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Middle East

Feb 24, 2012

Rundle: Colvin was brave in Syria, but her cause is unjust

No one has really asked whether Marie Colvin's death, or her extended mission, had any real purpose.


Nothing captures the absurdity of the debate around Syria better than an exchange yesterday on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today program. Veteran broadcaster John Humphrys was interviewing Syrian expat Rim Turkmani, who is opposed to any form of military intervention. “But what if it was your family in Homs?” Humphrys probed. “I have family in Homs. At least a dozen,” Tukmani replied. “I’m terrified for them, but intervention will only increase the bloodshed.” At which point the interview lost its easy structure.

True, Humphrys was playing advocatus diaboli, but he was a lot less diaboli to the other guest, a Syrian advocating Western arming of the Free Syrian Army. Why? Because he fitted the now tiresome narrative — beleaguered people crying out for help, spurned by the West. Yet Tukmani made clear the full absurdity of the situation, in that no one is seriously contemplating any sort of full-scale Western military intervention in Syria — whatever is going to happen will depend on what Turkey wants to do.

So the debate about it has become entirely virtual — it is now an occasion for the wringing of hands, and the abstract discussion of moral obligations that no one proposes acting on. And just in case attentive readers are wondering how your correspondent can say this having supported Western involvement in Libya — it’s the very difference of the situations that suggest when one should and shouldn’t support involvement.

Libya was a revolution by the Libyan people across the board — whatever the shadowy nature of the leadership — against an autocrat with no social base to speak of, merely mercenaries and weapons. We assisted a process they had begun themselves in a clear manifestation of the general will, and in a military situation where strategic assistance was limitable and feasible.

Syria has several separate peoples penned within a colonial-era boundary. The uprising is partial, ethno-religiously based, and does not appear to have general or national consent. Assad’s brutality in Homs and elsewhere is indefensible, and it is possible that Turkey will wave a stick as part of negotiating a political solution. Anything else, would be attending to the horror of witnessing the killing of Homs, rather than doing what is possible to stop the killing itself.

That division — between our own needs and those of the actual Syrian people — is no better illustrated than by the treatment of the death of Marie Colvin, the veteran war correspondent, who was killed (with a young French photographer) in Homs two days ago. Colvin was famous as a three-decade veteran of dangerous war assignments, and became iconic, due to the adoption of a black patch, to cover an eye lost in the line of fire. She stayed in Homs, after her editor urged her to get out to get “one more story”, and appears to have been directly targeted by the Syrian government. Her death has dominated the news for a full 36 hours, with the always added subscript that “we should not forget ordinary Syrians are dying in large numbers”.

Amidst all this, no one has really asked whether her death, or her extended mission, had any real purpose. By the day she died, Colvin had already filed a long piece in The Sunday Times about the effects of the shelling on Homs, and added this comment to the BBC, which has gone round the world:

 “I watched a little baby die today,” Marie Colvin told the BBC from the embattled city of Homs on Tuesday in one of her final reports.

“Absolutely horrific, a two-year old child had been hit … They stripped it and found the shrapnel had gone into the left chest and the doctor said, ‘I can’t do anything.’ His little tummy just kept heaving until he died.”

The hard question to ask is this: did Colvin’s reports add anything to our understanding of the situation? We were pretty clear about what a lethal siege looks like, even if we hadn’t been from lethal sieges of the past. Colvin could argue that by simply being there, she was making something happen — her presence in East Timor during the Indonesian attacks was said to have saved the lives of a whole community, though the story is not undisputed — but was that really the purpose of journalism per se? Or had she succumbed to what she herself mused upon last year, the confusion of bravery with bravado, of reporting with war junkiedom?

That suspicion is reinforced by remarks she made, about her continued work after losing the eye in Sri Lanka in 2001: “So, was I stupid? Stupid I would feel writing a column about the dinner party I went to last night … Equally, I’d rather be in that middle ground between a desk job and getting shot, no offence to desk jobs.” Front-line reportage or dinner party gossip, are those really the only alternatives? What about something more interpretive, that explained to readers the roots of the conflict, and the complexities of the situation? Would that not be — desk job though it is — in service to the Syrian people, perhaps more so than reportage, sometimes shading into war p-rn?

The suspicion that something more is going on — as it is with many war correspondents — is reinforced not only by that damn eye patch, a largely superfluous affectation that seemed to emphasise the narcissistic dimension of war reporting — but also by her comparison of Homs with Srebrenice, despite the many differences between the two situations. Having decided that the West should intervene, Colvin was, by her own account, trying to gather stories that would shame the West into acting. She seems to have achieved that with her death, with Nicolas Sarkozy stating: “That’s enough now … This regime must go,” the death of two European journalists apparently capable of tipping any scale you might want to offer.

