[Marxism] Gilbert Achcar interview

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Aug 27 07:28:42 MDT 2011


Popular Rebellion & Imperialist Designs
By Gilbert Achcar and Tom Mills

Gilbert Achcar is a Professor of Development Studies and International 
Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of 
London. He is the author of a number of books on global politics, 
imperialism and the Middle East, most recently The Arabs and the 
Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives. He spoke to Tom Mills 
about the rebellion in Libya and the motives behind NATO's intervention.

Tom Mills: At the onset of NATO's Operation Unified Protector in Libya, 
the main justification for it was that Gaddafi's forces would massacre 
the resistance and civilians living in the places taken by the 
resistance, especially Benghazi. What has been learned since then about 
how likely such a scenario was?

Gilbert Achcar: In situations of urgency, there is no better judge than 
the people directly concerned, and there was unanimity on that score. 
Did you ever hear of any significant group in Benghazi opposed to the 
request of a No-Fly zone made to the UN and advocating another way to 
prevent Gaddafi's troops from taking the city? We all saw the immense 
popular relief that was expressed in the massive outburst of joy in 
Benghazi when the UN resolution was passed. Journalists and reporters 
covering the events on the ground agreed likewise on the fact that 
Gaddafi's forces would have had no difficulty seizing the city. The 
remnants of the tanks and vehicles that were concentrated on Benghazi's 
outskirts and were destroyed by the French air force are still there for 
everyone to see, I have been told. On top of that, we have seen how long 
Gaddafi's well-armed, well-trained and well-paid forces were able to 
carry on offensive after offensive, despite several months of NATO 
strikes, and how difficult and costly in human lives it has been for the 
rebellion, first to secure Misrata, which is much smaller than Benghazi, 
and then to break the deadlock on the Western front before finally 
entering Tripoli. Anyone who from far away disputes the fact that 
Benghazi would have been crushed is just lacking decency in my view. 
Telling a besieged people from the safety of a Western city that they 
are cowards -- because that's what disputing their claim that they were 
facing a massacre amounts to -- is just indecent.

TM: That's about the balance of forces. What about the likelihood that 
if Benghazi had fallen there would have been a massacre? Isn't that 
still a matter of speculation?

GA: No, not at all. Let me first remind you that the repression that 
Gaddafi unleashed in February, from the very beginning of the Libyan 
uprising, was much greater than anything else we have seen since then. 
Take even the case of Syria: today, several months after the protest 
movement started in March, it is estimated that the number of people 
killed in Syria has reached 2,200. The range of estimates of the number 
of people who were killed in Libya in the first month alone, before the 
Western intervention, starts at more than that figure and reaches 
10,000. The use by Gaddafi of all sorts of weapons, including his air 
force, was much more extensive and intensive than anything we have seen 
until now in other Arab countries.

Furthermore, Gaddafi and his son, Saif al-Islam, did not hide their 
intentions in the least. They said from the start that they were going 
to be merciless and that they will crush the rebellion like rats and 
cockroaches and other nice ways of describing masses of protesters from 
among their own people. We know what kind of regimes have used such 
terms about their enemies in the 20th century, and what mass slaughters 
and genocides they committed. In mid-March, there had already been 
massive killings in several Libyan cities. Given that Benghazi had been 
the heart of the rebellion from the start and became a liberated city, 
there is hardly any doubt that had Gaddafi forces been able to seize the 
city a huge massacre would have ensued.

I always give the example of the Syrian regime because it shares some 
features with the one in Libya, even though it is to some degree less 
bloody and murderous. In 1982 when Hafez al-Assad crushed the city of 
Hama, which was a stronghold for the Muslim Brotherhood in rebellion 
against him, the estimates of the number of people killed ranged from 
10,000 to 40,000, with the most commonly quoted figure being 25,000 -- 
this in a city which in 1982 had only one third of the population of 
Benghazi today. So we know what we are dealing with here and we can take 
other examples from history. When Adolphe Thiers's forces took back 
Paris at the time of the Commune in 1871, with much less lethal weaponry 
they killed and executed 25,000 persons. This is the kind of massacre 
that Benghazi was facing, and that is why I said under such 
circumstances -- when the city's population and the rebellion requested, 
even implored the UN to provide them with air cover, and in the absence 
of any alternative -- that it was neither acceptable nor decent from the 
comfort of London or New York to say, "No to the no-fly zone." Those on 
the left who did so were in my view reacting out of knee-jerk 
anti-imperialism, showing little care for the people concerned on the 
ground. That's not my understanding of what it means to be on the left.

