Libya and the Western Left

An Interview with Brian Becker of the Answer Coalition

I met Brian Becker in the Florida Avenue offices of the ANSWER Coalition in Washington DC, just across the street from the famous Howard Theatre. This area, Brian explained, has long been the centre of the capital’s black community, and was hit by what were called race riots – “basically white people killing black people in the streets” – during the white supremacist upsurge that followed the First World War. The theatre itself was used to set up sniper perches by young black men to defend the area.

It is a fitting venue for our meeting. The ANSWER Coalition (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) has, since its formation over a decade ago, worked tirelessly to oppose the racist wars of aggression that characterise the foreign policy of both our countries. Unlike some of their colleagues in the movement, they are clear that these modern-day colonial wars take many forms, including sanctions, covert operations, proxy wars and propaganda war – and that all of these should be exposed and confronted. Recent mobilisations around the build-up of hostilities towards Iran, for example, were organised around the slogan: ‘No sanctions, no intervention, no assassinations.’ “Sanctions are not an alternative to war”, Brian told me, “Sanctions are an act of war”.

Like the anti-war movement in Britain, ANSWER achieved their biggest mobilisations to date during the run-up to the war on Iraq; a poster on the wall of their offices shows a sea of protesters in Washington DC during the half-million strong rally that took place here on January 18th, 2003. ANSWER’s demonstrations against the war on Libya were sadly nothing like as big. I began by asking Brian why this was so.

What we witnessed in the run up to the Iraq war was something unique. The justification and pretext for the war by the war-makers – the Bush and Blair administrations – was so transparently false, they could make no credible case that it was an act of self defence. So the historic pretext and justification for war – that it is a response to imminent or actual aggression – was missing. And Iraq was obviously a hobbled country – it had been bombed mercilessly in 1991, it had been hobbled by economic sanctions which took the lives of 8000 Iraqis every month, it was weak, it was encircled by military forces – so the idea that Saddam Hussein was planning to use weapons of mass destruction against Iraq’s neighbours or anyone else was so transparently false that masses of people were stimulated into activity.

This activity, however, resulted, in the end, in demoralisation:

The movement had been built around the slogan ‘stop the war before it starts’, and so once the war had started the movement decided that they had failed, because the war had started – despite their monumental efforts and protests.

This should have been no surprise, however:

Whenever the imperialist powers, at least in the last century, have gone on the march to war, no protest movement stops them. Protest movements maybe ultimately overthrow the defeated imperialists – as happened at the end of World War One – but they don’t actually stop the war. There’s no history of that.

Furthermore, Brian argues, there was a crucial difference between the war on Iraq and the war on Libya:

In the case of Libya the British, the US and the French never suggested they were sending massive troops to fight; in fact, they pledged from the beginning that they wouldn’t. The British, French and US governments promised their own masses that all the bleeding would be done on the other side.

Combined with the virulent and hysterical propaganda war conducted against Gaddafi, this made it much more difficult to mobilise against this war:

In the lead up to any war, there is a demonisation of the targeted country and the leader as the ultimate devil, justifying any act of aggression. And in this war, no Brits were going to die, no French, no Americans: only Libyans would die, only the devils would die. So there was, on the part of the peace movement, an accommodation to imperialist propaganda because it was easier to accommodate to imperialist propaganda than to fight against it.

This propaganda went way beyond the Libyan government, of course, as Brian explains:

Any sign of support for Gaddafi gave lie to their propaganda presentation that it was ‘the people versus Gaddafi’. And it’s clear that Gaddafi had a lot of support from black Libyans who considered Gaddafi’s African-centric foreign policy to be positive. So the manifestations of support for Gaddafi, or the targeting of black people by the so-called revolutionaries because they supported Gaddafi, created a contradiction for US propaganda.

This is when “Susan Rice, US ambassador to the UN, started characterising Gaddafi’s supporters as alleged African mercenaries.” Despite the fact that Amnesty International could not confirm a single case of these ‘pro-Gaddafi mercenaries’, the narrative took hold. “This was an attempt by the administration to evade responsibility for what was basically a lynch mob atmosphere against black people in Libya.”  Yet again, Brian points out, “it shows that there is an organic connection between racism and imperialism, between racism and counter-revolution. These are fundamental organic characteristics of the social beast.”