Thus the whole cause is neatly contained within the Western drama of salvation, and the Syrians themselves become a backdrop in their own country — as in the last photo of her that has now become iconic, and a more telling picture than many war correspondents would want to admit to. Did her death add to our understanding? Or become part of the drama in ways which make clear-sighted action less possible?

The question can be widened to one that is rarely asked, and that is abut not merely the personality, but the class basis of many such journalists. Overwhemingly drawn from a fairly privileged elite –especially in Britain — or ex-forces personnel, their default setting seems to be a cynicism about organisational politics of any type, and a celebration of individual “conscience”, tied in with eye-witness, and often uncontextualised, accounts of suffering. For many such correspondents, trying to understand the meaning of a conflict is what Colvin disparagingly called the “desk job”, a hint of the wilful anti-intellectualism that often pervades war reporting (making all the more visible the quality of the work of those — such as Robert Fisk and John Pilger — who do put in the desk time).

Such journalists’ careers also serve the interests of other journalists, trapped in a profession that is increasingly devolving to rewriting press releases to wrap around advertising on a page of lifestyle features. The exploits — constructive or otherwise — of war correspondents becomes a way of retaining some meaning in a diminished profession, and their deaths consequently become a rallying point for professional self-celebration.

Bravery is a virtue, and Colvin clearly had it in spades, but it’s a virtue of means, not ends — and when attached to a series of agendas that are anything but those of the wider Syrian people, such exploits can have a contrary effect. At a time when an ever larger proportion of war reportage is being done by the people themselves, and then posted/smuggled/emailed to the wider world, there’s all the more reason to cast a critical eye over large organisations such as the BBC, and individual hero correspondents and the narratives they bring to complex struggles.



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26 thoughts on “Rundle: Colvin was brave in Syria, but her cause is unjust

  1. Robert Barwick

    Brave analysis. Whoever gets Crikey in Kevin Rudd’s office should force him to pull his head off the TV cameras for a few minutes and read it, before he follows the British script and drags Australia into a re-run of Iraq.

  2. Gavin Moodie

    Thanx for this most useful analysis.

    As GRundle demonstrates, some are able to both report from the field and analyse from the desk.

  3. garydj

    Another great article, Guy. But on one minor point, I think you’ve let your
    view of how you would like things to be, get in the way of understanding how
    they actually are.

    The line, “Syria has several separate peoples penned within a colonial-era
    bounday”, applies as much to Libya, as it does to Syria. Gaddafi was able to
    survive as long as he did because he had a basis for support. Gaddafi
    supported some tribes and ethnic groups over others. It was these groups
    that enabled Gaddafi to rule for forty years and it was they who provided
    many of his foot soldiers in the war last year. Similarly, it was the groups
    that were not favoured, particularly those in the eastern parts of Libya, that
    provided the foot soldiers for the militias that fought against Gaddafi.

    Although it may be less appealling than the idea that there “was a
    revolution by the Libyan people across the board”, but the war in Libya last
    year was a civil war, not a revolution.

  4. scott rooney

    “The hard question to ask is this: did Colvin’s reports add anything to our understanding of the situation?” I suspect her reports added much more than anything you can write.

  5. ninetenthsofthelaw

    Interesting article, but you didn’t really show much from her writing to support this argument.

  6. Thinkandspeak12

    The situation in Homs and Syria is not resolved, so I’m not sure about Colvin’s “cause being unjust”. Perhaps her reporting does need interpretation, history and context. To require all journalists to do this with all their reporting is an interesting suggestion. Let’s hope the deaths of all the journalists and camera crew can be vindicated by a peace deal in Syria.

  7. Kevin Herbert

    Nice work Guy….sensationalising of war zones’ activity is not a reporter’s job..that’s the job of the pollies on both sides.

    Colvin was a front line high risk journo, who like Neil Davis, must have
    accepted a long time ago that one day she’d probably be fatally wounded.

    As for her description of the dying baby, I wonder if it would’ve got a run
    in the Times if it’d been one of the 318 children murdered by the
    IDF’s shelling of civilians in Gaza during their Caste Lead Xmas 1999

    I don’t think so.

  8. Al

    Too right Guy! I too am sick of the shallow level of reporting of war and international politics; its more and more about the moral high ground of the west contrasted with the sheer savagery of the darkies whether they are in Sri Lanka, Libya, Egypt or now Syria. Forget about the complicity of the west in supporting these repressive regimes; never mind the fact that the French, Brits and Yanks have been, and continue to profit handsomely from arms sales to the same regimes that we condemn only when we have no no other moral place to go; never mind that when Israel pounds civilian areas in Gaza or Beirut with artillery and airpower we vote against, or at the very best abstain on, UN general assembly criticism; never mind that we hear sweet bugger all of the brave protesters killed in Bahrain or these imprisoned and tortured in Saudi; and never mind that we supported the Indonesian rape of Timor Leste for decades before we suddenly discovered liberty and freedom for those poor unfortunate darkies. The brutal treatment of peoples across this globe are directly related to to machinations of imperialist powers; this isn’t a mystery and can be understood from the most cursory of a reading of history but most journos seem oblivious to this fact and present conflict as unfortunate disputes resulting mainly from the uncivilised nature of all those who aren’t white and christian. As you wrote thank God for Robert Fisk!

