A disservice to the antiwar movement

July 12, 2011

Michael Fiorentino and Jeremy Tully argue that the group ANSWER is wrong to tie the anti-imperialist struggle to the defense of a tyrant like Mummar el-Qaddafi.

THE U.S.-led NATO bombing of Libya must end--and Libya's dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi must be supported as a progressive and an anti-imperialist. These were the twin messages of mid-June "Eyewitness Libya" speaking tour sponsored by the antiwar group ANSWER and featuring former U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney.

McKinney was joined on the tour by the Nation of Islam's Akbar Muhammad and various ANSWER activists, as well as former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark at some stops. But all of the speakers voiced the same point at the meetings--that in order to oppose the NATO bombing of Libya, antiwar and anti-imperialist activists need to accept that Qaddafi and his regime are progressive.

ANSWER, a leading organization involved in the U.S. antiwar movement, promoted its tour as revealing the truth about NATO's bombing of Libya. But when we attended the San Francisco stop, the presentations were at least as much about supporting Qaddafi as opposing the bombing.

This message does a disserve to the antiwar movement by associating opponents of the U.S. war machine with a regime that, while it is under attack by the West today, was a valued ally in the "war on terror" only a few months ago, and that has a terrible record of political repression and human rights abuses.

Muammar el-Qaddafi
Muammar el-Qaddafi

Not only does ANSWER wrongly claim that opposition to NATO and U.S. bombing must entail support for Qaddafi, but it has shown a disregard for democratic discussion, which needs to be at the center of any effort to rebuild the antiwar movement.

AT THE San Francisco stop on the "Eyewitness Libya" tour, we heard McKinney--who had just returned from a "fact-finding mission" that took her only to Qaddafi-controlled areas of Libya--make a number of bizarre statements about the Libyan government, including that Libyans enjoy a participatory democracy: "Libyans govern themselves by The Green Book, a form of direct democracy based on the African constitution concept that the people are the first and final source of all power."

McKinney left no doubt about her backing of Libya's leader of 42 years, going so far as to connect his rule with support for the Black liberation struggle in the U.S.: "There are many people who criticize the support that we give not just for the Libyan people but for Muammar Qaddafi. But as an African American, what I can say to you is that when Black people were fighting oppression and apartheid conditions in this country, it was Libyan people and Muammar Qaddafi who helped them."

The other speakers were equally clear in their pro-Qaddafi message. The Nation of Islam's Akbar Muhammad claimed that Libyan rebels carried out a lynching campaign against Black Libyans, an allegation that has been challenged by left-wing voices. He repeatedly referred to Libya's dictator as "Brother Qaddafi."

ANSWER representative Omar Ali bragged that the rebels--whom McKinney, taking a cue from Qaddafi himself, described as both allies of the U.S. and tied to al-Qaeda--were on the verge of being "crushed" in the eastern city of Benghazi before NATO's military intervention. He insisted that it was wrong to "lump the Libyan uprising in with Egypt and Tunisia."

After the presentations, the audience was subjected to a 30-minute video produced by the Qaddafi regime. The video showed the corpses of dead Libyan soldiers surrounded by rebel fighters against the backdrop of ominous music, with a narrative about how the rebels were Western operatives attempting to foment a civil war. There wasn't a single dead rebel fighter nor innocent civilian killed by the regime's forces among the pictures of the war dead.

Throughout the evening, Qaddafi was described as a pan-African nationalist and anti-imperialist. But the record of his 40-plus years in power shows a different reality.

For example, Qaddafi has hardly been the equitable distributor of wealth that the tour's speakers made him out to be--30 percent of Libya's population lives in poverty (a fact not mentioned from the stage), and much of the country's wealth remains in the hands of a small elite.

Qaddafi's anti-imperialism has also been much exaggerated. He was, indeed, demonized as a madman by the U.S. in the 1980s--the Reagan administration launched an air strike aimed at killing him that instead killed his 2-year-old adoptive daughter.

But Qaddafi consciously set out to overcome this pariah status. By the turn of the new century, he was considered an ally of the U.S. Qaddafi supported the U.S.-backed "war on terror" and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Moreover, he has developed a cozy relationship with Italy's right-wing Berlusconi government and opened up Libya's oil resources to significant foreign investment.

In the early days of the rebellion, Qaddafi used the ideological framework of the "war on terror" to discredit those who were rising up against his rule, claiming absurdly that al-Qaeda had slipped hallucinogenic drugs into young Libyans' coffee, thereby disorienting them enough to revolt.

