Monday, March 21, 2011

The ‘Bigger Picture’ in the Middle East and the War in Libya

above: Many Libyan rebels and their supporters question intervention

In this article Tristan Ewins explores the complexities of the crisis in Libya, and the broader strategic issues that are driving 'great powers' in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere. Debate at Left Focus is welcome as always.

By Tristan Ewins, March 21st 2011

A week can make a great deal of difference in international politics. Whereas only a short time ago world leaders were ruling out any kind of direct intervention in Libya now ‘it’s on’: not only a flight exclusion zone, but cruise missiles and who knows what else…

World leaders behind the intervention are reminding us – as might be expected – that this is a violent and repressive government. Amnesty International in its 2010 report on Libya noted suppression of freedom of speech, and a great many “unresolved” “disappearances” going back to the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s”. Dissidents have been imprisoned, and corporal punishment has been enforced against women having sexual relations out of wedlock.

Many also feel strongly that the Lockerbie bombing of 1988 – with the deaths of 270 people - is an out-standing atrocity for which ultimately there was not justice.

Those of us with good memories, however, might also recall the litany of crimes of which Saddam Hussein was accused of; gross human rights abuses, war and mass murder -which were put forward as a rationale for war. Opponents of war questioned this rationale for intervention then; and we should be looking more deeply now also.

It’s interesting that the case for intervention against Libya is being made at the same time as severe repression in Bahrain and Yemen; with Saudi intervention in Bahrain to prop up minority Sunni rule (mainly the Bahraini royal family), and a massacre of at least 40 protestors in Yemen – with some claiming more.

And yet there is no call for Western intervention in defence of human rights for either Yemen or Bahrain.

To understand what motivates the ‘Great Powers’ – and why there is support for rebels in Libya but not elsewhere - it’s probably appropriate to consider the realities of geo-politics; and the broader strategic outlook in the region.

The US government is making the necessary noises about democracy and human rights with Yemen and Bahrain to maintain legitimacy - just as occurred with Egypt.

But behind the scenes there is desperate and ruthless geo-politics on all sides. The US and its allies such as Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni government are concerned about Al Qaeda influence in Yemen; or the prospect that human rights for the Shia majority in Bahrain could lead to co-operation with the Shia-dominated Iranian theocracy – threatening the status of the US 5th Fleet based there.

Strategists will be considering the possible future scenario of war with Iran and other countries. They will be considering the importance of possible sea-lane ‘chokepoints’ such as the Straits of Hormuz; the Suez Canal in Egypt; and the Bab of Mandeb – a strategically crucial strait located between Yemen and the Arabian peninsula.

Even Afghanistan has been mooted as a possible future ‘transport and logistical hub’; and apart from the poppy trade the mountainous country is highly defendable in the sense of a conventional conflict. Afghanistan also borders Iran and could provide access to Russia via Central Asia. In a future war Afghanistan could be crucial – as the Russians realised in the 1980s.

After Kosovo’s secession from Slavic-dominated Serbia was recognised by much of what is referred to as ‘the international community’ largely Slavic Russia was appalled at this move against what it sees as a ‘natural ally’. Then in 2008 Russia invaded Georgia; ostensibly to achieve self-determination for the Ossetian minority.

In the ‘global game’ it is within the realm of reasonable conjecture to suppose that –in part – Russian intervention against Western-allied Georgia was a ‘tit-for-tat’ reprisal for the Kosovo secession and Western recognition thereof. (although in the context of acting upon a genuine sentiment amongst Ossetians in the region; as was the case with NATO intervention in Kosovo as well) 

It’s also within the realm of reasonable speculation that Russian arms trade with Iran may have been a ‘bargaining chip’ in the context of the implementation of the proposed ‘missile defence shield’ in Eastern Europe; and Russia’s fear of a downgrading of its own nuclear deterrent.