  9. AR

    Guy, a much needed meditation on a couple of points –
    a) the nature of war-p*rn reportage, if it bleeds, it leads, not aiding understanding and often obscuring fact for feeling,
    b) the Western majority view of the Syria tragedy as just another case of arabs being arabs – forgetting that Syria is the best educated, most secular of the arab nations, controlled by a minority sect, Alawite, regarded as heretics by Wahhabi & Salafist hardliners in our Great & Good Demokratic Friends like Saudi & Bahrain,
    c) the support, however reluctant, of the current autocracy by the various minorities, Christian, Jew, Kurd, Druze & Ismaili who know what their fate will be if the sunni militias take over.

  10. Dr_Tad

    Guy, you write, “Libya was a revolution by the Libyan people across the board — whatever the shadowy nature of the leadership — against an autocrat with no social base to speak of, merely mercenaries and weapons. We assisted a process they had begun themselves in a clear manifestation of the general will, and in a military situation where strategic assistance was limitable and feasible.”

    That’s obviously why it took months of NATO bombing and some 30,000 dead to get the result we did, and why we have such a gloriously united and idyllic Libya now that the “general will” has got its way.

  11. Guy Rundle


    the 30,000 dead figure you quote is, as far as I can tell, a figure that was put about by the NTC in the midst of the campaign – a figure that they alleged were those killed by Gaddafi. No proof of that figure was provided by them at the time, and antiwar.com described it as without evidence. But, if you’ve got another source for a figure of 30,000, point me to it. As far as I can tell, there is no reliable figure for the death toll in Libya.

    The mere fact of a bombing campaign, or a struggle of some months duration doesn’t invalidate the notion of a general will. The only pertinent question in that respect was whether those rising up had broad social support. I think they did, and that, among other things, distinguishes it from Syria.

    Yes, I doubt Libya is idyllic at the moment. But neither was Russia in 1918, France in 1790, or Nicaragua in 1981. Post-revolutionary violence doesn’t delegitimate a revolution. Nor do post-revolutionary reversals – else what would we think of Egypt, where the immediate result of the struggle has been the victory not merely of the Brotherhood, but the Salafists – with the prospect that basic liberties and civil rights, for women and others, are about to get somewhat worse than they were under Mubarak?

  12. Dr_Tad


    I used that figure of 30,000 precisely because it was the claim made by the NTC health minister. The NTC also claimed that half the dead were Gaddafi fighters. See here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/08/libya-war-died_n_953456.html This is significant because it undercuts your contention as to how isolated Gaddafi was. You simply cannot keep a war going for that long if you’re “an autocrat with no social base to speak of, merely mercenaries and weapons”.

    My point is not that Gaddafi was widely loved (he was a brutal dictator after all), but that the revolutionaries had not managed to unite anything even close to a “general will” for their strategies and aims. They were politically much less able to do so than the Egyptian revolutionaries, who were able to win not just Mubarak’s ouster but massively increased space to organise on a collective democratic basis. I’ll get back to Egypt in a minute.

    The NTC’s mortality estimates have been challenged by various other accounts, which Wikipedia summarises as being between 13,343 and 17,313 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casualties_of_the_Libyan_civil_war). Of course a big part of the problem is that NATO forces specifically avoided counting deaths, most especially those civilian deaths which may have been caused by their actions. See here, for example: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/18/world/africa/scores-of-unintended-casualties-in-nato-war-in-libya.html

    The numbers dead and wounded also stand in stark contrast to the NTC’s claims that intervention would avert large numbers of killings in Gaddafi’s “impending massacre” that never happened (and that there was not much evidence he could actually carry out even if it had been his intention, although exactly what his intention was also remains seriously contested).

    I think the deeper problem with your formulation of a “general will” is that such things never exist in revolutions. Revolutions expose the deep cleavages and antagonisms within societies, not the possibility of a general unity. In Egypt even when Mubarak fell he retained considerable minority support, and as you rightly point out the immediate electoral beneficiaries of the revolution have been Islamist parties well to the Right of those driving the revolutionary process forward. But it is tendentious in the extreme to pose the possibility that rights won in Egypt are “about to get somewhat worse than they were under Mubarak”. This is the kind of speculation that ignores how destabilised systems of authority and social control are now in Egypt.

    In fact, Egyptians have more democratic rights in practice today than they have had any time since the early days of Nasser (or perhaps before — Nasser was no democrat). The ruling SCAF military council has passed a series of laws banning strikes and protests that have been observed almost entirely in the breach. This is the nature of a revolutionary situation: states lose their authority and cannot enforce the will of the ruling elite through either consent or force.

