Pham Binh delivers a critique of Western anti-imperialists’ opposition to the Libyan and Syrian revolution.
Reflexive opposition to Uncle Sam’s machinations abroad is generally a good thing. It is a progressive instinct that progressively declined in the 1990s, as presidents Bush Sr. and Clinton deftly deployed the U.S. military to execute “humanitarian” missions in Somalia, Haiti, and the Balkans and progressively increased in the 2000s, as Bush Jr. lurched from quagmire to disaster in transparent empire-building exercises in Afghanistan and Iraq.
However, what is generally good is not good in every case. The progressive instinct to oppose anything the U.S. government does abroad became anything but progressive once the Arab Spring sprang up in Libya and Syria, countries ruled by dictatorships on Uncle Sam’s hit list. When American imperialism’s hostility to the Arab Spring took a back seat to its hostility to the Ghadafi and Assad regimes (their collaboration with Bush Jr.’s international torture ring notwithstanding), the Western left’s support for the Arab Spring took a back seat to its hostility to American imperialism.
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. Equivocal positions such as “revolution yes, intervention no” (the one I defended) were rendered utopian, abstract, and useless as a guide to action by this turn of events.
“Libyan Winter” Heats Up
To say that the Libyans were fortunate that anti-interventionists were too weak to block, disrupt, or affect NATO’s military campaign would be an understatement. Libya would look like Syria today if the anti-interventionists won at home in the West.
In both cases, the Western left mistakenly prioritized its anti-imperialist principles over its internationalist duty to aid these revolutions by any means necessary. By any means necessary presumably includes aid from imperialist powers or other reactionary forces. If this presumption is wrong, then we are not for the victory of the oppressed by any means necessary and should remove those words from our vocabulary in favor of by any means we in the West deem acceptable.
When the going got tough and the F-16s got going over Libya, the revolution’s fairweather friends in the West disowned it, claiming it had been hijacked by NATO. Instead of substantiating this claim with evidence that NATO successfully pushed the Libyans aside and seized control of their war against Ghadafi, the Western left instead 1) focused on the alleged misdeeds of the National Transitional Council (NTC) and 2) hid behind phrases such as“Libyan Winter” and “civil war,” implying that the Arab Spring in Libya froze the instant NATO jumped in and that neither the rebels nor Ghadafi deserved anyone’s support.
Both evasions of the central issue – that NATO’s air campaign had mass support among revolutionary Libyans which was faithfully reflected by the NTC’s stand against foreign invasion and for foreign airstrikes – were very serious methodological mistakes that only a handful of commentators managed to avoid, Clay Claiborne of Occupy LA being the most prominent. Far from freezing over, the struggle in Libya became a long hot summer of multifaceted conflict with international, conventional military, tribal, and underground dimensions that eventually culminated in Ghadafi’s grisly execution, raising and personalizing the stakes for Assad.
Anti-imperialists were so focused on the NTC’s cooperation with NATO, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and repressive Arab governments that they were as blindsided as Ghadafi was when forces independent of NTC control – Berber militias in Western Libya and underground networks in Tripoli – overthrew his regime in a surprise move on August 20. The NTC that the Western left portrayed as all-powerful due to its CIA and Arab state patronage was not able to move into Tripoli for weeks afterwards. To this day, the NTC has not disarmed rebel fighters, contrary to the confident predictions born of anti-imperial hubris by anti-interventionists who sought to convince us that the revolution was a mirage and that the West’s pawns chosen from above were firmly in control of post-Ghadafi Libya.
Broken Records Lead to Broken Crystal Balls
When NATO launched airstrikes in Libya, the anti-interventionists heard the same pretexts about human rights and freedom used to justify wars for empire and oil in Afghanistan and Iraq. This identical stimulus triggered an identical reaction – they used the contradictions and hypocritical flaws in the official rationales for intervention as the basis for opposing NATO’s action – just as Pavlov’s dogs reacted as if they were being fed when they heard a bell ring, regardless of whether any food was actually served.
