2012-07-17 18:36:17 UTC
By Mazda Majidi
July 17, 2012
On July 1, an article titled "Libya and Syria: When Anti-Imperialism Goes
Wrong" was published on the North Star website, signed by "Pham Binh of
Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp." The article argues that imperialist
interventions in Libya and Syria are justified because they are demanded by
forces the author calls revolutionary. While claiming to cut against the
grain, he formulates what is a common position among liberals, progressives
and even some self-proclaimed socialists and anti-imperialists. As such it
is important to respond.
When imperialist countries intervene in the affairs of oppressed countries,
the justifications do not only emanate from the U.S. government and the
corporate media. In each instance, various forces and individuals with
liberal and progressive credentials succumb to the imperialist propaganda
campaign and put forth pro-intervention arguments, albeit using
progressive-sounding analyses and using liberal/left language.
Even if "progressive" arguments for intervention originate far away from the
halls of power, and receive no wide audience among the ruling class, they
nonetheless play an important role for the imperialist war drives. This is
because such arguments address a specific audience: people with anti-war and
progressive inclinations who are typically far less susceptible to
run-of-the-mill Washington/Wall Street pro-war propaganda. By spreading
confusion about the nature of the intervention, and the tasks of the
progressive movement, those who would normally be the first responders in
the anti-war movement are rendered inactive and passive. This is the value
of this kind of propaganda for the ruling class.
In the lead-up and immediate aftermath of each intervention, such forces
emerge to explain that while anti-imperialism is good in general and in past
scenarios, this time is different. Each time they present their arguments as
new and unorthodox. While it is important to refute the specific arguments
of the pro-intervention "left," we must begin with the broad observation
that they continue a long and definite political trend in the imperialist
countries. In the Iraq invasion, this trend received the name "cruise
missile liberalism," but 100 years ago Lenin referred to it as
All demonstrations and opposition movements not progressive
The basic thrust of Binh's article is that the Western left must respect the
wishes of the Syrian "revolutionaries" for foreign intervention. This, he
claims, would constitute real solidarity and support for self-determination.
In his entire article, Binh conveniently assumes the very thing that needs
to be proven?that the Libyan rebels and the Syrian opposition are
revolutionary. This false premise, once accepted, leads to all sorts of
What is the political character of the NTC-led rebels in Libya? What
qualified them as revolutionaries? How does Binh determine that the Syrian
opposition is revolutionary and the government counter-revolutionary?
When analyzing an opposition movement anywhere in the world, this is the
first question that needs to be asked. Just because part of the population
of a given country comes to the streets or takes up arms does not mean that
they are revolutionary or progressive. This is so even if they are
responding to real social and political problems. Right-wing forces
routinely mobilize parts of the population ?predominantly disaffected
elements of the somewhat privileged "middle class" and others?to promote
Fascists in Italy and Germany used rallies, marches and militant street
actions as effective tactics to eventually take state power. In those cases,
the fascists were not the opposition to socialist or otherwise revolutionary
governments, but to bourgeois democratic governments that had been forced to
grant some concessions to the working class.
In the United States, the Tea Party has staged rallies, including large ones
of up to tens of thousands, in opposition to the Obama administration. No
liberal, progressive or revolutionary would consider Tea Partiers to be
In the aftermath of the overthrow of the Soviet Union, the U.S. government
embarked upon a series of destabilization campaigns?now often called "color
revolutions." Most color revolutions occurred in the former Soviet
Republics, such as Georgia's Rose Revolution, Ukraine's Orange Revolution
and Kyrgyzstan's Tulip Revolution. But there have also been (successful or
attempted) color revolutions in other countries, such as Lebanon's Cedar
Revolution in 2005 and Iran's Green Revolution in 2009.
Color revolutions usually include the formation of coherent and unified
pro-imperialist political forces, which draw upon public discontent with
economic distress, corruption and political coercion. They involve several
operations, including the creation of division and disunity in the military
and an intense propaganda campaign. The extent to which color revolutions
are successful is largely dependent on the level to which the targeted state
is already destabilized by the time street protests take place.
