Libya, Imperialism and the Refugee Crisis

By Joe Delapaine

Starting in 1969, when a group of nationalist officers led a progressive coup against the corrupt Kind Idriss, a series of extensive programs substantially raised the living standards for the people of Libya. For years, right up to the NATO-led overthrow of the nationalist state in 2011, Libya’s six million people enjoyed Africa’s highest standard of living. Libya’s oil reserves funded widespread literacy programs and kept education, housing and health care accessible and affordable to its people.

Prior to this progressive period, Libya was a neocolony, its leader subservient to U.S. and British imperialism. Before the defeat of Italy in WWII, Libya was colonized by Italy. Between 1911 and 1943, thousands of Italian immigrants moved to Libya, with the pace of immigration picking up once the Italian government became fascist. This is brutally ironic today, considering Italian politicians are attempting to ban Libyans from immigrating to their country. Rather than funding search and rescue missions for Libyan and other African immigrants in the sea, Neo-fascists and others on Italy’s far right go so far as to suggest “sinking all boats” as a deterrent. (1)

Much of the reporting on the crisis of people escaping the desperation of living under a failed state has been sensational and reactionary, with articles warning of an impending “terrorist invasion” and characterizing ships rescuing drowning immigrants as “taxi cabs for potential jihadists.” (2)

Media leaves out historical context

The commercial media’s reporting of this crisis is troubling and confusing, since it avoids any historical context. It was a little over 100 years ago when Libya became colonized by Italy. Before that, the territories now known as Libya were controlled by the Ottoman Empire. Then, in 1911, Italy used a now all-too-familiar pretext of “protecting civilians” to invade and occupy the area. Once it entered, Italy declared war and expanded its military presence until it controlled much of the surrounding region.

A hundred years later, in 2011, the United States and its junior partners used the same excuse of protecting civilians, now with UN cover, to carry out a bombing campaign that led to the violent overthrow of the government. (3)

At the end of World War II, with Italy defeated, Britain and the U.S. seized control of Libya, with the protection and assistance of the United Nations. Muhammad Idriss, again under the watchful eye of the UN, was made Libya’s king. It was his reward for collaborating with British and U.S. imperialism during WWII. (4)

In 1969, Libyan nationalists overthrew the country’s corrupt King Idriss. Under the leadership of Muammar Qaddafi, the U.S. Wheelus Air Base near Tripoli was shut down and Libyans reclaimed their independence.

Progressive measures under Qaddafi

During his reign, Qaddafi kept U.S. and British military bases out of Libya and championed African unity. Libya’s oil wealth was used to fund the independence struggles of other African countries, allowing them some measure of freedom from imperialist domination. This, however, also made Qaddafi and the Libyan people prime targets for U.S.-imposed regime change.

After more than three decades in power, under pressure from U.S. imperialism and fearful of being invaded the Libyan government began to move to the right. It imposed austerity measures as well as cutting programs assisting its poor, policies that had an impact in the level of government support among the people. Libya also attempted a “rapprochement” with the U.S.

U.S. intervention

From 2004 to 2011, while outwardly claiming improved political relations with Qaddafi, the U.S. secretly gathered military intelligence against Libya’s army and bribed collaborators inside and outside Qaddafi’s government.

The U.S. also used this period of “closer relations” with Libya to negotiate a prisoner-release program inside the country. These released prisoners would later become insurgents, acting as NATO’s “boots on the ground” against Qaddafi during the U.S.-NATO bombing campaign.

Many of these same elements were then made high-ranking officials in Libya’s postwar, NATO-installed government. Additionally, these same criminal insurgents were granted immunity from prosecution, again thanks to NATO, for any crimes committed during—or in the period following—the war.

These were the conditions under which the U.S. claims to have “saved Libya’s people from Qaddafi.” To this day, the commercial media in the U.S. and the European Union characterize this war, which has led to the destruction of Libya, as “revolutionary.”

Libya now a ‘failed state’

Since the war’s end, Libya’s newly formed, militia-run police force terrorizes religious minorities and officials and workers who previously served under Qaddafi. This effectively has prevented tens of thousands of experienced government workers from providing millions of Libyans access to any form of government program or service. Currently, daily life for Libyans has been rendered both dysfunctional and untenable as a result of this ongoing Western intervention.

Under Qaddafi, Libya’s government was stable, secular and largely independent of U.S. influence. Since the U.S./NATO-imposed regime change, Libya has been degraded to the point of being a “failed state” with no functioning government or security force to protect its people.

Libya has grown increasingly unstable and in a perpetual state of civil war. Living conditions are desperate, food is scarce, the economy has collapsed and groups of armed militias roam the streets carrying out acts of terror against the people. As a result of a total lack of security, tens of thousands of working people are fleeing the country using any means at their disposal.

The crisis has gotten so desperate that thousands of Libyans have drowned at sea while attempting to escape their war-ravaged country. Still others are victimized by human traffickers as they attempt to cross the border by land. People from other African countries are also going through Libya, seeking refuge from the colonial legacy of poverty and destitute.

