The Fog of War and the Case for Knee-jerk Anti-Interventionism

November 10th, 2011  |  Published in Imperialism, Politics,

In my last post on Libya, I took a sort of squishy position: while avoiding a direct endorsement of the NATO military campaign there, I wanted to defend the existence of a genuine internal revolutionary dynamic, rather than dismissing the resistance to Gaddafi as merely the puppets of Western imperialism. I still basically stand by that position, and I still think the ultimate trajectory of Libya remains in doubt. But all that aside, it’s important to look back carefully at the run-up to the military intervention. A couple of recent essays have tried to do so—one of them is an exemplary struggle to get at the real facts around the decision to go to war, while the other typifies the detestable self-congratulatory moralizing of the West’s liberal warmongers.

The right way to look back on Libya is this article in the London Review of Books, which I found by way of Corey Robin. Hugh Roberts, formerly of the International Crisis Group, casts a very skeptical eye on the claims made by the the NATO powers in the run-up to war, and on the intentions of those who were eager to intervene on the side of the Libyan rebels. At the same time, he acknowledges the intolerable nature of the Gaddafi regime and accepts the reality of an internally-generated political resistance that was not merely fabricated by external powers. But rather than accepting the claims of foreign powers at face value, he shows all the ways in which NATO actually managed to subvert the emergence of a real democratic political alternative in Libya, and he leaves me wondering once again whether the revolution would have been better off if it could have proceeded without external interference.

There are a few particularly important points that I want to draw out of Roberts’ essay. First, he shows that, in a pattern that is familiar from the recent history of “humanitarian” interventions, many of the claims that were used to justify the imminent necessity of war do not hold up under scrutiny. First, there is the claim that military force had to be used because all other options had been exhausted. As Roberts observes:

Resolution 1973 was passed in New York late in the evening of 17 March. The next day, Gaddafi, whose forces were camped on the southern edge of Benghazi, announced a ceasefire in conformity with Article 1 and proposed a political dialogue in line with Article 2. What the Security Council demanded and suggested, he provided in a matter of hours. His ceasefire was immediately rejected on behalf of the NTC by a senior rebel commander, Khalifa Haftar, and dismissed by Western governments. ‘We will judge him by his actions not his words,’ David Cameron declared, implying that Gaddafi was expected to deliver a complete ceasefire by himself: that is, not only order his troops to cease fire but ensure this ceasefire was maintained indefinitely despite the fact that the NTC was refusing to reciprocate. Cameron’s comment also took no account of the fact that Article 1 of Resolution 1973 did not of course place the burden of a ceasefire exclusively on Gaddafi. No sooner had Cameron covered for the NTC’s unmistakable violation of Resolution 1973 than Obama weighed in, insisting that for Gaddafi’s ceasefire to count for anything he would (in addition to sustaining it indefinitely, single-handed, irrespective of the NTC) have to withdraw his forces not only from Benghazi but also from Misrata and from the most important towns his troops had retaken from the rebellion, Ajdabiya in the east and Zawiya in the west – in other words, he had to accept strategic defeat in advance. These conditions, which were impossible for Gaddafi to accept, were absent from Article 1.

Whether or not you believe that the Gaddafi side would ever have seriously engaged in negotiations over a peaceful settlement, or whether you think such negotiations would have been preferable to complete rebel military victory, it seems clear that the NATO powers never really gave them the chance. This is reminiscent of what happened prior to the bombing of Serbia in 1999: NATO started bombing after claiming that Serbia refused a peaceful settlement of the Kosovo conflict. What actually happened was that NATO presented the Serbs with a “settlement” that would have given NATO troops the right to essentially take control of Serbia. The Serbs understandably objected to this, though they were willing to accept international peacekeepers. But this wasn’t enough for NATO, and so it was bombs away.

A second element of the brief for the Libya war that Roberts highlights is the peculiar case of the imminent Benghazi massacre. Recall that among the war’s proponents, it was taken as accepted fact that, when NATO intervened, Gaddafi’s forces were on the verge of conducting a genocidal massacre of civilians in rebel-held Benghazi, and thereby snuffing out any hope for the revolution. Here is what Roberts has to say about that:

Gaddafi dealt with many revolts over the years. He invariably quashed them by force and usually executed the ringleaders. The NTC and other rebel leaders had good reason to fear that once Benghazi had fallen to government troops they would be rounded up and made to pay the price. So it was natural that they should try to convince the ‘international community’ that it was not only their lives that were at stake, but those of thousands of ordinary civilians. But in retaking the towns that the uprising had briefly wrested from the government’s control, Gaddafi’s forces had committed no massacres at all; the fighting had been bitter and bloody, but there had been nothing remotely resembling the slaughter at Srebrenica, let alone in Rwanda. The only known massacre carried out during Gaddafi’s rule was the killing of some 1200 Islamist prisoners at Abu Salim prison in 1996. This was a very dark affair, and whether or not Gaddafi ordered it, it is fair to hold him responsible for it. It was therefore reasonable to be concerned about what the regime might do and how its forces would behave in Benghazi once they had retaken it, and to deter Gaddafi from ordering or allowing any excesses. But that is not what was decided. What was decided was to declare Gaddafi guilty in advance of a massacre of defenceless civilians and instigate the process of destroying his regime and him (and his family) by way of punishment of a crime he was yet to commit, and actually unlikely to commit, and to persist with this process despite his repeated offers to suspend military action.

Roberts goes on to cast doubt on one of the specific claims of atrocity against Gaddafi: that his air force was strafing protestors on the ground. This claim was widely propagated by media like Al-Jazeera and liberal war-cheerleaders like Juan Cole, but Roberts finds no convincing evidence that it ever actually occurred. Reporters who were in Libya didn’t get reports of it, nor is there any photographic evidence—this despite the ubiquity of cell-phone camera footage in the wave of recent uprisings. The evaporation of the sensational allegation calls to mind the run-up to yet another war: the first Gulf War, when the invasion of Iraq was sold, in part, by way of a thoroughly made up story about Iraqi troops ripping Kuwaiti babies out of incubators and leaving them to die.

