The Truth behind NATO’s Victory in Libya

Campaign Lies

The bloodiness of the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime is matched only by the violence its perpetrators are doing to the truth, that perennial first casualty of war. According to the leaders of NATO and their close allies in the Arab League, the Libyan civil war was the result of a spontaneous rising in imitation of those in Libya’s neighbours Tunisia and Egypt. As the Prime Mythmaker of the UK, Cameron tried to insist:

This is a Libyan triumph. This is the Libyan people who have rid themselves of a dictator.

This is lie number one. 85% of Libya’s population are merely trying to survive against both sides in this war. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt the “revolution” in Libya quickly became a tribal armed conflict in the eastern part of the country which NATO and Qatari special forces were quick to enter. Indeed in years to come we may find that they were even there to help organise the uprising just as we now learn of the Blair Government’s lies about its complicity in the rendition of Libyan Al Qaeda suspects to the US (according to the Times [Sept 6] as part of a policy (which included the return of Megrahi the supposed Lockerbie bomber to Tripoli) to help BP with its oil contracts (1).

However even with the assistance of Qatari special forces their Libyan clients proved to be less than competent, as well as being outgunned by Gaddafi’s tanks and aircraft. The cry then went up from Britain, France and the US for more open outside interference i.e. the enforcement of a “no-fly zone”. The banner for such intervention was to be the humanitarian one (as in the Balkans in the 1990s). This was lie number two. The story that Gaddafi’s forces were about to storm Benghazi and massacre its population was spread about even though Gaddafi’s troops were still miles from that city.

To quote Prof. Alan J. Kuperman,

... President Barack Obama grossly exaggerated the humanitarian threat to justify military action in Libya. The president claimed that intervention was necessary to prevent a "bloodbath" in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city and last rebel stronghold. But Human Rights Watch has released data on Misurata, the next-biggest city in Libya and scene of protracted fighting, revealing that Moammar Khadafy is not deliberately massacring civilians but rather narrowly targeting the armed rebels who fight against his government. Misurata’s population is roughly 400,000. In nearly two months of war, only 257 people - including combatants - have died there. Of the 949 wounded, only 22 - less than 3 percent - are women…. Nor did Khadafy ever threaten civilian massacre in Benghazi, as Obama alleged. The "no mercy" warning, of March 17, targeted rebels only, as reported by The New York Times, which noted that Libya’s leader promised amnesty for those "who throw their weapons away." Khadafy even offered the rebels an escape route and open border to Egypt, to avoid a fight "to the bitter end" (2).

And pretty soon it was clear that the enforcement of a no-fly zone to prevent Gaddafi harming civilians was a sham. Within a week NATO fighters with the backing of essential US logistical support in terms of intelligence and air surveillance, and the same Qatari special forces on the ground (although these were specifically banned under the terms of UN Resolution 1973) had decisively tipped the balance back in favour of the rebels. And yet the NATO bombing campaign continued under the pretext of R2P ("responsibility to protect”). 20,000 sorties resulting in 8,000 air strikes were made by British, French,Italian, Qatari and other aircraft over Western Libya in five months (that averages 53 a day). And it was not just military targets that were hit. The hospital in Zlitan was reduced to rubble and the death toll amongst both civilians and Gaddafi troops was enormous (3). NATO has owned up to 12 but

On Sunday [Aug 21] alone there may have been 1,300 civilian deaths in Tripoli, and at least 5,000 wounded. The Ministry of Health announced that hospitals were overflowing. Anyone who by that time believed relentless NATO bombing had anything to do with R2P and United Nations Resolution 1973 was living in an intensive care unit.

From Welcome to Libya's 'democracy' by Pepe Escobar in Asian Times Online

As NATO itself claims to have substantially “degraded” (i.e. killed) pro-Gaddafi forces (100,000 of whom were ready to defend Tripoli) the death toll is likely to be enormous. It does explain though how Tripoli fell so suddenly to the Transitional National Council (TNC) fighters.

