Libya in context: imperialists no longer paper tigers?

Maybe saving the lives of civilians by taking away their fundamental political agency is the real problem with UN-NATO interventions, rather than some hidden economic self-interest.
Saroj Giri
4 April 2011

Soon after the first rejuvenating flush of democratic assertion sweeping the Arab countries a not-very-optimistic situation has emerged in Libya today. The upbeat mood among left and democratic sections about the Arab spring has suddenly given way to disappointment: not the Arab masses but the US and NATO are the active subjects now who are setting the agenda – UN mandated armed intervention, arms supply to the Libyan rebels and so on.

The left response has been either to find your own pragmatic position on an agenda and framework set by the big powers (do you support the humanitarian intervention?) or to engage in strong denunciations of the hypocrisy and double standards of imperialist powers, opposing the intervention outright. We need to get out of this double bind and go beyond both pragmatism and an immobilizing moral righteousness. Making a big moralist hue and cry about the imperialists - in the guise of protecting innocent civilians or protecting democracy - acting in their own interests, looks as though we secretly hope that imperialism can be reformed into something benign, with the left in the role of conscience-keepers. Exposing the hollow claims of the big powers that they defend democracy and freedom in front of the public and the media is of course important, but not when that is all the politics that is left. A shift in the focus of our analysis is needed here.

Let me use an anecdote. This is a leftist meeting in New Delhi in solidarity with the Maoist rebels’ struggle in Nepal in the face of Indian and US imperialist designs to crush it (an armed intervention by India was feared but never happened). One speaker expresses his anti-imperialist solidarity by saying that we must campaign against the arms supplied by India and the US to the Nepalese army. The Maoist leader however surprises the audience by saying, “Don’t worry comrades about the arms supply; let it come, for they will soon land up in our hands!” How should one respond? One might well complain that Maoists are violent and fetishize arms. But the political logic behind this statement is absolutely sound. That is, imperialism might desire and plan one thing, but the outcome might be something else, depending on the strength of the anti-imperialist struggle. Big powers indulge in morally outrageous activities like arming dictators but with the right strategy the outcome can still be favourable for progressive politics – not always but sometimes. The lesson: moral denunciations against such outrageous acts cannot be a substitute for good strategy. The most armed and violent penetration and destruction unleashed in Vietnam did not yield the desired outcome for US imperialism.

During the Vietnam war, General Vo Nguyen Giap did not waste time in condemning US imperialist aggression as murderous and immoral. That was taken as understood. Powerful and militarily superior as the US was, the General saw that strategically the invasion would eventually favour the Vietnamese resistance. He pointed out: “At this point, the more open is the United States aggression, the more isolated and differentiated the puppet army and administration, and the sharper the contradictions between the United States imperialists and their placemen. Those people in the puppet army and administration who still have some national feeling will become more conscious of the real situation, and the number of those who cross over to the people's side will increase.” He concludes: “Consequently, the introduction of more United States troops, far from retrieving the predicament of the puppet army and administration, aggravates the mercenary army's destruction and disintegration, and the puppet administration's collapse in the face of our people's resistance. When the American imperialists' crack troops are defeated by our people, the disintegration and collapse of the puppet army and administration will be all the more inevitable” (‘Once Again We Will Win’, January, 1966).

Imperialism contained ?

General Giap did not imagine a world where the subjective intentions of imperialists are the sole determining factor. Those intentions are in fact routinely frustrated. In the midst of the Vietnam war, he presents US imperialism as weak: “The strong points of the United States imperialists are limited, whereas their weak points are basic ones. As the aggressive war goes on, the latter will become more visible and more serious and will surely lead the American imperialists to ignominious failure.” Libya is no Vietnam, and inviting the full force of the US and NATO to come into Libya on the grounds that progress can still win with the ‘right strategy’ differs little as a position from supporting the Bush invasion into Iraq! But neither is there an iron necessity that a UN-NATO intervention will necessarily fulfil the desire of the big powers to contain the democratic wave in the Arab world.

As if announcing a major revelation, Tariq Ali writes that Libya is another case of selective vigilantism by the West: “It is absurd to think that the reasons for bombing Tripoli or for the turkey shoot outside Benghazi are designed to protect civilians” (‘Libya is another case of selective vigilantism by the West’, The Guardian, March 29, 2011). Well, had we expected anything other? Are we feeling betrayed by imperialism, or betrayed by our own secret investment in trying to reform it, restrain it – all this in the name of engaging in anti-imperialist struggle? No no, we are told, we must oppose the no-fly zone and the intervention in Libya since - well - the imperialists have imperialist designs! UN-NATO intervention, such commentators solemnly certify, will suppress and hijack the wave of democratic protests in the Arab world. That might happen – but can we for a moment imagine a different scenario?

