Reconciling Anti-Imperialism and Democracy in Libya

June 24, 2011

[SubDisp Exclusive]

Preface: Since starting this website, I am sad to report that I’ve yet to receive any hate mail. So, partly in the interest of attempting to change that and partly for the sake of expressing my views on the subject, I offer a brief commentary here about the US-led NATO war in Libya, based on a Daily Kos article linked below.

A recent article in the Daily Kos describes a forum organized by A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) to discuss the war in Libya and Western intervention there. The A.N.S.W.E.R. forum was part of a larger tour in which former congresswoman and Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney presented her observations after returning from a kind of pro-Qaddafi “fact-finding” mission in Libya . The author describes a situation in which anti-Qaddafi Libyans were allegedly barred from the event by A.N.S.W.E.R. organizers. The article is well-worth reading in its own right. But it also speaks to the larger dynamics at work in the debate on the left about Libya.

A.N.S.W.E.R.’s actions in this case are so exemplary of their broader approach to activism and political solidarity, which is characterized by a Stalinist perception that justifies browbeating anyone who doesn’t adhere to their narrow calculus – a calculus that places the United States at the center of all questions. The simplistic logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is one that rejects all nuances and drives people on the “left” to back dictatorships simply because they brandish anti-imperialist rhetoric, even if that rhetoric objectively contradicts reality, as it does in case of Qaddafi – who until recently was an ardent supporter of the U.S. “war on terror”; who dutifully implemented Western-prescribed neoliberal economic polices; and who now wields NATO-supplied arms to crush a pro-democratic revolt.

Interestingly, like A.N.S.W.E.R., many otherwise pro-war politicians in Congress have come out against the Libyan intervention, but for very different reasons. So there are a variety of motivations to oppose intervention and take an “anti-imperialist” stand. For imperialist lawmakers in Washington , their opposition is based on fiscal concerns, opportunistic partisanship against the Obama administration, or nationalist isolationism. For Stalinist groups like the P.S.L. (Party for Socialism and Liberation – the main force within A.N.S.W.E.R.), their “anti-imperialism” is based on the perception that the target of intervention is a principled challenger of U.S. imperialism. For me, my anti-imperialism on the question of Libya is based on…well, my anti-imperialism.

With that being said, it seems that the author of this article also fails to grasp certain nuances. For him it is not possible to be both anti-intervention and anti-Qaddafi. To be opposed to NATO intervention is to be an apologist for Qaddafi and his crimes. In short, the author buys into the same line of reasoning that A.N.S.W.E.R. does, even though he falls on the opposite side of the equation. That reasoning is based on a confused juxtaposition between anti-imperialist and pro-democracy principles. Fortunately, not only is it possible to be both uncompromisingly anti-imperialist and pro-democracy in the case of Libya , it is in fact the only position for the left that retains both moral and internationalist consistency.


About SubterraneanDispatcher

Brian Tierney is a longtime socialist activist who works as a communications specialist for a labor union in Washington, DC. After completing his undergraduate studies in International Affairs and Latin America Studies, he has been working in the labor movement and writing reports and analyses on various struggles for social and economic justice. In addition to reporting on protests in the DC area, he also writes about union struggles, immigrant rights, the fight to defend public education, and struggles of the poor and working class in general. His work has been published in The Washington Post, The Nation, The Progressive, Common Dreams, CounterPunch, Socialist Worker and The Neoprogressive. Brian can be reached via email at

Posted on June 25, 2011, in Imperialism, Revolution, SubDisp Exclusive. Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. If you assert that it is possible to be both anti-intervention and anti-Qaddafi, you must think that the rebellion could succeed without foreign intervention. That is a novel belief. Qaddafi had enough money and loyal troops to ruthlessly suppress the rebellion, and no compunction about killing everyone he had to to do it (unlike his counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt). Benghazi was on the brink of being crushed when the intervention began. I don’t know anyone who contests that fact.

