Self-deception and apologetics
The AWL cannot bring itself to condemn imperialist interventions in principle, writes Mike Macnair
Another week, another terrorist attack. It is becoming almost like the 1970s ...
A product of the June 3 London Bridge atrocity is hand-wringing of one sort or another about the failure of the government’s ‘anti-radicalisation’ strategy.1 Another associated effect is that a June 5 poll found that 75% of respondents “agreed with Corbyn” that the various British military interventions made terrorist attacks in the UK more likely.2
Clive Bradley of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (or Alliance for Foreign Office Liberty, as some of us refer to it) has written on this issue in the May 31 issue of the AWL paper Solidarity. Like AWL articles on these issues generally, Bradley’s is characterised by weasel words. He rightly concludes:
But what [Corbyn] has actually said is right, as far as it goes. And the Tories’ attempts to attack him for it should be denounced for the dishonest, demagogic scandal they are.
But this ‘right’-ness is, for Bradley, extraordinarily narrow. It is not the obvious injustice of the ‘western’ interventions in the Middle East which is to be imagined as motivating terrorists. That would call into question the AWL’s own neutral to positive evaluation of these interventions - ‘neither support nor oppose’. Rather, he says,
There were many aspects to western policy which fuelled the growth of what was to become [Islamic State] - principally the utter lack of any sort of plan for what would come after the fall of Saddam, the decision to destroy the bureaucracy of the Iraqi state, driving thousands of Sunni Arabs into the arms of the jihadists, and the decision to back a Shia-sectarian government, which made this worse.
Libya, where Salman Abedi was born, was in some ways a repeat of the same thing on a smaller scale.
The completely arbitrary selection of some tyrannical regimes to be bombed, invaded, etc - while other, equally tyrannical, regimes are treated as friends of the ‘west’ - evidently could not, according to Bradley, explain the desire to take armed action against the mad western bombers - but inefficiency in ‘regime change’ could. A remarkable colonialist assumption.
On Libya, indeed, in spite of the evident close connection of the attacker, Abedi, to the jihadis the UK government backed against the Gaddafi regime, and the obvious failed-state outcome, Bradley continues to defend the AWL’s refusal to oppose the intervention:
It is the opinion of this writer, for instance, that, though the outcome of military intervention in Libya was predictable up to a point, at the time - March 2011 - the only real alternative was to allow Gaddafi to survive and immediately massacre his opponents. Moreover, the rebel movement was calling for intervention. The proper socialist response was not to march in opposition to military intervention - as Stop the War did, if ineffectually, but to support the revolution against Gaddafi and warn about likely future problems.
Still today, to reduce a critique of western policy in Libya to the fact of intervention is to miss a lot of the point.
This argument is, in fact, also inconsistent with Bradley’s prior explanation of IS. For there to have been “a plan for what would come after the fall of Saddam”, and a decision to preserve “the bureaucracy of the Iraqi state”, it would have been necessary that this state was allowed the military capability to destroy its enemies in arms; and what would have been left afterwards would have been in Iraq a sub-Ba’athist regime; in Libya a sub-‘Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya’ regime.
On what basis are we asked by Bradley to believe that the terrorists are not trying to bring a little of the death and destruction which the ‘west’ has rained on the Middle East back home?
Bradley offers three objections:
the vast majority of Muslims, for instance, don’t, despite these foreign policy outrages, feel motivated to blow up teenagers; ... often the terrorists aren’t personally from the countries affected (even in the Manchester case, it’s unclear if Salman Abedi’s action was specifically in reference to events in Libya); ... the terrorists’ aims are so unspecific, even apolitical, but rather just an expression of general hatred.
The first of these points is quite senseless. Looking back to the 1970s, the vast majority of Six Counties Catholics did not become IRA fighters; the vast majority of Basques did not become ETA fighters; the vast majority of even German Maoists did not become Red Army Fraction fighters. But these facts do not license us to suppose that the Irish or Basque nationalism or the Maoism was not the primary motivation of the fighters.
The second is almost equally irrelevant. It is an attempt to argue that you are not permitted to be concerned about an injustice which does not affect you personally, and still less about an injustice in some foreign country. It is, however, obvious that the wish to give aid and assistance to the downtrodden is a matter of elementary human sympathy, which under the regime of modern mass media leads vast masses of people to take small actions to attempt to help people in faraway countries. ‘Radicalisation’ into salafism commonly begins with involvement in Muslim charity work, and this was part of the strategic conception of the Muslim Brotherhood and of Hamas.
