NFZs and other benevolent interventions

No foreign intervention – via Lisa Goldman

There is a fissure in the Left at present; in Australia, it’s playing out on the pages of Crikey, liberal blog Larvatus Prodeo and Benjamin Solah’s Blood and Barricades. The Left is divided between western intervention in the Libyan uprisings, or not. About a UN-endorsed no-fly zone over Libya, or not. About whether such interventions are right, tactically speaking, or not.

On Crikey’s The Stump, Guy Rundle accused the far left of ‘a bizarre passivity’ that has made them ‘conservatives’. He alleged that to show solidarity with Libyans was to support the no-fly zone; everything else was counter-revolutionary.

For me, the equation is pretty simple: there are no such things as benevolent dictators, benevolent governments, benevolent government interventions, benevolent invasions or benevolent imperialism. These terms are paradoxical. Show me an instance of benevolent imperial intervention and history will show the bodies, the oppressed workers, a propped-up regime.

Western nations do not intervene unless they have something to gain. Unfortunately, the Libyan people’s welfare does not rank highly on their list of ‘gains’. Given the profits numerous countries in the EU have made exporting weapons to Gaddafi’s regime, it is in fact something they stand to lose from.

Intervening in Libya is a reactionary narrative, and not unlike the argument of a ‘war for democracy’, which an imperialist intervention has the genuine potential to become. Advocating for some kind of military intervention makes it much harder to stop a military invasion if, say, the intervening governments became taken with Libya’s oil reserves. How would we get millions out on the streets to stop that invasion?

Arguing for such an intervention is an absolute denial of the power and the role of the working class in revolutionary situations. It substitutes a now-recognised brutal regime with a pro-US government, and what’s more, could allow foreign troops on the ground in a region revolting, the last thing any uprising wants or needs.

Honestly, where has a country been better off after Australian intervention? It wasn’t East Timor, where thousands of civilians were killed and where Australian companies were given free reign to move in and fill the void. It wasn’t the Northern Territory, where Indigenous people are still living in abject poverty, subject to dehumanising laws. It wasn’t Iraq or Afghanistan, where there are too many dead to count and quality of life is abysmal. The truth is, when it comes to killing people, the West has a long, bloody history.

In any case, the urgency of this debate is fraudulent, because the Left is, for all intents and purposes, incapable of determining the behaviour of western governments. If we can’t end the war in Afghanistan, we certainly can’t force the government to go to war if it doesn’t want to.

Which means these countries will only introduce a no-fly zone if they want it. Why would they want it?

The answer could lie in Craig Murray’s observations about Bahrain:

The fatter of these two evil ugly bastards is the King of Bahrain. Having invited in foreign armies to crush the pro-democracy protests of his own people, he has immediately let them loose on the demonstrators, who are being viciously attacked by them even as I type.

In classic anschluss fashion, the King has invited his people to “co-operate fully and to welcome” the invaders, as they attack them. He has immediately declared a state of emergency, made demonstrations illegal, and attacked the protestors. Today they killed two and injured 200, many very seriously.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Bahrain the day before the Saudi invasion. The British Embassy issued a first travel advisory for Brits not to travel to Bahrain, also the day before the Saudi invasion. As I reported yesterday, the US agreement to the Saudi military crushing of democracy movements in the Gulf was part of a complex deal which included the surprise Arab League agreement to a no fly zone over Libya. Interestingly, in the BBC report linked above the US admit to advance knowledge of the Saudi invasion, but BBC News is now reporting they are denying it.

So why isn’t the US/UN debating a no-fly zone over Bahrain or Saudi Arabia to help support the democratic freedoms of ordinary people? Precisely because it’s never about the welfare of ordinary Bahranis or Libyans or Afghans or Iraqis.

It’s healthy for the Left to have these debates; it helps everyone orient themselves. But alarm bells should ring when you find your argument aligns with that of Christopher Hitchens.

Jacinda Woodhead

Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. “In any case, the urgency of this debate is fraudulent, because the Left is, for all intents and purposes, incapable of determining the behaviour of western governments. If we can’t end the war in Afghanistan, we certainly can’t force the government to go to war if it doesn’t want to.”

    On this point, certainly the Left can’t force governments to intervene, but as the example of East Timor shows, when the Left backs an invasion or a ‘humanitarian’ intervention, it gives cover for imperialism. Post East-Timor, the left’s support for the intervention, meant there was a substantial increase to the defence budget whilst it was also used to intervene into the Middle East.

    Left-wing political organisations, even though weak, can lead political arguments and influence people and so any soft position on imperialism can weaken anti-war movements as a whole.

    1. That misses J’s point.
      In these kind of cases, the argument takes on an irresistible urgency on the basis that ‘we must do something’.
      It’s crucial, then, to ask who that ‘we’ is. If that ‘we’ is the Left, well, the reason the whole issue manifests itself in the way it does is precisely because the Left isn’t capable of doing very much at all. A mass Left might be able to make a real contribution to the defence of the Libyan people against the dictator. The tiny Left that exists in Australia can’t do anything much more than write articles and hold very, very small demonstrations.
      What then is the meaning of demands for the Left to call for military intervention? The Left is manifestly incapable of forcing a government to send troops anywhere. As J says, if we could do that, well, we could get them to send troops home from Afghanistan.
      In other words, the US will only intervene in Libya if it decides that such interventions are in its own interest.
      In that context, left wing posturing does nothing other than confuse what’s taking place, by pretending that it is something that ‘we’ have directed.
      In any case, it’s far from clear what a no-fly zone would achieve. Gaddafi clearly has control of Tripoli, the biggest population centre in the country. No planes are gonna dislodge him from there: he’s only going to be overthrown by an uprising of the people in that city. A no fly zone might prevent him using air strikes against the rebels but it’s not going to stop his artillery or rockets.
      That’s why people like Hitchens are calling for a full-scale invasion. I assume we don’t have to argue about why that’s not a good idea.

  2. Great post, Jack.

    Rundle seems to have taken this one step further to see it as emblematic of the failure of “Teh anti-imperialist Left” more generally. His posts could easily be the kinds of op-eds The Australian runs from pro-imperialist ex-Leftists who’ve “seen the light”. In doing so he risks joining the long line of Leftists who have gone over to the other side when they become enamoured of the liberatory properties of imperialist interventions.

    Equally disappointing are Adam Bandt’s gung-ho demands for a no-fly zone:

    There is something logical about electoral Leftism falling into a view of the state as the inescapable agent of social change. To do so just as popular revolutions have challenged once monolithic regimes next door to Libya suggests how deep the reformist ideology runs.

  3. A NFZ, instituted as it would be by imperialist forces, would be used to advance imperialist interests. This means that it may be used against Qaddafi (arguably) and definitely used against the revolutionary masses (undoubtedly).

    The US can have advantageous trade relations with a Qaddafi dictatorship. Likewise, the US can have advantageous trade relations with a different regime led by former military generals. The US cannot have advantageous trade relations with a revolutionising democratising people’s government.

    In response to Jeff Sparrow, the tiny left in Australia can continue to set a precedent by rejecting imperialist intervention in all its guises and understanding that capitalist armies serve the capitalists. Our actions now can provide a firm foundation for the left to grow. This approach will enable the left to stop the inevitable calls for war in the future.

