American Insurgents

by Richard Seymour, David Wearing

Richard Seymour's new book, "American Insurgents", presents a historical analysis of anti-war protest in the United States. His previous books are "The Liberal Defence of Murder", now published in paperback, and "The Meaning of David Cameron". He blogs at Lenin's Tomb, and writes regularly for the Guardian. Seymour is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics.  He discussed his new book with New Left Project's David Wearing.

David Wearing:  Can you summarise for us the subject of your new book?

Richard Seymour: American Insurgents is a brief history of anti-imperialism in the US, from the revolution to the present.  Now, this is an odd subject: what's so American about it?  What's so anti-imperialist about it?  It doesn't seem to sit right.  Apart from anything else, most pundits and historians imply that there's something profoundly paradoxical about the idea of an American Empire.  Thus, we are treated to lapidary formulations about the 'Empire of Liberty'.  This has to do with its ambiguous revolutionary legacy, which is something I explore in the book. 

What can be said is that the liberal-democratic ideas that animated the revolution are in some respects in conflict with imperialism.  The legatees of that revolution have often operated on that tension, using the inherited liberal-democratic discourse - the principle of self-determination, consent of the governed, etc - against imperialism.  Thus, the Anti-Imperialist League, a mass movement included such luminaries as Mark Twain, Henry James and Jane Addams, appealled to the constitution, and the declaration of independence, against the US colonial war in the Phillipines in 1898. That is what is specifically American about the anti-imperialism I'm discussing. 

As for what's so anti-imperialist about it, I should say up front that I have not restricted my purview to those movements which explicitly considered themselves anti-imperialist as that would be mainly a chronicle of marginalia.  This is a study of the concrete political formations that arose against specific imperialist ventures.  For, even if at an ideological level specific groups or individuals did not understand the problem as imperialism, the political struggle they were conducting was against imperialism.  This is not to say that it doesn't matter whether groups self-identify as anti-imperialist or not.  Their analysis matters, largely because it is a determinant of how successful they can be.  It is just that it would be unduly restrictive, and finger-wagging, to adopt an ideal-type of anti-imperialism against which to measure those whose struggles we need to learn from.

One of the key differences that emerges in the history is, to put it very schematically, between liberal anti-imperialism and socialist anti-imperialism.  The 19th century is dominated by the former, the 20th century by the latter.  So the first two chapters of the book are concerned with how anti-imperialists through the 19th century attempted to use the liberal-democratic aspects of the American make-up against its expansionist drives.  This takes us through the resistance (by early feminists, abolitionists, Whigs, etc) to colonial dispossession of Native Americans and the expansion of the slaveocracy in the conquest of Mexico, through to the 'colonial turn' at the end of the nineteenth century.  This liberal-democratic strategy had its limits.  The Anti-Imperialist League, for example, was a liberal anti-imperialist group.  It was dominated by bourgeois white males and, though its dominant political tenor was anti-racist, it incorporated Southern planters nostalgic for slavery.  It made use of the labour of workers, women and 'people of colour', but excluded them from its running.  It adopted a legalist, parliamentarist political strategy, and channelled its energies into the Democratic campaign of 1900.  This was a catastrophic decision, resulting in demoralisation when their ticket lost.  Ironically, the demoralisation may have been worse if their candidate had won.  There is a long history of anti-imperialist movements evaporating when they imagine they have gained executive power - witness the evacuation of the vast majority of the US antiwar movement from the scene after Obama's election.

However, already by the end of the nineteenth century, socialist and labour movements were asserting themselves.  It was largely the socialist left that resisted Wilson's interventions into the Mexican Revolution and his participation in the Great War.  The socialists took a very different approach to the liberal-democratic strategy.  First of all, they systematically linked anti-imperialism to the material interests of the working class, and the oppressed, by arguing that imperialism was in the interests of capitalism and would make ordinary Americans worse off.  Many in the Anti-Imperialist League had also argued that imperialism had 'economic' causes, but it wasn't usually a class issue for them.  Second, they advocated the exercise of what Francis Fox Piven calls 'disruptive power' to stop the war machine: strikes, civil disobedience and evading conscription. 

