Pham Binh. North Star.

Reflexive opposition to Uncle Sam’s machinations abroad
is generally a good thing. It is a progressive instinct that progressively
declined in the 1990s, as presidents Bush Sr. and Clinton deftly deployed the
U.S. military to execute “humanitarian” missions in Somalia, Haiti, and the
Balkans and progressively increased in the 2000s, as Bush Jr. lurched from
quagmire to disaster in transparent empire-building exercises in Afghanistan
and Iraq.

However, what is generally good is not good in every
case. The progressive instinct to oppose anything the U.S. government does
abroad became anything but progressive once the Arab Spring sprang up in Libya
and Syria, countries ruled by dictatorships on Uncle Sam’s hit list. When
American imperialism’s hostility to the Arab Spring took a back seat to its
hostility to the Ghadafi and Assad regimes (their collaboration with Bush Jr.’s
international torture ring notwithstanding), the Western left’s support for the
Arab Spring took a back seat to its hostility to American imperialism.

The moment the Syrian and Libyan revolutions demanded
imperialist airstrikes and arms to neutralize the military advantage enjoyed by
governments over revolutionary peoples, anti-interventionism became
counter-revolutionary because it meant opposing aid to the revolution.
Equivocal positions such as “revolution yes, intervention no” (the one I
defended) were rendered utopian, abstract, and useless as a guide to action by
this turn of events.

“Libyan Winter” Heats Up

To say that the Libyans were fortunate that
anti-interventionists were too weak to block, disrupt, or affect NATO’s
military campaign would be an understatement. Libya would look like Syria today
if the anti-interventionists won at home in the West.

In both cases, the Western left mistakenly prioritized
its anti-imperialist principles over its internationalist duty to aid these
revolutions by any means necessary. By any means necessary presumably includes
aid from imperialist powers or other reactionary forces. If this presumption is
wrong, then we are not for the victory of the oppressed by any means necessary
and should remove those words from our vocabulary in favor of by any means we
in the West deem acceptable.

When the going got tough and the F-16s got going over
Libya, the revolution’s fairweather friends in the West disowned it, claiming
it had been hijacked by NATO. Instead of substantiating this claim with
evidence that NATO successfully pushed the Libyans aside and seized control of
their war against Ghadafi, the Western left instead 1) focused on the alleged
misdeeds of the National Transitional Council (NTC) and 2) hid behind phrases
such as “Libyan Winter” and “civil war,” implying that the Arab Spring in Libya
froze the instant NATO jumped in and that neither the rebels nor Ghadafi
deserved anyone’s support.

Both evasions of the central issue – that NATO’s air
campaign had mass support among revolutionary Libyans which was faithfully
reflected by the NTC’s stand against foreign invasion and for foreign
airstrikes – were very serious methodological mistakes that only a handful of
commentators managed to avoid, Clay Claiborne of Occupy LA being the most
prominent. Far from freezing over, the struggle in Libya became a long hot
summer of multifaceted conflict with international, conventional military,
tribal, and underground dimensions that eventually culminated in Ghadafi’s
grisly execution, raising and personalizing the stakes for Assad.

Anti-imperialists were so focused on the NTC’s
cooperation with NATO, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and repressive
Arab governments that they were as blindsided as Ghadafi was when forces
independent of NTC control – Berber militias in Western Libya and underground
networks in Tripoli – overthrew his regime in a surprise move on August 20. The
NTC that the Western left portrayed as all-powerful due to its CIA and Arab
state patronage was not able to move into Tripoli for weeks afterwards. To this
day, the NTC has not disarmed rebel fighters, contrary to the confident
predictions born of anti-imperial hubris by anti-interventionists who sought to
convince us that the revolution was a mirage and that the West’s pawns chosen
from above were firmly in control of post-Ghadafi Libya.