    1. Again, I think that misses my point.
      These debates become so strident because the situation is so desperate that people insist that the Left must do something to stop the carnage. At the same time, everyone knows that the Left as it currently stands is incapable of providing any material support. That’s what provides the force behind the demand that the Left support a US intervention: namely, that seems the only likely way that anything will be done.
      My point is that the argument contains its own negation.
      If the Left were a substantial force, in Australia or around the world, then other, more palatable options would present themselves — think, for instance, of the Spanish Civil War.
      But if the Left is so weak that it has no options for independent interventions, then what’s the meaning of the insistence that the Left declare itself in support of a ‘no fly zone’? We, quite evidently, are not strong enough to force governments to do anything (for, as I say, if we were, we would have other options available). The US will intervene if it sees material advantage in an intervention (most likely, if the White House calculates, Gaddafi could be easily overthrown and a conservative puppet installed in his place). The call for the Left to support an attack is a call for the Left to provide ideological cover, to pretend that the tail is wagging the dog, that a military campaign is being waged for humanitarian ends, that the US generals have been forced to support a revolution by our sterling efforts. All of that is fantasy.
      The first imperative of the Left is to recognise the truth. It’s foolish to pretend to the Libyans or to anyone else that the Left in Australia can save their revolution. We can’t. There’s no shame in saying that, because it happens to be true.
      At the moment, the Left largely consists of a set of ideas. Which is why maintaining some kind of theoretical clarity actually matters quite a lot — especially in situations where everyone seems to be losing their heads.
      In any case, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that the demand for a’no fly zone’ (which is what the Greens and others are calling for) is simply silly. There is something like a conventional war raging in Libya at the moment. Even if Gaddafi can’t use his air force, untrained and unequipped civilians are not going to prevail in battles against professional soldiers. Securing a military victory for the rebellion would therefore entail the US troops doing most of the fighting — in other words, a full scale invasion, which would then have to march into Tripoli to dislodge the regime.
      By contrast, the revolution’s only chance lies in convincing the troops to desert, to abandon Gaddafi and come over to the rebellion, so that the tyrant’s army melts away.
      Gaddafi is explicitly rallying his forces by warning of the threat of foreign intervention, which makes everyone think of Iraq. In that sense, the calls for no fly zone and the rest of it are, in all probability, strengthening the regime, by adding credence to his propaganda.

  4. I’m not supporting a NFZ but what if the revolutionary leadership should specifically call for one? What then? Would that diminish their revolutionary standing in the eyes of the Left?

  5. I’ve replied to the substance of this here:

    But a couple of points on some of the cheaper shots. This nonsense about having some agreement with Hitchens or whoever is a ridiculous game. Those opposing support for any involvement in Libya include the right of the Tory party, and the American Conservative magazine group, among others – many of whom increasingly use the language of ‘anti-imperialism’. I don’t think that discredits your argument, and there’s a desperation to such arguments. It should be obvious that since 2001, people have ended up in all sorts of different, and floating, alliances and connections.

    1. The Tories and other sections of the ruling class oppose intervention for entirely different reasons i.e. as someone in the Financial Times argues, a NFZ inevitably has to mean ground troops which the US in particular does not want to get involved in.

      If you think the Tories even use the language of anti-imperialism, then perhaps you need to go back and read Bukharin or something.

    2. Am following your contributions with interest on this question, but ‘first stones’ ‘n all about cheap shots. I used to love reading your contributions to Farrago when I was a student, and we were both less grumpy it would seem. Recently though, your famous good humour seems replaced with bitterness and frustration when you suggest things such as Tiedze (sic) is trying to substitute his own views for that the revolution. In fact he has repeatedly said this is not about substituting views (and how can he, he is not there to substitute) but a disagreement with a (majority) view.

      I thought this was a debate as to the relative merits of a range of views??? Perhaps I am wrong.

  6. Boris and Guy:

    Even if a popular revolutionary movement requests help from an imperialist country, it doesn’t make it right. All sorts of campaigns and movements need to learn from history, not from desperation. Surely the international Left’s role is to make it clear how imperialist interventions wind up.

    And imperialism isn’t the only place we can add support. Trade unions can send money. We can stop trade. We can pressure our governments to stop selling weapons to arm these states.

    Re weapons, they still come with strings attached. Perhaps an oil company or two.

  7. It’s a difficult thing, the urgency. Yes, we do need to learn from history but if the popular revolutionaries are being mercilessly killed right now, and they ask for the no fly zone assistance, and we know what Gaddafi is and will be again…And as for trade sanctions haven’t we learnt from history that these hurt the general populace much more than the leaders? One of the problems with the Libyan situation is also that there is no clear rebel leadership for the UN/NATo (West) to negotiate with about the options.

  8. I think Jeff Sparrow in on the money here. The bizarre part of this isn’t ‘passivity’, but the belief that the Left is a power of any sort – if the Left is going support a NFZ, it presumably has the power to do just that. Guy Rundle would have to sustain that argument, for anything else he says to matter.

  9. Leaving aside the immediate question of ‘intervention’ in regard to Libya, I do want to register my disagreement with a number of the theoretical and historical points made by Jack and others here. Rather than write a long post, I’d point people towards the article written by Terry Townsend (a leading member of the DSP at that time) in Links Journal Issue 14, which deals with the question of intervention into East Timor, here:

    In that article, Terry pretty much outlines the reasoning as to why one might support intervention by the UN (or other capitalist states), an action which does not necessarily imply “sowing illusions” in those institutions, or indicate “support” for them.

    It might be worthwhile here quoting from the article something written by Barry Shephard a former member of the US SWP, who had participated in the campaign for civil rights in the US in the 1960s:

    “An analogy that I think is useful was the demand the SWP [Socialist Workers Party] raised in relation to the fight of Blacks in the South against the Jim Crow [apartheid] system, when they were met with massive violence by [state] police forces and vigilantes.
    We called on the federal government to send troops to defend Blacks under attack by mobs and the armed forces of the Southern states. We also championed the idea that Blacks had the right to arm themselves in self-defense from these attacks. Sometimes we combined these demands, as in the Battle of Birmingham in 1963, when Blacks began to arm and defend their meetings, and we called on the federal government to arm and deputize Blacks in the face of the violence of the racists.
    The fact was that the Black people were not prepared or able to defend themselves on the scale necessary. Neither, as we have seen, are the East Timorese.
    When federal troops were used in the desegregation battle, it was with great reluctance and foot-dragging by Washington. But whenever they were forced to do this, the racists were beaten back, and Blacks were emboldened to fight harder. By demanding federal troops, we also were exposing the reluctance of Washington to intervene in defense of what most Americans considered to be a just cause.
    At no time did our position mean we were “sowing illusions” in the federal government, or did we ever give it political support. Quite the opposite. We exposed the complicity of Washington with the Southern establishment at every turn.”

    How all this relates to the specific question of Libya depends on an analysis of the situation there. My main aim here is really to point out that a lot of the matters of “principle” espoused here seem to me to be off-the-point.

    1. But what about the analysis of Libya would change your mind?
      I mean, you quote Shephard argues:’By demanding federal troops, we also were exposing the reluctance of Washington to intervene in defense of what most Americans considered to be a just cause.
      At no time did our position mean we were “sowing illusions” in the federal government, or did we ever give it political support.’
      In what circumstances would that possibly be true about US intervention in Libya? It seems to me that it’s self-evidently a demand put forward by those with illusions in the federal government, the illusion that it’s a force for progress and human rights.
      As for the last point, an attitude to the state seems to me self-evidently a question of principle. Yes, there are difficult questions but that’s precisely why principles matter.

      1. Well, it seems to me that the question of Libya is unlikely to be relevant for very long. And I don’t think I’ve done enough research into the situation there, or its history, to take a position. Obviously, calling for the UN – say – to intervene would be the very last option, in a situation where a liberation movement is about to be crushed, and there are no practical alternatives and (say, in the case of Timor) it’s in the objective interests of the working class and against the interests and current strategy of imperialism.

        In Timor, for example, the Australian government had a long-standing strategic interest in keeping Timor under the control of Indonesia. To send troops to Timor, for them, was a retreat – a defeat. That’s why they refused to do it for so long. Once they accepted this defeat, they had to try a different strategy. The unfortunate events since that moment reflect the weakness of the Timorese movement itself (its inability/unwillingness to resist the new imperial strategy), and the weakness of the solidarity movement.

        My point the BASIS on which many people here argue against intervention in Libya is simplistic and schematic. It’s easy to hold onto the position “all interventions are bad under all circumstances”, but alas the world and politics is complicated.