Theirs was not a passive, parliamentarist or legalist strategy.  And they were met with violent counterattack.  This is where a particularly virulent fusion of nativism and anticommunism was born.  The militias, citizens bodies, judicial investigations, raids etc which were launched under the Wilson administration to crack down on the socialist Left took aim especially at presumed 'aliens'.  These were exact precursors of the anticommunist networks of the Cold War.

But still, in most 20th century anti-imperialist movements, coalitions had had to be formed between socialists and liberals.  (Again, I stress that this is a deliberately simplified schema: actual coalition-building involved navigating an array of heterogenous identities and axes of oppression, but the fundamental political and strategic divide can be summed up as one between socialists and liberals).  So, these two strategies had to be reconciled, or at least co-exist in the same broad movement.

So, this is a history of US anti-imperialism but, in principle, the questions it addresses can be of use in analysing situations outside the US.

DW: What inspired you to take on this particular subject?

RS: For me, it was logical to follow up certain topics that I had to leave only cursorily examined in [Seymour’s earlier book] The Liberal Defence of Murder: to wit, the counterpoint to liberal imperialism in anti-imperialist movements, and the extent to which liberalism itself was involved with that.  As importantly, the manifest decline experienced by the antiwar movement in all of the core imperialist countries over recent years - this one included - raised some problems that needed to be addressed. 

Specifically, is it possible to say in general which tactics are most likely to succeed or fail?  Can we discern how much decisions by organised antiwar groups can help or hinder movements, and how much is due to factors outside their control?  How important are antiwar soldiers?  What about the question of solidarity with the people under attack? 

There's a rich history of anti-imperialist movements forming alliances with the subjects of imperialism, such as the highly effective Central American solidarity movements of the 1980s, but that wasn't the case during the Iraq war - despite the fact that the fortunes of the antiwar movement clearly ebbed and flowed depending on the vigorousness of the resistance to the occupation.  Did it make a decisive difference?  If so, could it have been overcome if certain arguments had been won against the demonisation of Islam? 

Or take the strategic divide I mentioned, between liberals and socialists.  In the US antiwar movement, most recently, the activists were polarised between a largely pro-Democratic Party group called United for Peace and Justice, and a radical, explicitly anti-imperialist group called ANSWER with links to the 'Marxist-Leninist' group, Workers World Party.  The two achieved unity for a brief while over limited tactical objectives - a march, or a rally, say - but fell out over priorities.  I can't do justice to their dispute but, in my opinion, UFPJ were too close to the Democratic leadership and too keen on coalitions with leading Democrats.  It is the UFPJ's activists who overwhelmingly vacated the scene after Obama's election, thus preventing the antiwar movement from achieving critical mass afterwards, and leaving it very poorly placed to respond to the Middle East revolutions and the US intervention in Libya. 

Similar divisions were evident over Vietnam.  The question arises: is it better for everyone to be under the same umbrella, as per Stop the War in the UK; or is it better to have people working in the same movement in different groups, with more freedom to pursue their different strategies?  This is the difference between a pluralist free-for-all and the 'united front'.  I personally think the 'united front' has the advantage here, though this unity is something that has to be constantly worked on, constructed, negotiated over and renewed.  I don't pretend that the book offers concise formulae in answer to these questions, but it offers some compass points.

DW: Give us a few specific examples from your research of anti-war campaigns in the United States that have been broadly successful and some that have not. Are there any general lessons we can draw from these examples and apply in the future?

RS: First of all, we have to be very careful about what we judge as 'successful', and on what grounds.  We can list the failures relatively easily.  There was no anti-Korean War movement to speak of: there were campaigns, involving small numbers of people - pacifists, feminists, African American leftists, communists and Trotskyists - but these didn't sum up to a movement.  Nor is the reason for this complicated.  The Cold War had seen the destruction of the 'Popular Front' Left, which was the left that had been dominated by the Communist Party during the Thirties.  'Reds' were being hunted out of unions, out of politics, out of workplaces, and so on.  When Kim Il-Sung's forces crossed the 38th parallel, it was seen as a simple case of Communist aggression, no different in its assault on the free world to Stalin's annexation of eastern Europe.  No one particularly cared that the US had imposed a right-wing autocrat on the south, that the whole peninsula was embroiled in a civil war along class and ideological lines, and that the south had engaged in attacks on the north.  To mention any of this was commie talk.  So, most left-wing groups were incorporated into the anticommunist bloc, and thus pro-war. 