Elements who participate in such street protests are often a small part of
the population and do not represent the sentiments of the majority of the
people, much less the interests of the working class. In fact, many
participants in the protests may not support the agenda of the right-wing
leadership and its imperialist sponsors. Still, the imperialist propaganda
campaign utilizes the protests, however large or small, to promote regime
change and the ascension of a client state. The imperialists are not fools
to do so; this is precisely what such "democratic" movements produce absent
an alternative working-class and anti-imperialist opposition.
To recap: revolutionaries and progressives must stand on principles, and
make a political assessment of movements in question. Even if the majority
of the population were swept up by a reactionary movement, that movement is
not revolutionary. Even if the majority of Libyans supported imperialist
intervention?which is highly unlikely?that would not justify support by
progressives for imperialist intervention.
What is the political character of the Syrian and Libyan rebels?
The examples of color revolutions, fascist movements, and right-wing
mobilizations disprove conclusively the notion that demonstrators,
dissidents and opposition forces are revolutionary by default. The Libyan
National Transitional Council and the Syrian National Council fall in this
category as well. These forces have staked their entire existence on
imperialist patronage. Their statements in open support of imperialist
intervention, capital penetration, and "free" markets demonstrate the
content of their vision, as does their prioritizing of diplomatic relations
with the United States and its allies, including the potential normalization
of relations with Israel. They leave little doubt about their political and
What occurred in Libya, prior to the NATO bombing campaign, had the elements
of a neoliberal color revolution, while also drawing upon the traditional
fault lines of Libyan society (most significantly, regional competition from
the oil-rich east as well as a long-standing trend of Islamic
In the early stages, the revolt included street protests in Benghazi, the
defection of some high-ranking political and military officials (from the
government's neoliberal faction) to the side of the rebels, and the
formation of the pro-imperialist National Transitional Council. Immediately
after the rebels took control in Benghazi, numerous dark-skinned Libyans and
migrant sub-Saharan African workers were lynched in city streets in a
wide-scale campaign of terror. Known supporters of the Muammar Gaddafi
leadership were summarily executed; for months their bodies were found in
ditches in and around Benghazi.
Despite a few initial victories, this rebellion lacked the strength to
overthrow the Libyan government on its own, hence the necessity for foreign
The NTC invited Republican U.S. Senator John McCain to the "liberated" area
of east Libya, giving him a hero's welcome. In a country that had long
projected enmity, or an unstable relationship with imperialism, the rebels
put up a huge billboard that read: "USA: You have a new ally in North
Africa." NTC leaders traveled extensively through the capitals of Europe
convincingly promising Western powers that their oil companies would have
unrestricted access to Libya's oil. The message was: if we take over, there
will be no more of Gaddafi's "economic nationalism."
U.S. leftists adopt confused slogans
What kind of revolutionaries, while quickly earning a reputation for racist
violence, would give away their country's resources to imperialist powers
and beg them to bomb their country? In the face of these incontrovertible
facts, some on the left, anxious to demonstrate their solidarity with the
"revolution," falsely dismissed the NTC as merely a "clique" among a diverse
and loose opposition movement. Clouded by their blind hatred for Gaddafi,
and bending to the imperialist propaganda, they continued to describe the
revolt as a "people's" or "democratic revolution."
While Binh writes that the Left has been crippled by "knee-jerk
anti-imperialism" with respect to Libya and now Syria, we observe the
opposite. With few exceptions, the Left failed to mobilize against the
imperialist attack and regime change in Libya, and appears to be heading in
the same direction with Syria. Accepting uncritically the "Arab Spring"
label and the stories of impending humanitarian catastrophe, even those who
claimed to oppose intervention did very little in practice.
Groups like the International Socialist Organization promoted the
contradictory and academic slogan of "Yes to the Revolution, No to
Intervention," which only spread confusion in the anti-war movement. After
all, the Libyan "Revolution" was the loudest champion of intervention. Its
fate, whether it succeeded or failed, was based on the relative successes of
the intervention. All the actors in the Libya conflict (the government, the
masses who rallied against intervention, the rebels, and the imperialists)
understood very quickly that the "revolution" and the intervention had
become indissolubly linked. The only ones who denied this reality were
groups like the ISO, which believed they could magically separate the two
with a rhetorical contrivance.
As the imperialists bombed away, the ISO ignored the masses of Libyans who
rallied in defense of national sovereignty against imperialism, since they
did not fit the convenient schema, invented by imperialist media outlets, of
the "people versus the dictator." In practice, instead of joining a united
front with all those standing up against intervention, they formed an
anti-Gaddafi united front with Libyans in exile who championed intervention.
