Hunting for ammunition in a recent Facebook discussion with John Rees, I took some time to look back through Counterfire’s articles on Libya over the past eight months. Once you strip away the veneer, what emerges is a fairly clear picture of that organisation helping to manufacture the public’s consent for the brutal colonial war against Libya.
Although the following comments are specific to Counterfire, I believe they apply in equal measure to the Socialist Workers Party and various other left-wing organisations in the west. I am publishing them here in the hope that readers will look deeper into the situations developing in Syria, Iran, Algeria, South Africa and elsewhere, develop a genuine anti-imperialist analysis, and start to build a meaningful anti-war movement.
A western-inspired civil war took place in Libya, with one side backed by NATO’s bombs, money, soldiers, planners and intelligence services. Counterfire chose to support the ‘rebels’ and never stopped doing so. They never gave much of a reason as to why they supported the rebels, and there was certainly no effort to explain the rebels’ composition and motivations, but it seemed to be a given that, in this situation of civil war, the bulk of the British left would support the side opposing the state.
Even though the links between the ‘rebels’ and western intelligence agencies were known from the beginning, Counterfire chose to ignore this. No mention was made of longstanding US/French/British plans to inspire a coup in Libya. No mention was made of the profound differences between Egypt/Tunisia and Libya in terms of social welfare, political systems, food security, foreign policy or anything else.
Within days of things kicking off in February, it became abundantly clear that the imperialist powers were united in their wish to get rid of Qaddafi and to use the rebellion as cover to accomplish this task. Therefore from the beginning the Libya situation had the character of a classic colonialist war. At no point did Counterfire call for the defeat of the invading forces; at no point did they guide their readers to the obvious conclusion that, faults notwithstanding, Libya ruled by Qaddafi was a zillion times better than Libya ruled by Cameron, Sarkozy and Obama. While serious anti-imperialists were putting aside their differences with Qaddafi, closing ranks and supporting the Libyan state and people against NATO terror, Counterfire were contributing to the case for war.
It’s fine and great and ever-so-lovely to hide behind the line that “we never wanted intervention”, but is it not clear that, by joining in with the exaggerations about the repression, and by throwing out ill-researched slanders about Qaddafi, Counterfire (along with Socialist Workers Party, Stop the War Coalition and so many others) contributed to manufacturing the public’s consent for this colonial war?
As late as 16 March, Counterfire positively quoted [National Transitional Council chair] Mustafa Abdul Jalil’s outright lies about the democratic nature of the NTC, and were claiming that "the Libyan revolution has produced a model of popular power that reaches beyond the bourgeois forms emerging in Cairo and Tunis" [!!]. Counterfire continued to join the mainstream press in hugely exaggerating the extent of the state’s repression against the demonstrations (bizarrely, it was left for Amnesty, HRW and The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn to counter the ridiculous press bias on this). Counterfire took on terminology like “Gaddafi’s onslaught” and came out with embarrassing nonsense such as "Now that Qaddafi’s forces are advancing, the calls for intervention are louder, more out of desperation than pro-western ideology."
In August, we read: "There will be no tears for the end of the Gaddafi regime if that is indeed what we are watching. The Gaddafi regime was a brutal dictatorship and it deserved to be overthrown just as much as that of Ben Ali’s in Tunisia or Mubarak’s in Egypt."
This is unpardonable clap-trap. Libya was one of the poorest countries in the world pre-1969. It developed the highest HDI in Africa, highest per capita income in Africa, life expectancy of 75, excellent healthcare and education systems, food security, decent housing, no starvation, women’s rights, secular policy… all this apparently means nothing to the ‘socialists’ of Counterfire? Not to mention support for national liberation movements in Palestine, Ireland, South Africa and elsewhere, and being the driving force of African unity for the last 20 years. Do you know how the Libyan government responded to the food crisis? By abolishing taxes on food. Can you name any other government that did that? Ironically, many of things Counterfire claims to fight for in Britain (eg free tertiary education and healthcare) already existed in Libya! There are rivers of tears over the end of the Qaddafi regime, especially from the black Libyan communities, who received great support under Qaddafi and who are now being subjected to rape, murder and humiliation. But I suppose these are not the type of people that western lefties typically care about.
Is there any analysis from Counterfire as to how their favourite “model of popular power” turned into a bunch of racist murdering thugs that whip a black man and force him to climb a pole shouting “Monkey needs a banana”?! Or is this the sort of uncomfortable question Counterfire prefer not to ask?