A similar logic may be at play in the Middle-East and North Africa today with the demise of Western-friendly authoritarian governments in Egypt and elsewhere. But the strategic significance of Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen in particular means a lot more is at stake than many realise.

The Iranians are certainly sceptical about the justification for intervention in Libya being made by the Americans, British, French and others under the banner of UN Security Council support.
Kaveh L. Afrasiabi from ‘Iran Review’ has observed that:

There is a growing sentiment in Tehran that the West's real intention in Libya is to capitalize on Gaddafi's repressive gains over the opposition to generate a region-wide counter-momentum vis-a-vis the popular upsurge throughout the Arab world that has destabilized the US-backed status quo.”

There may be some truth in this. Importantly, though, Gaddafi and the Egyptian 'Muslim Brotherhood' - which rose to prominence with the struggle in Egypt - don’t seem to see ‘eye to eye’. Gaddafi has repressed the organisation in Libya in the past, and leading Muslim Brotherhood ClericYusuf al-Qaradawi has called for Gaddafi to be shot: put to death.

So what’s going on in Libya specifically doesn’t look like ‘retaliation’ in that context. But again – lack of US and UN intervention in Bahrain and Yemen show that strategic questions are taking precedence over immediate issues of human rights.

As to the question what strategically is at stake in Libya: It accounts for 12% of EU oil imports, and 27% of oil imports for Italy. Sustained instability could be costly for Europe, but removal of Gaddafi could provide some long term advantage..

More detail on Libya specifically…

From a position where military intervention was ruled out just a short time ago, at this point events in Libya are developing rapidly, and is there is no telling where the intervention may lead..
On March 13th ‘NineMSN’ reported on the Arab League’s decision to recognise the rebel movement as the true representatives of the Libyan people, calling on Gaddafi to “relinquish power immediately”.

Syria opposed this stance, perhaps fearing intervention against its own interests in the future.

And the United Nations Security Council has more recently supported a ‘No Fly Zone’ and intervention in the civil war.

Finally, on March 18th

“the UN Security Council passed a vote calling for "all necessary measures" against forces loyal to the Libyan leader”; “with abstentions from Russia, China, Brazil, Germany and India.”

Earlier on in the crisis the US government and others were reluctant to use the term ‘civil war’ to describe what was going on in Libya. The conflict was depicted as nothing but pure aggression by the Libyan government and armed forces against its own defenceless civilians. While the Libyan government’s repression and violence against its own people is part of the picture, though, it is not the entire picture. As events have progressed it has became clear that civil war and revolution are the context of the Libyan crisis.

Two positions on this question are emerging on the Australian Left.

Recently at ‘Left Focus’, Benjamin Solah from ‘Socialist Alternative’ expressed no doubt that the Libyan government was using “helicopters and fighter jets to bomb and mow down demonstrators”. But regardless of this, Solah argued against intervention on the grounds it would make matters worse. (along the lines of the Iraq war and occupation; with the terror, underground power struggle and strife which followed) Similar positions are held by many on the Australian revolutionary-Marxist Left; although it would probably be incorrect to suppose this outlook is homogenous amongst those of that disposition.

Meanwhile Guy Rundle at ‘Crikey’ contends there has arisen on what he calls the “Anti-Imperialist Left’ “an utter contradiction…between solidarity and anti-imperialism” where “what is unquestionably a revolution is [portrayed as] asking for ‘imperial’ support.” Rundle also notes the Bolsheviks’ dealing with the Germans during the First World War as proof anti-Imperialist politics have never been simple.

In light of such arguments, should we be for or against intervention?

To begin with, considering the stakes, how much do we know about the conflict?;

In the author’s home country Australia it seems there has been little or no detailed treatment of who the Libyan rebels really are. Looking elsewhere, such information was also hard to find.

Eventually the author found a passage in the New York Times depicting the rebel leadership as “a council of opposition leaders made up of lawyers, academics, judges and other prominent figures”.

Another writer mentions an organisation called the “Libyan National Council” which is organising resistance in the east.