Broken Records Lead to Broken Crystal Balls

When NATO launched airstrikes in Libya, the
anti-interventionists heard the same pretexts about human rights and freedom
used to justify wars for empire and oil in Afghanistan and Iraq. This identical
stimulus triggered an identical reaction – they used the contradictions and
hypocritical flaws in the official rationales for intervention as the basis for
opposing NATO’s action – just as Pavlov’s dogs reacted as if they were being
fed when they heard a bell ring, regardless of whether any food was actually

This conditioned reaction to the broken record of
justifications led anti-interventionists to conclude that NATO’s end of the
Libyan war would resemble the Afghan and Iraq wars and so their case against
intervention was built around the following predictions:

1) Mass civilian casualties due to Iraq or Viet
Nam-style aerial bombardment;

2) Foreign invasion/occupation due to imperialist
“mission creep”;

3) Future interventions would be easier and more likely

4) A neocolonial regime would be installed in Tripoli
as the result of NATO-led “regime change,” the logical conclusion of the
“revolution was hijacked” conspiracy theory.

NATO’s methods and the war’s outcome were totally at
odds with what the anti-interventionists envisioned:

1) There was no massive NATO bombardment of civilian
targets, there was no Libyan highway of death, no Black Hawk Down, no
Wikileaks-style helicopter gunship atrocities. The absence of wanton slaughter
of civilians by NATO compelled Ghadafi to fake collateral damage incidents and
civilian funerals and arbitrarily exaggerate the number of civilians killed.

2) The anti-interventionists believed that NATO would
be compelled to send ground troops by the logic of “regime change,” by the
inability of forces loyal to the NTC to make significant headway against
Ghadafi’s forces. They seized on the presence of small numbers of NATO military
advisers and special forces in Libya as a vindication of their prediction and
as proof that the West put “boots on the ground.” In reality, NATO boots played
a secondary role; Libyans did the fighting and the dying, not Westerners. Out
of 30,000 people who were killed in the Libyan civil war, how many were NATO
personnel? Zero. That number would have been higher if NATO ground forces were
in the thick of combat or invaded (much less occupied) the country.

3) Paradoxically, NATO’s successful campaign in Libya
made a future U.S./NATO campaign in Syria less likely. Russia and China are now
determined to block any attempt to apply the Libyan model to Syria at the
United Nations Security Council and the Obama administration is not willing to
defy either of them by taking Bush-style unilateral military action for the
time being.

4) The proponents of the hijacking theory failed to
address the most obvious and urgent question that flowed from their own
analysis: what could the Libyans do to take their revolution back from NATO’s
hijacking? A hijacking is a struggle for control between legitimate and
illegitimate actors where the rogue elements get the upper hand. (Never forget
9/11.) Not one of the Libyan revolution’s progressive detractors outlined how
NATO could be elbowed aside by Libyans to regain control of their struggle.

This was no accident or coincidence.

The hijacking narrative did not arise from a factual
foundation but from a simplistic, reflexive ideology, albeit an
anti-imperialist one. The anti-interventionists did their best to substitute
weak suppositions, NATO’s bald hypocrisy, and guilt by association for the
evidence they lacked to support their hijacking story. For them, the Libyan
revolution’s constituent elements lost their political independence,
initiative, and lifeblood the instant NATO fired its first cruise missile.
Nothing else mattered except that NATO chose to act; what Libyans said, did,
thought, and organized was simply not a factor for them.

This image became very popular among Western leftists
prior to NATO’s intervention. Revolutionary Libyans did not feel that
U.N.-backed airstrikes constituted foreign intervention, a term they used to
describe invasion and other forms of unwanted imperialist meddling. The Western
left disregarded the thoughts and feelings of their Libyan comrades and called
for an end to NATO airstrikes against Ghadafi’s forces.

The driving force behind the military offensive by
Berber militias in western Libya that was timed to coincide with the surprise
uprising in Tripoli that ousted Ghadafi was not NATO. NATO did not organize the
underground network of neighborhood cells in Tripoli that penetrated Ghadafi’s
secret police. And NATO certainly did not pick August 20, the day Muhammad
entered Mecca, as the day to launch a risky grassroots insurrection in Tripoli.

Hammered by NATO’s airpower from above, by the Berbers
from without, and by revolutionaries from below, Ghadafi’s forces in Tripoli
melted away. The “Libyan Winter” proved to be the hottest chapter of the Arab
Spring thus far.

Post-War Libya

Rebels who stormed Ghadafi’s Tripoli compound were
eager to expose his regime’s relationship with imperialist powers and one of
their commanders sued the British foreign minister for handing him over to
Ghadafi to be tortured, hardly the acts of anyone on the CIA payroll.