        In terms of Libya, well, does the situation correspond to any of the conditions above? Is the real alternative between the destruction of the movement by Gaddafi’s forces or some form of intervention which would see the movement survive for the moment, if in a compromised position? Or is there a third possibility – say, survival of the movement in some other way (international brigades?)? Is the attitude of the US/Britain and other imperial states to try to support the Gaddafi regime and hence they have an interest in not intervening? In watching the rebels be crushed? Personally, I was hoping that the Libyan rebels would be strong enough to hold out and that there would be an uprising in Tripoli. But that possibility seems gone now. It seems to me that it may be too late for anything but destruction at the hands of Gaddafi, unfortunately.

        In any case, attitude to the “state” as some kind of principle is pretty ambiguous. The point is, you might use all kinds of tactics towards the state, including running for elections, boycotting it, calling on it to take actions (reforms). Calling on the state to take action doesn’t mean that you are sowing illusions in it. Rather, you call on it to to take action to expose it, to show that it’s not a force for progress and human rights, there for the good of all, and so on. Sometimes the state does what you demand – you win your reforms, it retreats. Then you press it further.

        You didn’t bother to read Terry’s piece though, did you? 🙂 Because I basically agree with his theoretical points, which is why I linked to it. The central one is that there are times you might need to call on the the UN or other states to intervene internationally, and that – as many socialist groups internationally (The LCR, etc) – this is perfectly compatible with a Marxist attitude towards the state.

  10. Indeed Jeff.

    I find it difficult to reconcile your view Rjurik, with a Marxist understanding of the nature of the state. The state is created out of and in relationship to civil society, by a dominant class of people to protect certain interests (i.e. to protect the process/circuit of accumulation), which it does through both consent and coercion. This consent process, includes seeking openings when circumstances change and present themselves to take action for what can be given the gloss of a foreign people’s interest (the ‘rescuing’ of the East Timorese) but is really about other long term strategic interests (oil and regional dependence). I do not think there is a case of East Timor exceptionalism…the state is the state is the state so to speak.

    How can a Marxist understanding of the state be reconciled with your view except by saying it has some more pluralist purpose?

  11. Liz, you’re summary of the state is pretty fair. We might note, though, that the state’s essential task is to maintain to long-term viability of capitalism. In that process, it mediates between different fractions of the capitalist class, but also is forced regularly to retreat under pressure from the working class (here is where the notion of the state as ‘relatively autonomous’ originates – see the debate, for example, between Poulantzas and Miliband). It sometimes must act against the immediate interests of the capitalist class, in order to maintain capitalism’s long-term stability. Hence it gives in to reforms all the time, or has to change from one strategy to another. Part of the problem with a lot of the positions put here, it seems to me, is that they don’t recognise that there is an ongoing balance of class forces, which shifts back and forward, and which means that the state must sometimes give in to the demands of the working class. In the case of Timor, I think Terry put it well:

    “The pressure applied on Jakarta to hold the August 30 referendum represented a concession a retreat by imperialism in the face of the stubborn and heroic 24-year-long resistance struggle by the East Timorese people and the persistence of the solidarity movement in the West. The blow delivered by the democracy movement inside Indonesia with the May 1998 overthrow of Suharto was decisive in forcing Jakarta, Canberra and Washington to change tack in the hope of politically stabilising Indonesia.

    In the same sense, the decision to commit troops was a further retreat by imperialism, forced upon it by massive popular unrest in Australia and parts of Europe and growing popular concern in the US. As in the referendum, imperialism made a concession with the intention of regaining control of the situation.

    Faced with the political impossibility of continued Indonesian rule over East Timor an option Australian and US imperialism clung to for as long as possible until they blinked at the prospect of losing the lot imperialism was forced to switch to “Plan B” consolidate East Timor as a formally independent neo-colony and hope that the weakened Indonesian regime does not lose control in Indonesia.

    How successful imperialism’s gambit will be can be decided only in struggle within East Timor and Indonesia and by the continued strength of the solidarity movement outside. It has to be acknowledged that the fact that progress remains on the agenda is only because imperialism’s retreat has allowed the Timorese liberation movement to survive.

    To refuse to accept such retreats because the imperialists have ulterior motives is the height of foolishness. Every wage rise won by workers through militant strike action no matter how large and every reform ever extracted from capitalist governments through mass action no matter how fundamental are also retreats by the capitalists in order to regain control and ensure that the private profit system survives. Should revolutionaries then, as a matter of principle, reject all wage rises and all reforms, this side of the socialist revolution? Of course not.”

    1. Yes while there can be tensions between the state and capital, they are not essentially opposed. The ‘relatively autonomous’ conception of Nicos Poulantzas (contra Milliband’s emphasis that the state’s pro-capitalist character is a product of its infestation with bourgeois elites and their close allies) argued such autonomy was a result of the state managing the interests of many individual capitalists yes. He later refined this to argue that the autonomy was a function of class struggle and therefore no one class had absolute control of the state. This strikes me as pretty rubbishy given an analysis of how states arose in relation to capital and civil society, and in my view the ongoing/similar relationship present now.

      It leads back to the same place, as an understanding of the state in a pluralist sense (albeit with a Marxist gloss).

      1. I don’t mean no reforms can be won from a capitalist state, but I think the distinction I’m drawing is important in relation to imperialist adventures.

        I think I’m done now.

        1. Well, I’m suggesting that the East Timor intervention was akin to a reform. The imperialist’s had a strategy that was working perfectly well for them. Their strategic allies were ALREADY THERE, organising the physical liquidation of the liberation movement (Indonesian military). I.E. Imperialism already had armed forces there. The didn’t want to change that policy, but were forced to – after much resistance – under the pressure of the movement. That’s essentially what happens when reforms are won. They are forced to do it, against their will. That’s why statements like “the state will always act in capital’s interest” are ambiguous (I’m tempted to suggest that it’s more influenced by Anarchism than Marxism, except that I have a fairly pluralist notion of Marxism, if not of the state), because in general it’s true, but in practice it obscures the real process, which is two sided. They give in, in order to reconsolidate their power – exactly what occurred in Timor. Sadly, the liberation movement was too weak, too compromised, to resist this consolidation, just as the solidarity movement was too weak to influence the outcome.

          I think I’m done too.

  12. well, part two of this from me at

    anyone wishing to criticise me for excessive length of response, engagement etc, should see head office and apply for a transfer – haiku and mime 101 are still taking applications.

    As for regards cheap shots, well I made a couple of snide remarks, so i’m not concerned about getting them back. But argument by association in this period is bad argument, and unhelpful. Take this point of view for example:

    ‘[in Libya] a no-fly zone would be hardly more than prelude to the Americans coming…..Iraq after the gulf war is instructive….loose talk of intervention costs lives….the West’s friends in Riyadh are already suffocating the region’s cries for freedom. That leaves the Libyans to win their own freedom…..[intervention] would involve America and Britain in another war as disastrous as the one into which Bush led his poodle’

    The piece could more or less go in any AI left publication. It is the lead foreign policy piece in this week’s UK Spectator (by Daniel McCarthy, a ‘paleoconservative’). But I would not suggest that mere fact damns an AI position coming from the left.

    I’ll reply to points in the comments stream in part 3 (‘deleted scenes’) on The Stump.

  13. “Even if a popular revolutionary movement requests help from an imperialist country, it doesn’t make it right. All sorts of campaigns and movements need to learn from history, not from desperation.”

    Jack, I must assume that you did not make this statement rashly because it is certainly extreme and I am going to ask you to further defend it.

    The assertion that ‘we’ can sit comfortably outside the combat zone and make tactical or moral pronouncements as to what is ‘right’ for an under-resourced revolutionary movement under attack from a ruthless military dictator is simply astounding. To further assert that it is somehow good for those genuinely desperate people to merely reflect on the lessons of history in their time of need is quite beyond the pale.

    In my view, the problem with your argument and with Tad’s is that they proceed from an assumption that counter arguments can only be valid if they arise from a similarly cohesive, ideological, if oppositional, doctrine. It’s a case of your monolithic ideology vs. whoever’s.This is precisely the reason why Marxist orthodoxy persistently fails to provide functioning exemplars of successfully transitioned societies and economic systems and why the Left’s stocks are so very low at a time when they need to be on the rise. Ideology, any ideology, is dangerous because it leads to an intellectual atrophy in which the capacity to think flexibly is diminished by slavish adherence to doctrine – political, religious, economic or other.

