On 17 March, after much procrastination, the United Nations agreed to military action against Libya’s dictator Muammar Qaddafi, whose murderous forces were advancing on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
The Stop the War Coalition immediately issued a statement condemning “a new war”, and “escalating armed intervention in Libya”. Socialist Worker headlined “No to intervention in Libya! Victory to Arab revolutions!” Much other left-wing commentary has focused on opposing intervention.
But the rebel forces in Benghazi greeted the UN decision with jubilation. Benghazi is a city where Qaddafi has, in the past, conducted the mass public execution of oppositionists. They knew what they could expect if Qaddafi triumphed. And it seemed likely that Qaddafi was on the verge of defeating the revolution, or at least inflicting terrible slaughter.
To oppose – that is, demonstrate against, and make a serious effort to prevent – the limited military action against Qaddafi, is to tell the rebels in Benghazi “you’re on your own.”
What socialist would want to send out such a message? Only one not deserving the name.
There is of course no reason to trust the armies of the West, or their Arab allies, to bring democracy to Libya or anywhere else. They are intervening for their own - capitalist, imperialist - reasons, not in the interests of the Libyan people. There is no guarantee that Western intervention will even succeed in its short-term aim of halting Qaddafi’s advance.
The force which is advancing democracy across the Middle East is the mass movement, above all the workers’ movement. In Egypt a new, independent trade union federation has been formed in the midst of a wave of militant strikes.
This is the agency to which socialists look to transform the Middle East.
But neither such workers’ movements nor the labour movement internationally have a military force of our own to come to the aid of Benghazi. We can build our own forms of solidarity with the popular movement in Libya. We can be vigilant against whatever political steps the Western powers take (including, for example, any attempt to rehabilitate Qaddafi, which they may think is the best, most "stable" option).
But what issue of principle should make us demonstrate against the one thing which might prevent untold slaughter, prevent Qaddafi’s immediate bloody victory, and therefore a crushing defeat for the wave of revolutions?
It is not good enough for socialists to point out that Cameron, et al, are no friends of the Libyan people. Indeed they are not. But what do you propose to do, instead, then, to prevent Qaddafi crushing his enemies? Socialists either address this real, life-and-death question or they are irrelevant poseurs.
It’s not good enough to argue that the West has supported dictators in the past and will do so again. Of course it will. But how able the West is to impose its agenda on the Middle East in future depends on the self-confidence of the mass movement. A terrible defeat in Libya might sap that self-confidence much more than a temporary acceptance of Western assistance.
We need to develop a strong solidarity campaign which is independent of Western (or Arab) governments. We need, in particular, to help the new Egyptian workers’ movement to continue to grow and develop, which could have an immense, positive effect on the whole region.
Instead, some socialists have responded to this crisis by putting their hostility to America above the lives of the Libyan rebels.
And this is a shameful disgrace.