In a recent article, the ISO distinguished their position from the
pro-intervention arguments of Binh. But their centrism paved the way for
such social-imperialism (socialist in name, imperialist in practice.) They
accept all the same premises: that the Libyan government had no significant
base of support and that the revolt was a popular "revolution" with an
"understandable" desire for foreign help.
Moreover, the ISO pioneered the attack on "knee-jerk anti-imperialists" like
the Party for Socialism and Liberation, leading the charge against us
precisely as the war drums began to beat late last February. While
misleading their readers that the U.S and UK "really, really don't want
Qadaffi to fall" (Feb. 24, 2011) and downplaying the growing evidence of
racist lynchings committed by the rebels, they lashed out dishonestly
against anti-imperialists like the PSL.
Even when the bombing had begun, they repeatedly attacked the few anti-war
forces taking action around Libya?for having caused a "wedge" with the
Libyan "solidarity activists" who urged war. What is an anti-war movement
for, if not to cause "wedges" with precisely such pro-war forces?!
The ISO is now attempting to portray themselves as steadfast organizers
against intervention, rather than offering self-criticism or reflecting on
their own confusions and inactivity during the assault on Libya. (Even now,
when the rebel movement's right-wing political character has been made
clear, they still attack the PSL for not supporting the "revolution.")
Social-imperialists like Binh take the ISO's senseless centrist position a
big step to the right, with a full-throated call to stand behind the NTC and
imperialism. He instructs us to accept as a matter of faith that because the
Libyan rebels were revolutionary, the NATO bombing was a revolutionary act
and the opposition to it "counter-revolutionary!" Binh is not alone as a
"leftist" in support of imperialist intervention; Solidarity, a non-Leninist
organization that comes out of a similar political tradition as the ISO,
published two opposing pro-intervention and anti-intervention positions on
A hijacked revolution?
Binh writes: "When the going got tough and the F-16s got going over Libya,
the revolution's fair-weather friends in the West disowned it, claiming it
had been hijacked by NATO." Some progressive forces first sided with the
rebels erroneously, but knew better than to support the NATO bombing. The
"hijacked by NATO" position was a way for such forces to gracefully correct
their error and rhetorically oppose, or at least not support, imperialist
But not every political force in the West started out defending the Benghazi
rebels. From the very start, the PSL was among a small minority that
insisted on analyzing the political character of the opposition, pointing
out the nationalist and contradictory elements of the Libyan state, and
exposing the imperialist motivations for intervention. Shortly thereafter,
as more facts came out of Libya, the PSL and a few others exposed the
right-wing character of the opposition movement.
The Libyan rebels were not a revolutionary force that was "hijacked by
NATO." Irrespective of the motivations of individual protesters/rebels, as a
political movement defined by its deeds, policies and strategic alliances,
the counterrevolutionary thrust of the opposition movement was made quickly
apparent. The NTC was a right-wing force even before it served as the ground
forces of the NATO invaders. It utilized discontent among parts of the
population, much of it with a regional basis, to reverse the remaining
elements of the nationalist process initiated by the 1969 progressive coup,
also called the Al-Fateh Revolution, led by Gaddafi.
Those that assert the NTC was an unrepresentative clique must face the fact
that no progressive leadership ever broke from it (which presumably would
happen if a progressive movement were openly "hijacked" by
counter-revolutionaries!), nor did any rebels protest the bombing of their
country. Even with the inevitable grumblings of discontent or dissent within
the opposition rank-and-file against the NTC, this did not change one bit
the overall trajectory of the movement towards counter-revolution.
Popular support for Libyan rebels?
Binh writes: "NATO's air campaign had mass support among revolutionary
Libyans." Near-unanimous popular support for the opposition is another
unproven assumption of apologists for imperialist intervention in Libya, as
well as Syria. The NTC did not enjoy the support of the entire Libyan
population?nor does the SNC enjoy the support of the entire Syrian
population. There is overwhelming evidence refuting such claims. On July 1,
2011, in the midst of the massive NATO bombing, hundreds of
thousands?perhaps as many as a million people?rallied in Tripoli against
NATO. The corporate media gave the protest scant coverage. Demonstrations of
this size in a country of only six million people smashes the myth that the
opposition had the support of all the people.
