A Reply to Mike Ely

by Pham Binh

Mike Ely’s response to my argument that it is a mistake for Western leftists to try to stop U.S. imperialist airstrikes on counter-revolutionary military forces when revolutionaries abroad demand them out of desperation is in many ways typical of the Western anti-imperialist left’s reaction to this heresy.

Before I respond to Ely’s critique, I must commend him for republishing my piece on the Kasama Project Web site when he so vehemently disagrees with its content (not to mention tone).

If there is one thing he and I agree on (and that Kasama and The North Star have in common), it is that party-line echo chambers have not served the American left well; they lead to flat one-way “conversationsat best and, when political differences arise, personal sniping and “gotcha” polemics at worst.

Ely writes as if I argued for supporting or allying with the U.S. government or U.S. imperialism:

“Here is one of the most basic and important questions of any revolutionary movement: Do you support the government and this system or don’t you? Do you see what their interests are, and the criminal nature of their actions, or don’t you?”

“First, supporting the U.S. government (from here within the U.S.) is counterrevolutionary, because we intend to make a revolution against them.”

“But again no decision by anyone anywhere should lead revolutionaries in the U.S. to ally with U.S. imperialism.”

I’m not sure where or how he got such a mistaken idea since there was nothing along those lines either in my original piece or in my response to Socialist Worker‘s Paul D’amato.

U.S. imperialism is counter-revolutionary. No one is debating that.

But here is the rub: the Ghadafi government in Libya was also counter-revolutionary in the spring of 2011 when it mowed down peaceful demonstrators with machine gun fire. Given this, the question is: why would we in the U.S. try to stop a conflict between these two counter-revolutionary forces, a conflict that would help Libyan revolutionaries win? (Especially when they asked for that conflict?) Why should we oppose U.S. imperialism’s actions when such opposition would help counter-revolutionary governments smash and destroy revolutions in first Libya and now Syria?

Ely’s response does not address these questions.

Ely is absolutely right when he says “the key issue (and key illusion) to discuss” is that “U.S. military intervention is somehow aid for revolutions in Libya and Syria” but then he does not “deal with it in great depth” even though this is the single most important issue in this debate!

The aid NATO rendered the Libyan revolution was no illusion. Ghadafi’s tanks were destroyed by NATO airstrikes as they sped towards the revolution’s stronghold, Benghazi. NATO’s air assaults forced the regime to give up tanks and heavy armor in favor of the white pickup trucks used by the revolutionaries, evening the playing field in the ground war. NATO’s air cover allowed Berber militias in the west and freedom fighters in the east under the leadership of the National Transition Council to reorganize and recover the ground they lost solely due to Ghadafi’s military superiority.

Would the Libyan revolution have been better off without NATO’s airstrikes (and later arms, logistical support, and training)? The honest answer is no. Benghazi would have been smashed and mourned by Arab and North African revolutionaries as the Paris Commune of the 21st century, the revolution that never was, the place where the birth of a more democratic order was brutally aborted by counter-revolutionary bloodshed.

Imperialism and Internationalism

In acknowledging these realities, we should have no illusions about NATO’s motives, intentions, and interests, all of which are pernicious, opportunistic, and counter-revolutionary. However, sometimes the interests of U.S. imperialism coincide partially or temporarily with our goals as revolutionaries. We should not oppose everything U.S. imperialism does, everywhere, all the time, simply because the U.S. government is doing it. Doing so would put us in the absurd position of opposing the Clinton administration’s decision to normalize relations with Viet Nam or the Bush administration’s decision to send food aid to victims of the 2005 tsunami in Southeast Asia. If the Obama administration decides to end the blockade of Cuba we should jump for joy not oppose, block, or stop such a step even though the aim of such a U.S. policy shift would be to open up the Cuban economy to American capital a la Viet Nam two decades ago.

Refusing to oppose these moves is not an endorsement of the cynical and self-serving aims that underpin these actions by the U.S. government. Similarly, not trying to stop U.S. military attacks on counter-revolutionary forces in Libya and Syria is not an endorsement of U.S. imperialism’s war aims.