That said, I never held that we on the left, me included, had to support 
NATO's intervention in Libya, or even support the UN resolution. I 
criticized that resolution, and denounced from day one the 
intervention's real motive and the fact that it smacks of oil. But I 
said at the same time that we couldn't oppose it from the start because 
of the reasons I've just explained. Once the danger threatening Benghazi 
was over -- and that was a matter of a few days, one week or ten days, 
by which time Gaddafi's air force was crushed beyond repair -- it became 
possible and even necessary to oppose the continuation of the bombing, 
which was clearly going beyond its initial and official mission of 
protection. Here again, in line with my conception of what the left is 
-- not primarily anti-imperialism of the knee-jerk kind, but being most 
of all concerned with people's liberation from oppression -- I called 
for the left to campaign against the continuation of the bombing, 
provided that it campaigns at the same time for the delivery of weapons 
to the rebels. The rebels themselves requested arms very early on, and 
kept on requesting and increasingly so over the weeks and months.

I remained consistent in my position, which was that we should not 
campaign against the intervention as long as there really was a need to 
prevent a massacre, but we must monitor the situation closely 
nonetheless, and denounce anything that goes beyond that initial 
purpose. I said that from day one in my first interview published on 
ZNet on 19 March, the one which provoked a deluge of discussion. And 
indeed, once that initial purpose was fulfilled, I advocated a campaign 
on two inseparable demands: "Stop the bombing! Deliver arms to the 

TM: So moving on to NATO itself, given its humanitarian justification 
for the mission, it is important to know what the humanitarian impacts 
of NATO's actions have been. How much is known about the deaths, 
civilian and otherwise, caused by NATO, as well as other impacts NATO 
has had on the well-being of Libyans?

GA: The humanitarian pretext is, of course, purely hypocritical. No one 
should believe for one second that NATO is motivated by humanitarian 
feelings. We've heard the humanitarian discourse so many times over the 
last two decades and we know exactly what it is about. Whether in Iraq 
or Kosovo or even Afghanistan, it has been repeatedly used as a pretext 
and it is completely worn out. I said from the very start that the 
Western powers' intervention smacks of oil.

There was an indirect humanitarian concern, however, as I tried to 
explain, in that had the massacre taken place Western governments would 
have been obliged to do what they are doing now for Syria. If you are 
following the news, they have now decided to enforce oil sanctions 
against Syria. Had a massacre occurred in Benghazi they would have had 
to do the same, all the more that the scale of the massacre would have 
been much larger than what has occurred so far in Syria. This would have 
meant imposing an oil embargo on Libya, a measure which under the 
conditions of the oil market and the world economy would have been 
harmful for them. So instead of having to react after a massacre and to 
bear the blame for having let it happen, they preferred to intervene. 
That decision was therefore closely related to the fact that Libya is a 
major oil-producing country and that embargoing it would have a real 
implication on the world economy (unlike in the case of Syria).

Now even though they didn't go there out of humanitarian feelings, since 
they invoked this humanitarian pretension they had to take care -- as 
much as they could, striking from thousands of feet -- to minimize 
casualties. In the post-Vietnam wars, since Iraq 1991, we have seen that 
they have been trying to minimize civilian casualties using their new 
technologies. This is not because imperialists have suddenly turned into 
humanitarians but because they know that Western populations do have 
humanitarian feelings and cannot morally accept seeing their governments 
killing civilians on a massive scale. That was a key motivation for the 
huge anti-war movement at the time of Vietnam. So they assimilated the 
lessons of the Vietnam War. Anyone familiar with the evolution of 
Western military doctrines knows that. So, to be sure, they tried to 
minimize civilian casualties in Libya. The number of air sorties, and 
even more so the number of air strikes, has been anyhow of a lower 
intensity compared to the air campaigns in the Iraq, Afghanistan or 
Kosovo wars. They even tried harder than average to minimize civilian 
casualties because they were running this campaign under UN cover and 
purportedly for the protection of civilians. This is why the number of 
civilian casualties resulting from NATO's operation, through what the 
military cynically call "collateral damage," has been kept relatively low.