George Joffe - writing for the BBC - mentions opposition from “Tribal leaders from the Sa'adi tribes, traditionally hostile to the Gaddafi regime” as well as defection from army units.

Finally of interest is a website belonging to a group calling itself the ‘Libyan Youth Movement’.

Further questions include how the rebels have organised and prepared for this day. Weapons and training appear to have been provided by defecting military units. Were the rebels receiving outside help, and if so from who? And if agreements were made in that context: to what effect?

As Rundle’s mention of Bolshevik dealings with the German government in World War One shows, revolutionary politics – and politics more generally – is a messy business. Outside support on its own does not invalidate an uprising. But these questions highlight issues of what kind of consequences may ensue should the rebels succeed, or should Gaddafi prevail.

There’s also been very little (perhaps nothing?) in the way of footage of the recent atrocities Gaddafi and his forces are accused of. It’s argued there was a media blackout. And lack of footage is not to say the alleged atrocities against peaceful demonstrators did not occur. The ‘outside world’, after all, knew nothing of Nazi death camps for years. But with the Iraq conflict, and the lies systemically and deliberately told there to provide a rationale for war, it’s difficult to simply take claims of atrocities in Libya purely at face-value without an element of doubt. The lesson for Western powers: Do not be loose with the truth as events such as may be taking place today underscore the importance of keeping the trust and good faith of the public: that there is not such doubt when action genuinely needs to be taken.

Importantly, one website noted that:

“Groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been gathering evidence of human rights abuses, citing sudden arrests, disappearances and deliberate killings of people who joined anti-Gaddafi protests as well as casual onlookers and migrant workers.”,+if+recaptured+by+Muammar+Gaddafi's+troops.html

But in the context of war – with governments acting in our name - we need specifics, and we need them now.

In the author’s home country, Australia, much of the media has moved to mobilise public opinion against the Libyan government and in favour of intervention. It is reasonable to assume the same is the case in the United States and elsewhere as well.

Generally it is assumed that western liberal democracies benefit from pluralism and liberty; and that in the public sphere these influences provide ‘checks and balances’ that help ensure expression of different views, and scrutiny of untruths. While this is theoretically and practically possible – and more the case in liberal democracies than in fascist, authoritarian or Stalinist regimes - this is not to say there is not widespread manipulation of the media in liberal democracies. The power of figures such as Murdoch and Berlusconi illustrate the point; as does the power of figures such as James Packer and Kerry Stokes in Australia.

It is proper for the media in Australia and elsewhere to be pursuing questions of massacres and human rights abuses in Libya. But this does not mean the media should forsake standards, inclusive and contextual representation of viewpoints, and accuracy and objectivity - on the basis of ‘the ends justifying the means’. And where there is lack of competition and real diversity in the mass media ‘mobilisation of public opinion’ is especially problematic. Once the precedent is set, loss of such standards in the mass media becomes a vicious and self-perpetuating circle which undermines the very foundations – and hence legitimacy and meaningful practice- of liberal and pluralist democracy.

In any intervention many lives will be lost. The bottom line is that when our governments act in our name in support of military intervention it is appropriate that we be given the full truth: that we have all the knowledge we need to make a fully-informed choice what policies we support as citizens.

We should be demanding consistency elsewhere as well – with human rights abuses in Bahrain and Yemen. And even if strategic considerations are real, we should nonetheless be demanding the true and full story when it comes to Western interventions in Afghanistan, the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere. At this point it does not appear that the United States and other Western powers are even attempting to balance and reconcile strategic and human rights questions in Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere.

The choices we are faced with

Assuming we were in possession of all the relevant information, though, that’s not to say everyone would be agreed as to what course of action was right.

In this context of ‘specific likely consequences’ a ‘general law’ against intervention ‘anywhere’ or ‘ever’ doesn’t make sense. The bottom-line has to be a realistic and thorough consideration of what the likely consequences of intervening really are – as opposed to the consequences of not intervening.

