March 23 will mark the 25th anniversary of the murder of 35 Libyan sailors whose patrol boat was destroyed by missiles launched during an aerial and naval assault by U.S. air forces in waters along Libya’s coast in the Gulf of Sidra.
The operation began in the evening of March 23, 1986, with an armada from the U.S. Sixth Fleet. It consisted of three aircraft carriers, 250 fighter aircraft and bombers, 12 destroyers, five cruisers, six frigates and 27,000 personnel.
Former President Ronald Reagan and the Pentagon brass carried out the large scale incursion into Libyan waters as a deliberate provocation. It was part of a larger, on-going military plan. The goal was to weaken the Libyan regime and foment an internal rebellion to topple it. It was similar to the strategy employed five years later against the Iraqi government led by Saddam Hussein.
The next phase of the operation began three weeks later. On April 15, 1986, the U.S. Air Force attacked the cities of Tripoli and Benghazi. The United States dropped 120,000 pounds of bombs in a matter of minutes. There were scores of Libyan civilian casualties, as homes, schools and other buildings were destroyed in the middle of the night by the “surprise” attack. Libyan government buildings were hit, and the home of Gaddafi was hit with several bombs.
The Reagan administration claimed that the April 15 bombing attack was retaliation for an April 5, 1986, bomb explosion in a Berlin discotheque that claimed the life of a U.S. service member. The implication was that Libya planted the bomb in Berlin to retaliate for the March 23 U.S. attack that killed the 35 Libyan sailors. Later documents proved, however, that advanced planning for the April 15 bombing attack on Tripoli and Benghazi had been going on for at least one year and that a full scale mock rehearsal, including the use of mock bombs, had taken place in July 1985—11 months before the explosion at the Berlin disco.
The Libyan regime, which came to power in a 1969 coup against the western-backed monarchy of King Idris, was targeted for regime change by the United States and Britain after it nationalized Libya’s oil wealth and used the resources to develop the country.
During that same time period—the 1980s—the U.S. government armed, financed and propped up dictatorships in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, other Arab client states, along with the regime in Tel Aviv. The CIA also funded Osama Bin Laden and other reactionary forces that sought to topple the government in Afghanistan.
U.S. policy had nothing to do with human rights, democracy or the war on terror. It employed terror to maintain a system of proxy regimes and to overthrow governments that were outside the U.S. sphere of influence. These are historical facts.
Washington did not succeed in toppling the Gadaffi government, but Libya did indeed go through regime change. The regime itself shifted its domestic and international policies. It moved steadily to the right.
In the last decade, it has adopted a variety of neoliberal reforms, embraced and collaborated with the Bush administration’s so-called war on terror, increasingly exported Libyan resources to invest in Italian corporations and banks, while becoming politically friendly with the right-wing government of Silvio Berlusconi, and opened Libyan oil business to BP.
If there had been no recent revolt in Libya, the United States, Britain and Italy would have been content to have the Gadaffi regime—with its neoliberal orientation—remain in power. Although Gadaffi was neither a puppet, nor a client, it was clear that the regime’s neoliberal, collaborationist orientation made it a satisfactory partner with the imperialist governments of the west.
Pleading for intervention
Following the peoples’ uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and throughout the Arab world, a civil war has broken out in Libya. Disaffected elements from within the regime, including those inside of its military and security units took up arms. Long standing regional rivalries also played a big part. The revolt was particularly strong in Benghazi and other cities in the oil-rich eastern part of the country.
Both the regime and its opponents have armed units. Both have a political and social base within parts of the population. It is not possible from outside the country to really know the extent of the support for either side. Within the revolt there are contradictory political trends. While the opposition is politically heterogeneous, what is decisive is the position and orientation of the dominant leadership inside the movement.
The Libyan people generally have a high anti-colonial consciousness and are undoubtedly opposed to U.S./NATO intervention. But under the circumstances of mass upheaval and armed struggle, the orientation of the leadership is central.
Leaders of the opposition National Libyan Council (also calling themselves the National Transition Council), while having initially opposed foreign intervention, are repeatedly calling for both economic sanctions and military action by the US and NATO countries.
“We will complete our victory when we are afforded a no-fly zone,” Hafiz Ghoga, spokesman for the rebel National Libyan Council, said in the rebel base of Benghazi, according to Reuters, March 9.
It could not be more obvious now that U.S., British and French imperialism are working hard to influence and support the National Libyan Council. Covert operations have been reported, and arms shipments are surely underway.
While the stakes are high and the outcome is uncertain, U.S., British and French imperialism see the situation in Libya as a new opportunity. Just because Gaddafi collaborated with imperialism, especially in the last decade, does not mean that world imperialism does not see a major opportunity in the overthrow of the regime now.
Lessons of Iraq, Yugoslavia
Let no person who calls themselves progressive forget that U.S. imperialism eagerly collaborated with Saddam Hussein in its struggle to bleed and exhaust the Iranian revolution, but then suddenly turned around in 1988. It began targeting Iraq for regime change and saw the overthrow of the Baathist regime as a huge opportunity for imperialism to recapture Iraq’s vast oil reserves.
A no-fly zone, no matter if it is declared by U.S.-run NATO or a U.S.-dominated United Nations, would include the massive bombing of Libyan installations. And as we saw in the case of Yugoslavia and Iraq in the 1990s, a no-fly zone is both the suspension of sovereignty and the precursor to a larger war.
Yugoslavia, a significant regional force, was literally disintegrated by the onslaught. It has been torn into small pieces that remain under foreign occupation. Iraq too has been shredded and ripped apart and will be under U.S. occupation for a very long time, unless the people rise up as they have in the past.
It would be the greatest tragedy for Libya and its people if the anti-Gadaffi opposition allows its struggle to be the pretext and gateway for imperialism to re-subjugate the country.
Progressive and anti-war activists inside the United States must expose the lies of the U.S. war machine and the intrigues of “their own” ruling class. The U.S. government never says that its wars of aggression are for imperialist aims; rather, it is always for the noblest cause. While it condemns Gaddafi for the use of Libya’s air force in a domestic civil war, it is dropping bombs and missiles on the children of Afghanistan 7,000 miles from U.S. shores.
When the Libyan revolt began, some in the U.S. left erroneously argued that the West would back Gaddafi to the hilt. They mobilized for street demonstrations against Gaddafi’s government, while neglecting to include demands opposing U.S. intervention. They attacked those in the U.S. anti-war movement who insisted on the primacy of the slogan: “No to U.S. intervention.”
When U.S. and European imperialist powers proceeded to slap economic sanctions on Libya, moved warships off its coast, and began rapid preparations for intervention, these same left forces were caught flat-footed, apparently in denial. They only began to adjust their slogans several days later.
Shame on those U.S. liberal groups and “progressives” who consider the prospect of U.S. and NATO intervention to be a secondary factor in this unfolding struggle.