contrast the rival fortunes of two neighbouring countries in the Muslim world, Iran and Iraq.

The Iranian revolution of 1979 overthrew one of the most hated and pro-Western dictators in the wider Muslim world. In consequence, the West’s Iraqi ally Saddam Hussein launched a war on the new Iranian Islamic republic, which ended in stalemate. Misjudging the depth of that alliance, Saddam Hussein then invaded Kuwait in 1990. This was the pretext for the first imperialist Gulf War and 13 years of sanctions until Saddam was overthrown and the US-led coalition imposed a new pro-Western regime on the country, which remains in place today.

Therefore, from the point of view of gauging the likely impact of Western involvement in Libya in the period ahead, we have an almost laboratory-like experiment in the effects of direct imperial dominance on colonial and semi-colonial countries. One overthrew the direct representative of US imperialism in Iran. The other was an ally of US imperialism until the thieves fell out, leading to crushing sanctions and finally outright war and occupation by the US and its allies.

A partial snapshot of these effects is set out in the table below.

Social and Economic Indicators For Iran and Iraq

Sources: World Bank databank, United Nations Development Indices

Immediately following the revolution, Iran’s economy was almost twice the size of Iraq’s. In 30 years it has multiplied to five times that of Iraq. There are a surprisingly large number of human development indicators that are unavailable from a pro-Western government such as Iraq. But all those that are available show a marked relative decline versus Iran. In most cases this reflects the effects of the policies of the new populist regime in Tehran. It is clearly less concerned about meeting the demands of imperialism than its predecessor, the Shah.

In contrast, the Iraqi regimes, which were by turns an ally and then a target for and once more an ally of imperialism, have not kept pace either in terms of economic growth or human development. In some cases, notably in education, Iraq is one of the few countries in the world which has gone backwards over 30 years. Damningly, even though the Iraqi economy has grown since the invasion in 2003, life expectancy is lower now than at the time of the invasion by 1.24 years. By contrast, in the 10 years following the Iranian revolution life expectancy rose by nearly eight years, even though it was fighting a war for most of that period.

This highlights an important point. Maximising the optimal development of any economy is a crucial task of any even vaguely progressive economic policy. But the distribution of the surplus created characterises the economic system concerned. The Iranian regime is far from a socialist one, but it has achieved a Human Development Index of 0.702 according to the United Nations. The Libyan HDI was 0.755, but this was on the back of a per capita income of $17,068 in 2010 compared to $11,764 in Iran, adjusted for purchasing power. (No comparable data is available for Iran.) For comparison, Britain had a HDI of 0.737 in 1980 with an average per capita income of $18,910.

Since the main aim of imperialism is to seize as much of the value created in the colonial and semi-colonial world for itself, it is evident that a greater role for imperialism is incompatible with human development. This is the clear lesson from the very different trajectories of the Iranian and Iraqi societies over the last few decades. In one degree or another, this harsh lesson is now about to be imposed on the people of Libya.