One must compare the civilian casualties that resulted from NATO strikes 
with the potential civilian casualties that they prevented through 
limiting the firepower of Gaddafi's forces towards rebel-held populated 
areas. There is no question in my mind that, even after all these months 
of NATO bombing, civilian casualties resulting from it remain much less 
than what they would have been had Benghazi been occupied by Gaddafi's 
troops and the insurrection subdued in the whole country. That said, the 
fact that NATO decided to continue its bombing over a long period, the 
fact that they tried to hijack the Libyan insurrection and control it by 
controlling the pace of events while refusing to give the Libyans the 
means to counter effectively by themselves Gaddafi's forces' superior 
firepower, the fact that NATO imposed itself as a full participant in 
the war since its initial phase, all this of course increased the number 
of civilians killed by NATO bombing. Now if the number of civilians 
killed by NATO were the only consideration for opposing its continued 
intervention, anyone could tell me since I am advocating the delivery of 
weapons to the insurgents as an alternative, that had the civil war 
carried on longer and with heavier weapons in the insurgents' hands, it 
might have led to more civilians killed. That's quite possible indeed, 
but the issue here is clearly a matter of speculation, not certainty. 
What is most important is to be aware of NATO's designs to impose its 
will on the Libyan people through its intervention, and to uphold the 
people's right to self-determination. It is the Libyans themselves who 
have consistently and insistently requested weapons from the beginning 
in order to fight their own war.

TM: You suggested that the original motive was essentially to keep the 
flow of oil maintained. But then, once the operation was underway, what 
is now the goal of NATO's operation and how much influence are France, 
Britain and the US likely to have now on the future shape of Libya?

GA: I didn't say that it was to keep the flow of oil. I raised that 
issue only in the negative form. They wanted to avoid being confronted 
with the obligation to impose oil sanctions on Libya like those they 
have now placed on Syria. Otherwise, of course, had they let Gaddafi 
carry out the massacre, he would have been happy to keep selling them 
oil. He concluded oil deals with all Western countries, Italy 
especially, but also Germany, Britain, Spain, etc. So we are not dealing 
with a situation where the regime is anti-Western. Western sanctions 
against Gaddafi were lifted in 2004, after he gave George Bush and Tony 
Blair the gift of proclaiming that he was so impressed by them that he 
decided to get rid of his weapons of mass destruction. They were very 
happy with that because they thought it gave some credence to the WMD 
pretext of their invasion of Iraq at a time when they were clearly 
failing to produce any evidence of WMD there. Gaddafi has been visited 
in his tent since then by most Western leaders, as well as by hawks and 
neocons like Richard Perle, Bernard Lewis, Francis Fukuyama, Third-Way 
theorist Anthony Giddens, etc. They all paid him a visit and have been 
generously rewarded for that. So there was definitely no Western impulse 
for regime change in Libya in the years before 2011.

When the Arab uprising started, and after the successes of the masses in 
Tunisia and Egypt in toppling their pro-Western dictators, Western 
powers felt obliged to pretend that they stood on the side of the mass 
movement for democracy. At the beginning of the protests in Tunisia, the 
French government supported Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a fact that turned 
into a big embarrassment in domestic politics. Nicolas Sarkozy needed to 
distance himself from this shameful attitude. He thus tried to outbid 
everyone in support for the Libyan revolution and it was all the more 
easy for him because France was not among the countries that maintained 
privileged ties with Gaddafi's Libya. Washington remained circumspect 
when the "Arab Spring" started, and then felt it needed to come out in 
support of democracy. It did so in Egypt even though the dictator there 
was one of Washington's closest allies. Gaddafi was certainly not dearer 
to Washington and London and Western leaders in general, with the 
exception of Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, than Mubarak was. So when 
Gaddafi went into his frenzy of repression and killing of those whom he 
called rats and insects, Western leaders could not turn a blind eye to 
that, especially given that they faced direct calls for help and 
intervention from the people in Benghazi who also confronted the Arab 
regimes with the same demands, leading the Arab League to call for the 
no-fly zone before the UN resolution.