The third is just untrue. The jihadis have perfectly clear aims. There is masses of information available in print and on the web on different conceptions of an Islamic regime as an alternative to ‘western’ social and political order. The fact that these aims are, in liberal or leftwing eyes, utopian-reactionary, and that there are various versions (Hezbollah’s version is different from Da’esh’s) does not disqualify them from being aims.
Libya, in fact, demonstrated most clearly the AWL’s true character. Once, it used to argue that Islamism was a form of reactionary anti-capitalism which grew up independent of issues of ‘western’ policy, as a response to capitalist development in the Middle East, and was a more serious enemy to the workers’ movement than ‘western’ (‘modern’ capitalist) policy. But then the US turned to the attack on Iraq - an attack on a secular nationalist regime, which was predicted to strengthen both Islamist forces in Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran - and it turned out that the AWL thought it was a bad idea to unequivocally oppose this attack. Then Libya, where the UK and France were in explicit alliance with Islamists against secular nationalists - and still the AWL thought opposing the attack was a bad idea, for reasons Bradley still defends.
It has thus become clear that what is at issue is not the reactionary character of the Islamists, but the AWL’s weaselling forms of support for UK foreign policy.
Perhaps Solidarity’s editors found Clive Bradley’s arguments against the line that terrorism is partly a ‘blowback’ from the wars not strong enough. They combine it on the same page with a shorter piece by Colin Foster, which begins:
Andy Burnham, now Labour mayor of Manchester, probably wanted to cover for his votes in favour of the invasion of Iraq. But, as it stood, his comment on May 28 was right: “Obviously, the actions of governments can then contribute and help the terrorists to add to their cause, but let’s remember that the appalling atrocity of 9/11 happened before interventions anywhere.”
Modern-era suicide bombing dates from the 1980s, not from 2003 ...
Foster’s suggestion that Burnham was right to say that “9/11 happened before interventions anywhere” is equally extraordinary. What about the 1991 Gulf War and the ‘turkey shoot’ of retreating Iraqi forces? What about the continuing occupation of the West Bank and the continuing process of (illegal) expropriation of the inhabitants for the benefit of settlers?
Foster, indeed, goes on to say that “Modern-era suicide bombing dates from the 1980s ...” But he carefully does not tell us the context in which it arose: Israel invaded Lebanon in order to attack the Palestinian refugee camps there (and with an aim of acquiring long-term control of south Lebanon). Through their Lebanese Christian militia proxies, the Israeli occupiers committed a genocidal massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The United States then intervened with troops as a “peacekeeping” force (just as Britain and France did in Suez in 1956), but in fact in the Israeli interest as well as for its own ends.
It was in this context that the Lebanese Shia Islamist party-militia, Hezbollah, invented the modern form of ‘suicide bombing’. And it was the apparent partial success of this tactic in 1983 - the US did, in fact, withdraw its troops from Lebanon - that has promoted its more widespread use since then.3
Suicide bombing, in short, was and is a means of carrying on warfare under conditions of violent asymmetry of the military means available.
We can go a little further than this. The AWL, like other left or ostensibly left formations, carries in Solidarity historical articles which invite the reader to recall and think on the basis of events going all the way back to the early history of the socialist movement in the later 19th century. This year, of course, there is a predominance of articles about 1917. They expect this history to motivate and educate their readers.
But then Bradley’s and Foster’s arguments demand that Arab or Muslim people should forget the fraudulent lending backed by armed robbery which enmeshed later 19th century Egypt and turned it into a British-operated creditors’ protectorate; or the Ottoman Debt Administration of the same period and down to 1914; or the post-1918 partitioning of the Ottoman empire under the Sykes-Picot agreement, and the Balfour Declaration; or the Nakba ethnic cleansing of 1947-48; and so on, and on ...
They are supposed to forget these events because, according to the AWL, imperialism has changed into an “imperialism of free trade”, which merely polices the boundaries of regular competition, unlike the “paleo-imperialism” of the 1991 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Tell that to the British, French, German and Russian companies who were ousted from Iraqi contracts by the US invasion of Iraq: a piece of blatant late 19th century-style imperial protectionism. This in turn may have motivated Britain and France to take the lead in attacking Libya, to get their own national firms’ trotters in this trough (it turned out they did not have the military resources to do the job without US aid).4
In short: Bradley and Foster are deluding themselves if they imagine that their arguments do anything more than put a pseudo-leftist spin on the fashionable media products promoted by the US state department and UK foreign office.