Events shortly after Ghadafi was toppled provide even
more evidence that the revolution was not hijacked by NATO. When rebels stormed
Ghadafi’s compound, they were quick to show Western reporters the dictator’s
scrap book featuring himself arm-in-arm with Condoleeza Rice. A top rebel
commander publicly accused the British government of handing him over to
Ghadai’s regime to be tortured right before he filed a lawsuit against Jack
Straw, Britain’s former Foreign Minister for authorizing the rendition. The new
Libyan government refused to hand over Ghadafi’s son Saif to the International
Criminal Court (now it has even arrested their lawyers), the body responsible
for dispensing NATO’s “justice” to Slobodan Milosevic. No U.S or NATO bases
have been established in Libya unlike in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo.

In other words, Libyan sovereignty emerged from the
revolution intact despite NATO’s involvement. This would not be the case if
NATO was directly or indirectly in charge of Libya or set up some sort of neocolonial

The bottom line is that the bulk of the Western left
could not bring itself to wholeheartedly support a democratic revolution that
co-opted foreign intervention for its own ends. The revolution landed safe and
sound at a qualitatively more democratic destination precisely because control
of the revolution never left Libyan hands.

Today, Libyans enjoy freedom of speech, freedom to
protest and organize, and most importantly, freedom from fear of state
repression. The Western left ought to join the revolutionary masses of the Arab
and North African world in celebrating this historic victory, not isolate
ourselves from them by mourning (or slandering) it.

Instead of trying to learn from their mistakes, the
anti-interventionists simply moved on to Syria to make the same errors without
a second thought about why the reality of post-intervention Libya looked
nothing like their dire forecasts. This willful blindness makes them incapable
of understanding why any Arab revolutionary in their right mind would look to
Libya as a model, why Syrians would chant, “Bye, bye Ghadafi, Bashar your turn
is coming!” while crowds in Tahrir Square chant, “If they want to be Syria,
we’ll give them Libya” in response to the Egyptian military’s latest power

The Main Enemy In Syria

The anti-interventionists are repeating their mistakes
over the Libyan revolution blunder-for-blunder over the Syria revolution. In
place of their attacks on the Libyan NTC, they denounce the Syrian Nation
Council (SNC); they dwell on the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) U.S. backing, just as
they painted Libya’s rebels as tools of the CIA; instead of “hands off Libya,”
they put forward the slogan “hands off Syria,” as if Syria’s death squads were
Uncle Sam’s handiwork and not Assad’s.

Hyperbolic condemnations of the FSA, SNC, or the
coordinating committees do nothing for Syrians whose lives do not depend on the
anti-imperialist credentials of these groups but on whatever assistance they
can provide. Similarly, criticisms that the Syrian revolution should rely less
on armed struggle and more on strikes by workers have a questionable
relationship to reality at best. Since when has a strike ever stopped a death
squad from breaking down a door and murdering a sleeping family or prevented a
civilian neighborhood from being shelled by artillery? Does anyone seriously
believe that the Syrian struggle is being led astray by trigger-happy gunmen
(most of whom are working for Assad, not against him)?

German socialist Karl Liebknecht wrote an anti-war leafleft
in 1915 under the title, “The Main Enemy Is At Home!”

Our first duty in the West is to do whatever we can to
aid, abet, and provide material support for our Syrian brothers’ and sisters’
fight against the Assad regime. Our main enemy is at home in the West, but
theirs is not. Washington, D.C. is not sending death squads door-to-door to
execute women and children, the regime in Damascus is; the Pentagon is not
shelling civilian targets and killing journalists in Homs, the regime in
Damascus is. Their main enemy is at home, just as ours is.

This grim reality must be our starting point in any
discussion about Syria, not a hypothetical U.S. military action down the road,
the contours of which cannot be known in advance. We cannot have the same
attitude towards U.S. airstrikes on Assad’s forces and a full-scale ground
invasion of Syria because their impact on and implications for the revolution
would be completely different. The contours of imperialist intervention must
shape our attitude towards it. Sending the FSA small arms and anti-tank
missiles or video cameras is not the same as sending American marines into the
streets of Damascus, although they are all forms of U.S. intervention.

Syrian revolutionaries know damn well what atrocities
Uncle Sam is capable of – Iraq is right next door – and the Arab world knows
better than we in the West ever will what the colonial boot feels like. To
lecture them of perils and pitfalls they know better than we do is to insult
their intelligence. To pretend that we know the dangers of dealing with
imperialist devils better than Third World revolutionaries do is a kind of
white anti-imperialist’s burden, and its arrogant paternalism is just as
misguided as its colonialist antipode.