Beyond revealing the weakness of the empirical case for war, Roberts also highlights something I hadn’t really thought of before: the way the West’s case for intervention promotes an anti-political and undemocratic framing of the conflict that has a lot in common with the sort of anti-ideological elite “non-partisanship” that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago in the context of domestic politics. Roberts observes that the NATO powers portrayed themselves as the defenders of an undifferentiated “Libyan people” rather than partisans taking one side in a civil war. By doing so, they short-circuited the development of a real political division within Libyan society, a development that in itself was a desirable process:

The idea that Gaddafi represented nothing in Libyan society, that he was taking on his entire people and his people were all against him was another distortion of the facts. As we now know from the length of the war, the huge pro-Gaddafi demonstration in Tripoli on 1 July, the fierce resistance Gaddafi’s forces put up, the month it took the rebels to get anywhere at all at Bani Walid and the further month at Sirte, Gaddafi’s regime enjoyed a substantial measure of support, as the NTC did. Libyan society was divided and political division was in itself a hopeful development since it signified the end of the old political unanimity enjoined and maintained by the Jamahiriyya. In this light, the Western governments’ portrayal of ‘the Libyan people’ as uniformly ranged against Gaddafi had a sinister implication, precisely because it insinuated a new Western-sponsored unanimity back into Libyan life. This profoundly undemocratic idea followed naturally from the equally undemocratic idea that, in the absence of electoral consultation or even an opinion poll to ascertain the Libyans’ actual views, the British, French and American governments had the right and authority to determine who was part of the Libyan people and who wasn’t. No one supporting the Gaddafi regime counted. Because they were not part of ‘the Libyan people’ they could not be among the civilians to be protected, even if they were civilians as a matter of mere fact. And they were not protected; they were killed by Nato air strikes as well as by uncontrolled rebel units. The number of such civilian victims on the wrong side of the war must be many times the total death toll as of 21 February. But they don’t count, any more than the thousands of young men in Gaddafi’s army who innocently imagined that they too were part of ‘the Libyan people’ and were only doing their duty to the state counted when they were incinerated by Nato’s planes or extra-judicially executed en masse after capture, as in Sirte.

It’s possible, after reading all of Roberts’ essay, to remain convinced that the NATO attack was a lesser evil on balance, and to retain some optimism about the future trajectory of Libya. But he nevertheless provides an important reminder of just why it’s so important to beware of Presidents bearing “humanitarian” interventions. The liberal war-mongering crowd likes to deride those of us who bring strongly anti-interventionist biases into these debates, on the grounds that we are irrationally prejudiced against the United States, or against the possible benefits of war. But in the immediate prelude to war, such biases are in fact entirely rational, precisely because the real dynamics on the ground are so murky and hard to determine, and the arguments used to justify intervention so often turn out to be illusory after the fact.

This reality does not, however, prevent the liberal hawk faction from coming out with some triumphant breast-beating and score-settling when their little war looks to be a “success”. Michael Berube has a new essay in this genre, and it’s terrible in all the ways the Roberts essay is excellent. In both tone and content, it’s a shameful piece of writing, and Berube should be embarrassed to have written it—but since it placates the tortured soul of the liberal bombardier, he is instead hailed as a brave and sophisticated thinker.

Berube argues that opponents of the war in Libya are fatally flawed by a “manichean” approach to foreign policy: rather than appreciate the nuances of the situation in Libya, he claims, opponents of the war lazily fell back on “tropes that have been forged over the past four decades of antiwar activism”. These tropes, says Berube, are an impediment to forging “a rigorously internationalist left in the U.S., a left that will promote and support the freedom of speech, the freedom to worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear—even on those rare and valuable occasions when doing so puts one in the position of supporting U.S. policies.”

This is, I suppose, an improvement on Michael Walzer’s call for a “decent” left (where “decency” consists of an appropriate deference to U.S. imperial propaganda). But as the Roberts essay shows, the pro-war faction are on shaky ground when they accuse others of relying on a ritualized set of tropes: the imminent humanitarian disaster and the impossibility of a non-military solution are themselves the repetitive–and routinely discredited–way in which war is sold to those who consider themselves liberals and internationalists. The eagerness of people like Berube to pick up on any thinly-sourced claim that vindicates the imminence and necessity of bombs suggests that the case for humanitarian intervention has become increasingly routinized as the Libyas, Iraqs, and Serbias pile up.

And it is striking that, in contrast to the careful skepticism of Roberts, Berube simply assumes that NATO action was necessary to prevent imminent catastrophe. In doing so, he evades all the difficult questions that arise in the Roberts essay. He relies, for example, on Juan Cole’s refutation of numerous alleged “myths” of the anti-interventionists; among them is the argument that “Qaddafi would not have killed or imprisoned large numbers of dissidents in Benghazi, Derna, al-Bayda and Tobruk if he had been allowed to pursue his March Blitzkrieg toward the eastern cities that had defied him”. Berube derides this claim as “bizarre”, and indeed it would be if this were actually the argument that any serious party had made. But the argument for intervention was not merely that Gaddafi could potentially have “killed or imprisoned large numbers of dissidents”. As Roberts notes, that’s the inevitable end result of just about any failed armed rebellion, and imprisonment and killing was probably an unavoidable endgame no matter how matters in Libya were resolved. The victorious rebels, after all, have imprisoned or extrajudicially killed a large number of people on the pro-Gaddafi side, including Gaddafi himself; and that’s not to speak of the direct civilian casualties from the actual bombing campaign.

But Berube elides all of this, by implying that those who questioned the predictions of a humanitarian apocalypse were absurdly denying the possibility of any retaliation at all against the rebels. Thus, while acknowledging that in principle “the Libya intervention could be subjected to cost/benefit analyses and consequentialist objections”, he proceeds to pile up the human costs of non-intervention, while leaving his side of the ledger clear of any of the deaths that resulted from the decision to intervene. This allows him to portray the pro-intervention side as the sole owners of facts and common sense, before launching into his real subject: the perfidy and moral obtuseness of the war’s critics.

