Siding with the greatest purveyor of violence

July 16, 2012

The role of U.S. and Western military intervention in Libya last year and the threat of the same in Syria today has prompted a sharp debate on the U.S. and international left. But one left-wing writer, Pham Binh, has been on both sides of the debate--against intervention and for it--in a matter of about a year.

Paul D’Amato, managing editor of International Socialist Review and author of The Meaning of Marxism, challenges Binh's newfound position that the left should have supported NATO's war on Libya in order to advance the revolution against dictator Muammar Gaddafi--and that it should take the same pro-intervention position today in Syria in order to support the struggle against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

LEFTIST INTERNET gadfly Pham Binh recently posted an article on The North Star reassessing his former opposition to the U.S.-NATO bombing of Libya and calling on the U.S. left to demand that the United States provide military aid and air power to Syria's opposition forces battling the Assad dictatorship.

Decrying "reflexive opposition to Uncle Sam's machinations abroad" and the left's "unthinking," "blind," "knee-jerk anti-imperialism," Pham claims that "the progressive instinct to oppose anything the U.S. government does abroad"--which he compares to Pavlov's dog thinking food is in the dish every time the bell rings--became "anything but progressive" when the Arab Spring spread to Libya and Syria. At this point, the left, according to Pham, allowed its "support for the Arab Spring [to take] a back seat to its hostility to American imperialism."

Though he claims to apply his critique to the entire anti-imperialist left, he has a handy target in the form of Stalinist groups like the Party for Liberation and Socialism (PSL) and the Workers World Party, who were supporters of Qaddafi and today are today backers of brutal Assad regime in Syria. But if the PSL and Workers World suffer from uncritical adulation of any dictatorial regime that isn't solidly in the U.S. camp, Pham has now flipped the other way, joining the "cruise-missile liberals" he once criticized.

U.S. bombing scatters drivers in Libya
U.S. bombing scatters drivers in Libya

There are, however, plenty of principled anti-imperialists who have managed to walk and chew gum at the same time--to support the revolutions in Libya and Syria against dictatorial regimes, while at the same time opposing intervention by the U.S. and its imperialist allies. Some of us who haven't lost our heads still consider imperialism to be the greatest enemy of both the revolutions of the Arab Spring and national self-determination in the Middle East.

PHAM BEGINS by revisiting the debate about the NATO bombing campaign against Libya that began in March 2011 and ultimately set the stage for the fall of the Qaddafi regime months later.

In defending NATO's "methods and the war's outcome," Pham makes the peculiar comment that there was "no massive NATO bombardment of civilian targets." In an era when U.S. officials routinely claim that Washington engages in "precision bombing" to avoid civilian casualties, Pham's blithe reference to the lack of civilian casualties seems to mirror the claims of NATO itself ("We have carried out this operation very carefully, without confirmed civilian casualties," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in November).

The extensive bombing of civilians and "wedding parties" in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past several years; the ongoing Predator drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen; the broader trend of the U.S. using air strikes as a means to minimize "messier" ground invasions--are these facts now irrelevant to Pham?

In a seven-month period, NATO carried out 26,000 sorties and 9,600 strike missions against almost 6,000 targets. There are no accurate figures of total casualties from the bombing--and little interest in getting them--but a British official told author and activist Tariq Ali that in his estimation, the bombing resulted in 20,000 deaths. A Human Rights Watch investigation of only eight bombing sites in Libya--an investigation with which NATO refused to cooperate--verified the killing of 72 civilians, half under the age of 18.

Historically, bombing from the air is the preferred blunt instrument of powerful states at war with each other, against weaker nations or against revolutionary movements (think Somoza in Nicaragua or Assad in Syria)--not of revolutionary popular movements seeking fundamental social change.

Yet the crux of Pham's argument is that the Arab revolutionaries can somehow "use" imperialist intervention to their own advantage. The Libyan opposition was able, he claims, to "coopt foreign intervention to its own ends." Various "proofs" are offered, such as the fact that the NATO hasn't set up a military base in Libya (yet) and that the Libyan government refused to hand over Qaddafi's son to the international criminal court. Indeed, he argues, we should be celebrating Libyan's newfound political freedoms that the united front of NATO air strikes and Libyan armed struggle on the ground helped to achieve.

Last August, Pham wrote a transitional article (that is, in transition from opposition to imperialism to his newfound support for imperialism), which accused those on the left who withdrew support for the Libyan rebels once they formed an alliance with NATO as coming "perilously close" to the views of the PSL. Whatever position one took in that debate, it was clear that debating the degree of imperialist influence over the outcome of the revolution was not the same as demanding imperialist intervention.