Take another failure.  The opposition to an attack on Iraq in 1990-1 was big, and initially seemed to have the public on-side.  However, it was waylaid by the seemingly inexplicable rise in patriotic, 'pro-troops' sentiment once Desert Storm began.  Thus, despite some sizeable mobilizations, the movement never acquired the critical mass needed to disrupt the war's planning.  Importantly, they lost the battle over the 'framing' of the war.  The public was not interested in a war for oil.  Nor were they interested in defending the Kuwait royal family.  So, while antiwar activists said 'no blood for oil' and poured execration on the Al-Sabah family, the administration focused on the threat of weapons of mass destruction, and the reports of alleged atrocities (many of which came from the PR company Hill & Knowlton), which was highly effective.  There was also the 'yellow ribbon' campaign, a sentimental 'pro-troops' soft sell that, while not making an explicit case for war, summoned patriotic affect.  And finally, the media began a campaign of revisionism over the Vietnam War, claiming that antiwar protesters had abused soldiers.  The aim was to force antiwar activists onto the defensive about their attitude to the beloved troops - and it worked.  Many activists accepted this 'memory' of the anti-Vietnam War protests, and sought to distance themselves from it.

In terms of the forces that could be mustered, and despite the persistence of anti-imperialist activism during the 1980s, the Reaganites had dealt some severe blows to the left and the labour movement, and had harrassed and disrupted peace groups under the rubric of anti-terrorist laws.  This meant that the forces available for mobilisation in 1991 were much less than they would have been in 1981: the mobilisations over Desert Storm never reached the levels of the anti-nuclear 'Freeze' campaign in the early 1980s.  So, despite profound differences, we can see a couple of common factors here.  The first common factor is the vital role played by the state in disorganising leftist and oppositional groups.  The second is the importance of ideological struggles over the long term.  Before a specific war is on the agenda, the ideological terrain has already been formed by previous struggles.  Whether the obstacle is anticommunist nationalism or just residual patriotism and deference to the armed forces, it is usually something that has been worked on - in educational institutions, places of worship, the mass media, and so on - for years beforehand.  In this connection, an important context for the big antiwar movement over the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the long-term campaign against sanctions conducted by small numbers of people, but with the cumulative result of undermining the demonization of Iraq and humanising its citizens.

But what constitutes success?  Clearly, winning the argument with the public is an important precondition of success.  Yet, if you judge a campaign purely in terms of winning the argument with the public, we can rack up quite a few successes.  Noam Chomsky made the mordant observation during the anti-nuclear 'Freeze' campaign of the 1980s that it was "probably the most successful campaign ever carried out in the US peace movement" by virtue of meeting its own goal of winning public support, but also that it “had essentially zero impact on American politics".  One could also observe along similar lines that the non-existing movement against the Korean War was a success on similar grounds, because a couple of years into the war, public support for it began to plummet.  In terms of winning mass opinion with cross-party support, the Anti-Imperialist League was one of the most successful anti-imperialist movements in US history.  It also completely failed to stop the colonial wars in Cuba or the Philippines, or later in Haiti.  Winning support and respectability aren't the only things that matter.  As Frances Fox Piven points out, social movements scholars all too often treat protest movements as purely symbolic, communicative affairs designed to create a good impression in the public mind.  This underestimates the importance of what she calls 'disruptive power', which is the withdrawal of cooperation from the day-to-day reproduction of social relations: strikes, sit-ins, occupations, organised boycotts, etc.  The pattern of many successful movements is that they start by being disruptive, and winning some partial victories, then gain public support.  Indeed, one of the most effective ways of breaking up the ideological dominance of those in charge is to disrupt the means by which their political and economic dominance is reproduced.