We have no business criticizing the SNC, FSA, or the
coordinating committees unless and until we have fulfilled our first duty by
matching our words of solidarity with deeds and acts that can make a difference
in the revolution’s outcome, however small they might seem.

Self-Determination and Intervention

The biggest obstacle to Syrian self-determination today
is the Assad regime which increasingly rests on Russian bayonets drenched in
Syrian blood. He is determined to stay in power by any means necessary and will
not rest until their struggle for self-determination (which is what a
democratic revolution is) is buried, in mass graves if need be. 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 airstrikes
because they lack an air force to counter the Assad regime militarily, who are
we to oppose those airstrikes? Who are we to tell them that all-out defeat is
better than the triumph of a revolution “tainted” by an unavoidable compromise
with imperialists powers? Who are we to tell them they must face Russian
helicopter gunships without imperialist aid because “the revolution will be won
by Syrians themselves or it won’t be won at all”? Do we really want our Syrian
brothers and sisters to confront tanks with rocks and slingshots as so many
Palestinians have?

While the Western left is raising a hue and cry over
the minimal aid Syria’s rebels receive from the CIA and reactionary Gulf
states, Russia is overtly ramping up its military aid to Assad. Whether we like
it or not, the struggle between the Syrian revolution and Assad’s
counter-revolution has been internationalized just as the Spanish civil war of
1936-1939 was. The Western left in those days demanded foreign intervention in
the form of arms, military aid, and volunteers for the Spanish Republic. The
anti-interventionists (mostly fascists or fascist sympathizers) were more than
happy to see the Republic starved in the name of “non-intervention” while
Hitler bombed Guernica and did everything possible to ensure Franco’s victory.

Those who oppose Western military action today against
Assad in the context of a revolution that has developed into a full-blown civil
war where segments of the revolution and the people are begging for foreign
arms, aid, and airstrikes while the counter-revolution imports arms to
slaughter them follow in the anti-interventionist footsteps of the Spanish
Republic’s opponents whether they are aware of it or not.

“Hands off Syria” should be the slogan raised at
demonstrations in front of Russian embassies and consulates around the world,
not the one directed at foreign powers aiding the rebels lest we become little
better than Assad’s unwitting executioners in the eyes of revolutionary
Syrians. Instead of focusing our fire on the shortcomings of the SNC, FSA, and
the coordinating committees, we should be organizing events and fund-raisers
for humanitarian relief, fact-finding missions, and video and communications
equipment with the aim of smuggling it into Syria. These activities are already
taking place but not with the participation of the Western left since we are
more worried about our precious anti-imperialist principles and hypothetical
Libya-style airstrikes (as if the outcome there was a step backward and not a
step forward) than tackling the ugly realities of the Syrian revolution whose
straits become more desperate with each passing hour.

We fiddle furiously while Syria burns and Syrians

The most important thing for the Western left to do is
to forge close and enduring relationships with revolutionary Syrians living
abroad by demonstrating our unequivocal support for their revolution through
deeds, through joint work with their communities. Only in that context and on
that basis can criticisms we have about deals with U.S. imperialism or mistakes
made by the SNC, FSA, and the coordinating committees gain a hearing among the
people who count: revolutionary Syrians.

One way to begin building these relationships would be
to organize forums and debates over the question of intervention with
revolutionary Syrians of various shades of opinion. The single most
embarrassing aspect of the Western left’s opposition to NATO’s Libya operation
was the way revolutionary Libyans were barred from Libya forums organized by

This outrage was the absurd but logical outcome of the
white anti-imperialist’s burden, a burden we must cast aside if we hope to act
in concert with the Arab Spring.


The Western left should reject knee-jerk
anti-imperialism because its unthinking, blind, reflexive, natureput us at odds
with the interests and explicit demands of first the Libyan and now the Syrian
revolutionary peoplesand in line with the interests of their mortal enemies.

Knee-jerk anti-imperialism leads to our enemies doing
our thinking for us: whatever Uncle Sam wants, we oppose; whatever Uncle Sam
opposes, we want. This method plays right into U.S. imperialism’s hands because
the last thing Uncle Sam wants is a thinking enemy.