With Muammar Gaddafi’s forces now beginning to slowly beat back and possibly overwhelm the rebel forces through superior firepower, especially air power, the question of outside support through the means of a no-fly zone and other measures, has become urgent — if it is not already too late.

Yet at this point where the actual revolutionary crisis point has occurred, the moment where a revolution marks a break point between the old and the new, where things must be thought afresh, right and left in the West have become paralysed, unable to live up to their own principles, and retreating into consoling narratives, or even into abject silence.

The right’s paralysis was encapsulated in an editorial published in The Australian, stung into response by repeated charges that it was willing to start two wars for “the freedom” of peoples that didn’t ask for them, while turning its back on people who are clamouring for a limited and much less involving form of support. How did they respond to the charge that Libya demonstrated that the “Bush doctrine” was a comforting fantasy? By retreating into fantasy about Bush and Reagan “……”.

So these sterling examples urge us on to take action? Er, not exactly: “The Australian is heartily encouraged by the overthrow of dictators and the emergence of democratic movements in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain and elsewhere in the region.” That’s it.

The cognitive dissonance is total. By celebrating the fantasy notion that Arab people rising up were “inspired by George Bush”, any present obligation to the people themselves can be written off.

Large sections of the right, and also significant groups of the left-liberal pro-Iraq war group have retreated from any engagement with the Libyan rebels, under the banner of “no foreign intervention”.

But this is to obscure the categorical difference between “intervention” — with its suggestion of a massive and autonomous operation, performed without reference to forces on the ground — and “support”, which involves assisting a group of people who are making their own revolution, and who have requested assistance.

That there has been a request for support is without question. It has come from the interim government in Benghazi. Abdel Jilali, Gaddafi’s former Justice Minister, has made this explicit. They want outside forces to “help to protect Libya’s people from Gaddafi’s assault and help put an end to his war”.

Once that request has been made by some group with reasonable claim to legitimacy, the situation is categorically different to an act of intervention. It does not have to be honoured, but nor can it be ducked. The right can please themselves on this — hypocrisy is ultimately fatal to a political movement — but, sadly, many on the anti-imperialist left show no recognition that a request for support requires a different political response.

Thus, in yesterday’s Guardian, a group letter signed by Tony Benn, John Pilger, the “Stop the War” coalition, an Iraqi anti-occupation group, and a Muslim group, opposes any action — still couched in terms of “intervention” — and notes that “Interference in Libya could strengthen Gaddafi’s hand”, among other arguments, going back into the history of imperialism, oil, etc, in the region.

I won’t do the Christopher Hitchens thing (he’s been pretty quiet too) in damning people I’ve hitherto agreed with, but this letter is, at best, badly worded and, at worst, terribly reasoned. “Interference” in Libya may well strengthen Gaddafi’s hand, but that’s a strategic question, and I don’t think the Libyan rebels need us to make those decisions for them.

The same goes as to whether the legacy of imperialism should matter here. The signatories of the letter don’t seem to realise that they are making a whole series of imperious judgments as to how the Libyans should think about their situation. None of it is relevant, once a request for support has been made.

All that matters is whether the request comes from legitimate leadership, is strategically viable, and can be limited in scope. Those conditions appear to have been met.

The anti-imperialist left is in a major jam over Libya. They’re falling back on a firm anti-imperialist line: to quote the UK Socialist Worker, reprinted in Australia’s Socialist Alternative — “We have to let the Libyan people make their own revolution.”

The trouble is, in making that revolution the Libyan people are, as free revolutionary subjects, asking for material support. In which case, the refusal to even consider arguing for such amounts not to non-intervention, but to a refusal of solidarity.

To “let them make their own revolution …” in such condition is not a guarantee of autonomy, but to treat a people like children. It is to go beyond respect for national self-determination, to a rigid respect for national boundaries more characteristic of realpolitik conservatives than internationalist radicals.

Pollyanna rhetoric is being used to hide the truth: “The rebels still have the initiative, and they need to keep it,” says the Socialist Worker, being helpful. The affirmative anti-imperialist position has become its opposite, in a hyper-interconnected world. It’s now a manifesto for passivity and fatalism.

A pity really. Quite aside from supporting a brave and honourable uprising, by honouring its requests, a more audacious idea of what should be advocated when, would serve to make the politics clear in the West: the left supports people rising up, the right is indifferent, or hostile to it. Many of them will not be disturbed to see Gaddafi regain full power. It would have been good to challenge them more unequivocally to show their true colours.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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