However, the jihadist terrorists are also deluding themselves.
Their starting point, as I already said, is ‘no justice, no peace’: the radical and obvious injustice of ‘the west’s’ operations in the Middle East and the ‘Islamic world’ more generally. However, as I have already said, that injustice is no novelty; and between the 1900s and the 1970s, radical responses to it were more likely to be communist or left-nationalist than Islamist. Already by 1900 the successes of the US, Germany, Italy and Japan in escaping from subordination to Britain made state-led and protectionist development an attractive strategy. The Russian Revolution added ‘developmental socialism in one country’ to the menu.
1975 was the high point in this trend, with the fall of Saigon and decolonisation of the Portuguese overseas empire. But at the same time, it was already clear to those who actually spent time in the USSR or China as students, as opposed to doing Potemkin-village tourism, that these countries harboured their own chauvinisms (Great Han, Great Russian) towards ‘third world’ students; and also that these were seriously poor countries compared to the west. In this context, the appeal of the ‘developmental socialism’ model was weakened.
Moreover, the 1973-74 ‘oil price shock’ moved resources from pretty much everywhere else to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis then began to spend the money, with the backing of the US, in promoting their Wahabi-salafist version of Islam through charities, mosque-building, etc; a process which has gone on to the present day.
It was under Jimmy Carter (1976-80) that Israeli security agencies began to back the Islamists and their Saudi-funded charities to undermine the Palestine Liberation Organisation, leading to the later creation of Hamas; and that the US began to back mojahedin opponents of the Afghan regime of Daoud Khan. General Mohamed Zia ul-Haq, who in 1977 (with US backing) overthrew the Pakistan People’s Party government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, also postured as an Islamist and was heavily involved in promoting the Afghan mujahadeen.
In short, the emergence of Islamist jihadism from the later 1970s was a turn of US policy, through the Saudi kingdom as a mechanism.
The point is sharply illustrated by the differences between the Manchester attack - using a bomb by someone who was tied into military training and supplies through a Libyan group ultimately, if indirectly, linked to Saudi funding (and funded by the UK in the period of the struggle to overthrow Gaddafi), and killing 23 at the cost of one terrorist life - and the amateur operation in London, using everyday items (van, knives) and killing eight for three terrorist lives (a very unfavourable rate of exchange for the terrorists). Horrible as the event is, repeated attempts of the London Bridge variety would exhaust the supply of jihadis.
It is also sharply illustrated by the inability of the British (or US) state to run an actual campaign to control the preaching of jihad, or to distinguish people who are merely political Islamists from potential jihadis. They cannot do either, because what is being preached is precisely orthodox wahhabism promoted by Saudi charities, and the attempts at terrorism are merely carrying this doctrine into action.
The terrorists may imagine that they have found a new mechanism for ‘bringing the war back home’, fighting the deep injustice of the world order. But, if so, it is a complete delusion. In launching terror attacks, they do not bring the war home to its actual promoters in the ‘western’ states, but merely serve these promoters, for whom the jihadis on the ground are useful idiots.
1. Eg, A Biencoff, ‘Theresa May is “responsible” for London terror attack and must resign, says top David Cameron aide’ Business Insider June 5; A Lusher, ‘British Muslim “industry” accused of undermining deradicalisation efforts’ The Independent June 3; and so on.
2. ‘Majority of British voters agree with Corbyn’s claim UK foreign policy increases risk of terrorism’ The Independent June 6.
3. I Overton and H Dodd, ‘A short history of suicide bombing’ (2013) is useful: https://aoav.org.uk/2013/a-short-history-of-suicide-bombings. On the US withdrawal of troops from Lebanon, Wikipedia’s ‘1983 Beirut barracks bombings’ is well-documented.
4. I do not mean to say that these trivial advantages to US companies were the primary motivations for the invasion of Iraq. The point is merely that this sort of ‘non-tariff barrier’ protectionism is default behaviour for the ‘advanced capitalist’ states, so that the idea of an actual ‘imperialism of free trade’ in the American Federation of Labour’s sense is a delusion.