Saturday, March 26, 2011

Libya: a legitimate and necessary debate from an anti-imperialist perspective

This post has a somewhat ponderous title and makes reference to the "Brest-Litovsk" treaty, something that may be obscure to many readers. Nevertheless, this is an important article and I have to say I agree with it. I especially like the article's taking on the ultra-purist "anti-imperialist" critics that studiously ignore the concrete facts of the situation as a part of their unsullied principles.

(Now about the Brest-Litovsk reference: In 1917 after the Bolsheviks had seized power Russia was still at war with Germany. One of the prime reasonsthe people supported for the Bolsheviks was that the post Czarist provisional government kept Russia's alliance with France and England and didn't drop out of the war, which was wrecking the country and killing masses of soldiers.

The Bolsheviks immediately opened negotiations with the Germans and ended up accepting a very unfavorable peace treaty in which they ceded a large amount of territory to end the war -- the Brest-Litovsk Treaty. Many Russian revolutionaries denounced the treaty as a surrender to the class enemy and criticizes Lenin and Trotsky (who negotiated the treaty) as sell-outs.)

By Gilbert Achcar

Friday, March 25, 2011
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"The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was indeed a compromise with the imperialists, but
it was a compromise which, under the circumstances, had to be made. ... To
reject compromises 'on principle', to reject the permissibility of compromises
in general, no matter of what kind, is childishness, which it is difficult even
to consider seriously ... One must be able to analyze the situation and the
concrete conditions of each compromise, or of each variety of compromise. One
must learn to distinguish between a man who has given up his money and fire-arms
to bandits so as to lessen the evil they can do and to facilitate their capture
and execution, and a man who gives his money and fire-arms to bandits so as to
share in the loot."
Vladimir I. Lenin
The interview I gave to my good friend Steve Shalom the day after the UN
Security Council adopted resolution 1973 and which was published on ZNet on
March 19 provoked a storm of discussions and statements of all kinds --
friendly, unfriendly, strongly supportive, mildly supportive, politely critical
or frenziedly hostile -- far larger than anything I could have expected, all the
larger because it was translated and circulated into several languages. If this
is an indication of anything, it is that people felt there was a real issue at
stake. So let's discuss it.

The debate on the Libyan case is a legitimate and necessary one for those who
share an anti-imperialist position, lest one believes that holding a principle
spares us the need to analyze concretely each specific situation and determine
our position in light of our factual assessment. Every general rule admits of
exceptions. This includes the general rule that UN-authorized military
interventions by imperialist powers are purely reactionary ones, and can never
achieve a humanitarian or positive purpose. Just for the sake of argument: if we
could turn back the wheel of history and go back to the period immediately
preceding the Rwandan genocide, would we oppose an UN-authorized Western-led
military intervention deployed in order to prevent it? Of course, many would say
that the intervention by imperialist/foreign forces risks making a lot of
victims. But can anyone in their right mind believe that Western powers would
have massacred between half a million and a million human beings in 100 days?

This is not to claim that Libya is Rwanda: I'll explain in a moment why Western
powers didn't bother about Rwanda, or don't bother about the death toll of
genocidal proportions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but intervene in
Libya. Reference to the Rwandan case is given here only to show that there is
room for discussion of concrete cases, even though one adheres to firm
anti-imperialist principles. The argument that Western intervention in Libya is
bound to make civilian victims (I'd actually care even for Gaddafi's soldiers
from a humanitarian perspective) is not determinative. What is decisive is the
comparison between the human cost of this intervention and the cost that would
have been incurred had it not happened.

