March 2011, Week 4


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Fri, 25 Mar 2011 19:49:14 -0400
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[For the Steve Shalon/Gilbert Ashcar interview
referenced in the first paragraph of this articles, see
-- moderator.]

Libya: a Legitimate and Necessary Debate From an Anti-
Imperialist Perspective

By Gilbert Achcar
March 25, 2011

          "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 in not 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 enemy?

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

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 population.

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,

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 dictator.

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 designs.

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

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 neighbours, 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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