    I’m not at all sure that an NFZ or military intervention is the right thing to do in Libya, Bahrain or anywhere else and I accept your point that it can result in dire long term consequences for the recipients. However, when it is called for by active revolutionaries I think it is unjust and callous for others to invoke notions of sacrifice in the name of history. Now, that call has not to my knowledge come loud clear from the Libyan opposition at this point. I have heard conflicting reports on that front. But if it does come, I cannot see how refusing to support it could be morally and politically justifiable.

    1. Well, this ideology didn’t come out of a vacuum. It comes out of a long history of concrete examples.

      But I don’t believe I am blinded by ideology. I take a rationalist perspective: it has been shown, as recently as East Timor, Haiti, Iraq and Afghanistan, that imperialist forces quash people’s movements, install occupier-friendly governments, disappear people, strangle economies and kill.

      Why would we trust our government to intervene to aid the Libyan people (with tactics that won’t even be successful!) when they won’t even withdraw troops from Afghanistan – where thousands of Afghans are dying, thousands are maimed, and who knows how many homeless and terrorised – and we live in a country that forces Indigenous Australians to live in third world conditions?

      So, please, point me to an example where an invasion has been good for the people as a whole.

      And who/what is this all-encompassing ‘we’ everyone keeps referring to?

      I feel like a broken record for saying this, but:

      1. Revolutionary forces ask for aid
      2. The US, NATO et al decide that it’s in their interests to give ‘aid’

      It ain’t rocket science to work out step 3.

      I think there are always ways to help revolutionary movements – with the real ‘we’: the working class and the Left. This ‘we’ does not include the governments who do everything to oppose us.

    1. Yes, but look what’s actually happening. The Obama administration now seems to be contemplating intervention — not just NFZs, mind you, but air strikes on the ground, etc. Why? Because it’s been forced into action by the Left or because it’s been moved by appeals by the Libyans?
      No, cos it’s under pressure from neocons to ‘send a message’ about US power across the world and, in particular, the region, as per the original neocon project.
      Again, what will this do for the situation in Libya? Will air strikes overthrow Gaddafi? If so, how? Will US planes liberate Tripoli? Quite clearly, they won’t. So what then?
      Buying serious time for Benghazi will entail, one imagines, sustained air strikes — that is, something like a full scale war. And then what? What happens after that?
      The revolution is not going to win in places where it doesn’t have much support (most notably Tripoli) on the basis of air strikes. If anything, US backing will cost it popular support, since nationalist demagoguery is all Gaddafi has left. What happens next? Will the US march on Baghdad? Will the country be partitioned? How long will the Americans protect Benghazi? A week? A month? A year?
      None of that seems to have been thought through at all — or even really considered. Which is not a coincidence. The US wants action to prove that it’s not impotent, that it alone sets the agenda in the region and determines the outcomes in the Arab spring. Actual improvements for the people there are not what this is about.
      I hope I am wrong but I think the situation in Libya is about to get much, much worse.

      1. I think that’s right. The “Western Nations” are main strategic aim to re-establish control over the region: Libya in particular, but not just Libya. The Western Left/the appeals by the Libyans probably have no influence over this aim, or the decision to bomb (though the fact of the liberation movements probably does). It is a direct imperial intervention, which may well result in Western troops stationed in Libya. So Libya would then face a foreign imperial force on its soil, starting the need for a national liberation movement rather than a movement against its own rulers. One consequence is that this might strengthen the right of the liberation movement – the more extreme right-wing end of Political Islam. (As an aside, this does separate Libya from East Timor, which was already under occupation by an Imperial force (Indonesian) in strategic alliance with Western Imperialism at the point prior to intervention; at that point, the ET liberation movement was facing annihilation by that force). Worse still, it is likely to reconcile the Libyan people to their own ‘powerlessness’ – i.e. diffuse the mass action of the movement. Politics is shifted back from the street to the board rooms of elites.

  14. Following on from that, what’s noteworthy about this debate is that it’s pitched in terms of what the Western Left should do. Which is just weird. It’s not the Left here that’s just made a revolution. We should really be talking about what’s happening in Egypt and Tunisia, the movements which not only inspired the uprising in Libya but border the country.
    Nothing would do more to revive the Libyan insurgency than the further radicalisation of those countries.

    1. It’s pitched at what the Western Left “should do” because it’s really about delegitimising any dissent to intervention. There’s a weird kind of panic about this when in fact the radical Left is a marginal social actor, almost as if even the mention, the whisper of a contrary view could lead to the whole thing collapsing like a pack of cards.


      1. Tad, I think you’re being a little over sensitive. A minority view does not result from
        the deligitimisating of dissent. It’s just that a lot of people don’t agree with you which is not the same as being shut down or your views being censored in some way. I don’t see anyone objecting to your right to hold a contrary view. The ‘weird kind of panic’ is probably a result of the seriousness of the central subject which is the immediate fate of people under siege and not the prevarications of the Left. That’s a sideshow, as you suggest.

        1. I was kind of getting at how nervous the pro-intervention Left are about this. I recall the debate over the NATO bombing of Serbia and the pro-bombing Left was much more considered and backed themselves with legal arguments, with much less OTT talk of urgency overriding other considerations.

          Maybe my memory is faulty, but they seemed more confident then.

          Bahnisch’s Drum article struck me as particularly hysterical. Several commenters not familiar with him seemed to assume he was a right-winger.

          Given how battered the West is in the Middle East this could very quickly go pear-shaped.

  15. Thanks Jacinda,

    I will not be renewing my subscription to Overland.

    First, we get your post declaring that rape can only be understood as a product of the capitalist system, and now we get this ridiculous ideological rant.

    You sound like a member of Socialist Alternative.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that, Peter. Overland supports political discussion on the Left (which doubtless leads to political arguments). But I am confident that we publish a wide range of political opinions and positions of the Australian left, both in the journal and on the website.

  16. What a terrible article! A couple of immediate responses:

    It is contradictory – ‘Libyan people’s welfare does not rank highly on their list of ‘gains’ vs ‘reactionary narrative’. Cf ‘arguing for such an intervention is an absolute denial of the power and the role of the working class in revolutionary situations’.

    The suggestion that the Left has no influence on governments makes you wonder why you would be in the Left.

    It sounds like trot propaganda that just opposes all action unless it is a socialist revolt led by paesants wielding farm tools. I agree that solidarity is active and the Guy Rundle article is far more in line with my sense of support for self-initiated uprisings.

    Overland basically plots a position that means governments can do nothing without being accused of self-interest and some sort of conspiracy.

    Glad to see that we should still have the Indonesians controlling East Timor, the Taliban in charge in Afghanistan etc. missions fail but doesn’t mean that they weren’t an attempt to make people safer etc.

    Thankfully, this Woodhead “Left” does not even believe in its own ability to make decisions or influence people.

    1. So the resolution has passed at the UN, and it looks like this is happening.
      In all seriousness, then, can someone from the Left who supports this tell me how they see events unfolding, because I genuinely don’t understand what’s supposed to happen. Yes, the US/UN will easily overwhelm Gaddafi’s airforce or bomb his artillery or whatever but what happens after that? How does this actually end, short of a full-scale invasion to depose Gaddafi?
      The country will still be divided, there’s still a civil war. Will the country be Balkanised? Will the west back one side in an ongoing war? What is supposed to happen?
      Can someone point me to a link?

  17. I haven’t had time to read every back-and-forth comment here, but it struck me in Jacinda’s original article it was highly misleading to say \where has a country been better off after Australian intervention? It wasn’t East Timor, where thousands of civilians were killed and where Australian companies were given free reign to move in and fill the void\

    This implies that the Australian troops did the killing, whereas in the initial intervention they were protecting people against pro-Indonesian militias who were massacring people.

    But I think a comparison with East Timor is useful. Whether or not you think it was worth supporting sending Australian troops in 1999, consider apart from everything else, all the East timorese liberation movement called for international intervention – not so the current Libyan rebels.

