[WSMDiscuss] (Fwd) Gilbert Achcar on anti-imperialist politics: 'The logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is a recipe for empty cynicism'

Patrick Bond pbond at mail.ngo.za
Wed Jun 2 10:32:25 CEST 2021

  Reflections of an Anti-Imperialist after Ten Years of Debate

By: Gilbert Achcar <https://newpol.org/authors/achcar-gilbert/>May 31, 2021


[Editors’ note: This article will appear in the Summer 2021 issue of 
/New Politics/, which will be sent to subscribers shortly.]

Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon and has lived and taught in Paris, 
Berlin, and London. He is currently professor of Development Studies and 
International Relations 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); /Marxism, Orientalism, Cosmopolitanism/ (2013); /The 
People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising/ (2013); and 
/Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising/ (2016). He was 
interviewed by Stephen R. Shalom for /New Politics/ on May 5, 2021.

*New Politics: Gilbert, you’ve recently published a much-discussed 
article in /The Nation/ on anti-imperialism.[1] 
I wonder if we could begin with you telling us why you wrote the article 
and briefly summarizing your argument.*

*Gilbert Achcar*: Thank you, Steve. I wrote this article because of the 
big confusion that exists nowadays on the left on the meaning of 
“anti-imperialism.” I believe that this confusion is primarily a result 
of the sea change in the global situation that followed the collapse of 
the USSR. There has also been a change in the type of wars waged in the 
global South. Imperialist wars against national liberation movements or 
regimes are no longer the predominant type, as in the first decades 
after the Second World War. Since the 1990s we have seen imperialist 
wars against oppressive regimes such as in Iraq, the Balkans, and 
Afghanistan. The situation got yet more complicated with what has been 
called the Arab Spring in 2011. Western imperialist powers — Barack 
Obama’s United States in the first place — appeared as if supportive of 
the popular uprisings against dictatorial regimes.

So, what does it mean to be an anti-imperialist in this new 
international environment? That’s the issue I tackle in the article, as 
a result of my long personal involvement in such debates, starting most 
crucially from 2011 on the issue of Libya, and then later on Syria. My 
original title was “Their anti-imperialism and ours.”[2] 
I formulated three basic principles of what constitutes truly 
progressive anti-imperialism in my view, principles that ought to be 
rather elementary for anyone on the left, whatever their ideological 
orientation, Marxist, anarchist, or whatever, provided they adhere to 
the most elementary principle of a true left, which is democracy. People 
who agree on these principles can discuss anti-imperialist tactics. 
Some, however, discard them. I call these people “neo-campists” because 
they are no longer systematically aligned behind a single specific state 
or “socialist camp” as were the campists of the time of the USSR, but 
determine their positions negatively, through kneejerk opposition to 
anything the US or UK governments do and sympathy for whoever the two 
governments oppose, including despotic regimes and Russia’s rival 
imperialism. The neo-campists are most often incapable of engaging in 
discussion without resorting to invective and calumny. I concluded my 
article with this observation, and indeed, no sooner was it out than 
various neo-campists rushed to confirm it.

Now, what are the three principles? The first relates to that most 
elementary democratic principle that I already mentioned. When it comes 
to international politics, to be on the left means, first of all, to 
support the peoples’ right to self-determination. That should be the 
starting point in defining a truly progressive anti-imperialism. 
Crucially, this starting point is /not/ opposition per se to this or 
that imperialist state. It is rather the defense of the people’s right 
to self-determination: it is because imperialist states, by definition, 
trample upon this right that they must be countered.

The second principle is that anti-imperialism requires opposition to 
/all/ imperialist states, not standing with one against the others, or 
ignoring one and its victims and only focusing on the other, whichever 
it is. On the left in Western countries, there are neo-campists who only 
focus on U.S. and British imperialism, or Western imperialism in 
general, and ignore, at best, or even support, other imperialist states, 
such as Russia. You may find the reverse in Russia: progressives who are 
very hostile to what their government does abroad and remain silent on, 
if not supportive of, what Western governments do. Once one rises above 
the Western-centrism of much of the Western left, one understands that a 
truly internationalist anti-imperialist perspective is one that opposes 
imperialism whatever its nationality or its geographical location, West 
or East.