A situation built up in which it became compelling for Western powers to 
intervene for all the reasons I have described, oil being of course 
central to them. Now once they started their intervention and Gaddafi 
proved more stubborn and his regime more resilient than expected, they 
needed to carry on their bombing until the regime fell or bowed. 
Otherwise they would lose face; lose their "credibility" as they like to 
say. Their single concern then became how to steer the war in a way that 
would lead to the best-case scenario in their mind. What is this 
best-case scenario? Given Gaddafi's stubbornness, they needed him to 
clear the scene. But above all they want a stable government in Libya, 
able to continue doing business as usual with Western companies and 
governments. And that is why NATO's main concern has been to make sure 
that what they call the "Iraq example" is not repeated. They refer to 
what is considered in Western capitals as the fatal mistake of 
dismantling the Baathist state that the Bush administration made when it 
invaded Iraq. All the Baathist state's key structures, including the 
army, the repressive apparatus, the ruling party -- all of that was 
disbanded. As the occupation of Iraq turned into a disaster for the US 
and the UK, they drew the conclusion that what they needed to do in 
Libya was to secure a transition which would keep the bulk of the 
regime's institutions in place.

That's essentially why they have been waging this campaign of relatively 
low intensity, while refusing to deliver weapons to the insurgents and 
conducting intensive negotiations with the Gaddafi regime. News of 
direct and indirect negotiations between Western governments and members 
of Gaddafi's entourage, like his son Saif al-Islam, has leaked 
repeatedly to the world press. They wanted to get a deal with the 
regime's men and then exert pressure on the rebellion to accept it. 
Contacts took place also between the Transitional National Council and 
the Gaddafi regime under NATO pressure, but all these negotiations led 
nowhere. The main stumbling block was Gaddafi himself. There was no way 
the rebellion could accept him to remain nominally and officially the 
head of the Libyan state and he refused to step down from power. 
Nevertheless, NATO kept its combination of bombing and negotiations, 
hoping that once there was a reversal in the military situation 
Gaddafi's entourage would see that things are getting dangerous for them 
and would push Gaddafi aside and cut a deal with NATO, which would then 
impose it on the rebellion.

The idea for NATO was basically to sponsor a deal between the leading 
groups in the Gaddafi regime and the rebellion with NATO acting as the 
umpire, the arbiter of the situation. London played a key role in 
designing such a blueprint. A Financial Times editorial was saying only 
a few days before the liberation of Tripoli that the rebels should not 
launch an assault on the city. The pretext given was that if they did 
there would be a bloodbath and thus it would be preferable that they 
only exert pressure on the regime in order to remove Gaddafi. The 
Economist had earlier said the same. These are the key mouthpieces of 
the British ruling class.

That's what NATO was contemplating. At the moment, however, it looks 
like this scenario is doomed because of the unexpected sudden collapse 
of the structures of the regime in Tripoli. It looks like it was only 
wishful thinking for NATO to believe that they could keep the basic 
repressive structures of a regime which has been shaped over decades as 
the private business and private militia of the ruling family. It can't 
work that way in a situation where the people are being armed, with a 
majority of the armed rebels being civilians turned fighters for the 
occasion. This is a real popular revolution, a real popular rebellion. A 
lot of the rebels would hardly accept the continuation of the structures 
of Gaddafi's regime.

TM: Some people have suggested that the rebels themselves have been 
usurped by NATO but what you are saying is that the real plan was to 
keep the regime and use the rebellion to pressure Gaddafi to go. So are 
you saying that NATO failed in that respect and how do the rebels fit 
into this picture? It has been pointed out that there are former members 
of the regime leading the rebellion.