The anti-Vietnam War movement is an interesting contrast with some of the above examples.  It was opposed by most of the political establishment and media for most of its duration.  It was vilified, and subject to severe police harrassment, illegal raids, and ultimately killings.  This repression was part of a wider system of para-political repression unleashed by J Edgar Hoover, known as COINTELPRO.  Yet, and notwithstanding the apocalyptic murder that was able to go on until the US was finally defeated, it is also an archetypal success story. Why?  Because, in rough concert with the indigenous resistance led by the Viet Minh, it produced a crisis of political authority sufficient to worry the US ruling class, and fuelled a breakdown in the chain of command in the armed forces.  It made it extremely difficult to fight the war effectively, and eventually contributed to a defeat for the US, which in turn acted as a restraint on imperialism for many years afterwards.  The resulting 'Vietnam Syndrome' was never completely overcome, and it resulted in the US being extremely reluctant to commit to long wars with a long-term troop presence. 

How was this achieved?  First, the stability of the US system was increasingly threatened by the civil rights movement, which was a university of activism for many who would go on to join the anti-war movement - tactics of disruption and civil disobedience could be adapted and put to the use of the antiwar movement very effectively. 

Second, the international system was disrupted by a wave of anticolonial movements, racking up successes in the late Fifties and early Sixties, which drew the attention and sympathy of many in the civil rights movement, who saw their struggle as part of a global revolt against racist domination.  This was the material basis for the revival of anti-imperialist ideology throughout the Sixties, underpinning the sympathy for the Vietnamese people and the breakdown of anticommunist ideology.  It meant that there was no longer such a taboo in working with socialists, and that the radicals were not working in isolation. 

Third, as the movement developed, it started to win support in the rank and file of the organised labour movement (as opposed to the right-wing leadership), which was important in building the basis for radical actions like the moratorium on 16th October, 1969, which saw 1 million people turn out in what was effectively a militant strike action - it was dubbed a 'moratorium' to avoid alienating middle class opinion. 

Fourth, the movement began to make headway in the armed forces, where - because of the draft - hundreds of thousands of working class youths were deployed.  They began to desert, evade the draft, disobey orders, and 'frag' (shoot) their superiors.  Recruitment fell dramatically.  The army was literally breaking down. 

Finally, the essential condition in all this was the unified and determined resistance of the Viet Minh and their popular base.  Had they been broken, had the Tet offensive not happened, then the occupation of the country would have stabilised, a new regime would have emerged with US blessing, and the antiwar movement would have subsided.

All this is not to say that there weren't weaknesses in the campaign.  As always, there was a tendency for the movement to be polarised between what might be styled as an 'ultra-left' radicalism, where small groups of people initiate seemingly militant actions without reference to the wider movement they're engaged in, and a liberalism in which the needs of the movement are too often subordinated to the desire to maintain respectability and ties with the Democratic Party.  And it took a long time to overcome divisions between radical students and trade unionists.  Moreover, once the struggle became a serious threat to the US ruling class, the scale of repression was escalated, and it forced those involved to harden their ideological stances.  Unfortunately, this often meant the spread of ideas like Maoism and hardcore Stalinism, and produced cult-like behaviour from some.  For others, it meant moving into the Democratic Party and thus into the graveyard of social movements.  It was bad enough that George McGovern lost to Nixon in a landslide: to reiterate an earlier theme, in some ways it could have been even worse if he had won the 1972 election, as large sections of the antiwar movement would certainly have retired.  Then there were those who simply gave up protest and started shopping for individual and spiritual freedom, sampling the crudités of personal development - est, gestalt, smorgasbord, hypnotism, tai chi, health food, etc.  This is the tendency that Christopher Lasch described as 'the culture of narcissism' peculiar to a particular phase of advanced capitalism.

Still, the Vietnam War was ended with Americans fleeing Vietnam from the roof of 22 Gia Long Street, as the Viet Minh advanced.  They got, to borrow a phrase from Bernie Grant, a bloody good hiding.  And the antiwar movement played an honourable, central role in this.