At this stage, Pham still considered Western intervention to be an enemy of the revolutionary movements in the Middle East. "We in the West," he could still write, "need to do what we can to keep the hands of our rulers off of other people's revolutions, which means taking a stand against imperialist intervention even when it is disguised as aid to a beleaguered rebellion (John Reed was absolutely right when he said Uncle Sam never gives something for nothing)."

But Pham today thinks we "need to do what we can to" encourage "our rulers" to intervene on behalf of "other people's revolutions." It's stunning that someone who claims to be a Marxist can argue that the imperialist powers responsible for the colonial carve-up of the Middle East, the theft if its oil reserves, the arbitrary erection of national borders to suit their own designs, and the grooming of pliant monarchies and brutal dictatorships--many of whom Arabs in the past year rose up against--are helpful allies of the Arab Spring.

Whether the U.S. succeeds in achieving all of its goals in a particular intervention (obviously it does not) does not affect the position we on the left should take toward its attempts to impose them. To quote the famous John Reed speech to which Pham once alluded: "Uncle Sam never gives something for nothing. He comes along with a sack stuffed with hay in one hand and a whip in the other. Anyone who accepts Uncle Sam's promises at face value will find that they must be paid for in sweat and blood."

U.S. intervention in Libya (and Syria, in whatever form it takes) is aimed at coalescing a new state that is beholden to NATO for its success and that will stabilize the society around a set of economic, political and military priorities (domestic and regional) which intersect with those of the United States, Israel and the main European powers--and undermine the popular revolutionary elements among the exploited, the poor, and the oppressed.

THE INITIAL protests against Qaddafi's regime early in 2011 were called by popular, mass-based organizations. But the ferocity of the regime's response led to the formation of militias based on localities and tribal or religious affiliation. At the top, though not necessarily always controlling the militias, was the National Transitional Council (NTC). The NTC was formed on March 5, including high-level defectors from Qaddafi's regime who worked assiduously to get the West to intervene, and then worked closely with NATO after the bombing began.

NTC members included Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a CIA asset with ties to the agency dating back to 1987--he is now head of Libya's national army--and Abdul Fattah Younes, Qaddafi's former interior minister, later murdered by his own side, possibly for wanting to negotiate with Qaddafi. The 31-member council, chaired by Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, Libya's justice minister until only a few months before the council was formed, declared itself the "sole legitimate body representing the Libyan people and the Libyan state." When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with the NTC in late March, it had already publicly stated that it would honor Qaddafi's oil contracts and debts.

There is evidence of on-the-ground involvement in the war in Libya by NATO forces beyond the use of air power. For example, 20 members of the revolutionary military committee that led the uprising in Tripoli were trained in the Western Libyan mountains by "NATO soldiers and intelligence agents," according to journalist Anand Gopal. According to another on-the-spot reporter, Nicholas Pelham, the final assault on Tripoli was the result of a meticulous plan "hatched in capitals across Europe and the Arab world."

The point of this is not to deny that there were genuinely popular forces that played an important role in toppling the regime, but to show that NATO/U.S. forces played a decisive role in the revolution's success--and that from this involvement, the imperialist powers expect to leverage their "investment" in the downfall of Qaddafi to get what they want.

How do they intend to leverage that role? In his new book Arab Spring, Libyan Winter, Vijay Prashad writes:

Behind the electoral process, the technocrats who demonstrate their fealty to the international bond markets and the IMF will control the central bank and the Oil Company. From this perch, they will try to turn over the Spring to the old circuits of power and property. They will try to continue the neoliberal reform agenda of Saif al-Islam, now without the impediment of the old guard...All that will be allowed is marginal debate on aspects of governance that have nothing to do with the neoliberal agenda.

As soon as the war ended, oil executives poured into the country, eyeing Libya's substantial reserves, the biggest in Africa. A Libyan oil executive expressed openness to "Italian, French, and UK companies," but not toward "Russia, China and Brazil," countries with substantial oil interests in Libya who backed Qaddafi. Writes Prashad:

As Cameron and Sarkozy toured Tripoli in the company of the NTC leadership and BHL [right-wing French intellectual Bernard Henri-Levi]...the NTC's spokesperson Jala Al-Gallala told the BBC that those outsiders who helped the rebels would get "special consideration" in all future contracts.

MOVEOVER, THE rosy picture painted by Pham of widespread freedoms in post-Qaddafi Libya also needs to be challenged.

