By Stephen Gowans
While the class character of regimes under siege by Western powers is often explored in analyses of imperialist interventions and is frequently invoked to justify them, it neither explains why capitalist imperialist powers intervene nor stands as a justification for their actions.
The relevant consideration in explaining why interventions occur is not the political orientation of the government under siege, nor its relations with its citizens, but whether it accommodates the profit-making interests of the dominant class in the intervening countries. Does it welcome foreign investment, allow repatriation of profits, demand little in the way of corporate income tax, open its markets, and offer abundant supplies of cheap labor and raw materials? Or does it impose high tariffs on imports, subsidize domestic production, operate state-owned enterprises (displacing opportunities for foreign-private-owned ones), force investors to take on local partners, and insist that workers be protected from desperation wages and intolerable working conditions?
Much as it might be supposed that imperialist interventions target worker and peasant-led governments alone, this is not the case. Regimes that promote national bourgeois interests by denying or limiting the profit-making interests in their own countries of the dominant class of other countries are routinely targeted for regime change, especially if they are militarily weak or have pluralist political systems that afford space for destabilization and political interference. Since the effects are the same in imperialist countries of a local regime, say, expropriating a foreign-privately-owned oil company, no matter whether the company is turned over to local business people, the state, or the company’s employees, it is a matter of supreme indifference to imperialist countries whether the expropriation is carried out by communists, socialists or radical nationalists. Whether you’re inspired by Marx and Lenin, 21st century socialism, or the actually-existing capitalist policies that the United States, Germany and Japan followed to challenge Britain’s industrial monopoly, if you’re going to mess with the profit-making opportunities of an imperialist country’s capital class, it will mess with you.
Gaddafi was faulted by the US State Department for his “increasingly nationalistic policies in the energy sector” and for trying to “Libyanize” the economy. (1) He “proved to be a problematic partner for international oil companies, frequently raising fees and taxes and making other demands.” (2) And his pro-Libya trade and foreign investment policies were irritants to Western banks, corporations and major investors as they surveyed the globe for lucrative profit-making opportunities.
Equally likely to be targets of imperialist designs are capitalist rivals that compete for access to investment and trade opportunities in third countries. They too may become the objects of destabilization, economic warfare, and military encirclement.
This is evidenced in one of Nato’s roles: to contest spheres of exploitation. The organization’s secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, explaining why Nato countries need to spend more on their militaries, remarked that: “If you’re not able to deploy troops beyond your borders, then you can’t exert influence internationally, and then that gap will be filled by emerging powers that don’t necessarily share your values and thinking.” (3) You can interpret this to mean that when it comes to Africa and the Middle East—which are likely the regions Rasmussen alludes to–the alliance’s raison d’être is to keep North Americans and Western Europeans in, the Russians, Chinese and Brazilians out, and the natives down. But however you interpret it, it’s clear that the alliance’s secretary general doesn’t understand Nato to be an organization of mutual self-defense, but an instrument to be used by developed countries to compete with emerging ones.
Concerning the validity of interventions by Nato countries, here too reference to the class character of targeted governments misses the point. It is not a regime’s class character, nor how it treats its citizens, that explains the reasons for intervention against it, but the class character of the countries that intervene. This in turn illuminates whether the intervention is valid or not.
The principal Nato countries are all incontestably class societies in which major corporations, banks and ultra-wealthy investors wield out-sized influence over their societies. Their representatives and loyal servants hold key positions in the state, including and especially in the military and foreign affairs, and the corporate rich have access to resources that allow them to lobby governments far more vigorously than any other class or interest can. Accordingly, the foreign policy of these countries reflects the interests of the class that dominates them.
It would be exceedingly odd were this not so. Profit-making concerns don’t melt away when corporate CEOs, corporate lawyers and bankers are assigned to key foreign policy posts in the state; when they develop foreign policy recommendations for governments in elite-consensus-making organizations, like the Council on Foreign Relations; or when they lobby presidents, premiers, and cabinet secretaries and cabinet ministers.
For this reason, US and Nato interventions, while billed as humanitarian for obvious PR reasons, are at their heart, exercises in protecting and advancing the interests of the class that dominates foreign policy. This is clear enough in the business pages of major newspapers.
In recent days, the business section of The New York Times announced that “The scramble for access to Libya’s oil wealth begins.” Eric Reguly, a business columnist with The Globe & Mail, the newspaper of Canada’s financial elite, echoed the point.