He finds plenty of juicy targets, because there was indeed some dodgy argumentation on the anti-war side. There was, as there always is, a certain amount of vulgar anti-imperialism that insisted that opposing NATO meant glorifying Gaddafi and dismissing the legitimacy of his opposition. There was, too, an occasional tendency to obsess over the war’s legality, even though law in an international context is always rather capricious and dependent on great-power politics. And Berube is clever enough to anticipate the objections to his highlighting of such arguments:

Those who believe that there should be no enemies to one’s left are fond of accusing me of “hippie punching,” as if, like Presidents Obama and Clinton, I am attacking straw men to my left in order to lay claim to the reasonable, vital center; those who know that I am not attacking straw persons are wont to claim instead that I am criticizing fringe figures who have no impact whatsoever on public debate in the United States. And it is true: on the subject of Libya the usual fringe figures behaved precisely as The Left At War depicts the Manichean Left. Alexander Cockburn, James Petras, Robert Fisk, John Pilger—all of them still fighting Vietnam, stranded for decades on a remote ideological island with no way of contacting any contemporary geopolitical reality whatsoever—weighed in with the usual denunciations of US imperialism and predictions that Libya would be carved up for its oil. And about the doughty soi-disant anti-imperialists who, in the mode of Hugo Chavez, doubled down on the delusion that Qaddafi is a legitimate and benevolent ruler harassed by the forces of imperialism, there really is nothing to say, for there can be nothing more damning than their own words.

For the record: yes indeed, Berube is engaged in “hippie punching”, attacking straw men, and selectively nutpicking the worst arguments on the anti-war side. And to what end? As with so much liberal imperialism, it seems that the purpose here is not so much to provide an empirical and political case for the war, as it is to confirm the superior moral sensibility of the warmongers, who are committed to high-minded internationalist ideals while their opponents are mired in knee-jerk anti-Americanism. The conflation of good intentions with good results bedevils liberal politics in all kinds of ways, and nowhere is it more damaging than in the realm of international politics, where morally pure allegiances are difficult to find.

Berube complains that “for what I call the Manichean Left, opposition to U.S. policy is precisely an opposition to entities: all we need to know, on that left, is that the U.S. is involved.” To this, he counterposes his rigorous case-by-case evaluation of specific actions, which is indifferent to the identity of the parties involved. But while this is a sound principle in the abstract, Roberts’ exposé of the shaky Libya dossier demonstrates why it is so dangerous in practice. Given our limited ability to evaluate, in the moment, the hyperbolic claims made by governments on the warpath, a systematic bias against supporting intervention is the only way to counter-balance what would otherwise be a bias in favor of accepting propaganda at face value, and thereby supporting war in every case. Even if the outcome in Libya turns out to be an exceptional best-case scenario—a real democracy, independent of foreign manipulation—this is insufficient reason to substantially revise a general-purpose anti-interventionist prior. And even if the outcome of the NATO campaign has not played out as badly as some anti-war voices predicted, the details of that campaign’s marketing only tend to confirm the danger of making confident statements of martial righteousness while enveloped in the fog of war.

Libya and the Left

September 13th, 2011  |  Published in Imperialism, Politics

I’ve been putting off this post, waiting for the Libyan revolution to reach some kind of decisive conclusion to its military phase. But it looks like that could take a while: the game of “Where’s Muammar” may go on for a while, and in the worst case scenario his loyalists could mount a prolonged insurgency. But despite that it’s pretty clear that the rebel forces are going to take some sort of tenuous command over the country. So it’s worth looking back on the war for Libya, and NATO’s participation in it.

When Tripoli fell to the rebel forces, I was glued to Al Jazeera as one neighborhood after another fell, and various Gaddafi family members were captured by the rebel army (or not). In some ways, the moment was much like the fall of Mubarak, which I memorialized in rather sentimental and grandiose fashion. But I find my feelings about Libya to be a bit more complicated.

That’s not just because the next steps for the Libyan rebels are so unclear, nor only because the “Transitional National Council” currently moving into Tripoli is stuffed full of dodgy former-regime elements, nor just because of the unpleasant undercurrent of racism among some of the revolution’s supporters. One of the major things that sets Libya apart from what happened in Egypt–aside from the far greater level of death and destruction, obviously–is that the activists in Tahrir Square were clearly making their revolution against the preferences the United States, the Arab despots, and the rest of the imperialist power structure; the U.S. only turned on Mubarak when it became clear that his position was untenable. In Libya, by contrast, the rebels have come to power backed by six months of relentless NATO bombing raids.

I didn’t welcome US participation in the war in Libya, but that was as much for American reasons as Libyan ones. I was worried about intervention both because the lack of congressional approval seemed manifestly illegal and set yet another precedent for future executive lawlessness, and because I was skeptical that war would lead to a good outcome. I still don’t think those positions were wrong; as Glenn Greenwald points out, the fall of Gaddafi is by no means enough to vindicate the decision to go to war. And even if things have turned out a bit better than I expected, surely Iraq has taught us that “victory” can quickly degenerate into insurgency and civil war.

Yet it remains the case that the rebels look like they will succeed in deposing the vile Gaddafi, and they have done it with NATO support. That’s a hard thing to process for somebody like me. As a leftist and an activist, I cut my teeth on anti-imperialism; by chance, the other day I stumbled across this photo of 17-year-old me speaking at a protest against the sanctions on Iraq, circa 1997 or 1998:

Back then, we had to organize against the bombing of Iraq at a time when most people didn’t even realize we were still bombing Iraq.

My experience in the anti-sanctions movement, combined with the repeated discrediting of the humanitarian-warmongering arguments of the “decent left”, made it very hard for me to cheer on the NATO-backed Libyan rebels. I’ve learned the hard way that optimistic liberal claims for US warmaking in the post-Cold War era have been consistently and catastrophically wrong: in Haiti, in Somalia, in Kosovo, in Afghanistan, in Iraq. But I’ve been forced to conclude that what happened in Libya is something rather novel, which we shouldn’t reflexively interpret through the lens of those earlier wars. And if we aren’t willing to change our theoretical framework when the world changes, then we’re not much better than the liberal hawks, living in the dreamworld of their perpetual 9/11.