Brian is scathing about those sections of the movement that failed to stand firm against the propaganda onslaught that laid the ideological groundwork for the destruction of Libya:

Under the conditions of an imperialist demonization for the purposes of mobilising our populations for war, we have to steadfastly stand against it, and be willing to endure momentary isolation by our critics who say we are apologists for the demon when we expose the demonisers as imperialists. If you can’t pass that test, you can’t be a credible anti-war movement, because demonisation now is fundamental as a run up to all imperialist war.

Indeed, there are historical precedents for this type of capitulation to war-frenzy:

Let’s also remember from the history of our own socialist movement that in 1912 when all the socialist parties met in Basle and could see the war coming, they all pledged that if the war were to begin, they would not only oppose it, but adopt a thesis that said “better for the defeat of our own government than for its victory”. Each socialist party pledged to oppose their own ruling classes and their own imperialist governments in the event of a war and to take advantage of the war to promote revolution. Yet once the war began in August 1914, and with the exception of a few parties and small groups, all of those movements found a way to support their own government.

They fell in line. Why? I would say basically accommodation to public opinion generated by imperialism. Each country was able to demonise the enemy, and the socialists capitulated. What we saw in Libya was a similar betrayal, a real betrayal of principle and of internationalism.  You can always say that the enemy has certain characteristic features that make the war justified or at least rationalise your own inactivity in opposing the war. So in the case of Gaddafi and Libya parts of the left and the peace movement said, well, Gaddafi’s rule was dictatorial, or he was a bizarre leader, or there was a violation of human rights, or there was torture, echoing all the arguments of the imperialists. Absent social pressure, all of the socialists in their meetings can make militant speeches to each other, and say we can identify imperialist demonization as a phenomena and we will oppose it. But will you go out in to the public arena, when the public has been trained by the imperialists to say if you oppose a war in Libya, then you’re an apologist for Gaddafi, for the demon? If you’re not just fighting conservatives, but mainstream public opinion that has been poisoned by demonisation, you have to be strong. Much of the left’s betrayal of internationalism was nothing other than an exercise in cowardice in accommodating to public opinion, imperialist-generated public opinion, but cloaked and masked in left rhetoric and human rights rhetoric.

He goes on:

Its also nauseating that as the imperialists prepared for war and they echoed the same slogans as the war-makers, that once the imperialists actually started bombing, they could say, ‘oh, but we’re not for that.  We’re not for bombing. We’re for the end of the dictatorship.  We’re for the overthrow of the movement by the so-called revolutionaries’. That’s just the height of hypocrisy and left demagogy. Why would the imperialists think that the NTC in Libya was something other than a puppet of imperialism when it decided to give them uncritical support? I mean, were the imperialists so uninformed, so blind, so unable to figure things out in Libya that they took the wrong side?

As the true face of the ‘Libyan rebels’ becomes harder and harder to hide, and reports of their atrocities and racism even seeping out into the mainstream media, it becomes increasingly clear that it was, in fact, the ‘pro-rebel left’ that took the wrong side. So what does all this tell us about the state of the would-be revolutionary forces within countries like Britain and the US?

To actually carry out a revolutionary transformation of society requires a great deal of steadfastness and courage. If you couldn’t stand up on the Libya campaign, how could you stand up on even bigger problems? At least the socialists in World War One, when they capitulated, could always make the case for national defence. The German socialists argued, ‘well the Russians will invade’, and the Russian Mensheviks made the case that ‘well, our country is going to be overrun by German imperialism’. But nobody can say that Libya was about to invade the United States, or bomb our cities or bomb the cities of Britain and France. The social pressure on the left is much less than it was in 1914 when there was actual bleeding to be done on both sides and so I would say the betrayal on Libya is even more abject than the worse traitors during WW1.

This historical analogy gets me thinking about where the new round of warmongering is going to end up. Twice before in history, massive global capitalist crises have led to a period of sustained colonial wars culminating in full-scale world war. Is this where we are heading now?

I think it’s fundamentally different today. Until WW2 the main conflicts were between imperialists, over the division or re-division of the world, because the entire world had been divided into colonies or semi-colonies or spheres of influence. There was nothing left to grab except from each other, and so they went to war in World War One and World War Two. The old colonial empires were crushed under the pressure of World War Two and the struggles of the colonial and semi-colonial peoples to be free, and the character of war shifted. Instead of imperialists fighting each other they were fighting a global united front against the prospect that the emerging anti-colonial struggles would enter into a strategic relationship with the USSR and the socialist bloc countries. The imperialist powers now seriously confronted the prospect of an end not just to this or that colonial empire but to imperialist domination everywhere. They all had something in common, and because the US emerged as the sole superpower within the camp of imperialism it could organise this imperialist united front, assigning its former enemies in the case of Germany and Japan, and its former allies Britain and France, the role of junior partners.