DW: After the 1960s there was a lot of anxiety in American circles of power about the rise in popular protest and the dread prospect of the public forcing its way into the political arena. The Trilateral Commission for example concerned itself with analysing this phenomenon and proposing solutions. And obviously a very large part of that had to do with the war in Indochina and the popular movement against it. Can you talk a bit about how policymakers understood the "Vietnam Syndrome", and the effect that had on US foreign policy in subsequent years?

RS: The term 'Vietnam Syndrome' emerged first in opposition to detente.  In Reagan's useage, it meant that a "noble" cause - the American war in Vietnam - had been subverted by the successful spread of Viet Minh propaganda among ordinary Americans, who were foolishly persuaded that peace would come by ending the war.  But it also meant that policymakers were increasingly unable or unwilling to invest in military build-up, or to assert US (ruling class) interests overseas, the "sickly inhibitions against the use of military force" (Norman Podhoretz) that, supposedly, allowed the USSR to meddle and provoke civil war in Latin American countries.  It was used to justify the US proxy wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, as well as Afghanistan, but it also stood for the fact that they had to use proxies rather than intervene directly, because of the mass opposition that would otherwise be provoked.  Rolling back the gains made by the anti-Vietnam War movement and reconstituting imperialist ideology has been an ongoing challenge, partially met by the revival of certain colonial ideas under the rubric of 'humanitarian intervention' in the 1990s.

The work of the Trilateral Commission is related, but slightly different.  Initially, its strategy was not necessarily against detente.  In fact, the early position was one that favoured trade with the USSR as a means of softening it up for incorporation into the capitalist system (leaving aside arguments about whether the USSR was already capitalist).  Its key agenda was to support the 'trilateral' management of the world system by the US, Europe and Japan, in which problems (secessions, insurgencies, etc) would be dealt with by local proxies.  The balance of opinion among US, European and Japanese constituents shifted against detente in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in favour of military escalation.  But even then elements of the power that compromised the Commission - like the capitalist oligopolist David Rockefeller - continued to support trade rather than confrontation.  So, there were different strategies for overcoming the 'Vietnam Syndrome', of which the Reaganites represented only one.

The question that you deal with is the Commission's worries about democracy in light of the antiwar, feminist, black and workers' movements.  Its 1975 report, The Crisis of Democracy, suggests that there is a surfeit of democracy, that too many popular constituencies are vying to participate, not just in the formation of policy but in the day to day running of society.  The US constitutional republic was always supposed to be an aristocratic system.  But the infringement of popular sovereignty was disrupting the ability of business and administrative elites to get on with managing the affairs of the country.  The Commissioners were for a limited, parliamentary democracy, but only on prudential grounds: that is, democracy was useful as a means of creating legitimate, stable orders, and would only work if the population could be restored to apathy.  I think this is particularly interesting today, because once more capitalism is reaching a stage were the extant parliamentary democratic system is unable to cope with the needs of the system, viz. the imposition of 'austerity' measures.  Thus, as a Le Figaro columnist put it, the rule of unelected technocratic governments in Greece and Italy should be long enough to "be effective" but must "be limited in order to guarantee, in the best conditions, a return to democratic legitimacy."  (Quoted by Etienne Balibar)  Now, this is interesting.  Imperialist powers have a long history of justifying aggression on the grounds that they will bring democratic liberty to the subjects of their aggression.  The reality is that the ruling classes in core imperialist countries don't particularly care for democracy: they want it only inasmuch as it can be contained.  This has implications for what the grateful beneficiaries of US & European 'liberation' can expect.

DW: Bringing us up to date, the most recent war waged by the US was its involvement in the NATO intervention in Libya earlier this year, and opposition to that appears to have been pretty muted. To what can this be attributed, do you think? Clearly the degree of military commitment is incomparable with Iraq or Afghanistan, with no troops on the ground acting as a focal point for public concern. But was there also a sense in which the left found itself torn between two instincts: on the one hand, its desire to see the success or at least the survival of a popular uprising against a tyrant, and on the other hand, concern about the consequences of Western involvement both in terms of levels of death and destruction and in terms of the danger that the uprising would be hijacked and co-opted by the West?