    Another problem with raising Egypt is that you telescope a worst case scenario that hasn’t happened in order to deflect from the horrors that already have emerged in Libya under the NTC. It’s not just that things aren’t “idyllic” right now, it’s that the fragmented post-war regime is acting in thoroughly reactionary ways — in part to solidify its political and economic ties to the West, and in part because it has been content to allow and/or promote the grossest human rights abuses, torture, etc.

    That’s why your invocation of “post-revolutionary violence” is just as misleading as your invocation of a “general will”. It elides the character of the violence and the agency carrying it out. In fact, it evades a serious analysis of the NTC regime and its ties (strengthened by the intervention) to far more sinister forces in the West who definitely don’t want to see the early liberatory potential of the revolution to return. To compare Libya 2012 with France 1790, Russia 1918 and Nicaragua 1981, when in all three cases any significant foreign intervention was opposed to the revolutionary process, is the height of obfuscation.

    The way you hedge support or opposition to Western intervention in the Arab Spring rests on some pretty untenable abstractions. It means you cannot deal concretely with how each revolution might go forward beyond what Western states should or shouldn’t do. How can much wider sections of Syrian society be united around an effective political project to win democratic rights and social justice?

    And, finally, you forget the very relevant proposition that even if you have nothing useful to say about that (which is fair enough) then at least you know that for an Australian Leftist the main enemy is always at home, in the form of the Australian ruling class and state. Your formulae here encourage illusions that our main enemy can be the Libyan or Syrian people’s occasional friend.

  13. straightbreaks

    If Colvin’s accounts of violence in a besieged part of Syria added nothing to our understanding, perhaps Crikey should reconsider sending Rundle around the world to capture the vibe of the far less important events he has touched on in recent years.
    No war reportage could be as self-aggrandising as the waffle you have presented here, Guy. Colvin may have been addicted to action, and war coverage may be romanticised, but surely a witness inside Syria has some value. If nothing else, it’s the most valuable form of journalism in this kind of situation. Until the situation in Syria become far clearer, I’ll take a straight report on action over a distant pundit’s sweeping analysis.
    Crikey readers, spend the weekend watching the Rundles of Australia as they speculate on the Labour caucus. When the votes are in, ask yourself how much of the punditry on the Rudd-Gillard conflict offered any meaning.

  14. Col in Sydney

    This from some tosser who has worked his way up from being a theatre

    Pal, before you want to run people down for being brave enough to go
    into war zones to give eye witness accounts of what is happening,
    perhaps you should do it yourself – or shut the fuck up!

    The constant drone from the mainstream new media on the events in
    Syria has been “these [reports, pictures, videos, anything] cannot be
    independently verified”… What they didn’t add was “because we have
    not yet found anyone with the acceptable mixture of guts and
    credibility to go in there.”

    Your analysis of the politics of the situation is similarly worthless

    The conflicts in Libya and Syria are almost identical. The differentiation
    has nothing to do with Turkey – it is all and only about Israel. Syria has
    a border with Israel. If the West intervenes, Assad can say it is a Zionist
    plot (and in part he would no doubt be correct).

    Given the tinpot nature of Crikey generally, it is probably true that you
    write your own headlines – so where the fuck does “unjust” come into it.

    Go back to writing gratuitous, self-involved gossip about the other fairies
    Mr Rundle, and leave the serious journalism for the serious people.

    (And can someone at Crikey organise the $200 it might cost to have
    your Comments Box software fixed?)

  15. Peter Hannigan

    Interesting article on the journalism side. Syria itself is a sad case of where the call to ‘do something’ has to be balanced against ‘don’t make things worse’. I suspect that at this stage there is no good outcome possible for Syria.

    The Al Assad government was/is one of the most secular and religiously tolerant in the Middle East – more so for Christians than for example Israel (see William Dalrymple’s book From the Holy Mountain for an analysis of government treatment of Christians across the Middle East). What the Syrian government was not big on was political toleration. Despite the widespread belief among Syrians that Bashar Al Assad was a reformer, the Baath Party stalwarts continued to run the country along central planning lines while only gradually introducing a more open economy and market forces. The pace of reform was way too slow for the demographic, economic and political changes occurring in the region.

    I remember a meeting in Damascus in 2007 where the Syrian bureaucrats said they would introduce changes over the next 10 years. The business people there simply said “You don’t have ten years”. As it turns out it looks like they only had 5 years left.

    There are so many might have beens about decisions and actions in Syria that could have led to a different model of a secular Arab nation linking to the world. Unfortunately many of those possibilities are gone as the situation is now one where ‘you can’t get there from here’.