  2. I also don’t know anyone who would contest that Benghazi would have been crushed without Western intervention. The question is on what basis was NATO intervention executed. To prevent a massacre? If that’s your reason for backing intervention, then I respect that. But you must acknowledge that there have been so many massacres against innocent civilians the world over. Why would the U.S. take an interest in preventing this one in particular? Are Western forces ever interested in intervening for purely humanitarian reasons? Or does having the protection of the West come at a cost? The intervention undoubtedly prevented an onslaught by Qaddafi’s forces, but it has also co-opted large swaths of the rebel forces. Western intervention invariably comes at the cost of perverting the aims of rebellion and steering them toward Western designs for an amiable client regime situated in the heart of North Africa. To assert that Western intervention is intended on averting a massacre and still keeping the integrity of the rebellion intact is about as naive as asserting that the rebels would today be celebrating victory had it not been for NATO’s campaign. So, no, being anti-intervention and anti-Qaddafi does not presuppose a position that maintains that the rebellion would succeed without Western intervention. It does, however, question the character of such a “rebellion,” were it to succeed under the direction of Western imperialism.

  3. I do not necessarily “back” the intervention, but if I did, it would not be due to any reading of the motives of the intervening powers. I’m sure their motives are those of any great power: to establish a regime useful for their purposes. Bad motives do not necessarily make a bad result. The corrupt old French monarchy had the worst of motives for supporting a rebellion in Britain’s North American colonies, but the result was not as bad as it could have been, and did not result in French domination.

    Whether Libya ends up a puppet of the NATO powers is truly up to the Libyans. The foreign powers are not all-powerful, to say the least, in light of recent U.S. adventures.

  4. Let me try this. From what I can see, there are two possibilities:

    (1) The rebellion continues, with NATO help, and eventually overthrows Qaddafi. Thereafter, it’s a crapshoot what will replace him.

    (2) The rebellion fails, Qaddafi re-establishes himself in a bloodbath, with much hostility to all who supported the rebellion (just about everyone but a few southern African countries and Venezuela)

    You must either choose one, or show how a third is possible.

    • I’m aware that the two possibilities that you laid out are the only two likely outcomes. And I don’t very much like either of them. I would like an explanation as to why I am obligated to choose between whatever I assess to be the lesser of two evils. I never submit to that restriction when (or if) I vote in a U.S. election, for example, where the choice is between two major political parties that have more in common than not. Instead, I always vote for a third-party candidate, knowing full well that a victory for my preferred candidate is not possible and that my vote is symbolic. Notwithstanding liberal accusations of supporting a “spoiler,” I am never asked by principled progressives on the left to explain my vote, or to offer a “third option” scenario in which a victory for my preferred candidate is somehow possible. (Ironically enough, I voted for McKinney in the last election.) If it is the case that I cannot reject both options in Libya (as if it were up to me anyway), without offering a third viable option, then I have to disagree with your parameters for this debate. The bottom line here is that there are two main realities that I would argue exist in the case of Libya. You will no doubt agree with me on the first one and disagree with me on the second: 1) Qaddafi is a genocidal maniac; 2) Western intervention more or less guarantees the installation of a regime pliant to U.S.interests. To dispute the latter by comparing the reach of 18th century French imperialism to that of 21st century U.S. imperialism is a little absurd, in my humble opinion.

  5. You are the one asserting that it’s possible to be both anti-intervention and anti-Qaddafi.

    If you agree that those are the only two likely outcomes, then you must agree that ceasing intervention right now will give you Qaddafi, ergo it is not possible to be both anti-intervention and anti-Qaddafi.

    I’m also a third-party voter from way back. I know that my vote will have no effect on the outcome in nearly all cases, but is only a protest. Utterly irrelevant to taking a position on an issue.

    If you don’t want to reach back to French imperialism, look at any place where the U.S. has intervened recently. In both Kabul and Baghdad are governments that barely cooperate with the U.S. on anything, and will go their own ways, or be soon replaced, as soon as the U.S. troops are gone. Do you think there is the political will for intervention in Libya to last forever?