According to journalist Patrick Cockburn, there are reports of mass detention and the use of systematic torture, which, Amnesty International wrote, include "suspension in contorted positions and prolonged beatings with various objects including metal bars and chains, electric cables, wooden sticks, plastic hoses, water pipes, rifle-butts; and electric shocks." "The rebel leadership," writes Cockburn, "previously portrayed as a heroic band of brothers, turned out to be split by murderous rivalries and vendettas."

That doesn't mean all is smooth sailing for imperialism in Libya. There is still the problem of consolidating state power, which has proved difficult given continuing conflicts between rival militias, high levels of opposition in western Libya and battles within factions in the NTC and the military. Moreover, those who fought in the streets have a different conception of democracy--one that involves fundamental economic and social change--than that of the businessmen, former regime bureaucrats, ex-Qaddafi military personnel and Western interests trying to consolidate a new state today in Libya along neoliberal lines.

It certainly must be a comfort to the United States, however, that Jalil's party, the National Forces Alliance, won a majority in recent national assembly elections.

If nothing else is achieved by this intervention, it helped to establish the legitimacy of U.S. military intervention in the Arab Spring.

This is certainly the position of writers representing the U.S. establishment. Ivo H. Daalder and James G. Stavridis, writing in the March-April edition of Foreign Affairs, hail the Libyan bombing as "as a model intervention," which "demonstrated that the alliance remains an essential source of stability."

Another Foreign Affairs piece by Stewart Patrick last October bluntly calls the Libyan bombing campaign "a significant foreign policy triumph for U.S. President Barack Obama." Under the cover of the Libyan war, the Obama administration released a directive that defined stopping atrocities as "a core national security interest." Thus, the most violent and most powerful state in the world has set itself up as the world's chief "humanitarian."

As Alan Maass and Lance Selfa wrote previously at

Much remains unclear about the shape of post-Qaddafi Libya, but this much is certain: The U.S. and its European allies played a central role in bringing about Qaddafi's downfall, and they now are exploiting this role to shape the new order to come--with the aim of ensuring a continued flow of oil to the West and a friendly regime that can act as a breakwater against the wave of revolt that has swept the region.

Neither Pham nor any one else on the U.S. left is in a position to demand a different kind of intervention. His argument can do nothing but give U.S. military intervention in the Middle East a left cover.

SADLY, PHAM'S retroactive defense of NATO intervention in Libya is all a warm-up to his call that the left in the U.S. demand a similar military intervention to save the Syrian revolution. He presents his case as one that is in accordance with the demands of the Syrian people:

Respect for Syrian self-determination means respecting how Syrian revolutionaries organize their struggle and their choices even when they conflict with our own preferences and choices.

If Syrian revolutionaries ask for Western air strikes because they lack an air force to counter the Assad regime militarily, who are we to oppose those air strikes? Who are we to tell them that all-out defeat is better than the triumph of a revolution "tainted" by an unavoidable compromise with imperialist powers?

Pham argues that not supporting imperialist intervention in Syria "put us at odds with the interests and explicit demands of first the Libyan and now the Syrian revolutionary peoples." The only way to respect the "self-determination" of the Syrian people, then, is to demand that the United States violate it. Pham bases this argument on seeing some protesters in Syria holding up signs demanding intervention.

It simply isn't true that everyone who opposes Assad in Syria is demanding U.S. intervention. Middle East journalist Charles Glass, who just returned from Syria in early July, reported that many oppositionists he spoke to "remember what happened when the United States invaded Iraq, and they don't want that kind of chaos. They don't want a total destruction of the state and then a prolonged civil war with the ethnic and sectarian cleansings that they saw in Iraq." According to Al Jazeera's Rula Amin, revolutionaries inside Syria "want pressure to be put on the government to end the crackdown, to end the seal to Daraa...but people say that they are better off without any intervention, they are very critical of [the] U.S."

This does not mean that we in the U.S., for whom it is a duty to condemn U.S. intervention, must also condemn those within Syria who, in a desperate struggle to survive, ask for it. It is entirely understandable that in the face of the barbarity of the Assad government, there are people in Syria who hope for foreign intervention. But understanding the reasons for such a position is not the same as endorsing it.

As Bassam Haddad wrote in his Jaladdiyya article, titled "The idiot's guide to fighting dictatorship in Syria while opposing military intervention":

Syria is being used by various powers--including the United States, Saudi Arabia and their chorus--as an occasion to accomplish their respective or collective objectives in the region. And their aims are reactionary ones, to be sure, in terms of the interests of most people in the region as the past decades behind us attest, and as current uprisings against the "fruits" of such objectives make clear, even to some skeptics. This does not mean, however, that we should withdraw our opposition and halt the struggle against dictatorship in Syria. It only serves to remind us how not to do it.

