Letter to the editor: Libya

Issue: 134

Gilbert Achcar

Simon Assaf’s article “Libya at the Crossroads” in International Socialism 133 included a misinterpretation of my position on Libya as one that “argued that the left had no choice but to support intervention”.1

The myth that I advocated “support” for Western military intervention in Libya is a tenacious one indeed. It stuck in the minds of many, even though I did explain on several occasions that I never called for such a support.

The latest time was in an interview with the New Left Project posted on 26 August 2011, under the title “Popular Rebellion and Imperialist Designs”,2 in which I emphasised that:

I never held that we on the left, me included, had to support Nato’s intervention in Libya, or even support the UN resolution [under whose cover it took place]. I criticised 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 [the reasons were: Gaddafi’s threat of massacring the insurgent masses in Benghazi, the fact that they themselves called for international protection, and the lack of an alternative that we, on the anti-imperialist left, could offer them to ward off that imminent threat]. 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…

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 [on 31 March]3 a campaign on two inseparable demands: ‘Stop the bombing! Deliver arms to the insurgents!’

In a second interview with the New Left Project posted on 4 September 2011, under the title “After Gaddafi”,4 I further commented on the misrepresentation of my position:

To be sure, the position I expressed was itself an unusually complex one, reflecting the intricacy of the situation. But this can’t be a sufficient explanation, let alone an excuse, for the fact that my critics were on the whole unable to represent my position accurately, whether it was deliberate misrepresentation—for those who mistake caricature for argument—or as a result of misreading under the influence of the former. Thus, I had a first-hand experience of what Francis Bacon meant with his famous saying: ‘Slander boldly, something always sticks.’ Even though I never ever ‘supported’ Nato’s intervention, several detractors immediately distorted my position into one of ‘support to Nato’s no-fly zone’, which translated naturally into ‘support to Nato intervention’, nay, ‘support to imperialism’ for the most overexcited, without ever producing a single relevant quote. And despite my continuous refutation of this caricature in subsequent statements on the matter, my recent NLP interview being only the latest, some people on the left keep ‘summing up’ my position to this day as one of ‘support for Nato’s intervention’.

It is bewildering for me to see how much it is difficult for so many people to distinguish between ‘support’ and ‘non-opposition’, even though they supposedly understand the difference between ‘voting in favour’ and ‘abstaining’. For the sake of maximum clarity, I will translate the difference in organised actions, as didactically as possible. Supporting Nato’s initial enforcement of the no-fly zone leads to demonstrating in its favour. Opposing it leads to demonstrating against it. Not opposing it in the initial stage means abstaining from demonstrating against it, or calling for it to stop, during its first days, while warning against its continuation in order to prepare for the next stage when opposing it, ie demonstrating against it, becomes possible and necessary.

I do not doubt that Simon Assaf’s misrepresentation of my position in his article belongs to the category of genuine “misreading” in good faith. I cannot say the same of many of my detractors who resort to sheer slandering, whether they belong to pro-Gaddafi “anti-imperialist” circles, or to the Stalinist tradition, of which a “Trotskyist” current often called “Lambertist” after one of its founders is a prominent representative. In a recent piece which they posted in several languages on the internet, they labelled me a “supporter of imperialism” in typical Moscow Trials style, claiming that I addressed a meeting of the Syrian National Council in order to urge them to call for foreign military intervention, whereas I actually addressed a meeting of the Syrian left opposition (the Syrian Coordination Committee) in order to argue against any call for such an intervention.5

I am thankful for the editors’ democratic and comradely gesture in inviting me to write this clarification.