  6. Yes, I am the one arguing that one can be both anti-intervention and anti-Qaddafi. And, yes, in the short term at least, Qaddafi’s reign is sure to continue absent outside intervention. I fail to see how that fact renders irreconcilable an anti-intervention and anti-Qaddafi stance. That only make sense if you are arguing that opposition to intervention necessarily implies support for Qaddafi. In that case, people who were opposed to the war in Iraq were therefore pro-Saddam Hussein, right? That is a ridiculous correlation based on an incredibly narrow, dualistic perception of reality. Early on, there were rebels in Benghazi who were hanging banners in opposition to the pending NATO intervention. Based on your argument above, I would have to think that for you this meant that those anti-intervention rebels were (perhaps unknowingly) in support of Qaddafi. I suppose those rebels despised democracy without knowing it.

    Please explain how my analogy about rejecting lesser-evilism in electoral politics is “utterly irrelevant” here. As you say, “I know that my vote will have no effect on the outcome in nearly all cases, but is only a protest.” Similarly, I know that my position on the war in Libya will likely have no effect on the outcome. If my desired outcome for a Libya free of Qaddafi and free from Western control is currently not feasible, that does not mean that I can no longer look to my desired outcome as the basis for my position.

    As for Afghanistan and Iraq, both countries remain under Western occupation. And if the U.S. has failed to prop up entirely pro-U.S. regimes in those countries, it’s because the U.S. is not the only force intervening there. We know that Pakistan has intervened heavily in Afghanistan and Iran-backed Shia forces have been intervening in Iraq for years. Which brings me to my final point: beyond military intervention, there’s such a thing as economic and diplomatic intervention. Washington does not necessarily need the political will to sustain a long-term military intervention in Libya in order to exert a powerful influence over whatever regime comes in to replace Qaddafi. Its initial footprint militarily in Libya paves the way for strengthening its ability to influence events by other means long after the air strikes have ended. To illustrate this point, I would point out that the largest U.S. embassy complex in the world would not today be situated in Iraq were it not for the United States’ war and occupation that have destroyed millions of innocent lives in that country.

  7. Making any analogy between support for the Libyan revolt and invading Iraq is about as ridiculous as you can get. There was no effective pro-democracy rebellion going on in Iraq, and no impending massacre, though Bush Sr. had been quite happy to stand by and watch one in earlier years.

    If you assert that there are actual Libyan rebels who opposed the NATO bombing of Qaddafi’s heavy equipment, that’s a new one on me. Please provide links to credible sources.

  8. Please read carefully. I agree, an “analogy between support for the Libyan revolt and invading Iraq” would be pretty ridiculous. But no such analogy was made. The analogy was between opposing NATO intervention in Libya and opposing the U.S. invasion in Iraq — a very different analogy. If the presence of an “effective” pro-democracy movement and the threat of a massacre are sufficient in your mind to justify U.S. intervention, then we clearly are not going to get very far in this discussion. Of course, Syria and Yemen (and Bahrain earlier) also would appear to pass that litmus test.

    I’m surprised the fact that there were significant parts of the rebellion that were opposed to intervention is news to you. Anyone following the news on Libya back in March would know this. Hopefully you will find some of these sources “credible”:

    “The opposition council’s leaders contradicted one another publicly. The opposition’s calls for foreign aid have amplified divisions over intervention….The council has pleaded for a no-flight zone, still being debated by the West, but rebel leaders in Darnah warned that they would oppose any foreign interference with arms.” – NYTimes 3/8/11:

    And you still have not explained how the analogy about rejecting lesser-evilism in electoral politics is “utterly irrelevant” in this debate about Libya.

  9. Thank you for the links, all of them three and a half months old. Anything more recent, like since the rebels got bloodied later on?

    There are two easy ways to account for it:

    (1) Some rebels were extremely over-confident back then.

    (2) Some show of disapproval of the foreign intervention was necessary to avoid getting tainted by having foreign allies. Bothering to make one big banner for the cameras, without anything more widespread, could indicate that. In the same way, some Pakistani official might occasionally express disapproval of drone raids, but they basically do nothing about it.

    You seem to need some more differences between Iraq and Libya pointed out:

    (1) None of the countries bordering Iraq favored the invasion, while the Libyan intervention has widespread support in the region, and within Libya.