RS: I think the first factor that has undermined any antiwar movement over Libya is partly external the situation itself: the election of Obama.  An important study, cited in the book, suggests that once Obama was elected, large swathes of the antiwar movement simply abdicated.  They abandoned the streets.  Now, this reflects one of the weaknesses of the antiwar movement over the last decade.  Although the ideological thematics of the struggle were in some senses radical - it was a war for oil, empire-building, etc., not just a badly executed policy, or a mistake - the dominant tone was more anti-Bush than anti-imperialist.  Now, one doesn't sniff at anyone being anti-Bush: he asked for it.  But it did unfortunately mean that once the Democrats took Congress in 2006, and especially once Obama got the executive in 2008, the movement lost critical mass.  Actually, to be blunt about it, I think United for Peace and Justice, the pro-Democratic antiwar group, basically stopped organising in any serious way.  So, their line on Libya was reasonable, though a bit anodyne: support the democratic struggles of the peoples of the Middle East, but don't support the US given what they've just done.  But they didn't do much about opposing the war.  ANSWER did more, but unfortunately the tone of its meetings was predominantly pro-Qadhafi.  On the other hand, a number of generally antiwar intellectuals vociferously supported the intervention in Libya - like Juan Cole, for example.  So, this points to the second factor: in the face of a revolutionary process, which necessarily disrupts all stable political and ideological coordinates, opinion began to fragment on the Left in quite a serious way.

It is true, as you say, that many people were torn over this war.  Of course, a lot of people weren't remotely conflicted.  The pro-Qadhafi lot didn't want to see the revolution succeed: as far as they were concerned, it was an imperialist proxy and nothing more.  Most of the pro-war crowd didn't see any conflict between a NATO-backed war and a revolutionary process: this illustrates the tenacity of the ideology of 'humanitarian intervention', or more broadly of the tradition of liberal imperialism that my last book dealt with.  The more fertile, and to me more interesting, arguments have been had in the space where that tension does exist.  Here, disagreements become heated, and therefore shed more light.  And this is important because how we solve these problems now has a great bearing on how we approach similar problems, which we are better enabled to tackle, in the future. 

That said, let me outline broadly what the stronger arguments for and against the war were - these, from an anti-imperialist perspective.  In its favour, there was a genuine revolutionary movement, being crushed by Qadfhafi's forces, which engaged in serious war crimes and brutal assaults on civilians.  Qadhafi's broadcasts were horrible, threatening vicious reprisals against those who had rebelled, and on the eve of intervention, he was clearly winning.  There was no way that the opposition could have taken power without the assistance of NATO.  The intervention was extremely limited and would give the opposition breathing room without fully subordinating it.  And the reality is that the majority of the population in the east were probably very glad that NATO did intervene - reservations notwithstanding. 

Against it, there was a genuine revolutionary movement, which was about to be hijacked by NATO.  It could have been allowed to arm and continue the fight independently, but instead the imperialist powers, controlling the pace of events from the air, and via proxies on the ground, would control the political settlement after the war.  The result would not be a revolution, because the masses would be excluded from power.  Those within the opposition who had pushed hardest for an alliance with imperialism, and who would be empowered by it, were dissident ruling class factions who favoured a swifter shift toward neoliberalism than the old state-entrenched elite was able to organise.  If the revolution was in fact defeated, at least for now, then imperialist intervention would simply prolong the war, and at best end with a status that could have been achieved with a negotiated settlement: a reconstituted regime making the neoliberal transition, with some liberalisation on human and civil rights.  At worst, it would either produce a stalemate and lead to the partition of the country with potentially bloody consequences or shade inexorably into harder aerial bombardment and then perhaps to a ground invasion with catastrophic consequences.

How one decided between the two couldn't be decided in advance by abstract slogans.  Yes, there is an accumulated wealth of experience which informs one's instincts.  And yes, even abstract slogans advert to important principles, the accumulated wisdom of past experience, which should not be compromised lightly.  But in this case the only way to finally decide one's position was to be as concrete as possible.  And this points to another problem, another reason for division: it was incredibly difficult to establish what was actually going on.  This isn't because it's a far away country of which we know little - not in the age of the internet. 