This conditioned reaction to the broken record of justifications led anti-interventionists to conclude that NATO’s end of the Libyan war would resemble the Afghan and Iraq wars and so their case against intervention was built around the following predictions:
1) Mass civilian casualties due to Iraq or Viet Nam-style aerial bombardment;
2) Foreign invasion/occupation due to imperialist “mission creep”;
3) Future interventions would be easier and more likely elsewhere;
4) A neocolonial regime would be installed in Tripoli as the result of NATO-led “regime change,” the logical conclusion of the “revolution was hijacked” conspiracy theory.
NATO’s methods and the war’s outcome were totally at odds with what the anti-interventionists envisioned:
1) 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. The absence of wanton slaughter of civilians by NATO compelled Ghadafi to fake collateral damage incidents and civilian funerals and arbitrarily exaggerate the number of civilians killed.
2) The anti-interventionists believed that NATO would be compelled to send ground troops by the logic of “regime change,” by the inability of forces loyal to the NTC to make significant headway against Ghadafi’s forces. They seized on the presence of small numbers of NATO military advisers and special forces in Libya as a vindication of their prediction and as proof that the West put “boots on the ground.” In reality, NATO boots played a secondary role; Libyans did the fighting and the dying, not Westerners. Out of 30,000 people who were killed in the Libyan civil war, how many were NATO personnel? Zero. That number would have been higher if NATO ground forces were in the thick of combat or invaded (much less occupied) the country.
3) Paradoxically, NATO’s successful campaign in Libya made a future U.S./NATO campaign in Syria less likely. Russia and China are now determined to block any attempt to apply the Libyan model to Syria at the United Nations Security Council and the Obama administration is not willing to defy either of them by taking Bush-style unilateral military action for the time being.
4) The proponents of the hijacking theory failed to address the most obvious and urgent question that flowed from their own analysis: what could the Libyans do to take their revolution back from NATO’s hijacking? A hijacking is a struggle for control between legitimate and illegitimate actors where the rogue elements get the upper hand. (Never forget 9/11.) Not one of the Libyan revolution’s progressive detractors outlined how NATO could be elbowed aside by Libyans to regain control of their struggle.
This was no accident or coincidence.
The hijacking narrative did not arise from a factual foundation but from a simplistic, reflexive ideology, albeit an anti-imperialist one. The anti-interventionists did their best to substitute weak suppositions, NATO’s bald hypocrisy, and guilt by association for the evidence they lacked to support their hijacking story. For them, the Libyan revolution’s constituent elements lost their political independence, initiative, and lifeblood the instant NATO fired its first cruise missile. Nothing else mattered except that NATO chose to act; what Libyans said, did,thought, and organized was simply not a factor for them.
These anti-imperialists airbrushed the Libyans out of their own revolution.
The driving force behind the military offensive by Berber militias in western Libya that was timed to coincide with the surprise uprising in Tripoli that ousted Ghadafi was not NATO. NATO did not organize the underground network of neighborhood cells in Tripoli that penetrated Ghadafi’s secret police. And NATO certainly did not pick August 20, the day Muhammad entered Mecca, as the day to launch a risky grassroots insurrection in Tripoli.
Hammered by NATO’s airpower from above, by the Berbers from without, and by revolutionaries from below, Ghadafi’s forces in Tripoli melted away. The “Libyan Winter” proved to be the hottest chapter of the Arab Spring thus far.
Events shortly after Ghadafi was toppled provide even more evidence that the revolution was not hijacked by NATO. When rebels stormed Ghadafi’s compound, they were quick to show Western reporters the dictator’sscrap book featuring himself arm-in-arm with Condoleeza Rice. A top rebel commander publicly accused the British government of handing him over to Ghadafi’s regime to be tortured right before he filed a lawsuit against Jack Straw, Britain’s former Foreign Minister for authorizing the rendition. The new Libyan government refused to hand over Ghadafi’s son Saif to the International Criminal Court (now it has even arrested their lawyers), the body responsible for dispensing NATO’s “justice” to Slobodan Milosevic. No U.S or NATO bases have been established in Libya unlike in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo.