“The oil industry’s biggest players, meanwhile, are salivating to reclaim their old concessions and nab new ones, all the more so since their own oil production has been in decline. The vast Ghadames and Sirte basins, largely off limits to foreign oil companies since Col. Gadhafi swept to power 42 years ago, are especially attractive. So is Libya’s offshore area.
“Who will get the prizes? The (National Transitional Council) has already said it will reward the countries that bombed Col. Gadhafi’s forces. ‘We don’t have a problem with Western countries like Italians, French and U.K. companies,’ Abdeljalil Mayouf, a spokesman for the rebel oil company Agogco, was quoted by Reuters as saying. ‘But we may have some political issues with Russia, China and Brazil.’”
Reguly’s column ran under the headline, “They bombed and therefore they shall reap.” They shall reap, too, in another way. “The head of the Transitional National Council, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, explicitly promised to reward those nations that backed Libya’s revolt with contracts in the state’s postwar reconstruction.” (4) This is the charmed circle of aggressive imperialism.
Billions of dollars are sucked out of taxpayers and into the pockets of arms manufacturers to build a war machine. The war machine is pressed into service against countries whose governments have denied or limited the profit-making opportunities of the imperialist country’s corporations, banks and major investors (many of whom have interests in arms manufacturing), causing significant damage to the victim countries’ infrastructure. Comprador regimes are installed, which throw their country’s doors wide open to the intervening country’s exports and investments and invite the intervening country to set up military bases on their territories. At the same time, the new regimes funnel reconstruction contracts to the intervening country to rebuild what its war machine has destroyed. So it is that the capitalist class of the intervening country profits in three ways: From defense contracts; new investment and export opportunities; and post-war rebuilding. A peaceful resolution of Libya’s civil war would have disrupted this charmed circle. Is it any wonder, then, that Washington, Paris, and London ignored all proposals for a negotiated settlement?
An alternative explanation might be offered. While the major oil and engineering companies of the leading Nato countries will profit from Gaddafi’s downfall, the motivation to intervene was nevertheless independent of crass commercial concerns, and was humanitarian at its core.
But if this were so you would have to explain how it was that Nato’s humanitarian concern was uniquely invested in a country in which there are still Western oil-industry-profit-making opportunities to be had, while Nato remained unmoved by humanitarian concern over the plight of Shiite Bahrainis whose peaceful protests were violently suppressed by an absolute monarchy — with the help of the tanks and troops of three other absolute monarchies, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
A third contributor to the violent suppression of the Bahraini revolt, Qatar, deserves special mention. It is celebrated in the Western press for its contribution to the Libyan rebels in arms, warplanes, training, diplomatic recognition, and (in the Qatar-state-owned Al Jazeera) propaganda–a real friend of democracy in its struggle against dictatorship and repression. The New York Times referred to Al Jazeera as an “independent news channel” (5) though it is not clear what Al Jazeera is independent of. The Times has never, to my knowledge, referred to the state-owned media of countries under imperialist siege as “independent,” this laudatory and impossible adjective (all media are dependent—whether on the state or private investors) is reserved for media that have adopted a perspective that is pleasing to the interests of The New York Times’ board of directors and major owner.
Bahrain—a paragon society for Western investors—has already disgorged its profit-making opportunities to Western oil companies. It is also home to the US Fifth Fleet. It is therefore a de facto extension of the US economy, indeed, of US territory, and so its government can do whatever it likes, so long as it continues to keep Wall Street happy. Bombing, sanctions, destabilization and International Criminal Court indictments are reserved for governments that “raise fees and taxes” on US oil firms and try to nationalize their economies, a clear red-line in an imperialist time.
In the view of one sector of the left, imperialist interventions are supportable so long as they lead to the toppling of a capitalist regime, irrespective of its succession by another. Of course, the outcome of any successful imperialist intervention against a bourgeois nationalist regime is its replacement by a comprador one. This hardly amounts to an advance.
For still another sector, the character of the besieged government is all that matters. The character of the intervening state, by contrast, matters not at all – not its domination by corporate, banking and investor interests; not its record of pursuing wars of conquest; and not its resort to fabrication to justify its aggressions. For these leftists, such as they are, the targeted government is reprehensible, while their own is either angelic or well-meaning. In this frame, Gaddafi’s attempts to crush an uprising is understood to be on a more barbaric plane than, say, the war on Iraq, which created a humanitarian catastrophe on a scale Gaddafi’s repressions could never match. What manner of delusion leads one to believe that the United States and Britain, the architects of rapacity and slaughter on a global scale, are (a) angelic and well-meaning, (b) motivated in their foreign policy by humanitarianism, and (c) are playing a constructive role in Libya?