The reason hinges, ironically, on one of the successes of the revolution: they gained control of the major cities of the east.  Thus, dual power acquired a territorial dimension.  And within the liberated cities, a new opposition media emerged, broadly reflecting the positions of the insurgency.  There was also some very effective use of social media.  All well and good.  Yet, once one has decided that imperialism is the answer, that one has to win over international audiences, there is inescapably an element of dissimulation.  And that is exactly what happened here.   For example, as far as we can tell, some of the rebel forces spread unfounded rumours about Qadhafi using 'African' (meaning black) mercenaries.  But it was impossible to know at the time how much of this was true - so does one accept the claims, with all the consequences that this has?  The consequence, as we now know, has been lynchings, mass arrests and ethnic cleansing by rebel forces, a tragic degeneration of the original revolutionary promise.  Or does one dispute them as prima facie implausible - despite Qadhafi's known use of mercenaries in the past?  In the end, what decided this question for me personally was the less-than-subtle racist code being used.  And it was this, before the intervention began, that raised alarm bells.  Even if mercenaries were being used, it wasn't the scenario being described by the opposition leadership, which meant that there was probably much else that couldn't be trusted. 

Similar unfounded claims were made about Qadhafi sending out troops with viagra to engage in widespread rape.  Opposition members seem to have actively sought out journalists to feed this story to them.  Now, again, this claim may be obviously lurid and propagandistic, but there are lots of similar, more modest claims that it would be hard to judge the veracity of from a distance.  Then there were the claims of aerial bombardment being deployed, which were used to justify the NATO 'no-fly zone' in the first place.  It was later reported that the only actual aerial bombardment was carried out by NATO.  But who seriously doubted these claims when they were made?  Then there were the seemingly inflated casualty figures, which were an important basis for some of the claims about what would happen if Qadhafi was allowed to continue unimpeded to retake Benghazi.  For example, social media was used to spread very early on the message that Qadhafi had killed 10,000 people.  This was after one week, before the state had even got its business together and seriously started the counter-attack.  Reportedly, the claim originated with a Libyan ICC member who was based in Brussells.  It didn't tally with the statistics provided by Human Rights Watch.  But suppose HRW hadn't been able to provide their own statistics (which, anyway, are far from final)?  How would you judge such a claim?  In terms of its plausibility, you could only compare it to other claims coming out of Libya - and that's where propaganda becomes mutually reinforcing.  So, for those who couldn't decide their position in light of abstract slogans, the problem was one of actually determining what was going on.

Now, the case for or against intervention does not stand or fall based on any one of these points.    But the questions these points pose are important.  They force us to think about how we relate to genuine resistance movements.  They compel us to reflect on the class and ideological cleavages within those movements.  For example, the Libyan opposition was almost wholly dominated by a dissident, pro-US, neoliberal faction of the ruling class.  It lacked any Left to speak of, and had no labour movement.  The civil society base was weak, because Qadhafi had never tolerated a civil society opposition.  Does that make the uprising less genuine, less deserving of support?  No.  Does it decided for or against intervention?  No.  But should such considerations inform our analysis, and thus how we respond to what is taking place?  In my opinion, yes, absolutely. 

We will face similar dilemmas again.  Imperialist intervention in Syria is not wholly implausible, for example, though the resistance to that within the Syrian opposition is stronger than in Libya.  If that materialises, it will be important not to collapse into cheerleading for bombing or invasion, while at the same time orienting toward the popular opposition forces in the country rather than simply denouncing them as an imperialist proxy.   Thus, the debate over Libya was valid and necessary, and its implications have still to be drawn out.  The challenge, in my view, is to develop a consistently anti-imperialist perspective that is grounded in support for the Middle East uprisings, and which can adapt to the sudden, sharp shifts that will arise as a result of their successes and setbacks.

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First published: 21 June, 2012

Category: Book Review, Foreign policy, History, Terror/War

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