Richard Seymour has a more hardline anti-interventionist post on Libya which, while it makes a number of important points, nevertheless seems to me like it strikes rather the wrong note. Seymour observes that “The rebel army is commanded by someone who is most likely a CIA agent”, and goes on to predict that the US and its allies will quickly move to set up a pliable regime pro-Western “liberals” who will go along with the designs of neoliberalism.

I agree with this, as far as it goes. But Seymour goes on to say that “I don’t think we’re witnessing a revolutionary process here.” This strikes me as far too simplistic. The leadership of the TNC may not be revolutionaries, but they appear to have only the most tenuous control over the forces that actually defeated Gaddafi, like the Berber units in the Western mountains and the dozens of privately organized militias. Recall that it was just a few weeks ago that the rebels looked to be too busy assassinating one another to make any military gains. The usual bourgeois foreign-policy types are warning of splits and “instability” on the rebel side, because what the US and NATO want most is a stable and cooperative regime. But the fractiousness and disorganization that so terrifies the Western foreign policy intelligentsia is precisely what may yet allow a revolutionary dynamic to emerge.

Here’s what I think we lefty anti-imperialists ought to recognize about Libya. First, there was a real revolutionary insurgency on the ground that started long before NATO got involved; that makes the situation completely different from Iraq or Afghanistan. Second, while we should certainly be wary of the attempts of the imperialist powers to control the outcome of events in Libya, we need to acknowledge that they would have made such attempts even if they hadn’t intervened militarily. And in that case, the interference would have been entirely at the level of covert operations and diplomatic back-channels, and hence harder to expose and criticize. Note that this also means that trying to separate a good Egyptian revolution from a bad Libyan one entails fetishizing military force: it’s clear that U.S. pressure on the Egyptian army played some role in pushing Mubarak out of power in the end, but that doesn’t invalidate the work of the Tahrir protesters.

It’s impossible to know whether the rebels could have won without NATO–which, if it was possible, would have been a preferable outcome. On that score I’m not nearly as certain as Gilbert Achcar that NATO involvement was a necessary evil. But what is certain is that the fall of the house of Gaddafi was not something NATO did for the Libyan people; ultimately, it was Libyans who did the fighting and dying on the ground. We should recognize and respect that sacrifice, rather than immediately reducing the rebels to a passive tool of imperialism.

Ultimately, I think the right tone on the Libyan situation–cautious, critical, but hopeful–is the one struck by Lou Proyect. Lou is certainly no humanitarian imperialist–I first came across him when he was eviscerating the proponents of the war on Serbia in the late 1990′s. But in the past few months he’s been doing thankless rhetorical battle against the tired pro-Gaddafi arguments of the vulgar anti-imperialist “left”, and he recognizes that there’s more to the Libyan rebels than the stooges speaking to the cameras in Benghazi.

The position I’m trying to stake out, I guess, is that capitalist wars are never good in and of themselves, since they aren’t undertaken for good reasons, but that doesn’t mean they can’t ever have good consequences, nor does it mean that the enemy of my enemy is always my friend. Given the overall horrible track record of recent U.S. wars, my prior is still to be against intervention in almost all circumstances, and Libya hasn’t changed that. But I’m still willing to admit that this time things haven’t turned out as badly as usual.

As it stands today, there still aren’t any significant NATO ground troops, and the TNC is so far holding firm on the position that there won’t be any. Meanwhile, the toppling of Gaddafi is leading to unpredictable outcomes and new embarassments for the U.S. and its allies, such as the revelations about Gaddafi’s close cooperation with the CIA and MI6 in subjecting Libyans to rendition and torture. If the Bush administration taught us anything, it’s that imperialist war planners don’t always know what they’re doing; there’s no reason that Libya can’t end up diminishing Western power as well.

As I argued in the second issue of Jacobin, the revolutionary upsurge in the Arab world signifies, among other things, the waning grip of American imperialism. (So too does the Obama administration’s desperate and ridiculous scramble to stop the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN.) In Libya as in Egypt, the imperialist powers were following behind events, rather than making them. If we fail to comprehend that, we risk attributing a false omnipotence to the United States and its allies, and thus missing a real anti-imperialist victory when it’s right under our noses.

And if all of that doesn’t convince you, how can you hate on rebel forces that roll like this?

New Jacobin Essay, and an addendum on Bahrain

March 15th, 2011  |  Published in Imperialism, Politics

I have a new essay for Jacobin Magazine, about what the Arab revolutions of 2011 mean for anti-imperialist politics in the United States. I’d encourage my handful of readers on this site to take your click traffic over that way–in spite of my involvement, Bhaskar Sunkara has put together a great group of writers at Jacobin.

By writing about such fast-moving events, I ensured that my contribution would be outdated as soon as it appeared. One thing I had to completely skip over in the essay was the events in Bahrain, but it’s worth talking about because it’s an important counterpoint to the cases I discussed in that piece. I focused on Egypt and Libya, and I argued that American leverage in those two cases was considerably less than most people–left and right–seemed to think. But Bahrain is the opposite sort of case, and it’s pretty clear that Obama has more influence over the situation there than anyone in the American elite wants to admit. A comparison between the way Bahrain and Libya are being discussed in the press illuminates the contradictions and hypocrisies that characterize debates about foreign policy in the United States.

To summarize: Saudi Arabia has sent troops into Bahrain to put down the escalating protests against the monarchy there. Bahrain’s ruling family is Sunni Muslim, while the majority of the population is Shia–and the Saudis are clearly afraid that the uprising might give their own Shiite minority some ideas. But by sending in troops, the Saudis could make the whole situation much more volatile and deadly–already, the opposition is denouncing the move as an “occupation” and a “declaration of war”. The U.S. government, meanwhile, “does not consider” the Saudi action to be an invasion.

The United States is deeply implicated in all of this–there is a major U.S. naval base in Bahrain, while the Saudis are close American allies and loyal customers of our military-industrial complex. And as Brookings Doha Center analyst Shadi Hamid remarked on Twitter, the Saudis wouldn’t have gone into Bahrain without U.S. approval, or at least “lack of a red light”. Former British diplomat Craig Murray gets even more specific, reporting that “A senior diplomat in a western mission to the UN in New York . . . has told me for sure that Hillary Clinton agreed to the cross-border use of troops to crush democracy in the Gulf, as a quid pro quo for the Arab League calling for Western intervention in Libya.”