The most pusillanimous of leftists are those who condemn the brutalized and brutalizers equally. They take a comfortable though craven moral stance, but their condemnation of targeted governments is irrelevant. Since the character of governments under siege has nothing whatever to do with the reasons for the intervention, and does not, in the case of capitalist imperialist interventions, justify it, there can be one reason alone for singling out the victim for equal condemnation in the context of his assault: a desire for respectability and a penchant for knuckling under to mainstream opinion, not challenging it and offering an alternative, counter-hegemonic, explanation.
Suppose you live next door to an ill-mannered, thoroughly dislikeable woman who has managed to alienate everyone you know. One day her husband beats her. You can condemn the husband for beating his wife, and say nothing of his wife’s character. Why would you? It doesn’t excuse the husband’s behavior. Or you can condemn both equally, noting that as much as you deplore wife-beating, you also deplore the victim for her bad manners and irksome ways. To do the latter is unsupportable and anyone who did this would be deservedly rebuked. Yet left fence sitters do the same when they insist on condemning the governments of countries that capitalist imperialist countries intervene in to show that they don’t support the crimes of which those governments are accused. Worse, they refuse to even investigate the veracity of the accusations, and then challenge them if they fail to stand up to scrutiny, for fear of being denounced as apologists. Instead, they simply accept the accusations as true, even though similar accusations against other victims on similar occasions have been shown to be fabrications (Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, for example.) This is apologetics of another kind, on behalf of the left fence sitters’ own ruling class. It keeps them on safe ground. They can say later, as so many did in connection with the Iraqi WMD scam, “We didn’t know. I’m shocked, shocked!, that the government deceived us.”
However, the analogy suggests that interventions only happen in countries where governments behave in reprehensible ways, and this isn’t the case. Certainly, the impression produced by the propaganda assault that accompanies interventions is one of targeted regimes being thoroughly detestable and their demise consequently to be wished for, even if the intervention that brings it about is undertaken for the wrong reasons. And leftists, if they’re to be taken seriously in the court of respectable mainstream opinion, are expected to genuflect before the depiction of targeted countries as criminal lest they be accused of being apologists for dictators, or useful idiots. But it sometimes happens that the crimes of which targeted regimes are accused are not crimes at all, or if they are, are mild ones at worst.
The narrative used to explain the need for intervention in Libya is that a peaceful uprising of democracy-loving Libyans against the Gaddafi dictatorship was about to be crushed in blood. A narrative that navigates closer to the truth is that the uprising, touched off by surrounding events in Tunisia and Egypt, originates in the longstanding rift between a nationalist, government on the one hand, and Islamists and comprador elements on the other. While this fails to explain the uprising in full, it explains a good part of it. Is the repression of reactionary forces that threaten the state a crime? If you’re a Libyan Islamist, monarchist or CIA-backed exile, the answer is yes, just as it is if you’re an ideologue for this particular imperialist intervention. But if you’re Gaddafi, and his nationalist supporters, the answer is no.
Significantly, few people are seriously calling for Nato to mount an operation to protect Bahraini civilians from the violent repression of an absolute monarchy. However much the Khalifa regime’s crackdown on Bahraini protestors is considered a crime, it is not a crime on a large enough scale to warrant a Nato intervention. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of any justification for a Nato intervention, since Nato countries are only good at undertaking interventions as investments. There has to be a promise of a lucrative payoff for an elite of capitalist masters if the investment in blood and treasure is to be justified: oil concessions free from profit-reducing taxes and fees; new export and investment opportunities; reconstruction contracts. Humanitarianism doesn’t add to the bottom line. But let’s assume for the moment, as the naïve do, that Nato can intervene for selfless reasons, and that this is not, like the lion lying down with the lamb, an impossibility. Why would we call for intervention against Gaddafi but not Khalifa? The reasons why bankers, corporations and major investors who dominate foreign policy in the Nato countries would do this is clear. That leftists do the same raises questions about what is meant by the “left”.