In reality, the rebellion in Libya was inspired by the mass democratic revolutions in its two neighbors along the Mediterranean coast, Tunisia and Egypt. In Libya, people fed up with the lack of democracy and profound inequality took to the streets to show their opposition to the status quo--first in the eastern part of the country near the Egyptian border, then spreading toward the capital of Tripoli, before Qaddafi rallied the regime's forces for a counter-offensive.

The reason the uprising in Libya shared so many features of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere is because they were all driven by the same underlying conditions of poverty, oppression and political repression.

But to ANSWER, the Libyan rebels were all CIA stooges, motivated not by a desire for freedom and democracy, but to do the bidding of the U.S. and other Western governments.

Of course, there are anti-Qaddafi figures and organizations in Libya with longstanding connections to the U.S., and a number of them are now represented on the Transitional National Council, which has claimed to speak for the whole opposition in Libya. But there are at least as many stories and examples from early on in the rebellion to show the opposite--for example, when rebels promptly evicted British MI6 agents they discovered inside Libya.

One of the primary aims of the Western intervention has been to shift the balance within the opposition to those who can be relied on to protect U.S. and European interests. U.S. officials have actively promoted not only those who were on the CIA payroll for years, but military officials who until just months ago were part of Qaddafi's regime.

The West wants a regime to replace Qaddafi that will be amenable to striking deals with Washington--as well as a reliably pro-U.S. government as a beachhead in the midst of the upheavals in the Arab world. Diplomatic and political attempts to shape the anti-Qaddafi opposition are every bit as important to this goal as the NATO bombing campaign. Opponents of the U.S. war machine must oppose every aspect of Western intervention.

But to claim that the rebellion against Qaddafi was driven by Western influence in the first place is to turn the real history of the uprising upside down.

THE "EYEWITNESS Libya" tour illustrates a further issue--the question of building a democratic movement that welcomes all opponents of U.S. power and supporters of the Arab revolutions.

In February, ANSWER members in San Francisco--who had supported earlier protests in solidarity with the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia--gave the cold shoulder to Libyan activists organizing a February 26 demonstration in solidarity with the rebellion in their country. Organizers agreed beforehand on a message of opposing Western intervention. Thus, ANSWER's refusal to support the demonstration can only be explained as the result of its backing of Qaddafi. Through its actions, ANSWER has tried to create a wedge between Libyan solidarity activists and the antiwar movement.

During the "Eyewitness Libya" tour, Libyans were barred from the Los Angeles event. "Not only did ANSWER tell them that they would not be allowed to pay their $10 and attend the event, a line of ANSWER people formed a human wall to divide the sidewalk between and us and them," wrote author Clay Carson on the Daily Kos website.

In San Francisco, Libyan opponents of Qaddafi were allowed into the event, but were treated with hostility. Nevertheless, during the discussion, a Black Libyan who said he had endured torture at the hands of the Qaddafi regime called out ANSWER for its allegations that the rebels were racist.

A Libyan activist Hoda Emneina, who supports the intervention, spoke next, saying: "There is a difference between being against intervention and standing with a murderer. I can respect if you are anti-intervention, but what I cannot respect is that you spread Qaddafi's lies, saying he is for the Libyan people. He is not for the Libyan people!"

ANSWER has played an important role in the antiwar movement, and all those who oppose war and imperialism need to work together to build opposition to the U.S. empire. But if ANSWER wishes to tie the antiwar movement to a defense of tyrants like Qaddafi, that position needs to be challenged. Linking antiwar politics to support for Qaddafi or any other dictator is destructive to a movement that stands for peace and justice.

As for Cynthia McKinney, we agree with the Palestinian authors of a recent open letter urging her to rethink her pro-Qaddafi position:

The Palestinian and Libyan peoples are connected, both struggling against state-sponsored brutality and political repression. Palestinians stand in solidarity with our Libyan brothers and sisters in their revolution against Qaddafi, as well as others rising up against oppressive dictatorships in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. The Palestinian movement for human rights, civil rights and equality has been invigorated and inspired by these pro-democratic movements.

We need an antiwar movement that can continue to protest U.S. wars and occupations in the Middle East--and that embraces all those inspired by the spread of the Arab revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East. Such a movement will only be weakened by associating our struggle with regimes, whether allied to the U.S. or not, that crush political dissent and uphold an unjust system.

Further Reading

From the archives