It is the Syrian National Council (SNC) that has been at the forefront of lobbying for a Libya-style Western intervention in the conflict. As Jonathan Maunder notes in a recent International Socialism article, the SNC doesn't represent all the popular forces fighting against the regime; it seeks to create a Syria that mirrors the Assad regime's neoliberal policies, but without Assad:

They represent the most pro-Western element within the opposition, and are positioning themselves to become a new ruling elite. However, their role is contested by the opposition in Syria. They have alienated many of the activists based around the Local Coordinating Committees, which are largely opposed to military intervention, as well as Syria's Kurds, by refusing to back Kurdish autonomy or independence in a post-Assad state.

It is worth asking why, at this point, after the regime has demolished entire towns and massacred thousands of people, the U.S. hasn't intervened, as it did in Libya. Is this not another reminder that the U.S. does not intervene for humanitarian purposes, but merely uses humanitarianism as an excuse? The U.S. and Israel are, as Lee Sustar and Yusef Khalil wrote at, "walking a tightrope" in regard to their policy toward the Assad regime:

The Syrian regime has guaranteed a de facto peace with Israel along the Golan Heights since 1973. Syria, although formally opposed to U.S. interests in the region, has been susceptible to U.S. pressure (through Saudi Arabian financial support) and is a cornerstone of the Middle East power structure. In 1991, it supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq and was rewarded with a green light for its own continued occupation of Lebanon, which remained under Syrian tutelage until massive protests ousted them in 2005. The United States prefers a predictable stable dictatorship--even if it is an occasional obstacle to U.S. hegemony. It fears a successful Syrian revolution that it has no control over.

IF THE struggle continues to drag on, the U.S. and Israel may flip the other way and decide that intervention is the only way to shape an outcome favorable to their regional interests.

Writing in Foreign Policy last June, former Clinton assistant secretary of state James Rubin outlined a plan for intervention that would involve "substantial diplomatic and military leadership from the United States," working in conjunction with "regional allies like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to organize, train and arm Syrian rebel forces."

After this, "U.S. diplomats and Pentagon officials could start strengthening and unifying the opposition" in order to "build a coherent political leadership based on the Syrian National Council as well as a manageable command and control structure for the Free Syrian Army, both of which are now weak and divided." This would be followed by a Libyan-style operation, conducted by "a unique combination of Western and Middle East countries...led by Saudi Arabia and Turkey." Rubin concludes:

As long as Washington stays firm that no U.S. ground troops will be deployed, à la Kosovo and Libya, the cost to the United States will be limited. Victory may not come quickly or easily, but it will come. And the payoff will be substantial. Iran would be strategically isolated, unable to exert its influence in the Middle East. The resulting regime in Syria will likely regard the United States as more friend than enemy. Washington would gain substantial recognition as fighting for the people in the Arab world, not the corrupt regimes.

Whether such a plan could succeed is not at issue here. The point is that calling on U.S. intervention in Syria in practice means inviting a plan similar to the one outlined by Rubin.

To call for such intervention is to welcome not only the opportunity for imperialism to strengthen its position in the region, but also to weaken the most revolutionary, progressive forces inside Syria struggling against the Assad dictatorship. As Sustar and Khalil wrote in April:

The divided Syrian opposition, based in Turkey, is under increasing pressure from conservative Gulf Arab states determined to channel the conflict into a sectarian Islamist military resistance.

Other currents in the revolutionary movement take a different approach. Some groups in the Local Coordinating Councils--the leaders of the struggle on the ground--continue to try to build a popular, revolutionary democratic movement that can withstand repression and unite the Sunni Muslim majority with segments of the religious and ethnic minorities that comprise about 30 percent of the population...

Under these circumstances, Western sanctions might actually help the regime remain in power. As Reuters noted, Assad could follow the example of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and use the crisis caused by sanctions to bolster that state's control over food and fuel--while posing as a defender of Syria's sovereignty against Western imperialism's economic attacks.

IN THIS regard, Pham's citing of the example of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39--where he claims the left at that time demanded foreign intervention on the side of Republican forces fighting Franco's fascists--is problematic. As it turned out, Western governments refused to send arms to the Republicans. But such intervention, had it occurred, would have been designed to bolster the bourgeoisie in Spain and help it to crush the initiative of the Spanish masses.