To take another extreme analogy for the sake of showing the full range of
discussion: could Nazism be defeated through non-violent means? Were not the
means used by the Allied forces themselves cruel? Did they not savagely bomb
Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing huge numbers of civilians? In
hindsight, would we now say that the anti-imperialist movement in Britain and
the United States should have campaigned against their states' involvement in
the world war? Or do we still believe that the anti-imperialist movement was
right innot opposing the war against the Axis (as it was right indeed
in opposing the previous one, the 1914-18 world war), but that it should have
campaigned against any massive harm purposely inflicted upon civilian
populations with no evident rationale of a necessity in order to defeat the

Enough now with analogies. They are always subject to endless debates, even
though they serve the useful purpose of showing that there can be situations
where there can be a debate, situations where you have to give up to bandits, or
call the cops, etc. They show that the belief that any such attitudes should be
automatically rejected as a "breach of principles," without taking the trouble
of assessing the concrete circumstances, is just unsustainable. Otherwise, the
anti-imperialist movement in Western countries would appear as only concerned
with opposing their own governments without giving a damn about the fate of
other populations. This is no longer anti-imperialism, but right-wing
isolationism: the "let them all go to hell, and leave us in peace" attitude à la
Patrick Buchanan. So let us calmly assess the concrete situation that we're
dealing with these days.

We shall begin with the nature of Gaddafi's regime. The facts here leave little
room for legitimate disagreement. It is only for the attention of those who
believe, in good faith and out of sheer ignorance, that Gaddafi is a progressive
and an anti-imperialist that I discuss it. True, Gaddafi started as a relatively
progressive anti-imperialist populist dictator, who led a military coup against
the Libyan monarchy in 1969 imitating the Egyptian coup that toppled the
monarchy there in 1952. His first hero was Gamal Abdel-Nasser, although his
regime was initially more right-wing ideologically, with much more emphasis on
religion (later, Gaddafi pretended to give a new interpretation of Islam). He
started very early on recruiting people from poorer countries as mercenaries in
his armed forces, initially for the Islamic Legion that he set up.

He proclaimed the replacement of existing laws with the Sharia in the early
1970s, just before embarking on an imitation of the Chinese "cultural
revolution," with his own Islamic version of Mao's Little Red Book: the Green
Book. He also imitated the pretense of the "cultural revolution" of instituting
"direct democracy," through the creation of a system of "popular committees"
supposedly turning Libya into a "state of the masses" -- actually one with a
record proportion of people on the payroll of the security services. More than
10% of the Libyan population were "informants" paid for exerting surveillance
over the rest of the society. Gaddafi extensively jailed or executed opponents
to his regime, including several of the officers who had taken part along with
him in the overthrow of the monarchy. In the late 1970s, he decided to turn the
Libyan economy into a combination of state capitalism in large enterprises and
private capitalism with workers' "partnership" in smaller ones and abolish rents
and retail trade (even hairdressers were nationalized!). He also devoted part of
the state's oil revenue to improving the living conditions of Libya's citizens,
a "revolutionary" version of the way in which some of the Gulf monarchies with
high per capita oil income cater to the needs of their own citizens in order to
buy themselves a social constituency -- while, as in Libya, mistreating the
immigrant workers who constitute a major part of their labor force and their

In the next decade, faced with the disastrous results of his erratic policies
and the crisis of the USSR, upon which he depended for his arms purchases,
Gaddafi pretended to imitate Gorbachev's perestroika, liberalizing Libya's
economy, but hardly its political life. His next major political turnabout took
place in 2003. In December of that year, he came to the political rescue of Bush
& Blair, announcing that he had decided to renounce his weapons of mass
destruction programs. This was badly needed boost for the credibility of the
invasion of Iraq as a way of halting WMD proliferation. Gaddafi was suddenly
turned into a respectable leader and was warmly congratulated, with Condoleezza
Rice citing him as a model. One after the other, Western leaders flocked to
Libya paying him visits in his tent and concluding juicy contracts. The one who
built the closest relation with him is Italian hard-right and racist prime
minister Silvio Berlusconi: his friendship with Gaddafi was not only very
fruitful economically. In 2008 they concluded one of the dirtiest deals of
recent times, agreeing that poor boat people from the African continent
intercepted by Italian naval forces while trying to reach European shores would
be delivered directly to Libya instead of being taken to Italian territory,
where they would have to be screened for asylum. This deal was so effective that
it reduced the number of such asylum-seekers in Italy from 36,000 in 2008 to
4,300 in 2010. It was condemned by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, to
no avail.