All of which goes to show that when people ask what the Obama administration can do to help the uprisings in the Middle East, the sensible response is that they should start by ceasing to actively prop up the dictators there. Backing away from the Saudi and Bahraini monarchies would be far easier and less bloody than, say, invading Libya. This is the fundamental reason why I don’t think we can take the pronouncements of liberal humanitarian imperialists like Jackson Diehl at face value when they insist that American military intervention is the only solution to authoritarian regimes or global humanitarian crises. Take the aptly-named Anne-Marie Slaughter, who took to the New York Times to condemn Obama for not taking unilateral military action in Libya. To advocate such a dangerous and deadly course of action while ignoring the American role in fomenting human rights abuses in the Arab world is not just ill-considered, it’s fundamentally dishonest. But as Matt Yglesias remarks, “there’s definitely a set of people in the United States who seem to want to help suffering people in the developing world if and only if that can be accomplished by killing other people in the developing world.”

As I say in the Jacobin essay, I think that the decline of American imperial power (and more proximately, the lesson of Iraq) is making people like Diehl and Slaughter less dangerous, simply because their deranged schemes are less likely to be realized. But these silly debates about no-fly zones and humanitarian invasions do still serve to distract attention from American complicity in atrocities like what’s happening in Bahrain. So long as the liberal warmongers can get a hearing in the New York Times and the Washington Post, there’s still a need for a forthrightly anti-imperialist left that can make the argument that the best thing for the liberation movements around the world would be an American government and military that does less to interfere in their affairs, rather than more.

The Imperial Gaze

November 27th, 2009  |  Published in Imperialism, Politics

The New Left Review, which I write about here often, is my favorite left political publication. They got a lot of crap a few years back when they relaunched their journal with a new, seemingly more apolitical orientation, but in retrospect that choice seems strongly justified–and it resulted in a fairly unique publication. NLR now approaches the world analytically, rather than polemically, in a way that is genuinely geared toward increasing the reader’s understanding of the conjuncture rather than propagandizing for a position. And yet its point of view is still recognizably from the left, to a degree that can be jarring when one is used to reading the organs of establishment liberal and conservative thought.

NLR’s virtues are particularly evident in its extensive international coverage.  The articles it publishes about the non-Western world read like they are attempting to understand other countries from the inside, and convey to a Western reader what they are like for the people who live there. That this is so remarkable is a damning indictment of other publications. But as John Judis recently noted, the mainstream press in the United States seems incapable of reporting international events in terms of anything other than domestic political concerns. And even in supposedly “left” publications,  international analysis is typically a thinly-veiled intervention in some parochial domestic political debate.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of Dissent, a magazine which seems to believe that the world only exists as an aspect of American domestic politics, and moreover that U.S. “humanitarian” warmongering against the rest of the world is the key to human emancipation. Recently, for example, they published a review of Mahmood Mamdani’s Savior’s and Survivors which, while raising some legitimate issues of scholarship, was far more concerned with smearing Mamdani and defending the ridiculous doctrines of “humanitarian intervention” than in understanding what is happening in the Sudan.

I thought of this again as I was reading the most recent NLR, which contains an excellent article on Myanmar by the historian and area specialist Mary Callahan. It’s an overview of the country’s politics, which describes the current system of military rule as the legacy of the country’s colonial history, in which Britain destroyed traditional systems of social control and left behind an ethnically fragmented and divided society. Callahan gives good reasons to believe that, despite the wishful thinking of Western and exile activists, the junta is unlikely to be driven from power in the immediate future.

After reading the peace, I wondered what, if anything, Dissent had published on Myanmar recently. Given their history, I didn’t expect good things, but I was prepared to be suprised–they do sometimes publish very good things, even on international affairs.

What I found, however, was even worse than I imagined. The first three hits from the print publication were: an interview with Anthony Giddens in which Myanmar is used as a throwaway line to underscore the inevitable superiority of liberal capitalism; a windbaggy piece about “democratization” which again refers to Myanmar in passing (as a “Fascist Disneyland”); and a Clifford Geertz essay on decolonization in which the country only appears in laundry lists of diverse ex-colonial states.

The result from the web archive was even more absurd: a piece from Michael Walzer on “Ten Foreign Policy Changes if Obama is Elected”. Given the author, the content was predictable. Even so, this reads like a parody of liberal imperialist thinking:

5) A stronger (rhetorically stronger or stronger in practice?) commitment to “the responsibility to protect” in places like Darfur and Myanmar, though the new administration is not going to send American troops into any countries where we are not already engaged. Are there other countries ready to send troops? If they are ready, the U.S. under Obama would probably be willing to support, help pay for, equip, and transport the troops. More than that: Obama has talked about creating a no-fly zone over Darfur—a good thing to do, certainly, but even then I doubt that the UN’s 20,000 African troops would be sufficient to stop the killing without some reinforcement from better trained and more disciplined armies.

Hm, yes, that place Myanmar, I hear they’re having some trouble with human rights, or cyclones, or something. Better send in the troops, old chap! (No Africans, though, they’re no good.)

The way Walzer can cavalierly throw around this kind of warmongering is bad enough. But for Dissent to publish this kind of irresponsible call for blood in a country it has not deemed worthy of a single article? It underscores the despicable and immoral quality of the “liberal hawks”, who seem more interested in finding excuses for military action than in considering its consequences.

Norman Geras: Still an Idiot

July 29th, 2007  |  Published in Imperialism, Politics

There is no political position I find quite so irritating as the pro-war “decent left” types who produce things like the Euston Manifesto. There are, of course, many political positions which are more objectionable, but none that are so annoying. The Eustonites drive me nuts in the same way Bono does–self-righteousness and moral superiority combined with politically backwards and ignorant positions.