The third principle addresses exceptional cases. There might be 
exceptional circumstances where intervention by an imperialist power is 
crucial in preventing a massacre or genocide, or in preventing a popular 
democratic uprising from being bloodily suppressed by a dictatorship. We 
have seen such cases in recent years. But even then, anti-imperialists 
should dispel any illusions, and advocate zero trust, in the imperialist 
country. And they should demand that its intervention remain limited to 
forms, and bound by legal constraints when they exist, that do not 
enable the imperialist power to impose its will or determine the course 
of action.

This third principle explains why, in the cases of Libya and Syria, even 
though Western governments pretended to be on the side of democratic 
change against the dictatorial reactionary regime, I have been opposed 
to direct intervention. The only exception was at the very beginning of 
the UN-authorized No-Fly Zone over Libya, when I explained that, for the 
sake of preventing a foretold massacre, I /could not oppose/ the 
intervention in its initial phase. I explained a thousand times that I 
never said that I /supported/ the intervention—but, as we know, there 
are none so deaf as those who will not hear. All I said is that I 
couldn’t oppose it, which is not the same as saying I favored it, except 
to those who don’t know the difference between abstaining and 
supporting, or who prefer to deliberately ignore it because their only 
way of arguing is by distorting the views of those they disagree with.

The population of the second city in Libya, Benghazi—legitimately 
fearing for their lives, with the Libyan regime moving its far superior 
forces toward the city, and the dictator, Gaddafi, vowing to crush 
them—implored the UN for protection. Even Moscow and Beijing could not 
oppose this: they both abstained at the UN Security Council. But once 
the immediate danger was over, I stood against the continuation of NATO 
bombing, which went far beyond the UN mandate. My attitude became the 
same as the one I have held on Syria from the very start, which is to 
support the delivery of defensive weapons to the insurgents in order to 
protect the population. I would not support the delivery of weapons to 
an organization such as ISIS, of course, since it is as oppressive as 
the regime, if not more so, but I certainly support the delivery of 
weapons to the Kurdish forces in Syria or what used to be the Free 
Syrian Army before it fell under full Turkish control starting from 2016.

I am opposed to the presence of U.S. troops on the ground, even in 
Kurdish-dominated northeast Syria, which is where they are stationed at 
present. I am actually opposed to all five occupations in Syria—in 
chronological order: Israel, Iran and its proxies, Russia, Turkey, and 
the United States. Five states have troops on Syrian soil. I oppose all 
these occupations and support the right of the Syrian people to 
democratic self-determination, not the right of the murderous regime to 
bring in accomplices to help it massacre its own people, which is what 
some neo-campists support.

*NP: Let me explore the three principles a little more. Critics may say 
something like: But what about regime change? Doesn’t the United States 
have a program of regime change around the world—in Ukraine, in the 
Balkans, in the South China Sea, and Xinjiang province? Shouldn’t we be 
opposed to that regime change program?*

*GA*: “Regime change” is a phrase that was used by the Bush 
administration. As far as I know, it hasn’t been used since then. The 
phrase used by the Obama administration in the face of the Arab Spring 
was “orderly transition.” And that’s very different from “regime change” 
à la Bush. The latter means occupation of a country in order to change 
its type of government, usually under the pretext of bringing democracy. 
This is typical colonial-like domination that must be resolutely 
opposed—even if it were about North Korea, an appallingly totalitarian 
state. But “regime change” wasn’t the Obama administration’s line. Some 
on the left lag behind reality, always fighting the last war. U.S. 
imperialism’s methods and doctrine did change in the light of the Iraqi 
debacle, as they had previously changed after Vietnam.

“Orderly transition” might be regarded as the true Obama doctrine: it 
meant that no existing state should be dismantled. The state apparatus 
should be kept intact, instead of allowing the kind of dismantlement 
that the U.S. occupation implemented in Iraq, which has come to be 
regarded in Washington as the main reason for the subsequent debacle of 
the U.S. occupation. What Obama favored everywhere in the Middle East 
and North Africa was a compromise between the old regime and the 
opposition, opening the way for a transition that preserved the state’s 
continuity. He put pressure on Egypt’s military in 2011 for this kind of 
transition. He tried to steer Libyan events in that direction, but 
failed completely, as the state there got completely dismantled. He 
sponsored the Gulf monarchies’ mediation to obtain that outcome in 
Yemen. And that’s what he advocated for Syria, openly stating in 2012 
that he supported “the Yemen solution” for that country.  What was this 
“Yemen solution”? It was a compromise between the head of the regime and 
the opposition, mediated by the Gulf monarchies: The Yemeni President 
stepped down, handed the presidency to the Vice President, but remained 
in control of major levers of power in the country. That’s the 
“solution” that Obama favored in Syria.

