[WSMDiscuss] (Fwd) How to Avoid the Anti-Imperialism of Fools (Gilbert Achcar)

Patrick Bond pbond at mail.ngo.za
Tue Apr 6 16:57:46 CEST 2021

/The Nation/

  How to Avoid the Anti-Imperialism of Fools

    The logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is a recipe for
    empty cynicism.

    By Gilbert Achcar <https://www.thenation.com/authors/gilbert-achcar/>

6 April 2021


The last three decades have witnessed increasing political confusion 
about the meaning of anti-imperialism, a notion that, in and of itself, 
hadn’t previously been the topic of much debate. There are two main 
reasons for this confusion: the victorious end of most post–World War II 
anticolonial struggles and the USSR’s collapse. During the Cold War, the 
United States and allied colonial Western powers directly waged several 
wars against national liberation movements or regimes, along with more 
limited military interventions and wars by proxy. In most of these 
cases, Western powers confronted a local adversary supported by a large 
popular base. Standing against the imperialist intervention and in 
support of those whom it targeted seemed the obvious choice for 
progressives—the only discussion was whether the support ought to be 
critical or unreserved.

The main divide among anti-imperialists during the Cold War was rather 
caused by the attitude towards the USSR, which Communist Parties and 
their close allies regarded as the “fatherland of socialism”; they 
determined much of their own political positions by aligning with Moscow 
and the “socialist camp”—an attitude that was described as “campism.” 
This was facilitated by Moscow’s support for most struggles against 
Western imperialism in its global rivalry with Washington. As for 
Moscow’s intervention against workers’ and peoples’ revolts in its own 
European sphere of domination, the campists stood with the Kremlin, 
denigrating these revolts under the pretext that they were fomented by 

Those who believed that the defense of democratic rights is the 
paramount principle of the left supported the struggles against Western 
imperialism as well as popular revolts in Soviet-dominated countries 
against local dictatorial rule and Moscow’s hegemony. A third category 
was formed by the Maoists, who, starting from the 1960s, labeled the 
USSR “social-fascist,” describing it as worse than US imperialism and 
going so far to side with Washington in some instances, such as 
Beijing’s stance in Southern Africa <https://www.jstor.org/stable/655421>.

The pattern of exclusively Western-imperialist wars waged against 
popularly based movements in the Global South started to change, 
however, with the first such war waged by the USSR since 1945: the war 
in Afghanistan (1979–89). And although they were not waged by states 
that were then described as “imperialist,” Vietnam’s invasion of 
Cambodia in 1978 and China’s attack on Vietnam in 1979 brought 
widespread disorientation to the ranks of the global anti-imperialist left.

The next major complication was the 1991 US-led war against Saddam 
Hussein’s Iraq. This wasn’t a popular albeit dictatorial regime but one 
of the Middle East’s most brutal and murderous regimes, one that had 
even used chemical weapons in massacring thousands of its country’s 
Kurdish population—with Western complicity, since this happened during 
Iraq’s war against Iran. A few figures, who until then belonged to the 
anti-imperialist left, shifted on this occasion to supporting the US-led 
war. But the vast majority of anti-imperialists opposed it, even though 
it was waged with a UN mandate approved by Moscow. They had little taste 
for the defense of the emir of Kuwait’s possession of his 
British-granted dominion, populated by a majority of rightless migrants. 
Most were no fans of Saddam Hussein either: They denounced him as a 
brutal dictator while opposing the US-led imperialist war against his 

A further complication soon emerged. After US-led war operations ceased 
in February 1991, the George H.W. Bush administration—having 
deliberately spared Saddam Hussein’s elite force for fear of a regime 
collapse that might have benefited Iran—allowed the dictator to deploy 
it to crush a popular uprising in southern Iraq and the Kurdish 
insurgency in the mountainous north, letting him use helicopters in the 
latter case. This led to a massive wave of Kurdish refugees crossing the 
border into Turkey. To stop this and allow the refugees to return, 
Washington imposed a no-fly zone (NFZ) over northern Iraq. There was 
hardly any anti-imperialist campaign against this NFZ, since the only 
alternative would have been continued ruthless suppression of the Kurds.

NATO’s wars in the Balkans in the 1990s posed a similar dilemma. The 
Serbian forces loyal to Slobodan Milosevic’s regime were engaged in 
murderous actions against Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims. But other means 
to avoid massacres and impose a negotiated settlement in former 
Yugoslavia had been deliberately neglected by Washington, eager to 
mutate NATO from a defensive alliance into a “security organization” 
engaging in interventionist wars. The next step in this mutation 
consisted in involving NATO in Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 
(2001) attacks, thus removing the limitation of the alliance’s 
originally restricted Atlantic zone. Then came the invasion of Iraq in 
2003—the last US-led intervention that united all anti-imperialists on 
the terms of opposing it.