Should Gaddafi be overthrown, is it likely we will see another ‘dirty war’ with retribution and counter-retribution? Perhaps we should consider the sectarian strife in post-war Iraq. Although it’s notable that
Libya is overwhelmingly Sunni, so it is a significantly different situation.

And should intervention be withdrawn and the rebels fail - what kind of reprisals will the Libyan government make?

Further: if the United States and/or other powers become involved on the ground, what is the threat of ‘mission creep’ derailing the rebels’ objectives anyway? (See: Tom Bramble, also from ‘Socialist Alternative’: )

And if the rebels do succeed is it likely the cause of human rights and liberty will be advanced?; Or over the long term - will one authoritarian government be replaced with another? In the context of an ensuing underground ‘dirty war’ is any other outcome possible?

Finally: Even if Gaddafi is a despot and a murderer: can more innocent lives be saved in the long term through compromise rather than war? If Gaddafi anticipates that compromise or defeat will ultimately see him and his inner circle at the Hague – or executed like Saddam Hussein - it’s likely he won’t be of a mind to negotiate. But a compromise solution could aim for inclusion of all the various tribes and other interests in Libyan society.

If we can avoid a descent in Libya into terror and dirty war, we need to act in the genuine interests of the Libyan people. But the first step in making such a decision is for the United States and its European and Arab allies – as well as for the mass media - to be open, upfront and thorough in presenting us with the facts. And arguments for war or intervention need be tested in the context of presentation of diverse viewpoints. So far that has not happened.

Tristan Ewins is a freelance writer and liberal socialist based in Melbourne, Australia. He maintains and publishes the 'Left Focus' blog

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

The mining tax could have paid for the ASU community sector wage claim

In this week's contribution labour movement activist Sarah Howe considers the claim by the ASU (Australian Services Union) for fair pay in the community services sector.  The sector involves mainly women workers, and the union is arguing underpayment is effectively discrimination.   Many are pointing to the potential cost of implementing equal pay, but Howe argues that if the 'Resource Super Profits Tax' (RSPT) had been implemented in its original form - money would not have been a problem.

By Sarah Howe, March 9th 2011

As the media has widely reported, the Australian Services Union is currently running a test case through Fair Work Australia seeking pay rises of between 14 and 50 per cent for about 200,000 mostly women workers in the social and community services sector.

The union wage claim is well deserved-with the media and submissions to Fair Work Australia pointing out that professional front line workers such as non-profit housing support workers are often receiving as little as $18 for extremely qualified and stressful jobs. The importance of the community sector to the health of Australian society and economy can’t be emphasized enough.

The ASU campaign for equal pay for community sector workers (and the growing significance of the sector to the economy) should be seen in the context of the move by Australian government to adopt the UK Blair government model of implementing more engaged, ‘joined up’ and networked approaches to governance and policy-making in recent years- particularly in relation to social policy. This trend has led to planning and service delivery increasingly being devolved to the so called ‘third sector’ (or the community sector). This sector is made up of organizations that are not-for-profit and non-government in diverse industry sectors and is increasingly doing the work traditionally done by government departments and authorities.

In Victoria, the Bracks Governments core social policy document in 1995- A Fairer Victoria: Creating opportunity and addressing disadvantage - aimed to tackle poverty and disadvantage had a strong emphasis on ‘building stronger communities’(Victorian Government: 2005). The community building strategy in this policy often has given responsibility to the community sector to plan and implement social policy outcomes, for instance with urban renewal programs. This is certainly the case in the Carlton context, where I work overseeing an employment program assisting newly arrived refugees into jobs.

In practice today, the community sector now both plans place based social services as well as delivering services on the ground-sometimes with the help of Federal, State and Local Government grants. However, despite the responsibility given to the community sector, significant investment is now required.