The idea that Western powers are intervening in Libya because they want to
topple a regime hostile to their interests is just preposterous. Equally
preposterous is the idea that what they are after is laying their hands on
Libyan oil. In fact, the whole range of Western oil and gas companies is active
in Libya: Italy's ENI, Germany's Wintershall, Britain's BP, France's Total and
GDF Suez, US companies ConocoPhillips, Hess, and Occidental, British-Dutch
Shell, Spain's Repsol, Canada's Suncor, Norway's Statoil, etc. Why then are
Western powers intervening in Libya today, and not in Rwanda yesterday and Congo
yesterday and today? As one of those who have energetically argued that the
invasion of Iraq was "about oil" against those who tried to outsmart us by
saying that we were "reductionists," don't expect me to argue that this one is
not about oil. It definitely is. But how?

My take on that is the following. After watching for a few weeks Gaddafi
conducting his terribly brutal and bloody suppression of the uprising that
started in mid-February -- estimates of the number of people killed in early
March ranged from 1000 to 10,000, the latter figure by the International
Criminal Court, with the Libyan opposition's estimates ranging between 6,000 and
8,000 -- Western governments, like everybody else for that matter, became
convinced that with Gaddafi set on a counter-revolutionary offensive and
reaching the outskirts of Libya's second largest city of Benghazi (over 600,000
inhabitants), a mass-scale slaughter was imminent. To give an indication of what
such repressive governments can perpetrate, just think of the fact that the
Syrian regime's 1982 repression of the uprising in the city of Hama, with less
than one third of Benghazi's population, resulted in over 25,000 deaths. Had a
massacre on a similar scale occurred with Gaddafi's rule consolidating as a
result, Western governments would have had no choice but to impose sanctions and
an oil embargo on his regime.

The conditions of the oil market that prevailed in the 1990s were characterized
by a depression in prices, at a time when the US was going through its longest
economic expansion ever, the bubble-sustained boom of the Clinton years. It was
very comfortable for Washington and its allies to maintain an embargo on Iraq
during that decade (at a quasi-genocidal cost). It is only at the end of the
decade that the oil market started moving out of depression into a rise of
prices that everything indicated to be of a structural nature, i.e. a long-term
rising tendency. And it is no coincidence that George W. Bush and his cronies
came out then in favour of "regime change" in Iraq. For it was the condition
without which Washington wouldn't tolerate lifting the embargo on a country
whose major oil deals had been granted to French, Russian and Chinese interests
(the three leading opponents of the invasion at the UN Security Council --
surprise, surprise!).

The present conditions of the world oil market are indeed conditions where oil
prices, after falling briefly under the shock of the global crisis, have resumed
their upward movement, several months before the revolutionary wave in North
Africa and the Middle East. This, in a condition of unresolved global economic
crisis, with an extremely fragile fake recovery. Under such conditions, an oil
embargo on Libya is simply not an option. The massacre had to be prevented. The
best scenario for Western powers became the fall of the regime, thus relieving
them of the problem of coping with it. A lesser evil option for them would be a
lasting stalemate and de facto division of the country between West and East,
with oil exports resumed from both provinces, or exclusively from the main
fields located in the East under rebel control.

To these considerations one should add the following: it is nonsensical, and an
instance of very crude "materialism," to dismiss as irrelevant the weight of
public opinion on Western governments, especially in this case on nearby
European governments. At a time when the Libyan insurgents were urging the world
more and more insistently to provide them with a no-fly zone in order to
neutralize the main advantage of Gaddafi's forces, and with the Western public
watching the events on television -- making it impossible that a mass-scale
slaughter in Benghazi would go unseen, as it was so often the case in other
places (like the above-mentioned Hama, for instance, or the Democratic Republic
of the Congo) -- Western governments would not only have incurred the wrath of
their citizens, but they would have completely jeopardized their ability to
invoke humanitarian pretexts for further imperialist wars like the ones in the
Balkans or Iraq. Not only their economic interests, but also the credibility of
their own ideology was at stake. And the pressure of Arab public opinion
certainly played a role in the call by the Arab League of States for a no-fly
zone over Libya, even though there can be no doubt that most Arab regimes were
wishing that Gaddafi could put down the uprising, and thus reverse the
revolutionary wave that has been sweeping the whole region and shaking their own
regimes since the beginning of this year.