Diana Johnstone and Jean Bricmont lambasted significant sections of the European left for failing to vigorously oppose the Nato intervention in Libya’s civil war and in many cases for supporting it. (6) But this is like faulting sheep for grazing on grass. While regrettable, there is nothing strange or unprecedented about people who consider themselves to be of the political left, even socialists, siding with their own government’s imperialist eruptions. It has been happening since at least WWI. Lenin offered an explanation — and whether you find his explanation compelling or not the phenomenon he set out to explain cannot be denied. A sector of the left regularly sides with its own government’s imperialism, while another sector finds ways to subtly support it while professing opposition. The only sector of the Western left, with one or two exceptions, that can be counted upon to reliably oppose imperialism, and to have some kind of sophisticated understanding of it, are the Leninists.
Max Elbaum points to the phenomenon in his book about the 1960s New Communist Movement, Revolution in the Air. “Late-sixties activists,” he writes, “felt a powerful political and emotional bond” with the Leninist wing of the socialist movement. During WWI, this wing broke decisively “with those socialists who supported the war, or at least did little or nothing to oppose it.” They were drawn to Leninism because, like the original followers of Lenin, “they too had spent years in frustrating fights with more prestigious left forces that had dragged their feet—or worse—in the antiwar campaign.”
Elbaum credits democratic socialism’s refusal to vigorously oppose the US war on Vietnam with building support for the New Communist Movement. “Though today’s democratic socialists don’t talk about it much,” writes Elbaum, “the U.S. social democrats played a sluggish or even backward role in the anti-Vietnam War movement.” The official US affiliate of the Socialist International, the Socialist Party, “actually supported the war” and “was all but absent from antiwar activity.” Editor of Dissent, Irving Howe, among the most prominent of US social democrats, “long opposed the demand for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam.” Michael Harrington, perhaps the most widely known US social democrat, never offered a full-throated denunciation of the war. According to his sympathetic biographer, Maurice Isserman, Harrington referred to the war as if it were a force of nature rather than a product of human agency (a tragedy, like a hurricane or earthquake, rather than an instrument of US imperialism) for fear of alienating “his closest and long-standing political comrades who were supporting the slaughter…” Harrington regarded his pro-war social democratic colleagues not as backward, reactionary collaborationists but as “good socialists with whom he differed on peripheral issues.” (7)
Internationally, democratic socialists acted in ways that provoked disgust. “French Socialists, while in power had conducted the colonial war in Algeria—complete with torture. The Harold Wilson-led Labour Party government in Britain backed US Vietnam policy despite its misgivings.” And “social democrats worldwide were among the most vocal supporters of Zionism and opponents of Palestinian self-determination.”
In the late-sixties, writes Elbaum, “it seemed only natural to identify with the tendency that had fought against similar social democratic backwardness during an earlier imperialist bloodletting.”
So too in 2011.
1. Steven Mufson, “Conflict in Libya: U.S. oil companies sit on sidelines as Gaddafi maintains hold”, The Washington Post, June 10, 2011.
2. Clifford Kraus, “The scramble for access to Libya’s oil wealth begins”, The New York Times, August 22, 2011.
3. Stephen Fidler and Alistair MacDonald, “Europeans retreat on defense spending”, The Wall Street Journal, August 24, 2011.
4. Steven Lee Myers and Dan Bilefsky, “U.N. releases $1.5 billion in frozen Qaddafi assets to aid rebuilding of Libya”, The New York Times, August 25, 2011.
5. David D. Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim, “Inside a Libyan hospital, proof of a revolt’s costs”, The New York Times, August 25, 2011.
6. Jean Bricmont and Diana Johnstone, “Who will save Libya from its Western saviours?” http://www.counterpunch.org, August 16, 2011.
7. Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che, Verso, 2006, p. 46
By Stephen Gowans
Gilbert Achcar hates Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. That much is clear from Achcar’s three Z-Net articles, the latest published on April 23, in which the Lebanese socialist and sometimes “anti-war activist” urges the left to support the rebel uprising in Libya and not to oppose the NATO-enforced no-fly zone. In his latest article, which amounts to a defense of his position against the firestorm of criticism he has drawn for urging the left not to oppose Western military intervention in Libya, Achcar denounces Gaddafi as a psychopath. By demonizing Gaddafi, Achcar acts to legitimize the Benghazi rebellion and therefore Western support of it. There are likely to be more than a few psychopaths among the rebels. And applying Achcar’s amateur political psychography, we could probably denounce the Saudi monarchy, which has brutally suppressed the rebellion in Bahrain, as being as rife with psychopaths as Libya’s leadership. But Achcar appears to be more agitated by the Libyan psychopaths than the Saudi, Bahraini, Israeli, or indeed, even US, British and French ones. Politics based on the presumed psychological failings or mental states of leaders is illegitimate, and no genuine socialist, at least no Marxist one, practices it.