In other words, Libyan sovereignty emerged from the revolution intact despite NATO’s involvement. This would not be the case if NATO was directly or indirectly in charge of Libya or set up some sort of neocolonial regime.
The bottom line is that the bulk of the Western left could not bring itself to wholeheartedly support a democratic revolution that co-opted foreign intervention for its own ends. The revolution landed safe and sound at a qualitatively more democratic destination precisely because control of the revolution never left Libyan hands.
Today, Libyans enjoy freedom of speech, freedom to protest and organize, and most importantly, freedom from fear of state repression. The Western left ought to join the revolutionary masses of the Arab and North African world in celebrating this historic victory, not isolate ourselves from them by mourning (or slandering) it.
Instead of trying to learn from their mistakes, the anti-interventionists simply moved on to Syria to make the same errors without a second thought about why the reality of post-intervention Libya looked nothing like their dire forecasts. This willful blindness makes them incapable of understanding why any Arab revolutionary in their right mind would look to Libya as a model, why Syrians would chant, “Bye, bye Ghadafi, Bashar your turn is coming!” while crowds in Tahrir Square chant, “If they want to be Syria, we’ll give them Libya” in response to the Egyptian military’s latest power grab.
The Main Enemy In Syria
The anti-interventionists are repeating their mistakes over the Libyan revolution blunder-for-blunder over the Syria revolution. In place of their attacks on the Libyan NTC, they denounce the Syrian Nation Council (SNC); they dwell on the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) U.S. backing, just as they painted Libya’s rebels as tools of the CIA; instead of “hands off Libya,” they put forward the slogan “hands off Syria,” as if Syria’s death squads were Uncle Sam’s handiwork and not Assad’s.
Hyperbolic condemnations of the FSA, SNC, or the coordinating committees do nothing for Syrians whose lives do not depend on the anti-imperialist credentials of these groups but on whatever assistance they can provide. Similarly, criticisms that the Syrian revolution should rely less on armed struggle and more on strikes by workers have a questionable relationship to reality at best. Since when has a strike ever stopped a death squad from breaking down a door and murdering a sleeping family or prevented a civilian neighborhood from being shelled by artillery? Does anyone seriously believe that the Syrian struggle is being led astray by trigger-happy gunmen (most of whom are working for Assad, not against him)?
Our first duty in the West is to do whatever we can to aid, abet, and provide material support for our Syrian brothers’ and sisters’ fight against the Assad regime. Our main enemy is at home in the West, but theirs is not. Washington, D.C. is not sending death squads door-to-door to execute women and children, the regime in Damascus is; the Pentagon is not shelling civilian targets and killing journalists in Homs, the regime in Damascus is. Their main enemy is at home, just as ours is.
This grim reality must be our starting point in any discussion about Syria, not a hypothetical U.S. military action down the road, the contours of which cannot be known in advance. We cannot have the same attitude towards U.S. airstrikes on Assad’s forces and a full-scale ground invasion of Syria because their impact on and implications for the revolution would be completely different. The contours of imperialist intervention must shape our attitude towards it. Sending the FSA small arms and anti-tank missiles or video cameras is not the same as sending American marines into the streets of Damascus, although they are all forms of U.S. intervention.
Syrian revolutionaries know damn well what atrocities Uncle Sam is capable of – Iraq is right next door – and the Arab world knows better than we in the West ever will what the colonial boot feels like. To lecture them of perils and pitfalls they know better than we do is to insult their intelligence. To pretend that we know the dangers of dealing with imperialist devils better than Third World revolutionaries do is a kind of white anti-imperialist’s burden, and its arrogant paternalism is just as misguided as its colonialist antipode.
We have no business criticizing the SNC, FSA, or the coordinating committees unless and until we have fulfilled our first duty by matching our words of solidarity with deeds and acts that can make a difference in the revolution’s outcome, however small they might seem.