Prominent among this crowd has been Norman Geras, the onetime Marx scholar who now spends his days excoriating the left for being insufficiently eager to support U.S. wars against other countries. Against my better judgment, I found myself at his blog recently. A recent essay by Johann Hari had led me to believe that Geras had come off his ridiculous defense of the Iraq war; sadly, no. Geras still believes that he is morally superior to those who opposed the war: he concerned himself only with the noble goal of ending tyranny everywhere, while those evil war critics sold out their ideals by asking what the actual consequences of the invasion were likely to be:

I said that had I been able to foresee the scale of death and social breakdown the war was to bring I would not have supported it. I stand by this change of mind. But I am not ashamed that I supported the war; because the reasons why I did were compelling moral reasons, not disgraceful ones – reasons very much of the kind I believe Johann himself held at the time, reasons to do, precisely, with ‘solidarity with suffering strangers’. When I recant on that is when I’ll be ashamed of myself.

If you have “compelling moral reasons”, then apparently you are relieved of any responsibility for being able to “foresee the scale of death and social breakdown” caused by policies you support, even when those consequences were foreseen by many, many people before the war started. Good to know. Politics is a lot easier when you are held responsible only for your intentions, not for your results.

It’s funny that people like Geras are so fond of appealing to the enlightenment and “reason”, because they lack one of the basic characteristics associated with rationality: the connection between means and ends. Their logic leading into the war went something like this: we are for overthrowing Saddam and bringing about democracy and liberty in Iraq; the only available means of overthrowing Saddam is a war led by George W. Bush; therefore we support the war. The fact that the means (W’s war) seemed highly unlikely to bring about the desired end (democracy and liberty) was deemed irrelevant. Frankly, those apocalyptic Christians who support war in the Middle East because they think it will bring about the second coming of Christ strike me as a lot more rational than the Euston folks: if you accept their Biblical literalist premises, the whole thing is really quite logically coherent.

But there’s no need for me to go on and dissect Geras’s views about the war with analytical precision and hilarious ridicule, since Daniel Davies already did that. I’ll just highlight another outrageous bit of self-satisfied sneering from Geras. From a post titled “Nobody Defends the Spanish Inquisition”:

On the contrary, it seems that some do. I didn’t know that, but should probably have assumed it, since however bad a reputation something may have there is usually someone to speak up for it. Anyway, this piece by Toby Green talks of people who feel the Spanish Inquisition has been ‘scapegoated’, and discusses political and religious ‘influences’ upon it.

You mean someone has the gall to suggest that the Spanish inquisition had influences? Political and religious ones, even? How indecent! Obviously Toby Green is an apologist for Papist terror. Next you’ll be telling me that crime in America has socio-economic “influences”, and that criminals are “scapegoated” for wider social problems. Oh, the moral midgetry of it all! Thank Voltaire that we have Norman Geras around to straighten out our moral compass.

The Black Room

March 19th, 2006  |  Published in Imperialism, Politics

The sign at left was posted at Camp Nama, an Iraqi military installation which was commandeered by U.S. special forces. There they turned one interrogation room into a ghoulish torture chamber called the Black Room:

“In the windowless, jet-black garage-size room, some soldiers beat prisoners with rifle butts, yelled and spit in their faces and, in a nearby area, used detainees for target practice in a game of jailer paintball. Their intention was to extract information to help hunt down Iraq’s most-wanted terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, according to Defense Department personnel who served with the unit or were briefed on its operations.”

What is most disturbing about this episode of detainee abuse is, as with Abu Ghraib, its seeming pointlessness, relative to extracting any actual information, and its ostentatious sadism. Torture for any reason is horrifying; but torture for its own sake is the most chilling because it calls to mind the worst of the historical atrocities perpetrated by humans on their fellow humans.

But at least the “Black Room” of Camp Nama has been brought to light by the diligent work of the New York Times, and at least we still live in a society which retains enough humaneness and dignity to execrate such acts when they occur. Yet there are other “black rooms”, whose existence cannot be revealed because they are not hidden–they are the “dark places” hidden in plain sight, from which we avert our eyes out of habit or despair.

In Florida, a young man was sent to boot camp for stealing his grandmother’s car, then beaten to death for talking back to his jailers. The ensuing scandal has given everyone from Jeb Bush to the county medical examiner a stage on which to do their utmost to come across as depraved, racist monsters. Bush spoke against closing the boot camps since they have “yielded a good result”. And Bay county medical examiner Charles Siebert, who initially found that the young man had died, not from being beaten and suffocated, but from sickle cell anemia, said he was “appalled”. Not appalled, mind you, at the senseless death of a 14-year-old boy, but at the “baseless and mean-spirited accusations from special interest groups” who impugned and embarassed him by questioning his nonsensical medical verdict.

Young Martin Lee Anderson was evidently not the first person to be beaten at one of these boot camps. It was only his accidental death which forced the “black room” of the boot camps into the light; had he merely been maimed as intended, the routine physical brutalization of young black men by the state of Florida might have continued unchecked, indefinitely.

Meanwhile, something completely different, only not: the Indonesian army moved to quell riots by taking control of a provincial capital in Papua. The “riots” are in fact protests, directed against an American mining company, Freeport McMoran. In so many ways it is a typical story, of corrupt governments in the global South acting as enforcers for American capital. The sort of open class violence that is tolerated in the periphery would be outlandish and unacceptable in the core–except, as we saw in the previous case, when the violence is directed at the most oppressed “internal colonies” within the homeland.

Among the more despicable specifics of the situation in Indonesia is the following:

The senior Papuan at Freeport, Thom Beanal, who is a leader of one of Papua’s biggest tribal groups, the Amungme, and a director of the Indonesian unit of Freeport, said the company was concerned about maintaining its daily operations in the current atmosphere.

Mr. Beanal said in a telephone interview from his home in Timika, near the mine, that he advised Freeport this week that to reduce hostilities, the company needed to deal more effectively with the more than 700,000 tons of mine waste that is generated every day.

Much of it hurtles directly down the Aghawagon River, and protests began last month when villagers were told by the security forces that they could no longer pan in the waste for scraps of gold. “I suggested they put the waste in a pipe and put it far away,” Mr. Beanal said.

Environmentalists and some mining engineers have made similar suggestions, but the company has rejected them, saying they would be too expensive to carry out.