Now, what has been the most important intervention of the Obama 
administration in Syria? To answer this question, let us compare its 
attitude toward the Syrian opposition to the way the United States dealt 
with the mujahideen who fought the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. 
Washington supported the Afghan mujahideen, along with the Saudi kingdom 
and the Pakistani military. It is well known that it armed them with 
anti-aircraft missiles, Stinger missiles. Compare that to Syria. Not 
only did the United States /not/ deliver any such weapons to the Syrian 
uprising—even in 2012, when it was still dominated by what could be 
described as a democratic opposition. But it even forbade all its 
regional allies from delivering such weapons to the Syrian insurgents. 
Turkey produces Stinger missiles under U.S. license, but it wasn’t 
allowed to deliver a single one of them to the Syrian opposition—nor 
were the Gulf monarchies. /That/ was the crucial intervention of the 
United States in the Syrian conflict. And that is what allowed Bashar 
al-Assad’s regime to remain in place. It allowed him to maintain a 
monopoly of air power, which enabled his regime to even drop 
barrel-bombs from helicopters—a most indiscriminate and devastating type 
of bombing. Helicopters are an easy target for anti-aircraft weapons, 
and yet, how many helicopters have you seen shot down by the opposition 
in Syria? Hardly any. The reason for this U.S. intervention was, first, 
Israel’s opposition to the delivery of anti-aircraft missiles to the 
Syrian opposition, and second, Obama’s fear of creating the conditions 
for a rout of the Syrian regime’s forces that would have led to state 
collapse in the manner of what happened in Libya.

Thus, the Obama administration in fact helped Bashar al-Assad much more 
than it did the Syrian opposition. Iran understood this and upgraded its 
intervention in Syria through its proxies starting from 2013, confident 
that Obama wouldn’t do anything serious to prevent it or to step up 
qualitatively his support to the opposition. Obama confirmed this in 
2013 in the way he backtracked on the famous chemical weapon “red line.” 
Then in 2015, Russia intervened massively in its turn. So, you have two 
reactionary states, Iran and Russia, intervening in the Syrian conflict 
on a much more massive scale than any Western power. There is no way 
anyone could claim the contrary, lest they completely distort the facts. 
Add to this that the main armed U.S. intervention in Syria, including 
deployment of troops on the ground, was actually on the side of the only 
leftwing force engaged in the Syrian conflict, which is the Kurdish 
movement. That’s something that neo-campism cannot fathom.

*NP: Russia is a lesser imperialist power. But somebody might tell you: 
If there is a lesser imperialist power and a greater one, doesn’t it 
make sense to focus our attention on stopping the greater imperialist 

*GA*: Well, that’s the logic of the lesser evil, the object of a long 
history of debates. However, let us consider what one means when 
speaking of a lesser evil. Not that it is lesser in size, but that it’s 
less dangerous, less vicious, less “evil” than the other. Thus, a 
dominant liberal capitalist force could be construed as a lesser evil 
than a weaker fascist one. In that light, I really don’t think that 
Russia is in any way a “lesser evil” than the United States. Russia 
crushed the Chechen people within its own territory between 1994 and 
2009 in ways that are certainly no less brutal, if not more brutal, than 
what the United States did to Iraq during that same period. Both were 
huge crimes. Moreover, the Russian government is far more authoritarian 
and undemocratic than the U.S. government. U.S. imperialism can be 
stopped by mass action. Russian imperialism doesn’t allow any mass 
opposition to build up. So, there are several issues that make the 
characterization of Russia as the “lesser evil” void of meaning. And 
even though the Russian economy is dwarfed by those of the United 
States, and China for that matter, the Russian military is a much bigger 
part of the global military balance than the Russian economy is of the 
global economy, and it is increasingly aggressive in projecting its 
power abroad.

