When the U.S. and its allies imposed a no-fly zone over Libya, cruise missile liberals at the New York Times and MSNBC jumped for joy. No surprise there. The surprise came when Marxist and self-described anti-imperialist Gilbert Achcar joined them.
Achcar’s support for the no-fly zone rests on two key arguments: 1) Gaddafi’s forces were at the gates of Benghazi and would slaughter thousands if they entered the city and 2) the rebellion’s leaders demanded the imposition of a no-fly zone to neutralize Gaddafi’s air superiority.
Achcar’s first point is indisputable. Nothing is more humiliating to a ruling class than a successful rebellion; such rebellions have historically been drowned in the blood of tens of thousands of people. Benghazi would not have been treated any differently than the Paris Commune in 1871, Hama, Syria in 1982, or Fallujah, Iraq in 2004.
Does that mean opponents of imperialism should support the latter’s imposition of a no-fly zone because there was no alternative means to stop Gaddafi’s forces? Achcar argues yes. He goes on to say that he would’ve supported imperialist intervention in Rwanda and implies that he would’ve supported the U.S. in the Second World War. For him, the dead civilians in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden were just so much “collateral damage” on the road to defeating German and Japanese imperialism.
Achcar’s opposition to imperialist intervention is based on the following: “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.”
So what is decisive for Achcar is the body count.
Every imperialist intervention in world history has been waged under the pretext of saving lives, whether said lives were in real danger or not. How many lives will be “saved” by a given intervention is impossible to calculate beforehand, unless Achcar has a crystal ball. Imperialist interventions unleash a chain of events that cannot be foreseen with any meaningful accuracy; there is no way of knowing for sure how many lives will be lost due to intervention as opposed to allowing events to run their course without imperialist interference.
George Bush Sr. ordered 30,000 marines into Somalia ostensibly to stop mass starvation caused by local warlords who were pilfering food convoys from relief organizations. No one could’ve predicted that 18 Americans and 1,000 Somalis would be killed in a single firefight immortalized by Hollywood in the film Black Hawk Down. Achcar asks about Rwanda rhetorically: “[C]an anyone in their right mind believe that Western powers would have massacred between half a million and a million human beings in 100 days?” By the same token, who in their right mind would demand that U.S. marines land in Rwanda given the fact that 1,000 Somalis were killed in a single firefight during a “humanitarian” mission?
The body count must be rejected as a means to determine whether or not to support an imperialist intervention. This is especially important because imperialist wars that start small and limited tend to end up being large and bloody.
Achcar’s second argument is much stronger. The rebels in Libya did call for a U.N.-sponsored no-fly zone because Gaddafi was using his air superiority to pound the poorly armed disorganized rebels into retreat after retreat. No amount of obfuscation can cover up this fact.
So how do anti-imperialists in the West respond?
The first thing to understand is why the rebel leadership, organized around the Libyan National Council (LNC), called for a no-fly zone. It was not because they were comparing “the human cost of this intervention and the cost that would have been incurred had it not happened.” For them, it was a question of the revolution’s victory or defeat; desperate times called for desperate measures.
No anti-imperialist in the West should begrudge them for this act of desperation. Our job isn’t to dictate tactics to Libya’s revolutionaries. We should support revolutions against tyranny and oppression no matter where they break out, who they are (mis)led by, or what their political program is.
That said, 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 LNC’s desperate plea for help from the region’s most anti-revolutionary force: the U.S. 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.
By inviting imperialist intervention in the form of a no-fly zone, the LNC risks becoming dependent on the good graces of Washington which will use its newfound leverage to contain the revolution even further. Limiting and weakening the revolution will strengthen Gaddafi.
Achcar began his article with a quote from the Russian revolutionary Lenin about the childishness of rejecting all compromises in the name of being principled. This is ironic, given that Achcar has seemingly forgotten Lenin’s articles dealing with World War One. In those writings, Lenin did not dwell on the respective body counts of French, British, Russian, German, or American imperialism. Instead, he argued that “war is politics by other means.”
Here are the politics of the war in Libya: Gaddafi is trying to crush a democratic revolution; the revolution’s leadership prefers to call for imperialist intervention under a U.N. fig leaf instead of mobilizing the masses to bring down the regime; the U.S. is scrambling to check the most widespread and powerful revolutionary upheaval since 1848 from sweeping its strongmen into the dustbin of history. The no-fly zone is damage control, an attempt to co-opt the Libyan revolution. Washington is setting the stage for a new client state in eastern Libya to emerge under its air cover and “regime change” in Tripoli would be the icing on the cake (hence why Gaddafi’s compound was attacked early on in the establishment of the no-fly zone).
All anti-imperialists should oppose the no-fly zone. Revolution? Yes! Intervention? No!