Self-Determination and Intervention
The biggest obstacle to Syrian self-determination today is the Assad regime which increasingly rests on Russian bayonets drenched in Syrian blood. He is determined to stay in power by any means necessary and will not rest until their struggle for self-determination (which is what a democratic revolution is) is buried, in mass graves if need be. Respect for Syrian self-determination means respecting how Syrian revolutionaries organize their struggle and their choices even when they conflict with our own preferences and choices.
If Syrian revolutionaries ask for Western airstrikes because they lack an air force to counter the Assad regime militarily, who are we to oppose those airstrikes? Who are we to tell them that all-out defeat is better than the triumph of a revolution “tainted” by an unavoidable compromise with imperialists powers? Who are we to tell them they must face Russian helicopter gunships without imperialist aid because “the revolution will be won by Syrians themselves or it won’t be won at all”? Do we really want our Syrian brothers and sisters to confront tanks with rocks and slingshots as so many Palestinians have?
While the Western left is raising a hue and cry over the minimal aid Syria’s rebels receive from the CIA and reactionary Gulf states, Russia is overtly ramping up its military aid to Assad. Whether we like it or not, the struggle between the Syrian revolution and Assad’s counter-revolution has been internationalized just as the Spanish civil war of 1936-1939 was. The Western left in those days demanded foreign intervention in the form of arms, military aid, and volunteers for the Spanish Republic. The anti-interventionists (mostly fascists or fascist sympathizers) were more than happy to see the Republic starved in the name of “non-intervention” while Hitler bombed Guernica and did everything possible to ensure Franco’s victory.
Those who oppose Western military action today against Assad in the context of a revolution that has developed into a full-blown civil war where segments of the revolution and the people are begging for foreign arms, aid, andairstrikes while the counter-revolution imports arms to slaughter them follow in the anti-interventionist footsteps of the Spanish Republic’s opponents whether they are aware of it or not.
“Hands off Syria” should be the slogan raised at demonstrations in front of Russian embassies and consulates around the world, not the one directed at foreign powers aiding the rebels lest we become little better than Assad’s unwitting executioners in the eyes of revolutionary Syrians. Instead of focusing our fire on the shortcomings of the SNC, FSA, and the coordinating committees, we should be organizing events and fund-raisers for humanitarian relief, fact-finding missions, and video and communications equipment with the aim of smuggling it into Syria. These activities are already taking place but not with the participation of the Western left since we are more worried about our precious anti-imperialist principles and hypothetical Libya-style airstrikes (as if the outcome there was a step backward and not a step forward) than tackling the ugly realities of the Syrian revolution whose straits become more desperate with each passing hour.
We fiddle furiously while Syria burns and Syrians bleed.
The most important thing for the Western left to do is to forge close and enduring relationships with revolutionary Syrians living abroad by demonstrating our unequivocal support for their revolution through deeds, through joint work with their communities. Only in that context and on that basis can criticisms we have about deals with U.S. imperialism or mistakes made by the SNC, FSA, and the coordinating committees gain a hearing among the people who count: revolutionary Syrians.
One way to begin building these relationships would be to organize forums and debates over the question of intervention with revolutionary Syrians of various shades of opinion. The single most embarrassing aspect of the Western left’s opposition to NATO’s Libya operation was the way revolutionary Libyans were barred from Libya forums organized by anti-interventionists.
This outrage was the absurd but logical outcome of the white anti-imperialist’s burden, a burden we must cast aside if we hope to act in concert with the Arab Spring.
The Western left should reject knee-jerk anti-imperialism because its unthinking, blind, reflexive, nature put us at odds with the interests and explicit demands of first the Libyan and now the Syrian revolutionary peoples and in line with the interests of their mortal enemies.
Knee-jerk anti-imperialism leads to our enemies doing our thinking for us: whatever Uncle Sam wants, we oppose; whatever Uncle Sam opposes, we want. This method plays right into U.S. imperialism’s hands because the last thing Uncle Sam wants is a thinking enemy.