The negative view of the Blair model argues that ‘local self help, volunteering and social entrepreneurship are no alternative to progressive state and national tax, income security, service delivery and labour market policies needed to create the conditions for broad and sustainable reductions in poverty, inequality and social exclusion’(quoted in Wiseman, J: 2006).

‘No amount of local community capacity building can substitute for long term investment in core public infrastructure of schools, hospitals, health centers, housing, transport, parks and meeting places that can provide the real foundations for resilient and healthy communities’ (Wiseman, J: 2006 ).

Social services are in high demand, but often woefully under-funded. In my work, I am currently establishing an occasional childcare service to support housing commission residents look for work in Carlton. Yesterday I inspected a similar service managed by a not for profit agency in Broadmeadows. The Broadmeadows service assists newly arrived migrants study English at a location close to their children.

The Manager of the service told me how difficult it was to run the childcare centre, off a low funding base - including paying the current award wages. As we walked to the childcare centre, she joked that they call it the Hawke building- it was paid for under the 1990’s Federal Government capital grants scheme. This scheme does not exist now. Many parents wish it did, as childcare shortages are legendary, and the Local Government and community sector are struggling to provide these vital social services to families in the community. These services are critical for women seeking to re-enter the workforce.

The Federal Government’s response to this investment shortfall is to continually reiterate its desire to ensure fiscal sustainability and return the budget to surplus. In relation to the ASU wage claim, the initial response by the Federal Government was to say that any additional wage costs would come at the expense of other government funded services (Commonwealth Government in The Australian: 2010).

However, in December 2010, the Federal Government at the instigation of the PM intervened to clarify that Fair Work Australia should not award or discount equal remuneration because of the potential impact on the Commonwealth - however despite this reassurance, not much detail was provided on how the wage claim or ongoing capital investment costs of the sector would be met in the future.

While the Federal Government clarification is a positive development for the wage claim, I agree with Kerryn Williams’s recent article in Green Left Weekly in arguing that mining company BHP Billiton’s $10.5 billion profit for the second half of 2010 ‘highlights the shameless greed of those making a fortune out of Australia’s valuable resources’ and underscores the loss for social policy associated with the enormous reduction in revenue associated with the watered down Minerals Resource Rent Tax (MRRT). Recent Treasury estimates indicate that the MRRT will reduce the original RSPT’s 40% tax to just 30%, and will bring in well under half the revenue (Williams: 2011).

“The original tax was supposed to raise about $99 billion starting from the 2012-13 financial year until 2020-21. But it now looks like this figure will be only $38.5 billion. That’s $60.5 billion that could have been spent on health care, education or the shift to renewable energy” (Williams: 2011).

We could add to Williams list of social policy funding needs- the costs of urgently needed community infrastructure and labor costs (the wages bill from the ASU case estimated conservatively to be worth Victorian tax payers $200 million and at the most $1.7 billion over four years). In the absence of reform of the taxation system, the phased in strategy for labor cost increases will have to suffice.

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The Australian, ‘Government warns on women's pay rises’ November 19th, 2010

The Age, Equal pay case could cost Victoria $1.7bn, February 2, 2011

Wiseman, J. ‘Local Heroes: Learning from Recent Community Strengthening Initiatives in Victoria’, Australian Journal of Public Administration, Vol. 65, No. 2, June 2006, pp. 95-107

Williams, K, Mining profits reveal true greed, Green Left Weekly, March 6th, 2011.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Libya - Why Western Intervention is Counter to Democracy

above: full scale civil war is developing in Libya; But Benjamin Solah is against intervention...

In this week's submission to 'Left Focus' radical horror author Benjamin Solah gives his views on how Western intervention in Libya could actually worsen the plight of the Libyan people - rather than free them from oppression. As usual debate is welcome!

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The wave of revolution across the Arab world continues to spread faster than most of us can possibly keep up with, with protests continuing in Tunisia and Egypt as well as Libya, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, among other countries – and even beyond the Arab world. Even states in the US like Wisconsin are fighting their governments and citing inspiration from Egypt.