Now, what do we do with that? A mass uprising, facing an all-too-real threat of
large-scale massacre was requesting a no-fly zone in order to help them resist
the criminal regime's offensive. Unlike the anti-Milosevic forces in Kosovo,
they were not calling for foreign troops to occupy their land. On the contrary,
they had good reason for having no confidence in any such deployment: their
awareness, in light of Iraq, Palestine, etc., that world powers have imperialist
agendas, as well as their own experience of the way the same world powers cozied
up to the tyrant oppressing them. They very explicitly rejected any foreign
intervention on the ground, only asking for an air cover. And the UNSC
resolution excluded explicitly upon their request "a foreign occupation force of
any form on any part of Libyan territory."

I won't dwell on the unacceptable arguments of those who try to shed doubt on
the nature of the uprising's leadership. They are most often the same as those
who believe Gaddafi is a progressive. The leaders of the uprising are a mix of
political and intellectual democratic and human rights dissidents, some of whom
have spent long years in Gaddafi's jails, men who broke with the regime in order
to join the rebellion, and representatives of the regional and tribal diversity
of the Libyan population. The program they are united on is one of democratic
change -- political freedoms, human rights, and free elections -- exactly like
all other uprisings in the region. And if there is no clarity about what a
post-Gaddafi Libya might look like, two things are certain: it can't be worse
than Gaddafi's regime, and it can't be worse than the quite more obvious likely
scenario of a crucial role of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood in
post-Mubarak Egypt, given by some as an argument for supporting the Egyptian

Can anyone claiming to belong to the left just ignore a popular movement's plea
for protection, even by means of imperialist bandit-cops, when the type of
protection requested is not one through which control over their country could
be exerted? Certainly not, by my understanding of the left. No real progressive
could just ignore the uprising's request for protection -- unless, as is too
frequent among the Western left, they just ignore the circumstances and the
imminent threat of mass slaughter, paying attention to the whole situation only
once their own government got involved, thus setting off their (normally
healthy, I should add) reflex of opposing the involvement. In every situation
when anti-imperialists opposed Western-led military interventions using massacre
prevention as their rationale, they pointed to alternatives showing that the
Western governments' choice of resorting to force only stemmed from imperialist

There was a non-violent solution out of the Kosovo crisis: for one, the offer
made by Yeltsin's Russian government in August 1998 of an international force to
implement a political settlement jointly imposed by Moscow and Washington. It
was relayed by then US ambassador to NATO Alexander Vershbow, and just ignored
in Washington. The same could be added about February 1999. The Serbian and NATO
positions were different, but negotiable, as was shown after 78 days of bombing,
when the UN resolution was a compromise between them. There was a non-violent
solution to get Saddam Hussein to withdraw his troops from Kuwait in 1990: aside
from the fact that he could not have withstood for long the tight sanctions that
were imposed on his regime in order to force him out, he was offering to
negotiate his withdrawal. Washington preferred to destroy the country's
infrastructure and send it "back to the stone age," as the reporter for the UNSC
described the country's situation after the war in 1991.

