The Libyan offensive – tensions emerge

By Andrew Williams

Despite the overwhelming military superiority of the alliance of states participating in the assault on Libya, three weeks into the intervention it has become bogged down. Clearly the Gaddafi regime has a base of support that has allowed it to retain control of the west of the country. At the same time, the imperialist-backed opposition have held on to their base in the east but have not been able to extend beyond that. The situation on the ground has become an extended stalemate, with each side making advances followed by equivalent retreats.

With their advance faltering, frictions between the different forces within and supporting the opposition have begun to emerge. Most importantly, last week the US, which had been taking most of the strain in the offensive, decisively scaled back its role, withdrawing from participation in the aerial attacks on Libyan government forces. This was met with consternation by its NATO allies in the conflict, particularly the UK and France. The only US concession to this pressure was to delay their pull-out by 48 hours to 4th April. The US pull-out clearly corresponds to a view in the US administration that it is already militarily and financially stretched by its commitments in Afghanistan – where it has 100,000 troops and a continuing failure to impose any kind of stability – and  Iraq; that it does not consider the Libya situation to be crucial to its national interests; and if France and Britain, or other European states, think it does correspond to their crucial interests then they should carry the burden of the intervention and not expect the US to pay for it. This is an important signal of US intentions globally. It clearly has no intention of retreating from its international military role, but with US resources squeezed it intends to make its allies pick up more of the burden of implementing imperialist policies world-wide.

In response France and Britain have been forced to step up their involvement. But both France and Britain are also weighed down with military deployments elsewhere. They both assist the US in Afghanistan and France is also the key military force installing the new pro-Western regime in the Ivory Coast. Both Hague and Juppé – foreign ministers of Britain and France – have been making increasingly urgent calls on their European NATO allies to step up their contribution to the offensive, but these have so far fallen on deaf ears. Germany joined Russia and China in abstaining on the UN motion and has refused to deploy its military forces in Libya – although it did step up its surveillance operations in Afghanistan to help relieve the pressure on NATO.

However, despite these tensions and the current stalemate; neither France, Italy, Britain nor the US, has done anything to move towards a negotiated solution. On the contrary, France and Italy have recognised the opposition council in Benghazi as the sole legitimate power in Libya, despite the compelling evidence that the Gaddafi government still holds sway in at least half the country. While the US and Britain have not gone this far, they are not inclined to support ‘peace’ initiatives that would leave Gaddafi’s government in place. This explains why the Libyan opposition felt able to immediately reject the Africa Union’s peace plan of 11th April.

In Britain, these tensions have not yet led any of the major political parties to amend their views on the intervention and the media remains overwhelmingly in support of the offensive. However there is a rising degree of sceptical commentary, including from quarters that generally support Britain’s imperialist interventions. Max Hastings in the Financial Times says that Cameron’s ‘leading a charge… is a dangerous indulgence’ and Tony Parsons in the Daily Mirror states ‘this is not our fight, and it will never be our fight’. The Independent’s Johann Hari has rightly pointed out the imperialist character of the intervention saying that Britain is bombing Libya because ‘Western control over the world’s biggest pots of oil was being rocked by a series of revolutions our governments couldn’t control.’

Public support in US and Britain for the military action is pretty much divided and has declined as the offensive has lost its momentum. Although in Britain only 11 Labour MPs voted against the military action, outside of parliament opposition to the war from the labour movement is sizable and growing. Significantly Unite, the largest trade union, is unequivocally against the war and has issued a statement saying it ‘believes the attack on Libya by British, French and US forces is wrong and should be halted.’

As imperialism’s actions in Libya make clear its intervention is neither to protect civilians nor re-establish peace, some initial illusions are being stripped away. The West is determined to control access to oil, insert a client regime in the Eastern Mediterranean, and to counter the Arab revolution still unfolding across the region. There should no underestimation of the level of violence the West is prepared to unleash in pursuit of these goals, as can be seen from the recent slaughter in Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza. The most likely response to the current stalemate is to seek to break out of it through a massively stepped use of force against the Libyan government, despite the likelihood that this will lead to rising civilian deaths in the west of the country.

The elementary role of socialists in this situation is to do everything that can be done to mobilise opposition to this imperialist offensive, particularly in the countries participating in the bombing campaign. The anti-war movement’s campaigns and activities should be supported. They can be followed on the websites of the Stop The War Coalition and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.