On top of demonizing Gaddafi, Achcar tries to make the rebels more palatable than they are. The rebellion, Achcar assures us, is made up of “the same mix of political forces that are active in most other uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, i.e., liberal democrats, various types of Islamic currents from moderate to extreme, former members of the regime…and left-oriented groups and persons.” Doubtlessly, some “left-oriented groups and persons” count themselves among the Libyan rebels, but there is no evidence that their numbers are large and that they have any influence within the insurrection. Even Achcar questions whether the left has a significant presence. In a footnote, he writes: “The last time there was any indication about an organized left in Libya, to my knowledge, was in the early 1970s when news came out about the repression of a Trotskyist group there.”
One of the less palatable elements of the rebellion, whose presence Achcar does acknowledge, are radical Islamists, about whom evidence is growing that they are playing key roles in the revolt. Rod Nordland and Scott Shane, writing in the New York Times of April 24, 2011 (1) profile Abu Safian Ibrahim Ahmed Hamuda bin Qurnu, a “tank driver in the Libyan Army in the 1980s” who joined Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, was incarcerated by the United States at Guantanamo after September 11, 2011, released to Libya in 2007, and has since become “a notable figure in the Libyan rebels’ fight to oust” Gaddafi. He leads the Darnah Brigade, named after a port town in northeast Libya which “has a long history of Islamic militancy, including a revolt against Colonel Gaddafi’s rule led by Islamists in the mid-1990s.” “Activists from here,” note Nordland and Shane, “are credited with starting the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.”
Last week, Ottawa Citizen reporter David Pugliese obtained Canadian military documents which reveal that Canada’s Department of National Defence considers the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group to be a terrorist group associated with al-Qaeda. (2) The US State Department has also designated the group as a terrorist organization, a point Nordland and Shane might have made, considering the group plays an important role in the rebellion against Gaddafi. The organization was set up in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, and “had tried to assassinate Gaddafi on several occasions.” Gaddafi perceives the group to be “a mortal enemy.” Abdel-Moneim Mokhtar, “a leading member of the NATO backed rebels,” according to Pugliese, “had also been a top commander in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.” And according to the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, 52 of 440 suicide bombers in Iraq were from the group’s hometown of Darnah. (3) These are not leftists or even liberal democrats trying to bring about a more progressive alternative to Gaddafi.
Quoting Pugliese at length:
A Canadian intelligence report written in late 2009 also described the anti-Gadhafi stronghold of eastern Libya as an “epicentre of Islamist extremism” and said “extremist cells” operated in the region. That is the region now being defended by a Canadian-led NATO coalition.
The report by the government’s Integrated Threat Assessment Centre said “several Islamist insurgent groups” were based in eastern Libya and mosques in Benghazi were urging followers to fight in Iraq.
But extremists operating in eastern Libya were not the only forces Gadhafi had to deal with.
DND’s report notes that in 2004 Libyan troops found a training camp in the country’s southern desert that had been used by an Algerian terrorist group that would later change its name to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM.
That group was behind the 2008 kidnapping of Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay.
Still other reports have come to light about Islamic extremists in rebel ranks. The Wall Street Journal reported that Sufyan Ben Qumu, a Libyan army veteran who worked for Osama bin Laden’s holding company in Sudan and later for an al-Qaeda-linked charity in Afghanistan, is training rebel recruits.
He spent six years at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay.
Abdel Hakim al-Hasady, an influential Islamic preacher who spent five years at a training camp in eastern Afghanistan, also oversees recruitment and training for some rebels. (4)
I daresay it would be easy enough to decry radical Islamists as psychopaths, though it’s interesting that Achcar reserves this obloquy for Gaddafi, and prefers to attach a non-emotional descriptive label to the al-Qaeda-associated rebels. In Achcar’s hands, whereas Gaddafi is a psychopath, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group is nothing more than an Islamic current. It’s unlikely that the aims of the Islamists in seeking the overthrow of Gaddafi have much to do with establishing a liberal democracy, let alone socialism. Nevertheless, Achcar urges the left to back their rebellion.