Look at what Russia is doing today in my part of the world—excuse me 
again for turning it to my part of the world and not looking at 
everything from the perspective of New York or London. What is Russia 
doing today in the Middle East and North Africa? It has played and is 
still playing a key role in shoring up the Syrian regime, one of the 
most murderous dictatorships in the region, and it is itself responsible 
for a good deal of the destruction and killings and carnage that have 
occurred in that poor country. The Russian intervention consisted mainly 
in aerial and missile bombing and when you know what such bombing can 
do—in the name of fighting ISIS, U.S. bombing in limited parts of Syria 
led to terrible devastation, especially in the city of Raqqa—you can 
imagine what was done by Russian bombing on a much larger scale, over 
all the territories that were under opposition control when Russia began 
its direct intervention in 2015, up to the present.

Since then, Russia has also been intervening in Libya, along with the 
Egyptian regime of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, and the United Arab Emirates, 
the region’s most reactionary states with the Saudi kingdom. Russian 
Wagner troops—which are even less “private” than their U.S. equivalent, 
the former Blackwater—have been intervening in Libya to support former 
CIA asset Khalifa Haftar, who has grouped around him forces ranging from 
remnants of the old regime to Salafists to combat the reconciliation 
government backed by the United Nations. Vladimir Putin has also been 
fully supportive of Egypt’s Marshal Sisi, from the very moment that he 
organized his coup, long before Trump named him his “favorite dictator.”

So, if we look at the role of Russia in my part of the world, it is 
certainly no better than that of the United States. In Syria, it’s 
definitely much worse: there, the main actions of the United States by 
order of importance have been fighting ISIS, supporting the Kurdish 
movement for that purpose, and supporting sections of the Syrian 
opposition, whereas the main action of Russia has been fighting the 
Syrian opposition to shore up the Assad regime.

*NP: Let’s go back to the Libyan case. How would you describe the 
opposition to Gaddafi at the beginning of the uprising? Was it a 
jihadist opposition?*

*GA*: Definitely not. It was a motley group of people with a wide range 
of ideological orientations. Keep in mind that Gaddafi seized power in 
1969 and that the uprising against his rule occurred in 2011. That makes 
more than 40 years in power! The government in Libya was brutally 
repressive, no opposition whatsoever was tolerated. In 2003, it shifted 
abruptly into collaboration with Washington and its “war on terror.” In 
that context, it engaged in “extraordinary rendition” arrangements with 
Western governments, under which they would hand over to the Libyan 
government jihadi oppositionists that they held. Among those was one of 
the figures that would emerge later on in the uprising, a man who sued 
the British government for having rendered him to the Libyan 
So, there were indeed some jihadists, who had been fighting the 
government and were regarded by Washington and its allies as terrorists. 
But they were only one component of a vast conglomerate of 
oppositionists that included different kinds of people: democrats, 
liberals, Muslim Brothers, and even a few leftists – the same mix that 
occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo, but with less dominance of Islamic 
forces than in Egypt.

The first election that took place after the fall of Gaddafi in 2012 was 
characterized by a high participation rate, a true one since people 
weren’t compelled to vote as in the sham elections of the past. And the 
big surprise was that Islamic forces received only a minority of the 
votes. The majority was dominated by liberals. This proves that the 2011 
uprising was not dominated by jihadists. In fact, one of the key early 
figures of the uprising was Abdel Fattah Younes, who had been one of 
Gaddafi’s close companions since 1969 and was regarded as Libya’s number 
two. He sided with the uprising when the fighting started and got 
assassinated a few weeks later. The other prominent figure, a man who 
emerged as the chairperson of the Transitional National Council, was the 
minister of Justice, judge Mustafa Abdul Jalil, a man who may be 
described as liberal Muslim. But the opposition was very heterogeneous, 
of course. In an uprising against a long-standing dictatorship, it is 
only normal to see the full spectrum of opposition currents uniting 
against the regime. This is what happened in Libya, as elsewhere.

*NP: Some people say that Libya was better off under Gaddafi. How do you 
respond to that?*

*GA*:   If things had been so good under Gaddafi, there wouldn’t have 
been a popular uprising. The claim that Libya was better off under 
Gaddafi ignores the fact that it is a country with limited population 
and a high oil and gas income, with a GDP per capita of 12,000 USD in 
2010, with oil and gas representing two thirds of the economy and almost 
the totality of exports—the clearest indication of the regime’s massive 
failure to develop the country. The Libyan population should have been 
far better off than it was in 2011 when the uprising exploded. Libya is 
a country where you had huge regional disparities. The regime was 
privileging some parts of the country, those to which its own loyal 
constituencies belonged, and neglecting others. It squandered a lot of 
the country’s income in crazy weapons purchases (mainly from Western 
countries from 2004 on) and military adventures.