On 22 August they were asking an infinitely simpler question: "So the question now posed is this: in whose interest will the new rulers of Libya act?"
What an amazing example of political leadership, asking a question for which the answer was 100% clear and known to everyone with half a brain. By even asking the question, Counterfire lent credibility to the idea that the NTC might stop being fascist racist pro-imperialist thugs and turn overnight into the democratic socialists people so desperately wish they would be. Again, Counterfire’s voice contributed to the dominant imperialist narrative.
Counterfire on 5 April: "The West did not need a revolution to get a regime that was willing to do their bidding in Tripoli because they already had one. It was headed by Gaddafi. By 2011 Gaddafi’s anti-imperialist rhetoric had been in cold storage for many, many years… Gaddafi has become a close ally of western imperialism"
This is frankly embarrassing. People should really at least consider doing some research before committing pen to paper. Have the writers at Counterfire read or watched Qaddafi’s speeches of recent years? For example this speech at the Arab League.
Certainly Libya compromised with the US, France, Italy and Britain. It saw what happened to Iraq and it wanted to avoid the same fate. Eight years later we can call that an error of judgement, albeit an understandable one. Meanwhile, Counterfire failed to mention that Libya had recently made foreign oil firms agree to a much lower share of crude oil production (50% down to 27%); that it had refused to sign the US military charter for Africa; that no foreign firm could undertake business in Libya without at least a 35% share owned by a Libyan individual or company; that plans were underway to introduce the gold dinar (single currency for Africa); that it continued to lead the international campaign for reparations for slavery and colonialism; and numerous other unambiguously anti-imperialist measures of recent years.
Counterfire said: "The Transitional National Council in Benghazi thought that it could deal with the imperialists on its own terms, asking for only so much air-cover as would allow them to complete their revolution".
This is investing the ‘rebels’ with a stupidity and naiveté of which they are not possessed. EVERYBODY, including the US defence secretary (who stated it explicitly), knew what was meant by ‘no fly zone’. Numerous independent investigations have failed to find any proof that the demonstrators needed air cover; they didn’t. What the rebels ‘needed’ was for NATO to destroy the Libyan state and infrastructure in order to create a power vacuum the ‘rebels’ could take advantage of.
Counterfire have repeatedly claimed that banners saying “No Western Intervention, We Can Do it Alone” were displayed all over Benghazi. While it’s a charming idea, I don’t believe it’s actually true. I have looked fairly thoroughly at the reports from Benghazi and I’ve only ever seen ONE banner saying anything like that (the one that always appears on the Counterfire website). Interestingly, it’s a very professional-looking banner. Meanwhile I’ve seen dozens of pictures of pro-west banners. I don’t think Counterfire have given too much coverage to this picture, for example (the “fantastic four” of Susan Rice, David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama).
I would have thought that Counterfire might at least have attempted to give a little bit of balance to their analysis, but sadly this was not forthcoming.
Did Counterfire ever mention important achievements of the post-1969 period (which are confirmed by UN, the World Health Organisation, etc)?
Did Counterfire ever mention the massive pro-Qaddafi demonstrations (of over a million people)?
Did Counterfire ever call clearly for the DEFEAT of NATO forces in Libya?
Did Counterfire ever mention the fact that the flag adopted by the rebels represented the totally subservient feudal backwardness of King Idris?
Did Counterfire ever seek to understand the reasons why such widely respected anti-imperialist left leaders such as Chávez, Castro, Morales and Ortega spoke out in support of the Libyan government? Or does the editorial staff at Counterfire place more value in the words of William Hague?
Did Counterfire ever mention the prominence among the rebels of CIA-funded salafi sects that have been organising against Qaddafi for decades (offended not by lack of democracy but by his dislike for religious extremism)?
Did Counterfire ever support efforts led by Venezuela and South Africa to bring about a mediated solution to the conflict? (I doubt it, because Counterfire’s preferred outcome was the removal of Qaddafi, which was not the likely outcome of dialogue)
When did Counterfire first mention the lynching of black Libyans and migrant labourers, which had occurred from the very start of the rebellion?
Counterfire’s position on Libya, like that of the western left in general (with a handful of honourable exceptions) has been an utter mess, and has contributed significantly to the fact that the British anti-war movement has been dead in relation to Libya. Cameron and co have conducted a vicious, genocidal colonial war, with the near-total complicity of the British people. There has been a total failure of leadership, and the left needs to consider its role in that.