Taking care to keep other less savory elements of the Benghazi rebel force from complicating his call for left support for the rebels, Achcar omits to mention that royalists make up a significant part of the mix of political forces seeking Gaddafi’s ouster, as do people with key connections to the US state, who have managed to secure important roles in the insurrection. These include:
• Khalifa Heftir, a former Libyan Army colonel, who spent the last 25 years living seven miles from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia with no obvious means of support. (5) Heftir says “he had often talked to the Central Intelligence Agency while he lived in exile in suburban Virginia.” (6) He is one of, if not the rebels’, top military leader.
• Mahmoud Jibril “earned his PhD in 1985 from the University of Pittsburgh under the late Richard Cottam, a former US intelligence official in Iran who became a renowned political scientist specializing in the Middle East.” Jibril “spent years working with Gaddafi’s son Saif on political and economic reforms … (b)ut after hardliners in the regime stifled the reforms, Jibril quit in frustration and left Libya about a year ago.” (7) Jibril has been out of Libya since the uprising began, meeting with foreign leaders. (8)
• Ali Tarhouni, the rebel government’s finance minister, had been in exile for the last 35 years. His latest job was teaching economics at the University of Washington.
Achcar’s description of the rebels as a mix of political forces from liberal democrats to left-oriented groups hardly seems to accord with the reality that (a) there is no evidence that the left plays a significant role in the rebellion, and that (b) the largest part of the rebel mix is comprised of al-Qaeda-connected radical Islamists, royalists, and political and military leaders linked to the US intelligence community. There may be some ambiguity about how left Gaddafi is, and far less about his anti-imperialism, but whatever ambiguity there is about Gaddafi’s political position, there is certainly none about how left the rebels are. They aren’t.
Achcar’s position amounts to this: Gaddafi is a demon; his ouster, therefore, is welcome; whatever comes after Gaddafi must be better than Gaddafi; the left shouldn’t support the NATO no-fly zone, but nor should it oppose it; this position would have raised the Western left’s credibility among left forces in North Africa and Western Asia; the left should now pressure Western governments to arm the rebels.
Let’s consider each point in turn.
Gaddafi is a demon.
Demonization is a hoary practice that governments have long used to mobilize support for war, and which anyone on the left should be on guard against. In addition to being used by imperialist governments to drum up support for war and other interventions, demonization is also often used by left writers associated with Z-Net and the Campaign for Peace and Democracy, and was used, too, by many members of the Second International to support their own countries’ participation in WWI. [Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism, became a fervent supporter of freedom and democracy against despotism and militarism when war clouds rolled in, despite agreeing before the war to mount a principled opposition to it should it come.] As shown by Achcar’s readiness to denounce Gaddafi as a “psychopath,” these writers have become as zealous as the State Department and major media, if not more so, in branding targets of Washington’s imperial designs as demons. This, unfortunately, happens during every major mobilization of Western diplomatic, intelligence and military forces against non-satellite countries. Left politics should not be based on legitimizing the pretexts for war of imperialist governments, nor on the alleged failings or virtues of leaders. They should be based on an analysis of class forces.
“If I were not old and sick I would join the army,” declared Plekhanov. “To bayonet our German comrades would give me great pleasure.” (9) Achcar expressed horror at the prospect of loyalist forces perpetrating a bloodbath in Benghazi, and in his first article in the series called for the left not to oppose a NATO no-fly zone on the grounds that it was the only way to avert a bloodbath. But his horror at bloodletting doesn’t seem to extend to that which promises to be brought about by the rebels, who he urges Western governments to arm. Hence, despite raising fears about a bloodbath, avoidance of bloodshed really doesn’t seem to weigh heavily in Achcar’s considerations. He doesn’t mention the efforts of the African Union to bring about a cease-fire or urge that the left support it. He’s silent on Gaddafi’s acceptance of the AU proposal and on the rebels’ rejection of it. It would appear, then, that it is not avoiding bloodbaths that galvanizes Achcar so much as avoiding the defeat of the rebels. One suspects that, as was true of Plekhanov, to bayonet our comrades on the other side would give Achcar great pleasure.
Whatever comes after Gaddafi must be better than Gaddafi.