Now there are indeed some people who bring up figures such as per capita 
GDP, literacy rates, life expectancy and Human Development Index, to 
tell you that Libya was better than other African countries. But this is 
a very specious comparison. Why not compare Libya to the Gulf 
monarchies, which have similarly small populations and huge oil and gas 
income? Some of them achieved better figures than Libya. Let me read to 
you from this 2011 report by the International Crisis Group entitled 
“Making Sense of Libya”:

/Given a population of a mere six million, many Libyans believe their 
country ought to resemble Dubai. Yet, years of poor planning, 
insufficient and piecemeal development and pervasive corruption (coming 
atop the crippling effects of prolonged international sanctions), have 
left parts of the country in a state of considerable neglect. Resentment 
at this is particularly strong among easterners, who rightly or wrongly 
believe the government has favoured other parts of the country and 
deliberately disadvantaged their region. Despite the country’s economic 
wealth, many Libyans work at least two jobs in order to survive (of 
which one typically is in the state sector, where wages for the most 
part remain pitiful). Housing shortages are acute, with an estimated 
540,000 additional units needed. As public opinion generally has seen 
it, most of the economic opportunities that have opened up since 2003 … 
have remained in the hands of a narrow elite. In particular, they have 
been seized by Gaddafi’s own children and extended family, all of whom 
have accrued large fortunes across a range of businesses from the 
health, construction, hotel and energy sectors. These popular 
perceptions were recently reinforced by the disclosure of Western 
diplomatic assessments. According to U.S. diplomatic cables as released 
by WikiLeaks, Gaddafi’s children routinely benefited from the country’s 
wealth; one noted that it had “become common practice” for government 
funds to be used to promote companies controlled by his children and 
indicated that their companies had benefited from “considerable 
government financing and political backing”. In this sense, Libya has 
been akin to a large pressure cooker waiting to explode./[4] 

Another argument that I often hear is that had NATO intervened in Syria, 
the country would have been like Libya today. Well, I can tell you this: 
There is not a single Syrian who would not wish and pray night and day 
for his country to be like Libya today. I mean, Libya’s situation is 
nothing compared to what happened in Syria: the scale of the massacres, 
the devastation, the displacement, etc., are incomparably more 
horrendous in Syria. After two years of newly acquired political 
freedom, Libya fell into a new civil war starting in 2014, fueled by 
rival foreign interventions, but it remained a low-intensity war 
compared to those of Syria and Yemen.

*NP: Let me go back to one of your initial principles, the one about the 
exceptional case when massacre is impending. Is this an argument for 
humanitarian intervention?*

*GA*: The concept of “humanitarian intervention” is flawed. Nobody would 
oppose a truly “humanitarian” intervention, such as sending troops to 
help after a massive earthquake. No anti-imperialist could oppose such 
an intervention because that would be completely absurd. I never used 
the phrase “humanitarian intervention” except to criticize it as a 
hypocritical pretext for imperialist interventions. When imperialism 
intervenes in a conflict, it’s never for humanitarian reasons and I’ve 
never ever subscribed to any illusion about that, but have consistently 
denounced what Noam Chomsky has called the “new military humanism.”[5] 

The exceptional cases I’m talking about are when, for reasons of their 
own, imperialist powers sides with a popular uprising against a despotic 
regime, the latest such instance being the uprising against the military 
takeover in Myanmar. In such cases, if the popular movement decides to 
bear arms to defend itself from an ongoing slaughter, I support their 
right to get defensive weapons from wherever they can get them, even if 
only from imperialist powers. I even support demanding that Western 
governments provide such weapons. But I do not support direct 
intervention, be it by bombing or by dispatching troops to be deployed 
on the ground, all the less when this is done in violation of 
international law. However, if there is no other alternative to prevent 
an imminent large-scale massacre, I must abstain until the threat is 
eliminated. Abstaining means that I wouldn’t demonstrate against the 
intervention, as a few people did on March 19, 2011 in New York and 
Washington while the population in Benghazi was joyfully applauding what 
they perceived as their rescue. But nor would I demonstrate in support 
of the intervention: I would rather warn those who are rescued against 
having any illusions about the real intentions and designs of their 
momentary rescuers. That is what I did in 2011 when the intervention 
started in Libya. The city of Benghazi was threatened by the regime, the 
population of Benghazi implored the United Nations for intervention, the 
Security Council voted on a resolution authorizing this intervention, 
and Moscow and Beijing consented, albeit by abstaining rather than 
voting yes. That is what I explained in the March 19 interview[6] 
that you did with me, and nothing else. And yet, all hell broke loose in 
some circles of the anti-imperialist left in the U.S. and the UK, from 
the usual neo-campists to even some radicals who were yet to “learn to 