It is an uncontroversial fact that Libya, under Gaddafi's leadership, had a
very small, almost negligible, military. After the NATO bombing started, the
Libyan leadership opened up arms depots in Tripoli to the population, urging
everyone to defend the country against foreign attackers. This is clear
proof that, at least in Tripoli, the government enjoyed considerable
popularity. Otherwise, why would an "unpopular dictator" arm the masses who
would likely use the arms to fight against the state?
Binh suggests that the rebels were the key actors in overthrowing Gaddafi.
But when, at the insistence of imperialist powers, the United Nations
Security Council Resolution 1973 was adopted on March 17, 2011, the Libyan
rebels were on the verge of complete defeat. Forces loyal to Gaddafi had
been gaining control and rapidly moving towards Benghazi, having already
made it past Brega. All of these are established facts acknowledged even by
the pro-war imperialist media.
In fact, the rebels' imminent collapse was the reason the United States and
its junior partners frantically rushed the resolution past the UNSC. If NATO
had not started its merciless bombing campaign, the rebels would have lost
all their remaining territory.
NATO carried out thousands of bombings and sorties over the course of seven
months, delivering blows too severe for the Libyan state to overcome. NATO
did not take its leadership from a ragtag group of NTC rebels that NATO
itself saved from annihilation. On the contrary, during the months of the
bombing campaign, the Libyan rebels did not just receive military training
and advice, but functioned under the operational command of NATO. In a
coordinated fashion, NATO provided aerial support ? i.e. murdering
pro-Gaddafi forces by bombing?which cleared the way for the rebels to move
on the ground. The final siege of Tripoli was planned and operated by U.S.
and European special forces units. Is this not evidence that the imperialist
powers, not the NTC rebels, were in control?
Binh even praises "NTC's stand against foreign invasion and for foreign
airstrikes." While NATO did not deploy ground troops in its military
campaign in Libya this was not due to NATO's respect for the wishes of the
Libyan rebels. To the extent possible, imperialists always attempt to
minimize their casualties by using part of the population of the country
they are invading/occupying/bombing to do the fighting on their behalf. This
is what Nixon's "Vietnamization policy" was designed to achieve.
The author correctly refers to the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq as
"transparent empire-building exercises." Yet, the United States did not land
forces on Afghan soil until after the Taliban forces were already defeated
by a combination of heavy U.S. bombardment and the U.S.-supported "Northern
Alliance" Afghan forces on the ground. The preferences of the NTC in the
case of Libya, or the Northern Alliance in the case of Afghanistan, were
insignificant to imperialist plans. Imperialists want to minimize
casualties, not because they care about the loss of life of their military
personnel but to minimize the possibility of the growth of the anti-war
movement at home.
In his zeal to attack anti-imperialists, Binh offers another apology for the
NATO bombing campaign: "NATO's methods and the war's outcome were totally at
odds with what the anti-interventionists envisioned: There was no massive
NATO bombardment of civilian targets, there was no Libyan highway of death,
no Black Hawk Down, no Wikileaks-style Helicopter gunship atrocities." While
accurate information is hard to come by, it is difficult to imagine 10,000
bombings in a country of 6 million did not cause wide-scale civilian
casualties. The pictures of the destroyed city of Sirte tell a thousand more
words than Binh's reassurances.
The meaning of self-determination
Some assume that civilian casualties, inevitable in all such bombing
campaigns, are the only or the main reason why anti-imperialists oppose
intervention. Even if not a single civilian were killed in a given
imperialist bombing campaign, (a virtual impossibility), it is still unjust.
Revolutionaries and progressives must not only stand with civilians, but
recognize the ultimate justice of those fighting for their country's
independence against imperialist attackers. The crowds in support of the
Libyan government swelled once the imperialist bombing began, a testament to
their sense of national dignity. They did not deserve to die. But in Binh's
mind, those Libyans who risked and lost their lives to defend their
country's independence against NATO and the rebels under their command were
Binh writes: "The moment the Syrian and Libyan revolutions demanded
imperialist airstrikes and arms to neutralize the military advantage enjoyed
by governments over revolutionary peoples, anti-interventionism became
counter-revolutionary because it meant opposing aid to the revolution."