Thus when Ely writes, “I can tell you that regardless of what anyone says, anywhere in the world, we will oppose U.S. imperialism,” I strongly disagree with the practical implications of this.

If we consider ourselves internationalists, as allies and supporters of every movement against tyranny, oppression, and exploitation the world over, the preferences, choices, and demands of these movements must have some bearing on our preferences, choices, and demands, even though our immediate tasks will almost always differ from theirs because we live in different countries and have to fight different battles. The Vietnamese and Cuban peoples would not want us to oppose U.S. imperialism’s decision to normalize diplomatic relations with their respective governments.

The interests and needs of revolutionaries in the Arab world and North Africa should be among our top priorities for two reasons: 1) they need all the help they can get and 2) they are our best hope for a revolutionary movement here at home. Without the Arab Spring, there would be no Occupy Wall Street. The more victories the Arab Spring wins, the more difficult it will become for U.S. government to dominate, bully, control, and exploit at home and abroad even in cases where the resultant regime is not opposed to U.S. imperialism.

For example, the pro-U.S. military junta ruling post-Mubarak Egypt has terminated a lucrative gas contract with Israel and ended the blockade of the Gaza Strip, allowing Palestinians living there to travel more freely, creating major problems for Israeli and American efforts to trap, starve, and defeat the Palestinian people. In Libya, the U.S. took military action against Ghadafi’s counter-revolution, paving the way for the revolution’s victory which removed a long-standing thorn in the side of U.S. imperialism; however, workers and oppressed peoples (like the Berbers) who are now free to organize, strike, and vote will be an even bigger and more problematic thorn for the U.S. to reckon with in the long run. Let us not forget that it was the Turkish parliament’s last-minute decision to deny the U.S. military territorial access for its 2003 Iraq invasion that caused far more problems for U.S. imperialism than all the empty threats made by “anti-imperialist” strongmen in Damascus, Tehran, Tripoli, and Baghdad put together. Not for nothing has Washington invested decades of effort into blocking, hampering, and retarding the development of democracy and political freedom all over the Third World. It is far easier to bribe, bully, or box in a dictator than a politically conscious, aware, and active population of millions.

The decision by some Libyan and Syrian revolutionaries to ask for U.S. airstrikes on their enemies was and is neither a crime nor an “alliance” with U.S. imperialism but desperate gamble born of immediate tactical necessity. It was and is not our responsibility to block airstrikes on counter-revolution forces because who stands to gain from such a move on our part? The Libyan and Syrian counter-revolutions.

The Big Picture

The Arab Spring upended Pax Americana in the Middle East, and with it, the standard political alignments of the region with Israel, the U.S., and right-wing monarchies and dictatorships on the one side and the governments of Libya, Syria, and Iran, and resistance movements like Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization on the other. Things are infinitely more complicated now that the Arab and North African masses have stormed onto the stage of history and disrupted this dichotomy.

When the Arab Spring first flowered in Tunisia and then Egypt, the Western left – liberals, progressives, Marxists, anarchists, left nationalists, and anti-imperialists – greeted it enthusiastically. The masses who occupied the Wisconsin state capitol building saw it as their own Tahrir Square. Picking sides was easy: the good guys were the unarmed peaceful protestors pleading for more freedom and the bad guys were U.S.-backed dictators Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who used force against them and resisted their demands.

As these two seemingly invincible tyrants fell in a matter of weeks, the Arab Spring spread all over the region and into the “anti-imperialist” countries, Libya and Syria. The “progressive” Ghadafi and Assad dictatorships opted to kill their good guys from the get-go, and so the good guys in these countries started fighting like bad guys with guns and bombs and later asked the biggest, baddest guys – the U.S. government and NATO – to attack the local bad guys’ tanks, helicopters, airplanes, and artillery.

This muddied the waters, seriously confusing and disorienting the Western left. After all, who would possibly revolt against “progressive” so-called anti-imperialist dictators? Surely these revolts must be backed by the U.S., the Israelis, and the Saudis? A good guy who asks the biggest, baddest guy that lives far away for help defeating the smaller bad guy who lives next door is by definition actually bad guy too, is he not?