It is hard to know what is more appalling in these four paragraphs. Is it the abject figure of Mr. Beanal, attempting an impossible reconciliation between loyalty to his people, and loyalty to his company? Is it the casual reference to the company’s profligate desecration of the local environment? Or is it that, after insisting that it has no choice but to deluge the local residents with toxic waste, Freeport McMoran now reproaches them for having the temerity to steal scraps of gold from the company’s proprietary sludge?

Faced with such scenarios, those of political good will often throw our hands up in despair, helpless in the face of what seem to be horrors without end. And this is not only a reflex of rationalization and denial; our powerless to restrain our government or “our” capitalists is in many ways real. But I fear that those generations which follow us, if any, will not judge us kindly for our “black rooms”.

The Structures of Imperialism

February 20th, 2006  |  Published in Imperialism, Political Economy

The war in Iraq has led to a rehabilitation of “imperialism” as a description of the American role in the world–both from the left, and from conservative defenders of the empire like Niall Ferguson. From my perspective, this is all to the good, as it moves us away from the delusional idealism that informed so many of the debates over so-called “humanitarian intervention” in the 1990′s.

But a lot of the debate smacks of economism. That is, people are not distinguishing between the theory of imperialism, and the belief that U.S. foreign policy is directly determined by the interests of specific private corporations and industries. The widespread use of the military- and prison-industrial complex as an analytical framework is indicative of this tendency. These ideas, which are really aspects of one idea, illuminate something important: the positive feedback loop between the expansion of the state’s coercive apparatus at home and abroad, and the increasing size and power of private interests which materially benefit from that expansion. But they can lead us down the blind alley of looking for specific economic interests behind each and every military action of the state. In the case of Iraq, the relevant interest is easy to find, which is why “no war for oil” is such a tempting and plausible rallying cry. But the framework breaks down when it is applied to any wider set of historical examples. To use my favorite case: the nation of Grenada is economically notable primarily for being the world’s second largest producer of nutmeg; yet the Reagan administration plainly did not go to war against Grenada in the 1980′s for nutmeg.

We need to take more seriously Marx’s remark, in the Communist Manifesto, that the state is “an executive committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie”. This clause is usually taken as a statement of economic determinism: the actions of the state directly reflect the interests of capital. But we should pay less attention to the end of the phrase, and more to the beginning. As any student of bureaucracy and organizations knows, “executive committees for managing” are complex and contradictory entities with their own autonomous logics. It is certainly often true that the state rules in the interest of particular capitals; the economistic anti-war critique captures this. Yet just as often, the state must suppress particularist interests in order to ensure the orderly accumulation of capital in general.

What we need, then, is a theory of imperialism as a structure, and not as a set of interests. If imperialism signifies nothing more than a territorially defined hierarchy of wealth and power in the world system, we can ask what aspects of contemporary capitalism generate and reinforce such hierarchies. As a preliminary step, it occurs to me that we should differentiate some different levels at which the global economy is integrated.

  1. Primitive Accumulation. Capitalism could not take off without the existence of massive, concentrated stores of wealth, which could then be thrown into circulation as capital. The primitive accumulation of capital refers to the violent and lawless process by which this concentration occurred. The process of primitive accumulation also destroys pre-capitalist social formations and allows capitalism to expand into new areas. This type of global integration is central to Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of imperialism. It has been picked up of late by David Harvey, who uses the term “accumulation by disposession” to encompass not only the process traditionally included under the heading of “primitive accumulation”, but also things like the commodification of traditional knowledges through the patent system, and the privatization of public institutions.
  2. Export of Commodities. Capitalism has an innate tendency toward overproduction, because increases in productivity are not matched by equivalent rises in the wages of those who must buy the products. Capital thus always seeks new markets, and thus breaks down national barriers. Marx refers to this in the Manifesto: “[t]he cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate.”
  3. Export of Capital. Capital ultimately needs not only new markets, but new investment opportunties to dispose of all the capital that is accumulated through repeated cycles of production. This leads to the export not merely of commodities, but of capital, as investment is made abroad and capitalist production begins to be globalized. The export of capital was central to early 20th century theories of imperialism, most notably Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.
  4. Currency Regimes. The globalizing process which is inaugurated in primitive accumulation, and intensified by the export of commodities and capital, necessitates a means of payment in global trade–a way of mediating between the diverse national currencies. Up until the 1970′s, gold served this function. Since the collapse of the gold standard, however, a peculiar new system has emerged. The U.S. dollar has become the global reserve currency: global commodities like oil are priced in dollars, and national central banks hold reserves of dollars in order to back up their own currencies. This gives the United States, the only state which can print dollars, a unique power on the global stage. Specifically, dollar hegemony allows the U.S. to maintain structural budget and trade deficits without triggering massive domestic inflation. In order to maintain their massive trade surpluses, China and other countries buy up massive amounts of U.S. Treasury bonds, thus underwriting U.S. government spending. This system means, in essence, that “world trade is now a game in which the US produces dollars and the rest of the world produces things that dollars can buy.” Yet no-one wants to upset this arrangement by selling their dollar reserves, since the resulting process of global rebalancing would destroy the production of our trading partners at the same time it demolished American consumption. The constitution of this regime of “dollar hegemony” or “super imperialism” has been documented in detail by Marxist-influenced economists Michael Hudson and Henry C.K. Liu. It is also a topic of concern among mainstream economists like Brad Setser and Nouriel Roubini.
  5. Energy. It is not arbitrary that current events appear to swirl around oil, rather than any other commodity. The productivity of the economy is highly dependent on oil–to a large extent, the increased efficiency of human labor in production has been a function of the availability of cheap energy, in the form of petroleum. If oil becomes more scarce (and therefore more expensive), this has follow-through effects throughout every sector of the economy, from transportation costs to electricity to agriculture (which is sustained by nitrogen fertilizer, a petroleum product). There has been a lot of concern lately at the possibility that we are approaching the condition known as “peak oil”: the point at which the absolute quantity of oil produced in the world will begin to decline. Note that this is not the same as saying that we are “running out” of oil. The important variable is not how much oil is in the ground, but how fast we can extract it. Capitalism can only exist if it constantly grows, and growth in the economy is tied to growth in oil production. If the peak oil theorists are right that we are approaching peak oil–or have already passed it–then the effects on the global economy will be severe. Moreover, geopolitical contests over oil will certainly intensify. Attempts to integrate energy into the theory of imperialism have so far been somewhat halting–but some important initial steps have been taken by Alf Hornborg, Stan Goff, and Mark Jones.