Even now the bombing from the air continues as the TNC militias close in on the last three areas still in the hands of Gaddafi supporters. Regime change has been the name of the game all along, something even Radio 4’s Today programme admitted on August 13th. And even Cameron partially admitted it in the part of his speech where he said

It was Britain and France, with America, together, that actually called time, five months ago, on Gaddafi ... (4)

Why the Desperation to get Rid of Gaddafi?

But why are they so desperate to get rid of Gaddafi who had been cooperating with the West for a decade? As we wrote in Revolutionary Perspectives 58

The fact that the war is clearly not for the protection of civilians is shown by the indifference the western powers show to the hundreds of civilians killed in Bahrain and the 1600 or more civilians who have so far been gunned down by the Syrian regime.

Gaddafi was no longer the “Mad Dog of the Middle East” (Reagan) who the West tried to assassinate in 1986. Under pressure of international sanctions which nearly brought down his regime in the 1990s Gaddafi had already caved in to Western pressure. When the USSR collapsed in 1991 it removed one source of support he could count on. Sanctions had reduced Libyan per capita income by 20% in the 1990s and this led to several revolts in Eastern Libya (formerly Cyrenaica). Gaddafi had brutally suppressed these with 1200 being executed in one Tripoli prison alone (Abu Salim – see below). Gaddafi now tried to play ball with the West. He handed over the Lockerbie accused, assisted in the war on terror, foreswore nuclear weapons and had long stopped sending arms to Palestine, the IRA etc. All this still begs the question as to why NATO targeted him and not, say, Syria? The answer is obviously not simple as imperialist motivations are complex and often apparently contradictory, but if it were not for oil imperialist intentions would certainly be focussed elsewhere.

Libya is the largest oil economy in the African continent. It has 3.5% of the world’s proven oil reserves. On top of that its “sweet light crude” has amongst the lowest sulphur content in the world. It is immensely profitable as it costs only $1 a barrel to produce at a time when world oil prices are more than 100 times that figure. Gaddafi was immensely skilful at playing off one oil company against another. When his Revolutionary Command Council took over in the bloodless overthrow of the British puppet king Idris in 1969 he had inherited in the 1955 Petroleum Law a unique situation amongst oil producers at that time. The whole oil industry had not been handed over to one company (as say, in Iran or Saudi Arabia). And all contracts were short term (5 years maximum). He thus could put pressure on these companies to raise revenues and when they did not comply he got rid of them and Libyan National Oil Company took over their operations. By 1979 Libyan oil revenue quintupled and per capita income reached $10,000 a year. Libya was the richest country in Africa with free health and education services (apparently not of great quality). Although 80% of its food is imported this was distributed at subsidised levels. But 1979 was also the year that the US put Libya on its list of state sponsors of terrorism and the sanctions regime began. As we said this led to a crisis in the regime exacerbated by the fact that the main beneficiaries of the oil revenue were Gaddafi’s supporters in the West of the country (the old Tripolitania) the Gadadfa tribe and, increasingly, the Colonel’s growing family.

Gaddafi’s survival for 42 years was thus largely due to a combination of brutality and economic wellbeing. It was also due to his shrewdness in playing on imperialist rivalries but, when sanctions were ended in 2003, he made two miscalculations. The first was that he opened up the competition to explore for Libyan oil to the Chinese. In 1960 the so-called seven sisters of British and American oil companies controlled world oil production outside the Eastern bloc. The NATO allies could tolerate the Libyan National Oil Company playing tough but when it came to losing yet more strategic ground in Africa and in the oil stakes to China in the middle of a global economic crisis this was a step too far. By last year 11% of Libya’s oil was destined for China and the Chinese National Oil Consortium had 30,000 workers in Libya. When Gaddafi threatened to nationalise all Western oil operations on March 2 and invited Russian, Chinese and Brazilian oil companies to take up new contracts it was the last straw. Just over a fortnight later the UN resolution to allow NATO to bomb Libya was passed (March 19). Not surprisingly Russia, China and Brazil were amongst those who chose to abstain.