    The Libyan rebels are also fairly well armed, whereas the Timorese were basically unarmed. And Timor had little resources developed to support an independent anti-imperialist government for any length of time, whereas Libya has a well developed oil industry.

    (More detailed commentary on my blog at

  18. Rjurik, Australian forces went into East Timor as the worst of the TNI and militia violence was actually winding down. The ACTU/soft left campaign for intervention was a gift to Howard and acted to legitimise Western military intervention from then on, particularly in Afghanistan.

    Australia definitely had an interest in seeing Indonesia dislodged from East Timor. Its the enormous oil and gas deposits in the Timor Gap.

    May I recommend this article by Sam Pietsch, ‘Australian imperialism and East Timor’.

  19. @Dave: As I acknowledged, an independent Timor Leste probably gave Australian capital more direct access to East Timorese oil and gas. But they already had pretty good access – remember Gareth Evans signing the Timor Gap treaty with Ali Alatas?

  20. I fail to see what the fuss is about. Theres a dictator and a popular uprising where the forces arguing for a democratic Libya are being pounded to dust. The leaders of the Libyan revolution are now desperate enough to ask for any assistance that might be forthcoming.
    I think that the best historical parallel is the Warsaw uprising. With the Red Army coming the Nazis left Warsaw and there was a popular uprising. When the Nazis realised that the Red Army wasn’t going to take Warsaw they returned and had a huge fight with the Polish Home Army who were ground into dust. Before this happened the Poles asked for any help that could be given. The Red Army refused help (for their own reasons) and the US air force gave help (again for their own reasons). The question for the left at the time(no matter how impotent that left was) was do we agree that enemies of fascism should be given the help that they ask for or should that help be refused?
    My oppinion is that arguing for progressives to be given the help that they request is the left position. To let democrats be killed by better armed fascists is a right wing position.

  21. Gosh, what a mess.
    One of the problems is that the debate in Australia has been bizarrely framed (I’m thinking of Mark B’s very silly Drum article, for instance) as an argument between humanitarian liberals and anti-imperialist Marxists, as if the main obstacle to the air strikes was a few recalcitrant Green Left Weekly readers. But that analysis never bore any relationship to the truth. Obama, Rudd and co weren’t held back by the awesome power of the far left (which, in both Australia and the US, numbers perhaps a few thousand people at best, and despite a certain, though pretty feeble, intellectual influence, has no weight whatsoever on public policy. Quite obviously, the real debate was that between the neo-cons, who wanted the US to demonstrate its power, and the realists, who (rather understandably) worried about the US involving itself in three wars simultaneously, with no exit strategy for any of them.
    The push for a UN resolution represents the triumph of the neo-cons, not some victory for nice liberals. I mean, seriously: when has (say) Obama ever showed the slightest concern about what nice liberals think or want? To use a quote that Glenn Greenwald often reposts, Republicans fear their base — but Democrats despise theirs.
    After all, if Obama and Rudd and co had suddenly been won over to seeing human rights as taking precedent over imperial interests, well, perhaps we’d hear a little more about Yemen, where US-backed forces have just shot down civilians in the street, or Bahrain, where another US ally is blatantly conducting massacres as ferocious as Gaddafi’s.
    No, what’s taken place in Libya is not the result of some mass humanitarian pressure from below but rather another demonstration of the susceptibility of US democrats to the kinds of arguments put forward by Bill Kristol, etc, people for whom demonstrations of US firepower trump any other considerations.
    Having been entirely sidelined during the Arab Spring, the White House was convinced of a Libyan intervention as a way of re-asserting itself as the key player in the region, while ensuring that events in Libya don’t take on too radical a character.
    And like every other plan put forward by Kristol and co, the results promise to be disastrous for the ordinary people in that country.
    Yes, Gaddafi has declared a cease fire. But what happens now?
    It’s not only that the logic of this campaign seems to be pushing toward partition, a Balkanisation of the country, enforced by foreign powers (and what could possibly go wrong with that?) but no-one seems able to explain how there will be any humanitarian outcomes. Yes, Benghazi might be spared the retribution of the tyrant (for however long the UN continues to protect it: days? weeks? months?) but that seems to have come at the cost of entirely abandoning the bigger, more important city of Tripoli. The UN resolution essentially freezes the situation, while transforming a revolution into a conventional war. Where once there seemed a real prospect of the people of Tripoli overthrowing the dictator, now the US pundits are consumed with missile strikes and drone attacks and all the rest of it, none of which has any prospect of removing Gaddafi.
    Thus, unless the US sends in ground troops, which the resolution explicitly doesn’t mandate, and which would, in any case, involve another prolonged war and occupation, it seems increasingly likely that Gaddafi will consolidate power in the most important city of Libya. Which, presumably, means that the revolutionaries there will be subjected to whatever was previously in store for the people of Benghazi. That is, one would imagine that Gaddafi’s police are, even now, doing all they can to identify the rebels in the city (which, given the relative side of Tripoli, would be a fair chunk of the populace), and deciding how to punish them.
    Thus, the UN intervention, by transforming a social upheaval into a conventional war, is, in all probability, paving the way for renewed repression in Libya. Obviously, I don’t say this with any pleasure and I would love to be proved wrong. But perhaps some of the supporters of this resolution might explain how, exactly, the people of Tripoli are going to be spared?
    Ah, but there was no choice! We had to act! We couldn’t sit back and do nothing!
    That’s really the intellectual substance of the liberal interventionist case, a moral insistence that WE MUST DO SOMETHING.
    But, of course, there is such a thing as the precautionary principle, that one’s first duty is not to worsen matters. And no matter how bad a situation is, there’s always plenty of scope for military intervention to make matters worse. Think, for instance, of Afghanistan, where exactly the same arguments were made: ‘WE MUST ACT to save the Afghanistan from the Taliban — and anyone who doesn’t agree is a Taliban-sympathiser, a vulgar Marxist, blah blah blah.’
    Well, look how that worked out!
    In any case, let’s look again at that injunction WE MUST DO SOMETHING.
    As I argued above, we — if by that we mean the Left — haven’t done anything. This adventure is entirely driven by the neocons, with liberals cheering from the background.
    But that’s not the point, is it! Of course, when people insist WE MUST DO SOMETHING that ‘we’ doesn’t, for the most part, really refer to the Left. Actually, though it’s rarely openly acknowledged, the WE in these discussions refers to the West — which is why liberals can hail a UN resolution driven by the folks who gave the world the Iraq war as a great victory for ‘us’.
    But think about that for a minute.
    The revolution in Libya was never inspired by the West — let alone by the prospect of military intervention. It wasn’t a revolt triggered by the war in Iraq or the occupation of Afghanistan. On the contrary, it was explicitly sparked by the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt, revolutions that not only didn’t involve the West but were, to a greater or lesser degree, against the West (or, at least, the US, as the backer of local dictators.
    ‘We’ had nothing to do with it. Nothing at all.
    So why, then, was the debate so totally focused around the proposition that WE would save these revolutions, when WE had hitherto played no part whatsoever?
    It’s not just that the focus smacks of arrogance, it’s also that the emphasis on US made the terms of discussion so very narrow.
    For had the debate shifted from one totally focused on the West to one oriented to the people who actually, like, lived in the region, a few better options might have raised themselves. Had, for instance, the border to Egypt being thrown open, the people of Benghazi might have been reinforced by the Egyptian Left, something that would have made the prospect of revolution in Tripoli more, rather than less, likely. No guarantees of course but, even now, the fate of the Libyan revolt rests on what happens in Tunisia and Egypt, places where the revolutions are not complete. But assistance from the armed people who inspired the Libyan revolt would be of a qualitatively different nature than US drone strikes.
    Yet this never even came up in a debate that was entirely focused on US and OUR responsibility to intervene. Instead, we have a UN resolution makes a regional, popular solution much less likely, while raising all kinds of terrible possibilities for the future.
    After all, the neocons are now angling more or less explicitly for regime change. Hitchens, for instance, always wanted a full-scale war, something which seems far more likely now, because the status quo mandated by this resolution is so untenable.
    If I sound a little bitter about all of this, well, that’s because I am. Again, I would love to be wrong but I think very bad things are looming.