In the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, some left writers insisted the world—and Iraq– would be a better place without Saddam Hussein. It’s one thing to say Hussein was hardly a heroic figure and that he had blood on his hands, but quite another to brand him as so vile that nothing could be worse, as many left writers did. It should have, however, been clear that Iraq would be no better off under a US occupation—and would probably be substantially worse off, and indeed, this prediction has been borne out. Likewise, Gaddafi’s ouster will not be followed by a liberal democracy, much less socialism, but likely a new neo-colonial arrangement, in which Libya becomes an impoverished satellite of the West, as Serbia and Iraq have become. The idea that the Libyan rebels either want to, or are in a position to bring about, a progressive alternative to Gaddafi is pure fantasy. In order for this to happen, an organized political left would need to exist in Libya that was capable of mobilizing popular support, not against the current regime alone, but also for a qualitatively different regime that is either fiercely hostile to being placed in chains by outside forces, represents the interests of the mass of people, or both. But there is, by Achcar’s own admission, no such left political force in the country. The best the rebels can do is force Gaddafi’s ouster, but it is very likely that his successor, will, as was true in Serbia and Iraq, lead a neo-colonial puppet regime. For all its failings and recent willingness to cooperate with the West, the Gaddafi government has not gone so far as to integrate Libya’s land, labor and resources unconditionally into the global economy and has a history of acting for the benefit of its own people—which enjoys the highest standard of living in Africa. That it hasn’t unconditionally catered to the profit-making interests of foreign corporations and investors is the reason why Washington has long been hostile to the Gaddafi government, and explains its willingness to assist an armed rebellion to overthrow Gaddafi, while taking no such steps to aid a peaceful rebellion to throw off the weight of the Khalifa despotism in Bahrain, which runs its country as an annex to the United States, letting the US Fifth Fleet operate from there, while maintaining a low-tax, worker-unfriendly, foreign-investment friendly regime.
The left shouldn’t support the NATO no-fly zone, but nor should it oppose it.
What Achcar is really saying is that the left should line up with the rebellion in Libya, but not with Washington and not with Tripoli. Thus, supporting the rebels means not opposing their call for a no-fly zone. But at the same time, the left shouldn’t support the no-fly zone, because that would mean it supports NATO. This is the Campaign for Peace and Democracy’s fence-straddling approach. In the 1980s, it was manifest in the position of: We’re not for Washington and we’re not for the Polish government, but we are for the Solidarity trade union. The validity of this approach, however, depends on the question of whether the rebels ought to be supported, just as in the 1980s it depended on the question of whether the left should have thrown in its lot with the Wall Street Journal, the CIA, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in supporting Solidarity. Solidarity, it turned out, wasn’t the harbinger of the kind of socialism it was safe to discuss at the dinner table that the CPD and other leftist groups naively thought it would be. On the contrary, it was the nucleus for a neo-liberal make-over of Poland as a dependent US satellite – what’s likely to be in store for Libya if the rebels prevail.
The key questions are: Who are the rebels? What are their goals? Who is the government? What are its goals? Achcar’s answers seem to be: The government is led by a psychopath who has an insatiable hunger for power which drives him to extremes of violence. (In the 1980s: the Polish government is communist and hungry for power.) The rebels are against this, and therefore, must be worthy of support. (Solidarity is against the government and therefore must be worthy of support.) But this line of reasoning is no different from the logical blunder of assuming the enemy of my enemy is my friend, a blunder that anti-imperialists are routinely accused of making. It doesn’t follow that rebels are worthy of support simply because they’re rebels or simply because they’re rebelling against a government led by someone you don’t like.
This position would have raised the Western left’s credibility among left forces in North Africa and Western Asia.
Many members of the Second International argued that they had to vote for war credits otherwise they would have lost credibility with their base which had become infected by pro-war chauvinism. Failing to support their own governments in war would mean losing influence with a jingoism-besotted working class for decades to come. Lenin, who Achcar has portrayed as a compromiser who would have gladly accepted a NATO no-fly zone, and who did indeed make compromises where necessary, was doctrinaire, just as much as he was willing to make necessary compromises; which is to say, he was unwilling to yield on principle for short-term gain, but would yield, if he had to, to safeguard fundamental positions. In the debates about whether to tear up their agreements to withhold support for their governments in war, Lenin stood out among socialist leaders, arguing that the leaders’ role was to lead, not to follow. Refusing to oppose the no-fly zone as a means of gaining influence with left organizations in Western Asia and North Africa that called for one, reverses the roles of influence and principle. The point isn’t to abandon principle to gain influence, but to use influence to advance principle.
The left should now pressure Western governments to arm the rebels.
The idea that pressure from the left will persuade Western governments to arm the rebels, who will then pursue their rebellion free from Western control, is pure fantasy. The left exerts approximately zero influence on Western foreign policy, and even if it exerted more, on a matter as fundamental as this to the geostrategic interests of Western governments, it would be ignored. Western governments won’t arm rebel groups they can’t control and which are working toward objectives they don’t share. Achcar may as well say the left’s position ought to be to pressure Washington, London and Paris, to introduce ground forces into Libya to sweep Gaddafi from power and to install a new Marxist government.