GA: Of course there are former members of the regime among the people 
who are leading the rebellion. After forty years of a totalitarian 
regime, what do you expect? Are you surprised that there are people who 
held positions within the state, within the regime, who had little other 
choices to make their living in a country where the state is 
omnipresent, but who resent the dictatorship and the madness of the 
dictator? We know from interviews with people who have been close 
collaborators of Gaddafi that many were appalled by his farcical 
behavior. Anyone with a minimum of intelligence would resent this guy. 
That is why, except for unconditional admirers of the leader and people 
who are benefiting from his largesse, so many individuals switched from 
regime ranks to opposition ranks as soon as the movement began.

If this were any reason to hold a negative attitude towards the Libyan 
insurrection, then what can one say about Egypt? There the army was seen 
as supportive of the protests in the sense that it refused to repress 
them and finally parted ways with Mubarak. What do you have now in 
Egypt? It is essentially the continuation of the same regime. This 
doesn't mean though that what happened in Egypt was not important. It 
was a very important upheaval, but the revolutionary process is still 
ongoing and political struggles are raging. Likewise in Libya the 
downfall of Gaddafi won't be the end of the story. The fight will 
continue -- hopefully political rather than military. One of the main 
issues at stake will of course be the nature of the new state and the 
degree to which there should be a radical break with the previous 

The Transitional National Council circles include a few champions of 
neoliberal reforms -- more in the executive committee, i.e. the cabinet, 
than in the TNC itself. Among those who came back from exile, there is 
Khalifa Haftar, a CIA asset. Such people are there. But as far as we 
know, they carry little weight in the rebellion and are actually 
resented and ostracized by a lot of the rebels. When the TNC makes big 
proclamations of gratitude towards NATO, we know from many reports that 
among the rebels there is no real gratitude towards it, there is rather 
a sense of frustration over the way in which NATO has dealt with the 

Many Libyans believe that in some way they hired NATO's services like 
Gaddafi hired mercenaries. They called for help and got it from the 
Western powers that are looking forward to being remunerated for that, 
and they assure them that they will get rewarded. They will tell you, 
"We will carry on making deals with them as Gaddafi's regime was doing 
anyway." Believing this is an illusion of course. But the belief that 
NATO can control the situation from afar and without boots on the ground 
is also an illusion. Many people in NATO circles are aware of that and 
have therefore designed plans for sending troops on the ground.

For a number of reasons, political, financial, and military, though, it 
would be very difficult for NATO to send Western troops. The main reason 
is that the rebels don't want foreign troops on Libyan soil and this has 
been their position from day one when they requested help. They said, 
"We want a no-fly zone, but we don't want troops on the ground." The 
point is that, without such troops, NATO will find itself with little 
leverage once Gaddafi is out of the picture. This is because the 
leverage they have today is mostly due to their calculated 
indispensability to the rebellion in the war against Gaddafi's forces. 
But once this stage is over that leverage will shrink, and that is why 
they are designing scenarios for a ground intervention under a UN cover 
of forces from some Arab and maybe some African states, closely linked 
to Western powers, plus Turkey, a NATO member. Turkey is today very much 
at the forefront of NATO's Libyan operation and it is looking forward to 
playing a major role in the country and obtaining important economic 

Now even if we suppose that the TNC would accept such a scenario of 
foreign troop deployment (a hypothesis that is highly unlikely at the 
present stage, short of a chaotic deterioration of conditions in their 
country), they would have a hard time selling it to the rebellion, to 
the masses of people who fought for freedom and self-determination. In 
the Libyan situation there is a wide gap between NATO's blueprint and 
what we will see on the ground. It won't be the first time that we have 
seen such a discrepancy between imperialist designs and the reality. 
Think of Afghanistan, think of Iraq. It will be the case in Libya as 
well; all the more so in the absence of Western troops on the ground and 
in the presence of a genuine popular uprising.

Tom Mills is a freelance investigative researcher based in London, a PhD 
candidate at the University of Strathclyde and a co-editor of the New 
Left Project.

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