Meanwhile, Cold War “campism” was reemerging under a new guise: No 
longer defined by alignment behind the USSR but by direct or indirect 
support for any regime or force that is the object of Washington’s 
hostility. In other terms, there was a shift from a logic of “the enemy 
of my friend (the USSR) is my enemy” to one of “the enemy of my enemy 
(the USA) is my friend” (or someone I should spare from criticism at any 
rate). While the former led to some strange bedfellows, the latter logic 
is a recipe for empty cynicism: Focused exclusively on the hatred of the 
US government, it leads to knee-jerk opposition to whatever Washington 
undertakes in the global arena and to drifting into uncritical support 
for utterly reactionary and undemocratic regimes, such as Russia’s 
thuggish capitalist and imperialist government (imperialist by every 
definition of the term) or Iran’s theocratic regime, or the likes of 
Milosevic and Saddam Hussein.

To illustrate the complexity of the questions that progressive 
anti-imperialism faces today—a complexity that is unfathomable to the 
simplistic logic of neo-campism—let us consider two wars that arose out 
of the 2011 Arab Spring. When popular uprisings managed to get rid of 
the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011, the whole spectrum of 
self-proclaimed anti-imperialists applauded in unison, since both 
countries had Western-friendly regimes. But when the revolutionary shock 
wave reached Libya, as was inevitable for a country that shared borders 
with both Egypt and Tunisia, the neo-campists were far less 
enthusiastic. They remembered that Moammar El-Gadhafi’s supremely 
autocratic regime had been outlawed by Western states for 
decades—seemingly unaware that it had spectacularly shifted into 
cooperation with the United States 
<https://abcnews.go.com/International/story?id=1965753> and various 
European states since 2003.

True to type, Gadhafi bloodily repressed the protests. When the 
insurgents took over Libya’s second city, Benghazi, Gadhafi—after 
describing them as rats and drug addicts and famously vowing to “purify 
Libya inch by inch, house by house, home by home, street by street, 
person by person, until the country is clean of the dirt and 
impurities”—prepared an onslaught against the city, deploying the full 
spectrum of his armed forces. The likelihood of a massacre of massive 
proportion was very high. Ten days into the uprising, the UN Security 
Council unanimously adopted a resolution 
referring Libya to the International Criminal Court.

Benghazi’s population implored the world for protection, while 
emphasizing that they wanted no foreign boots on the ground. The League 
of Arab States supported this request. Accordingly, the UNSC adopted a 
resolution <https://undocs.org/S/RES/1973(2011)> authorizing “the 
imposition of a NFZ” over Libya as well as “all necessary measures…to 
protect civilians…while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form 
on any part of Libyan territory.” Neither Moscow nor Beijing vetoed this 
resolution: Both abstained, unwilling to assume the responsibility for a 
massacre foretold.

Most Western anti-imperialists condemned the UNSC resolution as 
reminiscent of those which had authorized the onslaught on Iraq in 1991. 
In so doing, they overlooked the fact that the Libyan case had actually 
more in common with the NFZ imposed over northern Iraq than with the 
general onslaught on Iraq under the pretext of liberating Kuwait. The 
UNSC resolution was clearly flawed, wide open to interpretation in a way 
that would allow protracted interference of NATO powers in the Libyan 
civil war. Yet, in the absence of alternative means of preventing the 
impending massacre, the NFZ could hardly be opposed in its initial 
phase—for the same reasons 
that had led Moscow and Beijing to abstain.

It took very few days for NATO to deprive Gadhafi of much of his air 
force and tanks. The insurgents could have carried on without direct 
foreign involvement, provided they were given the weapons needed to 
counter Gadhafi’s remaining arsenal. NATO preferred to keep them 
dependent on its direct involvement in the hope that it could control 
them <https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/24320>. In the end, they 
frustrated NATO’s plans by completely dismantling Gadhafi’s state, thus 
creating the current chaotic situation in Libya.

The second—even more complex—case is Syria. There, the Obama 
administration never intended to impose a NFZ. Because of inevitable 
Russian and Chinese vetoes at the UNSC, this would have required a 
violation of international legality like that committed by the George W. 
Bush administration in invading Iraq (an invasion Obama had opposed). 
Washington kept a low profile 
<https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-38297343> in the Syrian war, 
stepping up its involvement only after the so-called Islamic State 
surged and crossed the border into Iraq, and then restricting its direct 
intervention to the fight against ISIS.