  22. Well, even if things improve in Libya the West has inherited a pile of shit to deal with in Bahrain and Yemen not to mention the post revolutionary situations in Tunisia and Egypt. It will be untenable for the West to back intervention in Libya without taking a stand against the regimes in Bahrain (backed by Saudi boots) and Yemen. To do so would escalate the situation beyond redemption. Like it or not, realpolitic dictates that the West will seek to hang on to its historical influence in the region. Note how quickly the French were to move and even Italy has opened up its bases for assaults against Berlo’s old mate. Capital runs thicker than blood, it seems.

    Notwithstanding the influence of neocon beliicosity in all this, I take an optimistic view, perhaps naively, I admit. I sense a shift in US foreign policy under Obama that is currently below the surface as a matter of expediency. By that I mean that I have little doubt that Obama the man would like to extricate the US from the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and, let’s not forget the big sleeper, Pakistan. His 2009 speech in Turkey was significant and controversial because it opened the door to improved relations with Muslims in the Middle East region and even extended a hand to Iran. The speech was soon followed by the appointment of George Mitchell to negotiate with Israel and Palestine which, again, I think was a sincere effort by Obama to mend that wound, a move that made him immediately unpopular with Israel. One of his first moves as President was to seek to distance himself from the inheritance bequeathed to him by the neocons and I think he is working through that in his first term.

    Therefore, my sense in the current situation is actually that Obama does not want to take the lead on the Libyan intervention because he is wary of making the US reputation in the region even worse than it is now. Furthermore, the domestic situation in the US does not allow for the expansion of global military engagement and thus the expansion of a burgeoning foreign debt to China and Saudi Arabia. The last thing Obama wants now is another protracted war so the view that old school US imperialism is at work in Libya is, I think, miscalculated. I think it is wrong to burden Obama with the sins of Bush et al.

    In fact, I see Obama working a line towards reshaping US diplomacy in the Middle East notwithstanding the faltering tactics of the State Dept. (e.g. Clinton’s lovefest with Mubarek early in the uprising). On domestic and international policy I believe Obama is an entirely different player than his predecessors albeit one lumbered with the consequences of their crimes and the awful political system that operates in the US. My view is that we will not see escalating US engagement in the region as a result of the Libyan intervention. However, the proxy role of the Arab League – in particular the Saudis – is disturbing not to mention the Europeans whose interests in the region are extensive. Furthermore, the spread of war in the region could allow the Egyptian military to consolidate its position in resisting the subaltern revolution by engaging in support for US interests, most immediately in Libya under the guise of supporting the Libyan people. It is this kind of proxy activity that seems to me more likely and perhaps more dangerous than direct US involvement.

    I concede this is a reformist argument that will not cut the mustard with many readers but in reality we are hardly in a pre revolutionary environment in the West so the challenge, in my opinion, is to consider what is likely to ensue from current circumstances.

      1. Tad,
        Yes, I agree there is a split between Obama and the administration.
        I think the Crowley resignation was an indication of tension between the Obama
        camp and the military, for example. My argument, and my guarded optimism,
        stems from a hope that Obama can muster sufficient momentum within the
        administration to build a new foreign policy culture in Washington. The current
        composition of Congress makes this that much more difficult as does Obama’s
        political strategy for survival into a second term.

        However, there is little appetite for war among the American people who are tightly focused on domestic issues. This is an entirely different context to that in which Bush et al launched the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions. The difficulty the Obama camp faces now is the combination of the uprisings elsewhere in the region and the very real possibility of becoming bogged down in Libya. The UN has set a precedent in Libya which may bring pressure from the movements in Bahrain, Yemen and
        elsewhere for similar which is why, in my opinion, the Saudis moved unilaterally into
        Bahrain notwithstanding the strategic benefits that move brought to the US and its 5th Fleet base etc.

        Let me be clear, I am extremely uneasy about the intervention in Libya for many of the reasons raised in this thread. However, I do sympathise with those people who sense the momentum of change in their countries being crushed by tyrannical oligarchies. At this time, I see the intervention as the lesser of two evils
        but I have a strong sense of foreboding about the enterprise.

  23. Jeff, I am confused by your mention of the injunction WE MUST ACT. Are you suggesting that you believe that there is a space of neutrality where responsibility is absolved that ‘we’, whomever that is, can go to, or, at least, not leave? Whilst military intervention can make matters worse, so can the refusal of military intervention. As in Hamlet, things may be set up in such a way as to suggest action will only result in a pile of dead bodies but this does not mean that inaction will not result in a pile of dead bodies just as attributable to us. Are you suggesting that we can escape this dilemma?

    Are you suggesting that that space of neutrality is the impotence of the left (its estrangement from the ‘real’ debate)? With the consequent suggestion that by presenting an argument for military action in conjunction with the non-left (the ‘real’ debate) ‘the left’ is providing some sort of tool for the non-left to carry out its machinations?

    If that is the suggestion then isn’t there a contradiction here. If the left is impotent and has no influence on affairs then it doesn’t really matter what the left does: it can support the intervention, it can oppose it, it can call for the nuking of Tripoli or the opening of the Egyptian borders and for Egyptian forces to invade, it can do whatever it wants because nothing matters. All these acts are equivalent, they are non-acts. To criticise the actions of the left is therefore silly, those acts don’t matter. But, if they do, then ‘the left’ really does have a part in responding to the question of intervention. Doesn’t the leverage gained out of whatever it is that means that ‘ideological cover’ (the term you used in an earlier comment) is useful to the non-left provide that significance to the left’s acts?

    The left is part of a broader ‘we’: ‘the west’, ‘Australia’ etc etc. Consequently, ‘the left’ is obliged to act. Obliged in a factual, not normative sense.

    There is another idea that you seem to present. That the west has no influence on the events in the middle east. This might provide a similar space of neutrality by way of impotence. But, I just don’t think that that can be sustained. Especially, when we are debating whether or not very real violent capabilities should be applied to areas of the middle east.

    But all this is not really what you are suggesting, is it?. In the end aren’t you suggesting that a better course for military intervention would be an Egyptian invasion of Libya (or some other variant based ‘on the ground’?) and are attempting to explain why that idea has not been taken up? You assume that this has not been raised in the ‘real debate’ because it is incommensurate with the broader ‘we’. I don’t see how this is incommensurate with a focus on that ‘we’, being the USA, Australia, ‘the left’ or even ‘the west’, should do. Can’t all these identities make the argument that Egypt should invade Libya and that that invasion should be conducted by people holding certain opinions? It seems more likely that this option has not come up because the prospect that this is more likely to mitigate Gaddafi violence (or even force Gaddafi to leave) than the NFZ/air intervention stuff is dubious, rather than because it is incommensurate with the ‘US’ or ‘the west’ in some sort of absolute sense.

    As to the future. If your fears rest upon the belief that neo-cons, realists and Hitchens are after war for wars sake then you have nothing to fear. I don’t think that any of these characters can be said to put war before peace.

    Another idea that seems to explain your argument is the suggestion that unless the left has total control then it must consider all its interventions effectively impotent because they are in some way contaminated by the motives of the ‘non-left’. Is it that the Egyptian ‘left’ should invade Libya so that ‘the left’ can take full control of the government? This would certainly make such action incommensurate with ‘the west’ considering ‘the west’ contains people who do not subscribe to ‘the left’ and would therefore not agree to such subjection (even though there are presumably masochists amongst the non-left I think one can safely say that at least some of them would not be and therefore hold disagreement with such domination).

    Difficulties here are what Mark’s Drum article seems to be highlighting when he notes: “There seems, in some quarters of the left, an inability to conceive that human action always has multiple motivations. So, while juridical concepts like the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ are not entirely innocent, nor can they always be discarded as bourgeois frippery.” Such total control is impossible.