So what we call the Cold War – but which was very hot in Korea, and very hot in Vietnam and in many other places – was an expression of that global class struggle, where the two class forces had states and had state power, and warred against each other.

But after the collapse of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the nature of war went through another metamorphosis. Starting at that moment, and consciously, the US set about to destroy all of those regional powers that had independent, anti-colonial governments. And that’s what we’ve witnessed in the last twenty years. Take the first Iraq war in 1991. Iraq had been a principal ally of the USSR; the USSR ten years earlier would have never allowed that war to have taken place. Yugoslavia, too, was an important regional power that was destroyed by US, British, French and German imperialism. They tore that country apart. You can always find struggles between peoples and ethnic conflicts, but absent the determination by the imperialist countries to destroy Yugoslavia, it would have remained intact.

Then when the neoconservatives who were the extreme expression of this military strategy, took office in 2001 in the US, they were determined to accelerate that process. Their strategy, that had evolved in the heady period of the 1990s, was to destroy Iraq, destroy Iran, destroy North Korea, destroy Syria, destroy Hezbollah’s influence in Southern Lebanon, and have a new proxy government in Somalia – that was their plan.

Today, the neoconservatives are no longer in power. But the Obama administration basically pursued the same policy of the neoconservatives with tactical differences. At first the Obama administration’s strategic orientation was to rehabilitate the tattered image of the US which had been so shredded by its failure in Iraq. He seemed to be shifting the orientation that the neoconservatives had, because it s not good for US imperialism to be so hated as it had become; it’s not good for any empire to be just universally reviled and hated by all of its subjects.”

But then the Arab Spring emerged as an arena for a strategic recalibration of imperialist strategy, and ironically allowed the Obama administration to shift back to the fundamental premise of the neoconservatives: that the independent governments of the Middle East could, in fact, be toppled. Of course, people have grievances, and the ethno-sectarian and political divides that exist within all of the former colonised states of the Middle East also mean that these states are vulnerable. They have fundamental weaknesses which can be exacerbated by outside intervention, just as Yugoslavia’s political organisation as a multinational republic had a fundamental and foundational vulnerability. This vulnerability had not been exercising a dominant impact on Yugoslavia’s political trajectory, but by virtue of imperialist intervention those fundamental weaknesses can be exacerbated once the regime becomes a target.

So how could it be that Obama could adopt the strategic orientation of regime change against all these independent governments, which was the premise of the neoconservative position? The only explanation could be that the neoconservatives and the liberals within the camp of imperialism actually share identical objectives.

If these objectives include the destruction of independent regional powers, does this logic not also point in the direction of war against China and Russia?

There is something about imperialism in this stage of its development where there is an organic drive towards counter revolution against any political force that has emerged from the anti-colonial movements, because that indicates that there is a social force that can have independent authority over labour, land, and resources.  It’s just like in the labour movement in the US, or in the UK and Europe: even when you have unions that are willing to go along with corporate capitalism and make deals, the corporate capitalists don’t want to go along with them. If you give them a pound, they say thank you, now give me another pound. So Russia and China, even though they don’t have a socialist or internationalist foreign policy, nevertheless constitute an obstacle to the designs of US imperialism and its junior partners in the EU and NATO.

We can this see in the case of Syria – which is the most important part of the world struggle at this moment – with Russia and China uniting at the UN and blocking the US from using the UN as an instrument for intervention in Syria. What a tragedy for US imperialism! Not because they care about human rights or democracy in Syria, but it shows that there exists in the world today forces that can blunt the offensive of imperialism.

This isn’t the nineteenth century, and the fantasies of the neoconservatives were burnt up in the battlefields of Iraq by an insurgency that couldn’t be defeated, and are being burnt up in the battlefields of Afghanistan by an insurgency that can’t be defeated. In the instance of Syria we are again seeing the limits of imperial authority, of US imperialist domination.

It is an upbeat note on which to end. But it is clear that the imperial powers will throw everything they have into the fight to achieve their objectives. Since I met with Brian, the violence against Syria has been massively stepped up, with open arming and funding of the most racist and sectarian groups in the region and constant provocations and threats against the government. The anti-war movement in the West will need to massively build its clarity, militancy, organisational capacity and willingness to confront power if it is not to meet the same fate as the Basle socialists. ANSWER are certainly aware of the enormity of the tasks ahead – and, so far, have risen admirably to the challenge.