But one of the key fronts in the battle for mass democracy is Libya, where Gaddafi’s hold on power is being defended with some of the most extreme violence we’ve had reports of; he’s even used helicopters and fighter jets to bomb and mow down demonstrators, but it’s a testament to those who are fighting that not even this will stop them and it is their actions that will inevitably decide Gaddafi’s fate. It will be them, and not some outside force. I wanted to respond to some of the calls for US (or UN, Western, or any outside) intervention into Libya and why this would be a grave mistake for anyone who supports the Libyan revolution.

US Secretary of State (and no friend of mass democracy) Hilary Clinton has indicated that the US is leaving open a number of options in dealing with Libya as if it’s their fight, and the Navy have positioned aircraft carriers and other military vessels in the Red Sea and other locations around Libya. With sanctions now in place, the UN, NATO and other imperialist forces are discussing what to do. And I am opposed to any involvement from them whatsoever.

There are supporters of the revolts on Twitter that support intervention from these forces, but it is a grave mistake to support such things. Iraq is a clear example of what ‘democracy’ from the US means and it does not mean an end to violence. Have people forgotten about Iraq? Did they forget the millions killed by US troops? Did they forget that as soon as the US invaded it actually resulted in a surge of support for Saddam’s regime as people united against the US? There have even been protests in Iraq in the last few weeks that have been put down by US troops still stationed in the country, despite Obama’s façade of a withdrawal.

There is a very stark difference between ‘democracy’ in Iraq via the US military and democracy in Egypt by the masses of Egyptians themselves. It is only the masses that can liberate themselves. And an intervention from the West would not only destroy that, but also destroy more lives instead of saving them. Egypt proved that the people of the Arab world don’t need the US, that they can do it themselves, and do a damn better job. This is because of the power of mass struggle, as well as the working-class halting production, but also because their fight for democracy is genuine. The kind of democracy the US promises is a joke. The US has backed and continues to back dictators in the region such as Mubarak, have armed police and army forces trying to put down revolts, and only seem to remove their support when it looks like their ‘bastard’ is losing. When there are images of Egyptians holding tear gas canisters reading ‘Made in the USA’ you really have to wonder how anyone can think they’re a benevolent force in the region.

And this applies to not only the US, but other Western powers like NATO and the UN as well. The colour of the helmet or the banner the troops fight under changes nothing about the role they play, and foreign troops will always go into a country based on the interests of those powers not the people they claim to be saving. The fact that America’s mission in the Middle East failed, but Egyptians got rid of a dictator in just over two weeks makes the US not only irrelevant but counter-productive to any progressive change in the region, and so any attempts to back or support revolts after changing sides is an attempt to restore the false image of the US as a force for good.

Rather than the US, a much stronger force to end the violence and bring down Gaddafi quickly, is the power of the working class. After the people occupied Tahrir Square for two weeks, it was the workers in Egypt that dealt Mubarak his final blow. After three days of striking and production grinding to a halt, Mubarak could not hold on any longer.

In Libya, moving the struggle into the workplaces could be decisive not only because it would halt the flow or profits to the regime, but suppressing the struggle becomes much harder. It’s easy for them to mow down demonstrators in the streets, but if the struggle is inside factories and infrastructure owned by the Libyan state critical to the running of the economy, Gaddafi can’t exactly just bomb those to the ground or he would hurt himself.

It is clear that the Libyan people do not want and also need no involvement from the outside. The people of the Middle want no such thing either. The US and its allies need to remove all support for dictators in the region and get out of region completely. This fight is not theirs: it is the fight of the people using the power of the masses to turn the world upside down. And the role of the working-class in the Arab world is the key to bringing down these tyrants quickly and in the least violent way possible.

Benjamin Solah is a self-described ‘Marxist Horror Writer’ combining his love of horror’s dark aesthetic and his world view of revolutionary socialism. This article was originally published at his personal blog, ‘Blood and Barricades’; see:

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