  24. Hi Nick,
    Not really sure that I understand your argument.
    You write: “The left is part of a broader ‘we’: ‘the west’, ‘Australia’ etc etc. Consequently, ‘the left’ is obliged to act. Obliged in a factual, not normative sense.”
    But that was precisely my point, that a ‘we’ defined as ‘the west’ or ‘Australia’ or whatever obscures contradictory or antagonistic interests. The leaders of the US are acting in Libya on behalf of their own interests, interests that the Left (at least in the terms I understand it) doesn’t share.
    Yes, of course the Left should respond to the situation in Libya. My point is that many people are writing as if the White House’s decisions have been made in response to the humanitarian concerns raised by liberals or pro-intervention Leftists.
    This, I would suggest, is utter fantasy, indicative of an entirely delusional sense of the relative social forces involved.
    The rsocial weight of the Australian Left is relevant here because of the way that the demand to take a position has been put. That is, I could argue that, well, the way the Left should respond to Libya is by raising an Abraham Lincoln Brigade of volunteers to go and fight there, as per the Spanish Civil War. But people would quite rightly respond that such an idea was a fantasy, since the Left has no capability of making it happen.
    My point is that it’s equally delusional to think that the Left has the capacity to force the leaders of the US to go to war. And given that the US now going to war, we might ask why and on whose behalf.
    As I’ve said, I think the political class in the US has its own interests, and these are shaping the intervention. The pro-war left are merely providing political cover.
    I never suggested that the West has no influence on the middle east. In fact, I argued the exact opposite: that the West has long intervened in the Arab world, and the Arab Spring has been largely directed by the people of the Arab world against western-backed despots. That’s what happened in Egypt; that’s what’s still happening in Yemen and Bahrain, where the allies of the west are conducting massacres even as we speak.
    Again, I’m not calling for the Egyptian state to declare war on Libya (which seems to be what you suggesting). I’m just noting that the rebellion in Libya was inspired, not by Western air strikes, but by the risings of ordinary people in Tunisia and Egypt, and thus the actions of ordinary people in those countries are far more likely to be decisive in Libya than either Western air strikes or, I regret to say, anything I might write on this blog. Had, for instance, the Egyptian Left mobilised people and resources in support of Benghazi, the situation might be different now.
    But I think it’s probably too late for that now.
    In any case, the point was simply that the key determinant of a successful Libyan revolution was what happened in the region, not what happened here.
    That doesn’t mean that the Left in Australia shouldn’t have the argument; what it does mean is, to put things crudely, everything is not always all about us.

  25. Sorry I don’t get it at all. Part two of GR’s series at Crikey ramps up the urgency by talking about the need for revolutionary audacity in acting, decisive revolutionary moments etc. This is the key lesson relevant to the very tiny and weak left in western countries? More, the left is meant to be a player in getting Western states to substitute as the agent not just for intervention but for intervention at a key radical moment (rather than at a moment of the state’s choosing)? The other part of the argument is that this revolutionary moment has now passed – which leaves him arguing for what the left “should have” done. The argument is therefore entirely academic except as an opportunity to lecture said tiny and weakened left on one of what are, no doubt, its many deficiencies. Part three now at crikey seems to agree with some of the points Jeff makes in the above comment on what will be the consequences of a “late” intervention. So the argument now wraps up with disavowal of what will be the consequences of western intervention. Can’t help feeling we are having our collective leftist legs pulled.

  26. Jeff you are correct that the issue is not about us. The issue is about whether a dictator wins or a popular democratic movement wins. Initially it looked like the popular uprising would win but then the dictator using mercinaries and better weapons turned the tide. To survive the revolutionary leadership compromised their independance by asking for specific outside intervention. So the question is will the uprising survive and the answer is no without compromise and yes with compromise.
    Now revolutions compromising their purity is nothing new. The Americans compromised themselves when they accepted French intervention. Lenin compromised when he accepted German help. The Vietnamese compromised when they accepted Soviet and Chinese help. One of the tradgedies of Spain was that during the civil war the USA and Britain refused to sell arms to the democrats while the Facsists fully understood that to win you must mobilise every resource.
    Luckily for us the question is academic and luckily the revolutionaries in Libya (for whom it’s not academic) are aware that it’s better to live a compromised life than to die for revolutionary purity.

    1. Steve,
      With all due respect, that’s just rhetoric. The intervention is on now. So perhaps you or someone else who supports this adventure can explain how this is going to work.
      The revolution seems to have now become a conventional civil war, in which the rebels are reliant on UN forces. So what happens now? As I asked above, for all the talk of humanitarianism, what will happen to the people of Tripoli? There’s revolutionaries there, too, you know. IMO, UN intervention makes a social uprising in Tripoli infinitely less likely. So what’s your plan? Is the UN going to occupy Tripoli or are all the rebels there just abandoned to Gaddafi? Are you cheering on the Balkanisation of Libya? A permanent civil war? What, in short, do you actually think is going to happen?
      IMO, this war makes the invasion of Afghanistan or the occupation of Iraq seem well-planned and thought through.
      Incidentally, on that topic, I don’t really understand how you can support the Libyan intervention and not, say, the US invasion of Afghanistan, which was argued for in pretty much the same way. The Taliban were at least as brutal as Gaddafi, and there were plenty of people in Afghanistan who saw a US invasion as their only chance of liberation, as the neocons repeatedly told us. So was opposing that war simply a matter of purity, too? Was Bush right all along? If not, why not?

  27. Jeff you ask what is my plan? Here’s my plan. I listen to the democratic revolutionaries inside Libya and I don’t presume to know more than them. This morning Gadaffi’s tanks entered Benghazi I believe him when he said that within 48 hours all the criminals there would have been delt with.
    As to Afghanistan I opposed that war because the USA just reignited the Afghan civil war between the Taliban and the War Lords of the Northern Alliance. There was no progressives in the fight so there was no side to choose between.
    Libya is part of a region wide democratic revolution. The sides are clear. Reactionaries in power and democratic movements challanging them. As we have seen a victory in Tunisia leads to a victory in Egypt which leas to struggles being initiated in Libya, Bahrain, Yemem, Jordon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
    If a dictator can drown a revolution in blood then this is a set back for everyone. Moving forward has a lot to do with peoples confidence to overcome fear. Barhain and Libya (if Gaddafi wins) will be set backs for regional revolution.
    The worst outcome is for Gaddafi to win. The second worst is fo Gaddafi to hold on to say Tripoli but even this outcome is much better than the first as any liberated city represents a victory for the Libyan people who previously had no freedom that you and I would take for granted.

  28. With all due respect, that’s an abdication of responsibility. I mean, one of the advantages of being safe in the west is that one can think and one can write. OK, you have that ability, so use it. A few weeks ago, the majority of Libyan demonstrators opposed Western intervention. Now some (and who here can claim to understand the internal politics of the Libyan opposition?) support it. They might be right and they might be wrong. What do you think?
    As for spreading the revolution, this is explicitly about not doing that. Andrew Sullivan puts it like this: ‘In the grand scheme of things, this new war could even risk derailing democratic movements elsewhere, by turning the Arab 1848 into a Western intervention question.’
    And that, I think, is precisely the point.
    As I said above, Libya was sparked, not by Iraq or Afghanistan, but by Tunisia and Egypt. Again, by suggesting that regime change sponsored by Western powers can spread democratic revolution you are explicitly endorsing a key plank of the neocons. It used to be called ‘the Bush doctrine’.
    As for Tripoli, it’s not just that the intervention, as far as I can tell, has no plan whatsoever for preventing a humanitarian crisis. It’s that, by turning an uprising into a conventional war, the intervention makes the task of rebels in that city almost impossible.

  29. Not that this thread needs another contribution….Jeff and Jack have more or loess bookended it nicely anyway. But I’m somewhat gobsmacked that there’s even an argument. As the military assault on Libya begins I’m starting to feel like I’m watching a Bruce Willis film. The very fact that we find ourselves in these corners wondering whether or not to bomb should tell us that something has gone very, very wrong somewhere. In these weird and schizoid times whenever there’s an international political crisis three quarters of what is euphemistically called ‘the Left’ wants to start waving guns around and using the arsenals of the military-industrial bloc to achieve change. It’s bizarre. Things in Libya risk going very seriously pear-shaped. There doesn’t seem to be any thought put into what will happens when the bombing stops; apparently there will suddenly be democracy. There are a whole mix of reasons why half the nations of the West think bombing Gaddafi translates to ‘doing something’ but achieving democratic change in the Middle East isn’t one of them. Apparently ‘doing something’ doesn’t extend to putting the same kind of ‘humanitarian’ focus on Bahrain or Saudi Arabia or asking questions of Israel about Gaza. The West has been very happy to sell weapons to Gaddafi by the container load. His armoury didn’t fall from the sky. If the West seriously wanted change in Libya we’ve had decades in which to think about it. We’re back to cheering on the bombers kicking the asses of evil-doers again. Whoopee.