According to this bizarre rationale, the right of self determination, a
right all progressives uphold at least in words, means nothing less than
support for imperialist military intervention.
In the imperialist era, the right to self-determination has been bound
together with the "national-colonial question," that is the specific global
division of power between imperialist oppressor and oppressed nations. This
has long been a cardinal question for revolutionaries inside the imperialist
countries: what attitude they will take towards their own ruling class'
imperialist plans, and towards the independence movements among the
oppressed nations. Lenin, the Russian Revolution and the early Communist
International recognized that these independence movements weakened
imperialism and could hasten its downfall. They offered a united front,
although not necessarily political support, to independence movements in the
struggle against imperialism. This is the specific meaning of
self-determination in the era of imperialism.
Regardless of one's political differences with or opposition to the Libyan
government, those carrying the green flag became an independence movement
when the imperialists started providing material support for the rebels, and
Imperialism is a system
Binh makes no attempt to explain why, in the case of Libya and Syria,
imperialist powers happen to be on the "good side." Why would the
imperialists unanimously support, not just diplomatically but militarily,
genuine revolutionary movements?
Apparently, for those like Binh, imperialism is just a bad policy choice
that can be reversed by good ones. In reality, it is a system that seeks
world domination in order to secure its control of markets and capture of
resources. It pursues the overthrow of independent states, even ones that
only partly block the penetration and profit realization of oil giants and
other profit-seeking corporations. This pursuit of markets and resources is
the motivation for a rational and murderous set of policies, not subject to
fundamental change by this or that politician, or this or that set of
Real anti-imperialists oppose all tactics imperialism uses to subjugate
oppressed peoples, whether they are outright invasions, occupations and
bombings, or sanctions, coups, assassinations, funding and organizing
pro-imperialist opposition forces, propaganda campaigns, etc.
It is possible for one imperialist country, or a grouping of imperialist
countries, to temporarily aid independence movements in the oppressed world
in order to weaken the hold of their imperialist rivals in a different
country. This happened on occasion prior to World War II, when different
imperialist powers were engaged in an intense struggle to expand their
spheres of influence at the expense of others. At the end of WWII, U.S.
imperialism became the dominant imperialist force. the other imperialist
countries, both the victors and the defeated, were relegated to the role of
junior partners to U.S. imperialism. In today's U.S.-dominated imperialist
world, it is highly unlikely that one imperialist power will support a
genuine revolutionary movement. It would be impossible for all imperialist
powers to support and fund a genuine revolutionary movement. It would defy
the logic of the imperialist system to do so.
The case of Libya was not about inter-imperialist competition, with one
power supporting a liberation movement in hopes of making gains against
their rival. All the imperialist powers supported the rebels and have
already benefited from the ascension of a client state. Hugely profitable
oil contracts have already been signed, and are continuing to be granted by
the generosity of the new Libyan government towards the oil giants. U.S. oil
companies ConocoPhillips, Marathon and Hess Energy, France's Total, Italy's
Eni, British Petroleum and other oil giants are each grabbing part of the
spoils. The Libyan neoliberals, who had to compete with the
nationalist-oriented forces inside the previous Libyan government, are
firmly in control.
Binh considers what happened in Libya "a step forward," overlooking the
racist lynchings and the wholesale betrayal of the Libyan nation to
Standing against imperialist demonization is not easy
In its essence, this is not a theoretical issue. Binh and other proponents
of "humanitarian" intervention clearly do not suffer from a lack of
analytical ability. What they lack is the revolutionary resolve to stand up
to an imperialist demonization campaign that all sectors of the ruling class
supported. By comparison, siding with imperialist intervention is the easy
thing to do; it is the path of least resistance to make a more "mainstream"
and "respectable" left.
Binh correctly condemns U.S. interventions in Somalia, Haiti, and the
Balkans, as well as the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. But anyone can
oppose past imperialist interventions as questions of academic and
historical debate. When those interventions don't go well, even some ruling
class politicians are critical.
The Binhs of the future will undoubtedly look back and condemn the Libya
intervention as a historic crime, only to justify the next imperialist
intervention. Revolutionaries, anti-imperialist by definition, struggle
against imperialist interventions, not just in historical perspective, but
more critically, in the here and now.
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