It is important, I think, to recognize that these five aspects of imperialism are not stages which follow each other in a temporal sequence. Rather, they are overlapping structures of international capital which co-exist and interact. A theory of imperialism has to attend to all of them; moreover, we need an empirical and historically specific account which shows which aspects are subordinate and which predominant in the current conjuncture.

As a start, we might think about the territoriality and directionality of these processes. Imperialist structures 1-3 (dispossession, commodities, capital) are increasingly deterritorialized, in that the capitalist class is becoming transnational, and accumulation by dispossession happens within countries as well as between them. At least in the case of (2) and (3), they are also bidirectional–the need to break down barriers to commodities and capital by now applies almost as much to the subordinate economies of the post-colonial world as it does to the old imperial center, and neoliberalism is breaking down many of the barriers which the first world used to protect its economies from the third world.

Dollar hegemony has the clearest directionality of any of these processes: it is the structure which allows the United States to consume more than it produces, and thereby to materially exploit the rest of the world. For that reason, I think dollar hegemony has to be central to any concept of imperialism which maintains the political and moral force of Lenin and Luxemburg. Yet this picture is complicated by a deterritorialization noted by Henry Liu: “Another unique distinction about dollar hegemongy is that it produced an incongruity between the dollar economy and the US economy.” In other words, dollar hegemony benefits a class of finance capitalists that is not American, per se. I have not thought through the implications of this, but it might be a clue to resolving the paradox I discussed yesterday.

Then there is oil, the commodity which underpins so much of global finance, yet one which is by its nature territorial. It is the wild card here, and I think we need an account of oil’s role in imperialism which gets past economism. If dollar hegemony is the structuring logic of contemporary imperialism, oil would seem to be its “determining last instance”–the commodity whose fate will ultimately determine the future shape of the system.

Chaotic Motion

February 19th, 2006  |  Published in Imperialism, Political Economy

Recently, I’ve been reading and rereading a fascinating essay by Gopal Balakrishnan in the New Left Review. It’s a long review of a recent book, Afflicted Powers by the Retort collective in San Francisco. The book is an attempt to think through the meaning and logic of the contemporary period of warmaking, and to critique and update Marxist theories of imperialism in light of recent developments.

Balakrishnan enumerates several different themes in the book, many of which strike me as tangentially or episodically interesting at best. But I can’t stop thinking about the last piece of Retort’s analysis, on “the spectacular”.

The concept comes, of course, from the situationist Guy Debord. In late modern capitalism, Debord argued, the manufacture of images and appearances–the spectacle–has taken precedence in all realms of social life. This is simply an extension of the logic of commodity production, as Debord explained:

This is the principle of commodity fetishism, the domination of society by “intangible as well as tangible things,” which reaches its absolute fulfillment in the spectacle, where the tangible world is replaced by a selection of images which exist above it, and which simultaneously impose themselves as the tangible par excellence.

As appropriated by Retort, the spectacle is the principal structuring logic of modern politics, and it intervenes between political actors and “facts on the ground” in such a way as to erode historical knowledge and make “strategic interests” indeterminate. This introduces a jarring reversal in the left’s discourse about imperial power. It has always been the virtue of anti-imperialist analyses that they can break through liberal critiques which attribute wars to incompetence or individual evil; anti-imperialism achieves this by positing a rational logic of capital accumulation behind war’s inhuman illogic. But Retort’s analysis would suggest that today, our leaders are in fact confused, incompetent, impotent; it could not be otherwise. Balakrishnan:

A major, probably irreversible, sociological transformation of baby-boom capitalism is at work here. The plebeians refuse to die in wars, the rich refuse to pay for them. The spectacle has resulted not only in weak citizenship at the bottom, but also faulty intelligence at the top. With an eye on the mounting chaos in occupied Iraq, it is not difficult to conclude that the Republican administration’s attempt at grand strategy is now heading for the shoals. ‘The dimension of spectacle has never before interfered so palpably, so insistently, with the business of keeping one’s satrapies in order.’

This view is only confirmed the more one looks at the developments overseas. Christian Parenti’s recent book, The Freedom, details the madness of an occupying army attempting to rebuild a country that does not want them, and that they do not understand. The army appears to be breaking under the strain, as recruitment falters. The debt burden continues to mount, and it is impossible to determine how long the Bank of China will continue to fund our adventures. Moreover, even Rumsfeld acknowledges, in a quote used by Balakrishnan, that “we lack metrics to know whether we are winning or losing the war”.

All of this is perplexing and disturbing enough. But Balakrishnan goes on to add another layer of uncertainty. It is one thing to say that our leaders have lost the ability to connect military means with their ultimate, capitalist ends. But why, he asks, do we continue to act as though the role of military power in the constitution of interstate power dynamics were obvious and unchanging?

What role does military power play in determining a state’s position within international ranking systems; why and to what extent is it still a decisive dimension of state power? The inability of existing theories even to pose these problems speaks to a deeper crisis of the classical categories of geopolitical rationality.

This is certainly relevant to the various theories of imperialist succession, in which China eventually displaces the U.S. as the hegemonic power. It is generally assumed, in such accounts, that China will have to generate an autonomous military capability in order to accede to first status; the main danger in this transition comes from the potential irresponsibility of a declining U.S. which still has the capacity to start a global conflagration. But perhaps this perspective is too reliant on old schemas of interstate politics.

There is a paradox here. On the one hand, war is increasingly everywhere–the line between soldier and civilian, homeland and battlefield, is steadily being eroded. Yet the purpose and meaning of military power in late capitalist society has never been less clear. Where does that leave us?

A chaotic system is described deterministically by a mathematical equation. But tiny variations in the initial conditions can lead to tremendous nonlinear variation in the system’s motion. This is the puzzle of our epoch: it appears that the transition from Clinton to Bush, along with the catalyst of 9/11, has utterly rearranged the logic of the international system. Thus, while a determinate logic must exist in principle, it is, in practice, unknowable.