  16. Guy Rundle


    Your use of the 30,000 figure has become more unconvincing. Midway through your reply, you identify the NTC as being complicit in reactionary activities to strengthen its ties to the West, and in alliance with some dark forces. Yet in the first paragraph, you admit that the 30,000 figure is an NTC figure – and one of no great reliability. Having earlier used it to characterise the Libyan ‘event’ as a whole, you now want to use it to attempt to rebut any notion that Gaddafi had no social base – an argument I’m not slightly convinced by, since a few thousand mercenaries, artillery and planes could easily kill tens of thousands of people

    How is it possible to criticse a group, ie the NTC, as having a dubious hidden agenda – and yet use in your argument a figure they threw into the mix for propagandistic purposes? It gives the strong impression that you grabbed the figure because it was the largest one around, and are now trying to use it for a purpose different to the one you originally employed it for. Why not simply admit that there is no evidence for the figure whatsoever, and stop using it? It is helpful to neither side of the argument.

    As to your other points:

    1. Libya, post-revolution – you appear to take it as read that Libya post-revolution is a disaster.I dont believe that to be the case. The existence of multiple militias and centres of power is hardly unusual after a violent revolution. Nor is post-revolutionary regressive violence, often by those who were otherwise progressive in their acts. Revenge killings, racist incidents, and torture do not discredit the revolution. Nor does the possible involvement of the NTC in them. As I noted during the events themselves, the NTC were one group who had elevated themselves above a mass process. Some of the coverage points to substantial disorder. Other coverage suggests that things are beginning to consolidate, and that much of the negative coverage – i note stories in the New York Times being quoted approvingly, by those usually justifiably suspicious of its agendas and prejudices – has more than a whiff of anti-arab orientalism about it.

    2. Post-revolutionary situations – you seem to misunderstand the point i’m making about post-revolutionary violence, but I wasnt fully clear on it either. I’m not talking about the use of violence to bolster the revolution, I’m talking about regressive violence in progressive regimes. The suggestion that the NTC is either actively or passively involved in torture and racist retribution seems unproven to me – and the violence is local and partial. As with the racist violence that came after October 1917, multiple retribution in 1945 Yugoslavia, anti-Chinese violence in Vietnam 1975, etc, the occurrence does not invalidate the revolution itself. Involvement or otherwise of foreign forces strikes me as irrelevant, since such regressive violence occurs both in its presence and its absence. Your horror of the disorder and violence of a post revolutionary situation is, from anyone of the Marxist revolutionary tradition, hypocritical. Quaker-Pacifist babble about human rights, anyone?

    3. Egypt – I made the general point that post-revolutionary reversals do not discredit a revolution per se. There’s no point getting into an argument about the exact nature of contemporary Egypt. I was simply suggesting that the electoral victory of the Islamists does not invalidate the uprising, even though it has objectively shifted the country rightward, on one scale by any measure. It’s not central to my argument, and you’ve made far too much of it. I can happily stipulate that, whatever the victory of the Islamists, and the possibility of future reversals, Egypt remains in some ways (but not in others) in a better place than it was under Mubarak. You’ve taken one example as a core argument, and removing neither advances nor damages either of our arguments, as far as I can see.

    4. The Western State as ultimate enemy – I simply don’t accept that framework, a Marxist assessment which I don’t subscribe to. My belief was that the Libyan people were conducting a genuine revolution, and asking for assistance so that it would be a fight and not a martyrdom. I regarded expressions of solidarity by the western left as a statement of obligation. The request was for firepower that could defeat a regime with no social base, but a lot of weaponry bought with petrodollars. To not advocate in the west, the fulfillment of that request, was, in my opinion, a betrayal of promised solidarity in the name of an abstract theory of the state, one that I regard as simplistic and one-dimensional.

  17. Dr_Tad

    It appears, Guy, that you are the sole self-appointed arbiter of the bona fides of the NTC leadership’s actions and pronouncements in this debate. Perhaps its not just BHL but you who has direct access to their innermost motivations?

    [BTW, I actually pulled the 30,000 estimate from historian and former International Crisis Group director Hugh Roberts’ detailed argument in the LRB: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n22/hugh-roberts/who-said-gaddafi-had-to-go ]

    Even on the Wikipedia figure — one using a methodology we know from Iraq and Afghanistan underestimates total casualties — it’s still a lot of people dead. At the same time Mubarak had way more arms and yet his military was paralysed and forced him to depart with way less bloodshed. The difference cannot be explained purely at the level of arms, but in social and political terms (on all sides of the conflict). If the social uprising in Libya had been on the scale that happened in Egypt, Gaddafi would have been penned in much more quickly. It didn’t, but ignoring that fact is no excuse for saying that only one strategy — that involving NATO — was the only one the Western Left should support.

    And why do you suggest that I think the NTC has “a dubious hidden agenda”. I think it’s out there in full public view. Strange you don’t seem to notice it.

    On your other points:

    (1) On the problems in Libya, there are two issues. One is the parlous “human rights” and political economic situation shepherded in under NATO’s aegis, which that well-known anti-Arab Orientalist Vijay Prashad summarises here: http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/4353/the-libyan-model

    The other, completely intertwined with the first, is the question of the social character of the mess. What currently obtains has much less potential than in the opening days of the revolution, and any chance of salvaging it will mean ordinary people organising themselves to fight their own leaders (and their leaders’ NATO backers). Yet you stubbornly avoid pointing to any political alternative to the NTC’s strategy — unsurprisingly because you back it.