Achcar has added nothing new in his third attempt to drum up left support for the Libyan rebels, apart from ratcheting up the demonization of Gaddafi by calling him a psychopath, a dubious practice favored by Western governments and major media, and which shouldn’t be the basis of the political positions of the left. Gaddafi may indeed be a psychopath, but so too may be many other leaders, including those who have key roles in the Libyan insurrection. It’s doubtful that Achcar would surrender his support for the rebels, if it were revealed that its leaders were psychopaths, or if they were to drench Gaddafi’s supporters in blood. Whether Gaddafi is or isn’t a psychopath is unclear, but more importantly, is irrelevant. What is relevant to a discussion of what position the left ought to take is class analysis, none of which Achcar provides. Instead, the Z-Net favorite leans toward the rogues’ gallery view of left politics, a kind of up-to-date left version of the great man theory of history, where monsters, psychopaths and thugs—and the US governments that fight them– have replaced great men as the fundamental agents of history. The practice that depends on this theory is to visibly demonize the leaders the US State Department brands as thugs, despots, and dictators, while saying little about the thugs, despots, and dictators the State Department doesn’t want to talk about (like the Saudis, Israelis, and Egypt’s military rulers.) Achcar may denounce all of these from time to time, but he hasn’t written a series of articles urging the left to pressure Western governments to arm the Palestinians against the Israelis and nor Egyptian or Bahraini rebels against their governments.
Achcar also seeks to demonize those who have criticized his position in what he considers to be less than a comradely way by suggesting that, were they in power, they would have had him sent to the gulag. Were Achcar in power, would he send Gaddafi and his supporters to that modern Western gulag, the ICC? Whether any of his critics would banish Achcar to the gulag is unclear, but that he brings it up seems in keeping with his preference for building political positions around demonization, fantasy and conjecture. It is a fantasy that left pressure will compel Western governments to arm the rebels; a fantasy that even were this true that Western governments would arm the rebels unconditionally; a fantasy that with Western fingers in the Libyan pie that Gaddafi’s ouster will be succeeded by a more progressive alternative; and a fantasy that liberal democrats and left-oriented groups and persons preponderate the royalists, al-Qaeda connected terrorists and suicide bombers, and US intelligence community-linked political and military leaders in the rebel ranks.
Finally, it is a fantasy to think that no one sees through Achcar’s I-don’t-support-Western-military-intervention-but-neither-do-I-oppose-it position as the dissembling of a coward who has convinced himself that he has brilliantly finessed the problem of how to support the rebels without looking like he’s also supporting their imperialist backers. This is the kind of dishonest double-talk that one normally expects from unctuous politicians, not socialist anti-war activists. As he has doubtlessly discovered, judging by the firestorm of criticism he’s called upon himself, his no-fly zone position just doesn’t fly. All that Achcar has succeeded in doing in championing the case on three occasions for the left to back the Libyan rebels is to demonstrate that he is neither anti-war nor anti-imperialist nor particularly adverse to bloodbaths. Maybe he shouldn’t be sent to the gulag, but he should certainly be sent to the corner, along with every other socialist who seeks to enlist the left in the support of its own governments in pursuit of their own bourgeoisies’ interests.
1. Rod Nordland and Scott Shane, “Libyan shifts from detainee to rebel, and U.S. ally of sorts”, The New York Times, April 24, 2011.
2. David Pugliese, “DND report reveals Canada’s ties with Gadhafi”, The Ottawa Citizen, April 23, 2011.
3. Nordland and Shane.
5. “Professor: In Libya, a civil war, not uprising”, NPR, April 2, 2011. http://www.npr.org/2011/04/02/135072664/professor-in-libya-a-civil-war-not-uprising
6. Rod Nordland, “As British help Libyan rebels, aid goes to a divided force”, The New York Times, April 19, 2011.
7. Farah Stockman, “Libyan reformer new face of rebellion”, The Boston Globe, March 28, 2011.
8. Kareem Fahim, “Rebel leadership in Libya shows strain”, The New York Times, April 3, 2011.
9. Neil Harding. Lenin’s Political Thought: Theory and Practice in the Democratic and Socialist Revolutions. Volume II, Haymarket Books. 1978. P. 12.