Is it not conceivable that the UN-NATO armed intervention, particularly if it extends into occupation, might fail to contain the protests and instead provoke them to go beyond targeting just the regional dictators, even turning their wrath against those imperialist forces and designs that the left is wont to take as final and definitive? Is the left today capable of at least imagining a situation where there is a larger configuration of forces and balance of power which might be tilted against it? Unless one can imagine an alternative scenario, focusing on the big power interests and intentions as though they will surely come to fruition is like declaring imperialism victorious before the fightback has begun. Or avoiding any real confrontation.

Struggle on the ground

What is it about the democratic movement in Libya which has allowed such a situation as today’s to come about. Pham Binh points out in the latest Counterpunch: “we shouldn't close our eyes to weaknesses within the revolutionary wave stretching from Algeria to Iran. Unlike in Egypt, Libya's revolutionaries have not appealed to the rank-and-file of the military to switch sides, nor have they sought to mobilize the country's workers to strike against the regime. This took social revolution off the table and confined the struggle between Gaddafi and the rebels to a purely military dimension, guaranteeing him the upper hand and setting the stage for the Libyan National Council’s desperate plea for help from the region's most anti-revolutionary force: the US government. This failure was no accident; many members of the LNC are top figures from Gaddafi's decrepit and brutal regime. Instead of mobilizing workers, they've issued proclamations honoring all contracts with foreign oil companies.”

Such a reading offers an assessment of the strength or weakness of the democratic struggle which the big powers have to reckon with. The latest maneuverings in Libya might allow the US to contain the Arab protest wave. But who says the Arab movement cannot turn around and instead start containing big powers and their strategies. The challenge is to address the reality of the threat without permitting the take-over of the big powers, so that they become the sole agency and arbiters – even if they do ‘save civilian lives’. Maybe saving the lives of civilians by taking away their fundamental political agency is the real problem with UN-NATO intervention rather than some hidden economic self-interest.

Already the agency of the Arab movement is displaced from mass protests to fights over the wording of UN Resolution 1973. The struggle is now among the big powers (China, Russia abstaining) and some opaque ‘Libyan opposition’ over the issue of ground troops or occupation of any part of Libyan territory, beyond aerial strikes and a no-fly zone. It is about the supply of arms to the Libyan rebels, which might give them greater say over the path they want to choose while lessening the control of the big powers, but might lead to a civil war in which no Libyans win. While in each case we might take a position against big power interests (saying no to occupation or to use of ground troops, calling for or against arms supply to the rebels etc.) the wider democratic movement in the Arab movement is displaced, not least through the figure of ‘innocent civilians’ - no more active agents, but victims whom the big powers or the international community must save.

Discipline and sacrifice

General Giap seems to be saying, if the US aggressors are thrusting this war upon us then well, let them come in, we have our strategy laid out in a way that will trap them, defeat them. This refusal to back out of war and instead counter-strategise to win it, might from today’s left perspective look rather hawkish – good for anti-imperialism for an earlier time, but not for today. Vietnam stands for resistance to US imperialism, but look closely at the details and today’s moralizing left might be disappointed to discover quite so much of the militaristic, homogenizing discipline and self-sacrifice, smacking almost of a fascist authoritarianism.

Hence the ruckus generated by Slavoj Zizek’s review of the film 300 by Zack Snyder. With parallels to the Libyan case, the film shows Sparta under attack by the powerful invading Persian army. The Spartans resist through discipline and sacrifice. Some commentators accused Zizek precisely of overlooking the fascist overtones of discipline and sacrifice as values. But doesn’t he have a point when he agrees with Alain Badiou that all the poor have is ‘their discipline, their capacity to act together’ and to organize, and that taking moral positions and being shocked falls far short of what is needed for resistance to be effective. Strategy, discipline and sacrifice – these are categories the left needs to revisit so that anti-imperialism can go beyond conscience-keeping and imperialists can once again begin to look like paper tigers.

Obviously the situation in Vietnam with a powerful and mass-based anti-imperialist camp cannot be compared to the situation in Libya or any other Arab country today. But the current conflict between the big powers and the Gaddafi regime is precipitated by the rising fervour of the democratic upsurge. The pressure to put up a pro-civilian face means that the US is forced to act in ways that might overpower and defeat Gaddafi’s repressive apparatus. This could allow the democratic movement the space to expand its base - involving more youth and workers, and preventing the slide into civil war. But once this happens and the Gaddafi apparatus is eliminated, it is not entirely inconceivable that the movement will turn its focus on imperialist machinations. Indeed the further the US-NATO go beyond the UN mandate, spreading their more ambitious tentacles, the more likely that the flames of anti-imperialism will be stoked in the Arab world.

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