For me, the original side to this debate was that it revealed the 
Western ethnocentrism of most of my detractors. They simply could not 
put themselves in the shoes of the people of Benghazi or of any part of 
the Arab region shaken by the 2011 revolutionary shockwave. They saw 
everything from the vantage point of the U.S. or its British poodle and 
were only interested in countering whatever their government did 
regardless of what was happening on the receiving end. They attacked me 
because they couldn’t fathom that I react politically more in unison 
with the Arab part of the world to which I belong (when it is directly 
concerned, that is) than with Britain where I happen to reside and 
work—my work being focused on the Middle East and North Africa. To give 
you but one example, on March 19, 2011, the very same day that we held 
our interview, the Lebanese Hezbollah—which is not exactly known to be a 
great friend of the United States—was holding a mass meeting in Beirut’s 
southern suburb, in solidarity with the Arab peoples. That was before 
the Syrian uprising shifted Hezbollah’s position. Here is what the 
party’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said about Libya in his long speech:

/In Libya, people rose up as they did in Tunisia and Egypt. A group of 
young people started in Benghazi and were met with bullets and killing. 
People came to their support and the revolution spread from city to 
city, with demonstrations and civil disobedience. They were countered 
with bullets, planes, and tanks. War was imposed on the peaceful and 
civilian popular revolution. … Like you all, we saw on television 
planes, and tanks, and canons, and/ /Katyusha multiple rocket launchers, 
aligned in a way that reminds us in Lebanon of the 1982 invasion and all 
Israeli wars. This war that is launched today by the Gaddafi regime on 
the Libyan people is the same type of war as those launched by Israel on 
Lebanon and Gaza. … Whoever can provide help of whatever sort to this 
insurgent people must provide help so that they stand up and resist in 
the face of destruction and massacres./

///Our revolutionary brothers in Libya and our Arab peoples must know 
that America and the West have given the Libyan regime enough time to 
crush the revolution, a lot of time spent in talks and meetings. But the 
Libyans were steadfast, they resisted and fought, and embarrassed the 
world by their steadfastness and resilience. … To be sure, the situation 
in Libya has become very complicated with the start of the international 
intervention that might involve Libya in the game of nations, and this 
requires from the revolutionaries that they deploy their vigilance and 
patriotism in which we have high confidence./[8] 

Note that Nasrallah actually blamed “America and the West” not for 
intervening, but for having been late in intervening! He was much less 
critical than I had been on the same day when you interviewed me. 
Shortly after, once the threat was over, which was achieved after a few 
days of intervention destroying much of Gaddafi’s planes and tanks, I 
clearly stated that I was against the continuation of bombing because it 
was obviously no longer needed to rescue any population, but had become 
merely an attempt by NATO to interfere in the Libyan situation and take 
control of it. Here is what I explained on March 31:

/Opposing the no-fly zone while offering non-plausible alternatives, as 
many groups of the sane and true left did with the best of intentions, 
was unconvincing. It put the left in a weak position in the eyes of 
public opinion. Opposing the no-fly zone while showing no concern about 
the civilians, as some fringe groups did, was immoral — not to mention 
the attitude of those reconstructed or unreconstructed Stalinists who 
are upholding Gaddafi as a progressive anti-imperialist and dismissing 
the uprising as a US-led or al-Qaeda-led conspiracy (while resorting to 
Stalinist-style slanders in discussing the position of those on the left 
who sympathized with the Libyan uprising’s request for protection)./