This abject confusion has led anti-imperialists like the Party for Socialism and Liberation to defend regimes that tortured people at the behest of U.S. imperialism, Tariq Ali to imply that the Syrian revolution is an exercise in neocolonialism, Pepe Escobar (and even Glenn Greenwald to a degree) to whip up “left” Islamophobia over Syria’s revolutionaries, and the International Socialist Organization to oppose the NATO airstrikes that prevented the victory of counter-revolution in Libya.

The pro and anti-imperialist dichotomy has blinded us to which actors in what countries are revolutionary and counter-revolutionary, which good guys are still good guys even when they get help from bigger, badder guys from abroad to defeat smaller bad guys at home, and which good guys (like Hezbollah) are stabbing other good guys in the back by siding with bad guys who are hell-bent on staying in power no matter how many of their own people they have to kill using Russian and Iranian weapons bought with blood-soaked oil money.

Indeed, one irony of this debate is that my anti-imperialist critics have completely ignored the very real and pressing problem of Russian imperialism in Syria which is providing arms and diplomatic support for Assad’s murderous counter-revolutionary campaign. Why should our anti-imperialist outrage be reserved exclusively for hypothetical(!) U.S. airstrikes on the killers of the Syrian people while Russian-made helicopters, tanks, cluster bombs, and bullets kill our comrades in Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs by the dozens and hundreds every day without so much as a peep from us? When the U.S. and Britain, for their own selfish, criminal, imperialist reasons block Russia’s equally selfish, criminal, and imperialist arms shipments to Assad, should we be indignant anti-imperialists and push for a “hands off” approach instead which, in reality, would be a “more arms for the regime” policy? Should we not welcome infighting among our enemies when it benefits our friends in Syria who are risking their lives and the lives of their families to bring down a blood-drenched tyrannical dictatorship?

Our anti-imperialism is not a guide to action, but a guide to inaction. Not since spring of 2011 has the Western left mobilized in any meaningful way to support the Arab Spring, back when it was popular, “cool,” and easy to see who the good and bad guys were. The people of Egypt knew that we in the West had their backs along with everyone else in the Middle East, North Africa, and the world that took to the streets to support or emulate them.

Once the Arab Spring erupted in countries ruled by “left” dictatorships on America’s hit list, our agitation and organization in solidarity with revolutions ground to a halt because opposing American intervention was more important for us than doing everything within our power to help these revolutions beat back the immediate clear and present danger they faced: domestic counter-revolutions.

Our inaction sent revolutionaries in Libya and Syria a very clear message: you are on your own. Our demonstrations against NATO’s military attacks on Ghadafi sent an even worse message: we wish NATO was not destroying the military forces Ghadafi sent to kill you.

The Syrians have heard our deafening silence; it is why they brave artillery shells and shabiha death squads to come out into the streets under slogans such as, “Friday of Your Silence Is Killing Us.” They are sending us a message, giving us guidance, telling us what we can do to help them. Instead of heeding their calls for action, for solidarity, for breaking our silence, the Western anti-imperialist left spreads slander that the Free Syrian Army was responsible for the Houla massacre and obsesses over the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s relationship with elements of the exiled Syrian opposition in order to justify our criminal do-nothing policy in the face of Assad’s all-out barbarism.

This is proof positive that Bashar al-Assad’s fifth column is alive and well here on the Western left. I am glad Mike Ely is not part of it, but I wish I could say the same for others who agree with his arguments in this debate.

If there is just one thing we in the West need to understand about the Arab Spring, it is this: we no longer have the luxury of taking radically principled positions without having to worry about their real-world impact or implications.

Those days are over.

If refusing disown revolutionaries in Libya and Syria who get my immediate enemy to help them against their immediate enemies and toe the anti-imperialist “line” makes me a State Department socialist and a cruise missile Marxist, so be it. Better to be branded a pro-imperialist heretic than do anything to aid and abet the bloody counter-revolutions against the Arab Spring that may kill our best shot at a mass worldwide revolutionary movement in generations.