    (2) I’m hardly making a pacifist case. I think it is important that revolutions don’t just involve the mass of ordinary people but give them genuinely increased collective control over their lives. That speaks to the social character of any violence and who carries it out. That’s what I meant by your obfuscation; you refuse to consider the social character of what is going on now that what you saw as the overwhelming aim — NTC-led regime change with Western backing — has been achieved. You cover it in talk of a “general will”, but that’s what you’re really celebrating here.

    (3) There is a point in talking about Egypt, and it says much that you treat Egypt the way you do. Egypt shows what happens when a different set of politics to those that dominated the Libyan rebellion emerges to challenge a dictator. The idea that the victory of the Islamists in elections represents a step rightwards is bizarre. If Mubarak’s old party had won that many seats I’d be depressed, but how was the result ever likely to look more left-wing than this, given the mass character and deep social roots of Islamism as an oppositional movement under Mubarak? Furthermore, in the streets and workplaces there is growing clarity about the limits of the Islamists in taking the revolution forward, and their unwillingness (although contradictory) to take on SCAF. It is precisely your inability to interrogate the rapidly-shifting social forces here that leaves you floundering when NATO comes to claim a progressive mantle by intervening militarily elsewhere.

    The reality is that Mubarak had a much deeper social support base (as well as more arms) than Gaddafi, but that the Egyptian opposition from below also made political choices that pointed in a different direction to the strategy of the NTC. Such choices are crucial in how things develop, and your basically uncritical response to the NTC’s calls for Western military intervention seem to me to point to an attachment to military adventures in preference to more fundamental social struggles. That’s fine if it’s your position, but a strange one for someone who identifies as so strongly Left to take. It leaves you sounding uncomfortably like the neo-cons who saw Western military action to deliver liberal democracy as some kind of revolutionary act.

    (4) Even though you imagine you were part of a Western Left providing “solidarity” to the Libyan rebels, you and all those Leftists who agreed with you were actually providing solidarity to the governments of NATO. Western regimes wanted an opening to intervene militarily in a region running out of their control because of mass popular uprisings. The Western Left was (and remains) in no position to provide any kind of military “solidarity”, and those who think they were doing so last year are merely deluding themselves that they were doing something more than providing some useful ideological cover for their own ruling classes.

  18. Kevin Herbert


    Having confirmed the fact that you’re obviously not a former Rhodes
    scholar, Ivy League alumni, or a current DFAT foreign policy strategist, what exactly is your point??….other than to diss Mr Rundle for daring to present a view with which you don’t agree.

  19. straightbreaks

    His point will be clear to you in coming years as the real analysis of Syria is written. That’s when we’ll see what is cited more — Colvin’s reportage or Rundle’s whiplashing pan across a crisis

  20. Andybob

    Syria is only 0.5% of the global oil market. That might have more to do with why the West won’t intervene. If it had the tenth largest proven reserves then all the arguments Guy mounts would not stop intervention. The points Guy brings out are rationalisations for inaction, not the reason for it.

  21. Guy Rundle


    The 30,000 figure. You’ve now given two separate sources and three separate rationales for the figure

    1) In your Drum article a fortnight ago, you used the figure without sourcing, and repeated that in the intial comment on my article above

    1.1) I challenged you on that, suggesting it was an NTC figure, which had been produced by them, without evidence, at the height of the conflict, and that they had used it as an estimate of killing by Gaddafi’s forces.

    1.2) In your reply to my reply, you agreed that it was an NTC figure, stating:

    “I used that figure of 30,000 precisely because it was the claim made by the NTC health minister.”

    (At that point you made no mention of Hugh Roberts in the LRB)

    1.3) I suggested to you that it seemed inconsistent to use the figures of the NTC when you describe them as:

    “ the NTC regime and its ties (strengthened by the intervention) to far more sinister forces in the West who definitely don’t want to see the early liberatory potential of the revolution to return.”

    and that this is especially so when the figure is unverified.

    1.4 In your most reent reply, you now say that you sourced the 30,000 figure from the Hugh Roberts article. I’ve now re-read this article twice, and text searched it. I can find no mention of a casualty figure by Roberts. So if there is (and I may have missed it) please point me to it.

    1.4.1 The only mention of the 30,000 figure I can find is in the comments/letters string below the article, where a correspondent named David Seddon (supporting Roberts) notes:

    “Although definitive figures have yet to be produced, current estimates suggest up to 30,000 dead and 50,000 injured, 20,000 of them seriously.”

    Was that the 30,000 figure you were referring to in quoting the Roberts article? Because this too remains unsourced and offers no evidence or provenance – leading one to the suspicion that it is the NTC figure that you claimed to be quoting from, recycled through one more document.