But this was not the only miscalculation by Gaddafi. Several US politicians have repeated what Congressman Ed Markey said on March 21:

Well, we're in Libya because of oil. And I think both Japan and the nuclear technology and Libya and this dependence that we have upon imported oil have both once again highlighted the need for the United States to have a renewable energy agenda going forward.

However for the US, and to a lesser extent the European financial capitalists, the situation is slightly more complex. Aside from ever-present strategic issues relating to both the Middle East and Africa the need to control oil production is, as in the case of Iraq (5), also about controlling the trade in oil (and other commodities) in order to maintain the declining dollar as the basis of the world trading system. Saddam Hussein had started to sell oil in euros to avoid paying for the US debt problems in the 1990s. He was also encouraging other states to do the same. And likewise Gaddafi. Although the US had offered Libya huge dollar loans Gaddafi went ahead with a proposal to exclude the dollar from African trade. He came up with the idea of replacing paper money with a gold dinar in order to avoid being a victim of the currency fluctuations which the collapse of Bretton Woods in 1971 had brought about. The US abandonment of the dollar peg to gold has transferred the burden of its debt on to the rest of the world economy. Gaddafi’s idea was to put the whole world economy back on the gold standard for the first time since the Wall St Crash! This would have been a disaster for the banking system but even more for the US. As we have explained many times the greatest imperialist power on the planet is absolutely reliant on the circulation of petrodollars if it is to avoid the consequences of its own crisis (6). Gaddafi had started to convince most in Africa and many in the Middle East and Asia that this was the solution for countries which relied for so much of their revenue on a single commodity. It would however have undermined the domination of the global financial institutions (overwhelmingly based in the US and Europe) over the world economy. Add to this the factor underlined by Eric Encina in the Market Oracle,

One seldom mentioned fact by western politicians and media pundits: the Central Bank of Libya is 100% State owned ... Currently, the Libyan government creates its own money, the Libyan Dinar, through the facilities of its own central bank ... One major problem for globalist banking cartels is that in order to do business with Libya, they must go through the Libyan Central Bank and its national currency, a place where they have absolutely zero dominion or power-broking ability. Hence, taking down the Central Bank of Libya (CBL) may not appear in the speeches of Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy but this is certainly at the top of the globalist agenda for absorbing Libya into its hive of compliant nations (7).

The Libyan Central Bank does not adhere to the Bank for International Settlements (the IMF of the financial world made up of the 55 leading banking states) therefore is not subject to international regulation. On top of that it has 144 tons of gold (8) in its vaults making it the second largest per capita gold holder in the world (after Lebanon). With gold prices going ever higher, and the dollar devaluing by the day, it made sound sense to talk of a gold dinar. The UAE and many other countries with similar economies have begun to seriously consider the idea. Small wonder that Sarkozy in March referred to the Libyan state as “a threat to the world financial system”. It also explains why the Libyan rebels set up their own national bank in Benghazi last March before they even had any political structure. This unprecedented action not only allowed it to obtain finance via a UK company called Vitol (linked to the Conservative Government minister Alan Duncan) which sold Libyan oil on the world market (initially with Qatari help) to finance the anti-Gaddafi fight (8).

At the same it also prepared the ground for receiving Libyan overseas assets which Hilary Clinton in the US had discreetly frozen. With post-war oil production likely to take a year to come on line the activities of this new bank will be crucial in establishing credit lines. At the end of that year though, the new Libyan government will already be in hock to their Western friends and their banking system. The “gold dinar” will be forgotten and we can expect Libya to be integrated into the world banking system.

A Popular Uprising?