    (2) No one has yet suggested putting any noticeable foreign troops on the ground in Libya. I believe that would be a big mistake, and is unnecessary.

    Qaddafi is going down, with NATO air support, and probably some “trainers” involved. There’s nothing ANSWER or McKinney can do about that. They look like fools.

    But you seem to know as well as I do that whatever results from the ongoing intervention can’t be any worse for Libyans than Qaddafi has been.

    Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen are each very different cases. Each is a long essay in itself.

    I voted for McKinney, with all her faults, just for the symbolic value of voting Green. Might do so again, if the choices are as limited as last time. Pitiful as it is, it makes a statement. How do you make a statement against both Qaddafi and intervention, when there’s no third option on the ballot? I myself have been declaring “insufficient data” on this for a long time.

  10. I might be able to find more recent sources on anti-intervention rebels, but it’s not entirely necessary since my point was to ask how you would explain how any of the rebels could be against the intervention without being pro-Qaddafi (which is an apparent contradiction for you when it comes to my stance). I would argue that chalking up any anti-intervention attitudes at the outset to over-confidence and not wanting to be tainted as agents of Western imperialism is pretty cynical because it suggests that it is impossible to you that any rebels might be opposed to intervention as a matter of principle — instead it can only be due to practical calculations, based on what you’re saying.

    You’ve laid out a few more differences between Iraq and Libya, so I’ll revise my earlier statement like this: If the presence of an “effective” pro-democracy movement, the threat of a massacre, and support from neighboring countries are sufficient in your mind to justify any form of U.S. military intervention, then we clearly are not going to get very far in this discussion.

    I have nothing to disagree with in terms of your point about ANSWER and McKinney.

    If you maintain that Syria, Yemen and Bahrain are very different cases from Libya, I have to think that the main differences are 1) that the regimes in Yemen and Bahrain are strategic allies that are too valuable for the U.S. to lose; and 2) the threat of a breakdown of the existing political order in Syria could signal a very dangerous situation for the United States’ top ally, Israel. If you are thinking like a true foreign policy realist in favor of U.S. hegemony, then yes, these differences no doubt account for the different approach the U.S. has taken with Libya as opposed to the other countries.

    Your point about voting for McKinney (which I did as well) and how having no “third option” on the ballot means that you have to choose between the only two options presented is interesting. By that logic, I assume that in a hypothetical scenario in which no third-party candidate was running, one would absolutely need to vote for either the Republican or the Democrat. Boycotting an election like that which presents no desirable choice is not possible for you. One must chose between the two options given because there is no third option on the ballot. If that is your line of reasoning, then I can see why applying this limited formula in choosing between a pro-intervention or pro-Qaddafi position in Libya is a no-brainer for you. For me, I see nothing illogical or problematic about rejecting both.

  11. When talking about politics, especially international politics, “cynical” is really the default way to go. When people are fighting for survival, they do whatever they gotta do. “Principles” are for propaganda. That’s as true for people you favor as for those you don’t favor.

    Since Yemen and Bahrain are nominal “allies”, the U.S. has many ways to influence them other than bombing, if it chooses to do so. I’d love to see a regional alliance impose some reform on both, but the fact is, it’s not happening. Not my job to make it happen. What are you saying, that “nation states”, as they are frozen at some moment in time, are sacrosanct? That the nastiest dictatorship always has inviolable sovereignty?

    There are many reasons for letting an intervention (military or otherwise) happen that don’t mean favoring hegemony. As I said, bad motives don’t always make worse results than someone else’s bad motives.

  12. So, it appears that we’ve come full circle here in this discussion and I have work to do. I’m signing off after this post.

    I’m not even sure where this is coming from: “What are you saying, that “nation states”, as they are frozen at some moment in time, are sacrosanct? That the nastiest dictatorship always has inviolable sovereignty?” It’s not often that I have to interact with someone who suggests that being anti-imperialist somehow makes you some sort of nationalist. My opposition to U.S. imperialism has nothing to do with supporting the “sovereignty” of dictators. But I can see that you are very persistent with these black-and-white corollaries.

  13. Sorry I couldn’t give you any hate mail. Thought this might be a reasonable substitute.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s