Rather than accepting responsibility, or even expressing sympathy, Europe is turning the refugees back by the tens of thousands, or holding them indefinitely in detention centers.

To make matters worse, the U.S. and its European allies are now blaming Libya’s refugees, as evident by recent headlines from The New York Times and Chicago Tribune: “Rising Toll on Migrants Leaves Europe in Crisis” (5), “Libya’s chaos arrives at gates of Europe.” (6) According to the capitalist press, Libya isn’t the unwitting victim in this crisis, Europe is!

To be clear, the U.S. and its imperialist NATO allies are directly responsible for creating these horrific conditions. Qaddafi did not initiate the war, NATO did. However, the corporate media in the U.S. scarcely mention this fact.

A recent article in Washington Post typically fails to establish causation between where Libya is today and the role of U.S./NATO in the murder of Qaddafi and the overthrow of the state, simply writing, “Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi suggested that the real problem lies in Libya, which is a main departure point for migrants and has become a failed state in the aftermath of allied military action that helped bring down the regime of Moammar Qaddafi in 2011 (emphasis added).” (7)

A clearer assessment of U.S. intervention would point out that before the 2011 invasion, the U.S. government armed and funded anti-Qaddafi, pro-Western “rebels,” some of whom were former members of Qaddafi’s government. When this militia faced overwhelming defeat at the hands of Qaddafi’s military, and was on the verge of losing control of Benghazi—their only stronghold in the country—the Obama administration panicked and forced through United Nations Resolution 1973, allowing NATO to bomb Libya under the pretense of “protecting” civilians.” The UN then imposed a No-Fly Zone over the country and NATO began bombing.

PSL opposed imperialist intervention

In 2011, long before the U.S.-backed overthrow of Qaddafi’s government, the Party for Socialism and Liberation took the principled position of opposing any imperialist intervention in Libya.

Some forces on the left criticized the PSL for taking this position. This included self-described socialist organizations who attended and organized pro-war rallies in front of the White House alongside pro-U.S. Libyan exiles chanting, “Thank You, NATO!”

Unfortunately, it is now clear that those progressives and liberals who supported the so-called revolution, sided with the imperialists and supported U.S. intervention in Libya were dead wrong. The U.S./NATO bombing of Libya began March 19, 2011, and lasted seven months. During this time, NATO carried out ten thousand bombing runs over Libya, reducing the country and its infrastructure to rubble. The Libyan state collapsed, Qaddafi was assassinated and the U.S.-backed “rebels” seized power.

Those “rebels” mainly belonged to one of two groups: religiously conservative, reactionary forces, on the one hand; and on the other, corrupt pro-imperialist opportunists selling the country’s oil fields off to multinational corporations.

Libyans are now leaderless, and living conditions are far worse than anything experienced during the decades when Qaddafi led the country.

Based on this experience, there should no longer be any confusion when it comes to supporting U.S. imperialism. The U.S. and E.U. will continue to attempt to expand into sovereign, independent countries because they follow the capitalist logic of expand or die. The U.S. needs to strengthen its empire or face a crisis at home. This is why the U.S. decided that Qaddafi “had to go.” He was an obstacle to imperialist access to Libya’s vast oil reserves and to re-establishing U.S. military bases in Libya and much of Africa.

As with Libya, the U.S. has decided Syria’s leader, Bashar Al-Assad “must go.” In 2013, the U.S. came close to launching a bombing campaign against Syria. However, the uncertainty of the imperialist establishment about the potential outcome of another war, strong worldwide opposition to another U.S. bombing campaign, and Russia’s intervention prevented a Libya style NATO intervention. Since then, the U.S. has exploited the rise of the Islamic State  to intervene militarily in Syria and again in Iraq. Yet again, the U.S. is bombing civilians in order to “save” them.

It is critical for people inside the U.S. to organize and unite to stop a further expansion of the current wars—including the use of drones—carried out by the U.S. along with its NATO allies and junior partners. The Libyan people face a tremendous challenge and incredible hardship. Through struggle, once again, the Libyan people will exercise their right of self-determination and reclaim their independence.


1 Reuters, ANTONIO DENTI, April 19, 2015, Hundreds drown off Libya, EU leaders forced to reconsider migrant crisis  (back)
2 The Telegraph, Nick Squires,6:36PM BST 16 April 2015 (back)
3 (back)
4 Ibid. (back)
5 NYT – Rising Toll on Migrants Leaves Europe in Crisis; 900 May Be Dead at Sea, JIM YARDLEY, April 20, 2015 (back)
6 Libya’s chaos arrives at gates of Europe, Alessandra Migliaccio and Tarek El-Tablawy, Bloomberg, April 20, 2015 (back)
7 Calls for action in Europe after migrant disaster in Mediterranean, Anthony Faiola, April 19, 2015 (back)
8 NYT, A New Power In the Street, PATRICK E. TYLER, Feb. 17, 2003