The Russian regime under Joseph Stalin was the main provider of arms and equipment to the Republicans, and its policies followed exactly these lines. Far from aiding the revolutionary forces in Spain, Stalin's intervention reinforced a political balance of forces that contributed to the fascist victory. Under the slogan of "anti-fascist unity," the Stalinists in Spain suppressed the initiative of workers in the factories and peasants for land redistribution, reducing what had been a political and social struggle against Franco into a purely military fight that created a more favorable terrain for fascist success. As the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote at the time:

The dynamic force of the revolution was lodged precisely in this hope of the masses for a better future. But the honorable republicans did everything in their power to trample, to besmirch or simply to drown in blood the cherished hopes of the oppressed masses.

As a result, we have witnessed during the last two years the growing distrust and hatred of the republican cliques on the part of the peasants and workers. Despair or dull indifference gradually replaced revolutionary enthusiasm and the spirit of self-sacrifice. The masses turned their backs on those who had deceived and trampled upon them. That is the primary reason for the defeat of the republican troops. The inspirer of deceit and of the massacre of the revolutionary workers of Spain was Stalin.

In a previous article, Trotsky wrote:

Revolutions have been victorious up to this time not at all thanks to high and mighty foreign patrons who supplied them with arms. As a rule, counterrevolution enjoyed foreign patronage. Must we recall the experiences of the intervention of French, English, American, Japanese and other armies against the Soviets? The proletariat of Russia conquered domestic reaction and foreign interventionists without military support form the outside.

If Western intervention happens in Syria as it did in Libya and leads to the toppling of the regime, that intervention will bolster the position not of the popular forces on the ground, but those which are more amenable to top-down deals with foreign powers and less amenable to initiatives from below that threaten their economic and political power.

Pham insists that, "Our main enemy is at home in the West, but theirs is not." The slogan "the main enemy is at home," however, is an argument not merely about how we have to fight the class struggle at home, but how we must oppose "our" country's imperialist adventures abroad. To twist this phrase to serve a pro-interventionist stance--to demand that the "main enemy" intervene because it is not the "main enemy" of the masses in Syria--is to make a mockery of the slogan.

WHAT IS perhaps most remarkable is the overheated rhetoric in Pham's call--that the last and best hope for the success for the Syrian revolution lies not in its own powers of mobilization, but in the bombs dropped by U.S. and NATO war planes. (An insistence, by the way, that is opposite his argument that the Libyan movement was primarily responsible for its own victory.)

Pham claims that his is the "thinking" position, as opposed to "knee-jerk" anti-imperialists. But when he writes in these terms, his method is similar to that used by all advocates of "humanitarian imperialism"--the West must intervene immediately to stop an imminent genocide. The purpose of such calls is to cut off any thoughtful inquiry into the real motives of imperialism and manipulate the public's sense of outrage.

The U.S. today remains the world's dominant superpower, with over 1 million troops, hundreds of military bases spanning the globe and an unsurpassed nuclear and conventional arsenal. It forms alliances, punishes enemies and disciplines states that attempt to defy its dominance or challenge its interests. All of its actions must be viewed from this vantage point.

Opposing U.S. imperialism in a "knee-jerk" fashion is not "unthinking," but is based on a full understanding of the nature of U.S. imperial power and a recognition that any success it achieves, however small, strengthens its international position and makes the job of fighting it more difficult.

It is our responsibility to expose the hypocrisy of U.S. imperialism and its cynical manipulation of public opinion to pursue its aims, which have nothing to do with humanitarian concerns or the interests of the oppressed. Living in the heart of world imperialism, we owe it to the oppressed people around the globe to stand against what Martin Luther King Jr. called "greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."

Pham is turning his back on these responsibilities. In fact, he is embracing a new message and a sadly familiar one: that the U.S. and its allies are capable of using their military might for "good," even if unintentionally, to help people in need and assist in the liberation of a people oppressed by dictatorship.

The revolts in Tunisia and Egypt and the struggles across the Arab world have brought revolution--the struggle from below for fundamental social transformation--back onto the agenda of world politics. The Arab revolutions, for the first time in the history of the region, hold out the potential of combining resisting to tyranny at home with a struggle against the stranglehold of imperialism in the region.

At this key historical moment, the ruling classes of the West and their regional allies are rallying all the forces at their disposal--including reactionary allies like Saudi Arabia--to halt and ultimately reverse this process. At this point, socialists in the West must stand firm with the revolutionary movements, but challenge any attempts by the U.S. and NATO to worm their way into these conflicts for their own gain.

Pham Binh now believes he can both cheer the revolutions and cheer imperialist intervention. He is profoundly wrong.

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