Yet Washington’s most decisive influence on the Syrian war was not its 
direct involvement—which is paramount only in the eyes of neo-campists 
exclusively focused on Western imperialism—but rather its prohibition of 
delivery by its regional allies of anti-aircraft weapons to the Syrian 
insurgents, primarily due to opposition from Israel 
<https://ecfr.eu/article/commentary_syria_the_view_from_israel141/>. The 
result was that the Assad regime enjoyed a monopoly in the air during 
the conflict and could even resort to extensive use of devastating 
barrel bombs dropped by helicopters. This situation also encouraged 
Moscow to directly engage its air force in the Syrian conflict starting 
in 2015.

Anti-imperialists were bitterly divided on Syria. Neo-campists—such as, 
in the United States, the United National Antiwar Coalition and the US 
Peace Council—focused exclusively on Western powers in the name of a 
peculiar one-sided “anti-imperialism,” while supporting or ignoring the 
incomparably more important intervention of Russian imperialism (or else 
timidly mentioning it, while refusing to campaign against it, as in the 
case of the Stop the War Coalition in the United Kingdom), let alone the 
intervention of Iran-sponsored Islamic fundamentalist forces. 
Progressive democratic anti-imperialists—this author included—condemned 
the murderous Assad regime and its foreign imperialist and reactionary 
backers, reproved Western imperialist powers’ indifference to the fate 
of the Syrian people while opposing their direct intervention in the 
conflict, and denounced the nefarious role of the Gulf monarchies and 
Turkey in promoting reactionary forces among the Syrian opposition.

The situation got further complicated, however, when a surging ISIS 
threatened the Syrian left-wing nationalist Kurdish movement, the only 
progressive armed force then active on Syrian territory. Washington 
fought ISIS through a combination of bombing and unembarrassed support 
to local forces that included Iran-aligned militias in Iraq and Kurdish 
left-wing forces in Syria. When ISIS threatened to take over the city of 
Kobanî, held by Kurdish forces, these were rescued by US bombing and 
weapons’ airdropping 
<https://www.rferl.org/a/kobane-is-kurdish-syria/26644993.html>. No 
section of the anti-imperialists stood up significantly to condemn this 
blatant intervention by Washington—for the obvious reason that the 
alternative would have been the crushing of a force linked to a 
left-wing nationalist movement in Turkey that all the left had 
traditionally supported.

Later, Washington deployed troops on the ground in Syria’s northeast to 
back, arm, and train the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces 
(SDF). The only vehement opposition to this US role came from NATO 
member Turkey, the national oppressor of the largest section of the 
Kurdish people. Most anti-imperialists remained silent (the equivalent 
of abstention), in contrast to their 2011 stance on Libya—as if support 
of popular insurgencies by Washington could be tolerated only when these 
are led by left-wing forces. And when Donald Trump, under pressure from 
the Turkish president, announced his decision to pull US troops out of 
Syria, several prominent figures of the American left—including Judith 
Butler, Noam Chomsky, the late David Graeber, and David Harvey—issued a 
demanding that the United States “continue military support for the SDF” 
(though without specifying that it should exclude direct intervention on 
the ground). Even among neo-campists, very few denounced this statement 

 From this brief survey of recent complications of anti-imperialism, 
three guiding principles emerge. First and most important: Truly 
progressive positions—unlike red-painted apologetics for dictators—are 
determined as a function of the best interests of the peoples’ right to 
democratic self-determination, not out of knee-jerk opposition to 
anything an imperialist power does under whatever circumstances; 
anti-imperialists must “learn to think 
<https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/05/think.htm>.” Second: 
Progressive anti-imperialism requires opposing all imperialist states, 
not siding with some of them against others. Finally: Even in the 
exceptional cases when intervention by an imperialist power benefits an 
emancipatory popular movement—and even when it is the only option 
available to save such a movement from bloody suppression—progressive 
anti-imperialists must advocate complete distrust in the imperialist 
power and demand the restriction of its involvement to forms that limit 
its ability to impose its domination over those that it pretends to be 

Whatever discussion remains among progressive anti-imperialists who 
agree on the above principles is essentially about tactical matters. 
With the neo-campists, there is hardly any discussion possible: 
Invective and calumny are their usual modus operandi, in line with the 
tradition of their past century’s predecessors.

Gilbert Achcar <https://www.thenation.com/authors/gilbert-achcar/>

Gilbert Achcar is a professor at SOAS, University of London. His many 
books include /The Clash of Barbarisms/ (2002, 2006); /Perilous Power: 
The Middle East and US Foreign Policy/, co-authored with Noam Chomsky 
(2007); /The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of 
Narratives/ (2010); /The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab 
Uprising/ (2013); and /Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising/ 

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