///The no-fly zone request by the uprising should not have been opposed. 
Instead, we should have expressed our strong reservations on UNSC 
resolution 1973, and warned of any attempt to seize it as a pretext in 
order to further imperialist agendas. As I said the day after resolution 
1973 was adopted, “without coming out against the no-fly zone, we must 
express defiance and advocate full vigilance in monitoring the actions 
of those states carrying it out, to make sure that they don’t go beyond 
protecting civilians as mandated by the UNSC resolution.” Our usual 
presumption against military interventions of imperialist states was 
overruled in the emergency circumstances of massacre impending, but 
these emergency circumstances are no longer there at present, and 
protecting the uprising can now be achieved in a much better way by 
supplying it with weapons./[9] 

The other case similar to that of Libya in 2011 is when you had the 
surge of ISIS in 2014, crossing the border into Iraq and spreading over 
a huge territory on which they carried out horrible crimes, including 
the genocide of Yazidis in Iraq and an attempt to do the same to Kurds 
in both Iraq and Syria. The Kurdish-controlled city of Kobani in 
northeast Syria got threatened by ISIS. Washington intervened and 
started bombing the self-proclaimed “Islamic State.” Should 
anti-imperialists have been marching in Washington and London chanting 
“Stop U.S. intervention in Syria”? The United States was airdropping 
weapons to the Kurdish forces. Should anti-imperialists have opposed 
this? I don’t believe so. At the time of most urgent necessity to 
prevent a Kurdish defeat that would have opened the way for ISIS to 
invade Kurdish-controlled territories in Syria, one couldn’t oppose the 
bombing. Once the immediate danger was over, the continuation of the 
bombing should have been opposed, combined with the demand to provide 
the needed weapons to those who were fighting ISIS, especially the 
Kurdish and allied forces in both Syria and Iraq.

To sum up, under exceptional circumstances when there is no available 
alternative to prevent a large-scale massacre, intervention by 
imperialist powers may be a “lesser evil” as long and as far as needed 
to eliminate the threat. Arming a democratic uprising against a much 
better-equipped despotic enemy is a necessity from a truly leftist 
internationalist perspective. Internationalists should demand that their 
governments, even imperialist governments, deliver defensive weapons to 
the progressive side in a civil war (remember the Spanish civil war![10] 
At the same time, we should advocate to those who require such aid 
complete mistrust in the United States and any imperialist government 
whatsoever. And we should oppose any form of intervention that would tie 
their hands and subordinate them to Washington, Moscow, or anyone else.

*NP: But if I were part of a group that was facing massacre and I were 
offered aid and the aid came with strings, I might say these strings are 
rotten, but I’d rather succumb to these rotten demands and impositions 
than get massacred.*

*GA*: And I would completely understand that. But my role from the 
outside would be to tell you: I understand your position, I understand 
that you are left with no choice, but I warn you of the real aims and 
goals of those who are providing you with what you badly need, and I 
urge you to do your utmost in order to maintain and preserve your full 


Gilbert Achcar, “How to Avoid the Anti-Imperialism of Fools 
/The Nation/, April 6, 2021.

Gilbert Achcar, “Their anti-imperialism and ours 
<https://newpol.org/authors/achcar-gilbert/>,” /New Politics/, April 18, 

Owen Bowcott, “Abdel Hakim Belhaj wins right to sue UK government over 
his kidnap 
/The Guardian/, Oct. 30, 2014.

ICG, “Making Sense of Libya 
June 6, 2011.

/The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo/, Monroe, ME: Common 
Courage Press, 1999.

Gilbert Achcar, “Libyan Developments 
ZNet, Mar. 19, 2011.

Leon Trotsky, “Learn to Think 
<https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/05/think.htm>,” /New 
International/, vol. 4, no. 7, July 1938.

<http://archive.almanar.com.lb/article.php?id=22453> (in Arabic). For 
further English excerpts, see Stephen R. Shalom, “Nasrallah on Libya 
/ZNet/, 9 April 2011.

Gilbert Achcar, “Barack Obama’s Libya speech and the tasks of 
/Le Monde diplomatique/, April 4, 2011.

Andreu Espasa, “Roosevelt and the Spanish Civil War,” /The Volunteer/, 
Dec. 15, 2019, 


  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/>

        /The Nation, /April 6, 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.

        Current Issue

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 British-born David 
Harvey—issued a statement 
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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