Many have compared the rising in Benghazi to the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. This is not strictly accurate. The overthrow of Ben Ali and Mubarak emboldened the Libyan opposition and made the regime more prepared to crack down on the slightest sign of protest. According to some sources last December, in the early days of the 17 day revolt which toppled Ben Ali in Tunisia, some families in Benghazi who were waiting to be rehoused by the State occupied a small housing complex in Benghazi. The regime, frightened by what was going on in Tunisia over-reacted and the violent repression which followed became a last straw for many of those in Benghazi. They have not shared in the oil wealth in the same way as the Western half of country and this had led to occasional revolts over the years. In response to these the most notorious act of the regime was the massacre of 1200 prisoners (from the East of the country) in the Abu Salim prison in June 1996. It took years for the truth to emerge but the festering sore that was left by this massacre was behind the first protests when the lawyer Fathi Terbil who had defended many of those arrested was himself arrested on February 15. Although he was released the next day the Benghazi protestors had decided on a day of rage for February 17. This was the start of the fight against Gaddafi but it was not a popular movement in the sense of the Tunisian and Egyptian movements. It very quickly became a civil war because each tribe has arms and many in Western Libya enjoyed economic benefits from the Gaddafi regime and therefore were prepared to fight for him.

The structure of Libya’s society also militated against a widespread popular protest. Gaddafi deliberately kept it that way. Not only did he create the Jamahiriya (a republic of the masses) in which all political parties, trades unions and other institutions of normal civil society were banned but he deliberately fostered tribalism so that he could deal with each group through its elders. When he came to power 75% of the population was Bedouin and like all other oil rich Middle Eastern states the working class was largely imported (mainly from Egypt but also from Sub-saharan Africa and East Asia). Libyan “workers” were to be found in the sinecures of the state bureaucracies which were in consequence riddled with corruption and uselessness. Most employees only turned up for half a day as they had other ways of supplementing their income.

So who are these Kalashnikov-carrying fighters who are riding around in pickups with mounted machine guns? They are mainly the younger elements to be found in the eastern tribes, the ones who have been denied access to the benefits of Libya’s oil wealth. For the most part the ones who took Tripoli are Berbers from the mountains to the South. They are Salafists (i.e. the most narrow-minded of Islamic fundamentalists). They are not shouting “Allah u Akbar” just to keep their spirits up (as one BBC journalist tried to maintain). They are not fighting to establish a Western-style “democracy” but for an Islamic state (the flag they wave is that of the old monarchy and King Idris’ son waits hopefully in the wings). The only other part of their programme (and the real unifying object of the revolt) is a “redistribution of oil revenue”.

There are already accounts of atrocities by the militias. Any African male is likely to be killed as a suspected mercenary and rape of African females is commonplace (9). Any house displaying a Gaddafi poster is fired on. The NATO powers could be giving birth to a nightmare just as they did in Afghanistan when they turned a blind eye to Islamism in the fight against Soviet imperialism. Already the French intelligence service saw its main man in the opposition, the commander in chief of NTC troops General Abdel Fattah Younes murdered by the Islamic Brotherhood at the end of July. A Minister of the Interior he was one of the first to defect from Gaddafi on February 25 but was suspected of retaining links to the man he helped to power in 1969. The worrying thing for most of the TNC leaders in Benghazi is that many of them are former defectors from the high ranks of Gaddafi’s regime. They have announced that they won’t be going to Tripoli in the short term as it is too dangerous but with Gaddafi gone what they must really fear is putting themselves at the hands of the Salafists riding around town. Any post-Gaddafi process is therefore likely to be fraught with problems. Unlike in Iraq the Western powers are staying out of the direct process of state building. Instead they are hoping that the Kingdoms of Jordan Qatar and the UAE will all take on the task. What dynastic monarchies can offer in helping to create a “free, democratic and inclusive Libya’ is far from clear. As we write Gaddafi still has not been found and so there is plenty to keep the Benghazi coalition together for now. The real problems will come later.