  30. Jeff, abdication of responsibility? There is a revolution, that revolution has produced a leadership. At the beginning that leadership said “We the Libyan people can do this alone” after Gaddafi with the aid of weapon that he had bought pushed the revolutionaries back to Benghazi the leaders of the Libyan revolution rethought their position and said “if we don’t get oitside help we will be drown in blood” I take the responsibility to agree with the assessment of the leadership of the revolution. I have no information to disprove their position. If they are wrong then an alternate view would emerge from the Libyan revolution. Then I would have to make a choice but no credible alternative view has been expressed.
    So there’s my answer I have thought it through and I agree with the current revolutionary leaders in Libya.
    As to the regional upsurge being transformed into a question of Western intervention I think that to be unlikely. The US has interviened in Libya because they don’t like Gaddafi. They don’t intervene in Bahrain because they like the royals there. We are witnessing the contradictory nature of US Imperialism. We have seen that before with Regan saying Mr Gorbachov tear down this wall (progressive) whilst at the same time saying Mr De klerk keep that terroris Mandela in prison (reactionary)
    I don’t believe in the neo con fantasy of the US spreading democracy.
    As to Tripoli well there was a time that an uprising could occur but that time passed and a conventional war did start and Gaddafi was winning. If Gaddafi’s army goes into retreat then a Tripoli uprising becomes more likely rather than less. Historically uprisings are more likely to occurr after the leaer suffers a military defeat.

  31. Stephen what is your definition of “pear shaped” Ive just seen a CNN report and they interviewed a guy who had been fighting tanks inside Bengahzi. He said that the tanks were indiscriminatly firing into houses. His family was in one of these houses. If Gaddafi overruns Bengahzi the streets will literally flow with the blood of people that took a stand against dictatorship.
    Yet you think that if NATO attacks his other tanks that are waiting to murder people in Bengahzi that things might then go pear shaped.
    The people of Libya are about to get massacred by the victorious forces of a dictator. Faced with certain annihilation every one has the right to be saved even if your saviour is not your real friend.

  32. Steve, this kind of moral outrage, one which seems to be in use by everyone from Hitchens to Cameron at the moment, is exactly the problem, and obscures many other issues. Gaddafi has been oppressing his own people for decades and it’s apparently never been worthy of anything like draconian action. There are other questions, all unasked, hanging in the air such as; How did it come to this and how did the West contribute to it? Skimming through the other comments I think Jeff Sparrow’s use of the term Balkanisation to describe what could happen in Libya is on the money.
    Blood has been flowing in Gaza for decades, children indiscriminately killed in their hundreds. Is there a NFZ over Israel? Not bloody likely. If the West had really been committed to helping Libyans resist Gaddafi we’d have taken very different action a long time ago. The NFZ is a sign of failure, not a sign of success.

  33. Stephen I don’t think that I am approaching this question from a position of moral outrage.
    Lizzie O’Shea ends her piece with the suggestion that we build an international solidarity movement. My point is that if the revolutionaries don’t get help today then there will be little point in solidarity with the dead.
    In a revolution the forces of good and the forces of evil do not form up into lines facing each other. The balance of forces changes quite dramatically and imperialists will do quite contradictorty things. I think our job is to support every rebellion and point out every failing of imperialism.
    The job of every Libyan revolutionary is to survive today so that they can fight tomorrow. How they survive is their call and I am prepared to support them even if Obama comes to the same conclussion.

  34. Steve, you and I seem to have come in at the fag end of this debate, which rapidly went circular. Now that the Tomahawks are actually falling, we shall have to see how things pan out. But I think that even as a military operation the whole intervention doesn’t seem to have been thought through. There isn’t even a clear military objective.
    I think I am pointing out a failing of imperialism; to use imperialist military forces to solve a problem imperialist thinking and action has partly created doesn’t make sense. This situation has a long history with many causes. And the fragmented remnants of the Left cheering the Tornados, Mirages and Tomahawks is certainly a weird, weird sight.I think too, with some respect that if you and Obama or Cameron or Sarkozy come to the same conclusion, that can mean that some kind of strange category error has occurred.I might support the bombing of Libya, and Obama might, but that doesn’t mean that we have the same reasoning or intention, and as he is the one with the hi-tech weaponry, that matters quite a lot.

  35. Thanks Stephen just to be clear I opposed the Gulf War, the bombing of the Serbs, the Afghan war and the invasion of Iraq. Generally the instinct to oppose anything that imperialism does is a good instinct and will be correct 99% of the time but I think that this is the 1% and its clearly a political question, do we support every effort that supports the democratic revolution or is the democratic revolution something that can be sacrificed on the alter of our anti imperialism.
    I said to a pro war friend before the Iraq invasion. No matter what their motivation the Americans will find a way to fuck this up. Or as Hitler once said about a previous invasion of Libya “not one fening not one German soldier” oops Im am not blind to the law of unintended consequences.

  36. Jeff, before you go,

    With respect to the issue regarding the political interest of the west and ‘the left’ I think that our point of difference lies in the following line.

    “The leaders of the US are acting in Libya on behalf of their own interests, interests that the Left (at least in the terms I understand it) doesn’t share.”

    As I understand it, at the very least, the US leaders (as well as Sarko and the rest of the west) are acting in Libya under the justification of supporting democracy against dictatorship (it is ‘protecting’ the humanitarian interests of democrats, not dictators). This means that, at least partially, the left shares the interests involved here – if we understand the left as being similarly in favour of democracy over dictatorship.

    Now, while it is true to say that such interests do not determine actions in their entirety (even if they are not lies), this does not mean that the influence of the left can be discounted. Such influence is not ‘utter fantasy’, merely partial. And, to critique such influence for being partial only makes sense when it is imagined that a level of total determination can be achieved. That, to me, is fantastic.

    On the other side of the coin, doesn’t your position rely upon an over-riding and determining interest that can be identified with the US? That seems to be a really hard task. How does one differentiate indicators of such interests from indicators of moves that may be simply strategic ‘political cover’ or moves that are predicated upon the ‘realities on the ground’ (such as the proverbial over-extension of forces) or truth from lie? What are the ‘interests of the US’ and how can we distinguish indicators of such interests from those statements and acts that can be described as providing political cover or are simply technical limitations?

    The basic point of contention here seems to be repeated in the west’s affect on the rest issue. I do not think one can use the term ‘key determinant’ with respect to the Libyan uprising (or any other political event). How does one prove that without one-factor events would have been the same (or even different), how does one prove that, for instance, military intervention in Iraq did not inspire action or that all would have been impossible without facebook or that Egyptian events would have been even without those of Tunisia?

    My objection to all this is that basing an argument on such difficult to prove propositions paralyses one and kind of becomes self-negating. Action becomes predicated upon the provision of answers that are forever deferred within a finite world yet are only relevant within a finite world. One places infinite demands upon a finite world.

  37. Day four looks good to me. I see crowds of revolutionaries cheering, their lives have clearly been saved and now they can once again plot to liberate their country. Only days ago we saw crowds of the dictators supporters cheering because they were about to put an end to this democracy nonsense.
    BTW earlier you stated that if leftists came to the same conclussion as Obama, Cameron and Sarkoszy then some kind of strange catagory error has occurred. This reasoning is faulty just as faulty as me saying that some kind of catagory error has occurred if leftists come to the same conclussion as the rulers of China and Russia which is also true but wrong.
    Remember war, what is it good for absolutly nothing…. except ending slavery and fascism
    best regards Steve

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