What then was the alternative to the no-fly zone in the Libyan case? None is
convincing. The day when the UNSC voted its resolution, Gaddafi's forces were
already on the outskirts of Benghazi, and his air force attacking the city. A
few days more, they might have taken Benghazi. Those who are confronted with
this question give very unconvincing answers. A political solution could have
been contemplated had Gaddafi been willing to allow free elections, but he
wasn't. He and his son Saif gave the uprising no choice other than surrender
(promising them an amnesty that nobody could have trusted), or "civil war." I'll
ignore those who say that the population of Benghazi could have fled to Egypt
and taken refuge there! It is not worthy of comment. I'll also ignore those who
say that Arab armies only should have intervened, as if an intervention by the
likes of the Egyptian and Saudi armed forces would have caused fewer casualties,
and represented less imperialist influence on the process in Libya. The answer
that sounds more convincing is the one advocating arms delivery to the
insurgents; but it was not a plausible alternative.

Arms delivery could not be organized and become effective -- especially if we're
thinking of sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles -- in 24 hours! This could not
have been an alternative to a massacre foretold. Under such conditions, in the
absence of any other plausible solution, it was just morally and politically
wrong for anyone on the left to oppose the no-fly zone; or in other words, to
oppose the uprising's request for a no-fly zone. And it remains morally and
politically wrong to demand the lifting of the no-fly zone -- unless Gaddafi is
no longer able to use his air force. Short of that, lifting the no-fly zone
would mean a victory for Gaddafi, who would then resume using his planes and
crush the uprising even more ferociously than what he was prepared to do
beforehand. On the other hand, we should definitely demand that bombings stop
after Gaddafi's air means have been neutralized. We should demand clarity on
what air potential is left with Gaddafi, and, if any is still at his disposal,
what it takes to neutralize it. And we should oppose NATO turning into a full
participant of the ground war beyond the initial blows to Gaddafi's armor needed
to halt his troops' offensive against rebel cities in the Western province --
even were the insurgents to invite NATO's participation or welcome it.

Does it mean that we had and have to support UNSC resolution 1973? Not at all.
This was a very bad and dangerous resolution, precisely because it didn't define
enough safeguards against transgressing the mandate of protecting the Libyan
civilians. The resolution leaves too much room for interpretation, and could be
used to push forward an imperialist agenda going beyond protection into meddling
into Libya's political future. It could not be supported, but must be criticized
for its ambiguities. But neither could it be opposed, in the sense of opposing
the no-fly zone and giving the impression that one doesn't care about the
civilians and the uprising. We could only express our strong reservations. Once
intervention started, the role of anti-imperialist forces should have consisted
in monitoring it closely, and condemning all actions hitting at civilians where
measures to avoid such killings have not been observed, as well as all actions
by the coalition that are devoid of a civilian protection rationale. One article
of the UNSC resolution should definitely be opposed though: it is the one
confirming the arms embargo on Libya, if this means the country and not the
Gaddafi regime alone. We should on the contrary demand that arms be delivered
openly and massively to the insurgents, so that they no longer need direct
foreign military support as soon as possible.

A final comment: for so many years, we have been denouncing the hypocrisy and
double standard of imperialist powers, pointing to the fact that they didn't
prevent the all-too-real genocide in Rwanda while they intervened in order to
stop the fictitious "genocide" in Kosovo. This implied that we thought that
international intervention should have been deployed in order to prevent or stop
the genocide in Rwanda. The left should certainly not proclaim such
absolute "principles" as "We are against Western powers' military intervention
whatever the circumstances." This is not a political position, but a religious
taboo. One can safely bet that the present intervention in Libya will prove most
embarrassing for imperialist powers in the future. As those members of the US
establishment who opposed their country's intervention rightly warned, the next
time Israel's air force bombs one of its neighbors, whether Gaza or Lebanon,
people will demand a no-fly zone. I, for one, definitely will. Pickets should be
organized at the UN in New York demanding it. We should all be prepared to do
so, with now a powerful argument.

The left should learn how to expose imperialist hypocrisy by using against it
the very same moral weapons that it cynically exploits, instead of rendering
this hypocrisy more effective by appearing as not caring about moral
considerations. They are the ones with double standards, not us.

Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon, and is currently Professor at the School of
Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London. His books
include The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder, published
in 13 languages, Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy,
co-authored with Noam Chomsky, and most recently The Arabs and the Holocaust:
The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives.

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