    The only concrete figures I can see in the Roberts article occur two thirds of the way through, where he attempts to point out the low casualty figures prior to the beginning of bombing assistance:

    “At this point the total death toll since 15 February was 233, according to Human Rights Watch. The Fédération Internationale des Droits de l’Homme suggested between 300 and 400 “

    The only other figures Roberts deploys is his explicitly speculative figure at the start of the essay;

    “ the combined rebellion/civil war/ Nato bombing campaign to protect civilians has occasioned several thousand (5000? 10,000? 25,000?) deaths, many thousands of injured and hundreds of thousands of displaced persons, as well as massive damage to infrastructure”

    In other words, Roberts is making clear that he has no reliable figure for civilian and combatant deaths. Nor does Roberts, in his reply to the letters around the article, take the opportunity to endorse a figure. So where in Roberts’s piece is a ‘detailed argument’ which cites or alludes to the 30,000 figure?

    To recap: you’ve changed your claims about the sourcing of the figure, since I challeneged them, but the new source you quote doesn’t mention the 30,000 figure at all. As i say, if ive genuinely missed it in the (long) Roberts piece, point it out, and I’ll look at his argument. In the absence of such, i’ll regard this as bad argument at best, insouciant negligence at worst.

    2) the NTC. I don’t understand the point you’re making about the NTC or my view of it. I was simply citing your reply in which you argued that the NTC was a pro-NATO group in alliance with ‘dark forces’ (your term) within the West. I pointed out that to make that allegation, and to then take a casualty figure they had produced unsourced was inconsistent.

    As to your other points:

    1) the ‘human rights’ situation
    Prashad’s useful summary of some reports from Libya doesn’t sway me to see the revolution as a failure.

    1.2) potential
    I have no idea what the potential is. Your assessment of it seems to me to be an interpretation within a specific Marxist framework I don’t share, and is purely speculative. My belief remains that the Libyan uprising was a genuine popular revolution, that it was in a potentially terminal military emergency once Benghazi was encircled, and that justified advocating military assistance they were requesting.

    2) revolution.
    You state that you revolutions should give people ‘increased collective control over their own lives’. I’m not so prescriptive. If a revolution is against a lethal state apparatus which has created a sclerotic society, and wants our help [and is not in favour of an equally repressive state, ie an al-qaeda revolution would not be something to support] then i’m happy to advocate that we help them. Beyond the previously stated caveat, I’m not going to base my solidaristic obligations on whether the Libyans agree with my idea of the good life. If they want to fill Tripoli with Starbucks, that’s there business. I’m sufficiently marxisant to think that the entee of full global capitalism into Libya might be a progressive process. Your argument that every revolution should always and everywhere increase collective control strikes me as most un-Marxist.

    3) Egypt.
    My quoting of various events in Egypt – the electoral rise of the Salafists etc – was simply to argue against the judging of revolutions by their aftermath, during which reversals are possible. You continue to insist that this general example is a particular point. In doing so, you seem to find it necessary to put a very specific interpretation on events:

    “in the streets and workplaces there is growing clarity about the limits of the Islamists in taking the revolution forward, and their unwillingness (although contradictory) to take on SCAF. “

    Well maybe, but maybe not. It remains an opinion from Sydney about what is happening at the most local level of Egyptian society. You may be right, you may be wrong, but your tone of certainty seems to suggest that you an admit no outcome other than positive for Egypt. My point is that a negative outcome is possible, but that this would not invalidate the revolution per se. Your points give the impression that you need the Egyptian revolution not to go wrong, for it to be legitmate.

    As to revolutionary strategic comparisons between Egypt and Libya, I seem them as no use whatsoever. A dense, non-petrodollar, metropolitan state with a major city of 10+ million has very little useful comparison in that respect to an oil rich desert coastal strip which has functioned as a closed society for decades. The Egyptian demonstrators had a strength in numbers and massing which the Libyans couldn’t match, and Gaddafi deployed lethal strategies which Mubarak didn’t. I remain sceptical of revolutionaries who believe that every uprising will be accomplished without a period of war, and that this war might be undertaken by a numerical minority.

    4)solidarity. There was no question that the mass of people taking up arms in Libya wanted armed assistance, and were unconcerned that former colonial powers were providing it. Even the most sceptical reports quoted fighters as saying this. Therefore, mine and others advocacy of that was in support of them, whether their decision to call for that will ultimately prove wise or not. Your suggestion that it was really solidarity with NATO is inherently an interpretation of some essence behind the appearance. The solidarity in this case was to make it clear that many of us did not regard the anti-intervention position regarding Iraq and elsewhere as applying in this case. The purpose of that was to make it clear that there was no large anti-western involvement movement, and in that we were successful – not least in sowing doubt among a number of people aligned or identifying with internationalist left groups. Maybe it was a small or miniscule contribution, but you don’t get to choose that.