In the meantime what should the position of revolutionaries be? The same as it has always been – one of revolutionary defeatism. Neither Gaddafi nor his opponents offer anything to the working class. The myth that some so-called left wing organisations (usually of Trotskyist origin) are perpetrating that this is a popular revolt which should be supported even if it was bankrolled and bombed into power by NATO only underlines how far they are compromised by capitalism. They maintain that the popular revolt is in danger of being derailed by NATO when in fact this was no Tunisia or Egypt. From the start it has been about tribal war and imperialist opportunity. Given the class structure of Libya and the weakness of an indigenous working class it will only be really liberated as part of a world wide revolution which sweeps away all the Gaddafis, the NATOS and Transitional National Councils all over the planet.


(1) The document found by Human Rights Watch in the former office of Moussa Moussa the Libyan ex-Foreign Minister in which British Intelligence colluded in the rendition and torture of Abdul Hakim Belhadj is believed to have been written by Sir Mark Allen. Allen resigned last year after he was passed over for the top job in MI6. He is now a consultant for … BP.


(3) According to the Daily Telegraph 9000 members of the elite Khamis Brigade “a particular target of NATO bombing” were killed in Tripoli alone.


(5) See Permanent War in American Capitalism’s Response to the Crisis in Internationalist Communist 22.

(6) See for example Squaring the Circle – the Contradictions of US Imperialism in Iran, Turkey and Pakistan in Revolutionary Perspectives 44 or US Imperialism’s Hundred Years War in Revolutionary Perspectives 45 but there are many more such articles in previous issues.


(8) See Javier Blas Top trader’s deal with rebels fuelled final push to victory in the Financial Times 6 Sept.

(9) See Wyre Davies on


Thank you Jock for an amazingly detailed analysis of what's really going on in Libya. The labelling of Cameron as "the prime myth-maker of the UK" is dead on. Surely he's missed his true calling which should have been in some branch of shocking melodramatic fiction. The Murdochs would have been happy to publish him. The massive collusion between respectable democratic British members of the bourgeoisie (lol) and their viciously murderous counterparts in Libya (and doubtless elsewhere) covered only by their amazing skills in the art of lying and deceit, is breathtaking in it's scope. The ghastliness and corruption of the global bourgeoisie never ceases to amaze.

A good analysis the only point I would question is whether the Libyan crisis can best be characterised as a civil war rather than a factional fight between competing bourgeoise factions. I thought a civil war is chacterised by a struggle between two conflicting classes be it the 18c struggles between the landowning aristocracy and bourgeoise or the twentieth century struggles between the bourgeoise and the proletariat.

I also think that the Libyan crisis highlights the futility of following the Trotskyist solution to the crisis which is giving support to one faction against the other faction. The choice between Gaddafi or the TNC for the working class is no choice at all bothh solutions only lead to further repression combined with further explotation of the Libyan working class. To support any type of national liberation struggle is to hand the working class bound over to their exploiters.

When will so called Marxists realise they can't take what was wrote a century ago and apply it to all situations. Marxism is ultimately a method for pursuing the working class struggle for a global communist world or it is nothing. As the global capitalist crisis deepens then all the tensions over currency devaluations will exacerbrate international tensions which means that we may see more Libyan internal factional fights.

An excellent account of the historic and social conditions behind the barrage of Bourgeois media in the service of the various factions of capital. Just one critique; you point out -'The NATO powers could be giving birth to a nightmare just as they did in Afghanistan when they turned a blind eye to Islamism in the fight against Soviet imperialism.'- There is ample evidence that US-CIA support for Islamism and the various Islamic"Brotherhoods" from Algeria to Egypt and elsewhere, both as a counter to competing imperialist interests', France for example. As well as a means of social control as with the Tailbone originally in Afghanistan and perhaps again now. With the knock off benefit of justifying an endless war on terror. A useful justification for the continued permanent war economy, as well as a easy pretext for intervention wherever necessary.