  22. AR

    AndyB – although Syria has little oil of its own (like Jordan – the West’s favourite sheltered dictatorship) but derived sizeable income from the pipelines channelling Iraqi oil to the Med coastline for the French companies.
    The other main reason why the West is luke warm on regime change is that, with the US satrap in Egypt gone, Syria (despite?because of the Iranian connection) is the only half sane arab state left in the region. They don’t even demand return of the Golan heights (except for obligatory rote) which suits Israel just fine.

  23. Kevin Herbert


    Colvin’s reporting will sink into the mists of time, although I notice that FOX News is already deifying her memory becuase……she was stupid enough to stay when all other reasonable reporters had left?..or becuase she was a woman jouno who stayed longer than the men?..or whatever…

    ANDYB: your supposition re Syria’s oil reserves in support of your criticism of Rundler’s rationale, is a non sequitor.

    It’s like saying ” If I were 4 metres tall, I wouldn’t be afraid of you”.

  24. Dr_Tad

    Guy, entirely my bad regarding the Roberts attribution. I had erroneously recalled the 30,000 figure from the article and because of its length used the “find” function & “30,000” when I quickly rechecked it for the Drum article. It is indeed from a letter by David Seddon and I merely repeated that error this time. Thanks for spotting and correcting my “insouciant negligence”.

    I initially deployed the casualty figures (and I’m happy to take the lower Wikipedia estimate) and length of the campaign to point to the oddness of your claim that Gaddafi had such a limited social base. But it’s no use talking to you about Gaddafi’s social base (or the NTC’s relative weakness of social base) because when one raises empirical markers like this all I get back are assertions based on little (or no) empirical support. Suddenly having a few “mercenaries and weapons” allows a dictator to hold off months of armed rebellion and NATO bombing.

    On the other 4 points:

    (1) I’m not asking you to adjudge the Libyan revolution as failure or not. Not sure why you think this is my argument. This is a more important argument about whether its initial clearly liberatory character has suffered setbacks as a result of the pro-NATO strategy of its leadership. And it’s not a settled question — which is why I talk about the need for ordinary people to take on the NTC leadership and NATO.

    (2) Sorry if this is too Marxist for you, but when Trotsky called revolutions “the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of their own destiny” I think he was making a useful distinction between revolutions and other types of attack on “a lethal state apparatus which has created a sclerotic society”. Given how much play you (rightly) make of the mass character of the Libyan revolution, it seems weird that you wouldn’t then evaluate its success by the level of collective influence from below. The fact that you think that “the entee [entry?] of full global capitalism into Libya might be a progressive process” strikes me as even weirder, given that Gaddafi was a state capitalist who had spent years cultivating deeper ties with the centres of global capitalism already. This isn’t 1848, you know.

    (3) You keep erecting straw people here, Guy. The Egyptian revolution is an unfinished process. Like in Libya there are deep contradictions playing themselves out. It is simply not true that I want to “admit no outcome other than positive for Egypt”, nor is it true that I “need the Egyptian revolution not to go wrong, for it to be legitimate”. None of my disagreement with you is about these things. It is about making a careful judgement, from a Left standpoint (one that sees collective social liberation — you remember that old chestnut — as important and desirable), of the actual social and political character of what has happened. The Egyptian revolution may end up getting deflected/hijacked/crushed. That will not change its legitimacy any more than the hijacking of the Libyan revolution by the NTC and its NATO allies makes it somehow illegitimate.

    And the question of war is another non sequitur. It allows you to once again obfuscate the social character of the conflict. It would seem that once your idiosyncratic criterion set for “revolution” is met, all critical thinking about these issues goes out the window.

    (4) Which brings me to solidarity. This is the least convincing part of your argument because it rests on simply adjudging that “they” know best. Well, this dodges not only who “they” are (and there is no indication that the rebellion had reached consensus, Australian Greens style, even if the clear majority was convinced by the pro-NATO argument) but far more importantly it subcontracts your political judgement to theirs, once you’ve decided they’re “legitimate”.

    This is deeply disappointing coming from one of the most engaged and thoughtful writers on the Australian Left, one who is rightly widely read and justly influential (not to mention a pleasure to co-edit books with!) — and it’s in that spirit that I’ve wanted to continue this debate. Even with my occasional lapses into “insouciant negligence” along the way.

  25. Steve Gardner

    Rundle mentions Pilger and Fisk as war reporters who aren’t afraid to ‘put in time at the desk’, meaning, to go beyond eye-witness reporting of horrors from the front lines of battle and lay bare for their readers the roots and complexity of a conflict, and the motivations, strategies and (mis)calculations of the important actors in it. The best journalist in the world by this measure must be Mark Danner. His reporting of the conflicts in Haiti and especially in the Balkans made these baffling conflicts comprehensible — and yet in so doing he intensified rather than lessening their horror.


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