Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 16, 2011

Alan J. Kuperman: useful idiot

Filed under: Libya — louisproyect @ 4:58 pm

Alan J. Kupferman

An op-ed that appeared in the Boston Globe on Thursday has been making the rounds on the anti-anti-Qaddafi blogosphere. Written by Alan J. Kuperman (a professor in the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Affairs at U. of Texas in Austin,  former legislative director for Senator Charles Schumer and a fellow at the U.S. Agency for International Development), it seeks to undercut the “genocide” narrative that has been put forward by imperialist ideologues. Anybody who is familiar with the background of Samantha Power, a state department official who has a long record of defending “humanitarian interventions”, knows that it is essential to recast every foreign policy crisis as a repeat of WWII in order to get the green light for cruise missile attacks and all the rest. While Kuperman makes some good points, the article is not without some flaws. I doubt that Kuperman would go along with the anti-anti-Qaddafi crowd (especially with his Schumer and USAID connections) but unfortunately they can exploit his article despite his best intentions. It must be said at the outset that there is an element of realpolitik involved in Kuperman’s thinking—no surprise given his post in a department named in honor of one of the past half-century’s biggest mass murderers. In a 3/22/2011 op-ed piece that appeared in US Today, Kuperman wrote:

Gadhafi once was a sponsor of terrorism. After 2003, however, he converted to a U.S. ally— surrendering weapons of mass destruction, paying compensation for past attacks and providing intelligence against radical Islamists. If the U.S. now demands wholesale regime change, it not only could trigger a humanitarian disaster, it also would signal that Washington is an untrustworthy ally. And it could create a failed or hostile state that poses a greater threat.

Yes, who would want to give the impression that Washington is an “untrustworthy ally”? That would be most unfortunate and might even lead to a deepening of the Vietnam syndrome or worse maladies. It is also odd that MRZine would want to give Kuperman any credibility. By crossposting his Boston Globe article warning against intervening in Libya, one would get the impression that he is a guide to principled behavior by powerful states like the USA or Britain. But if you paid a visit to his website, you would find a link to an article titled “There’s Only One Way to stop Iran” that appeared as an op-ed in the 12/23/2009 NY Times. You can guess what his goals are from the title of the article. Here is a quote from it that we would not expect to see on MRZine any time soon:

As for knocking out its nuclear plants, admittedly, aerial bombing might not work. Some Iranian facilities are buried too deeply to destroy from the air. There may also be sites that American intelligence is unaware of. And military action could backfire in various ways, including by undermining Iran’s political opposition, accelerating the bomb program or provoking retaliation against American forces and allies in the region.

But history suggests that military strikes could work. Israel’s 1981 attack on the nearly finished Osirak reactor prevented Iraq’s rapid acquisition of a plutonium-based nuclear weapon and compelled it to pursue a more gradual, uranium-based bomb program. A decade later, the Persian Gulf war uncovered and enabled the destruction of that uranium initiative, which finally deterred Saddam Hussein from further pursuit of nuclear weapons (a fact that eluded American intelligence until after the 2003 invasion). Analogously, Iran’s atomic sites might need to be bombed more than once to persuade Tehran to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

As for the risk of military strikes undermining Iran’s opposition, history suggests that the effect would be temporary. For example, NATO’s 1999 air campaign against Yugoslavia briefly bolstered support for President Slobodan Milosevic, but a democratic opposition ousted him the next year.

Yes, indeed. Military strikes could work… A “democratic opposition” ousted Milosevic after NATO’s air campaign kicked in… Politics does make strange bedfellows methinks. I can picture Alan J. Kuperman, Yoshie Furuhashi and John Mage in their pajamas now. Turning now to Kuperman’s Boston Globe op-ed, it appears to have left egg on its authors face right off the bat. He writes the Libyan military is “not deliberately massacring civilians but rather narrowly targeting the armed rebels who fight against his government.” That would not square with a report that appeared in the NY Times the very next day. According to the Times, the distinction between “deliberately massacring civilians” and “targeting the armed rebels” might be lost on the people of Misurata who have been introduced to Qaddafi’s cluster bombs:

Military forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi have been firing into residential neighborhoods in this embattled city with heavy weapons, including cluster bombs that have been banned by much of the world and ground-to-ground rockets, according to witnesses and survivors, as well as physical evidence.

Both of these so-called indiscriminate weapons, which strike large areas with a dense succession of high-explosive munitions, by their nature cannot be fired precisely. When fired into populated areas, they place civilians at grave risk.

The dangers were evident beside one of the impact craters on Friday, where eight people had been killed while standing in a bread line. Where a crowd had assembled for food, bits of human flesh had been blasted against a cinder-block wall.

Ironically, both Fidel Castro and Edward S. Herman have warned against the use of cluster bombs in Libya but assumed that the source would be NATO. Herman wrote on MRZine: “Weapons evolution with drones and cluster bombs has tended to enlarge civilian casualties.” One supposes that they may be excused in this instance since they were being used against a “color revolution”. After all, if those bits of human flesh that had been blasted against a cinder-block wall had belonged to someone who was a regular reader of Christopher Hitchens, they deserve everything they get. Professor Kuperman also has a rather weird sense of what it means to avoid civilian casualties. He writes:

Misurata’s population is roughly 400,000. In nearly two months of war, only 257 people — including combatants — have died there. Of the 949 wounded, only 22 — less than 3 percent — are women. If Khadafy were indiscriminately targeting civilians, women would comprise about half the casualties.

Okay, my math is a bit rusty but let me have a stab at this. My hometown New York City has a population of just over 8 million. That is 20 times the size of Misurata. So an equivalent casualty rate for NYC over a two-month period would be about 5000, right? And over a 12 month period would be 30,000? Now of course this would not be ”genocide” but it would be a massacre of immense proportions. Consider that Gaza has a population of 1.6 million, just 4 times the size of Misurata. When Israel left 1500 Palestinians dead after its December 2008 invasion, the world cried out against such a bloody attack even to the point that a life-long Zionist by the name of Richard Goldstone felt enough pressure to head a commission that found Israel guilty of war crimes. But when the equivalent death toll in Misurata is nearly as high, our anti-anti-Qaddafi friends see this as a mere bagatelle. The fact that he has now decided that Israel was in the right is understandable in light of the fact that his tribe essentially excommunicated him. But at least one world leader besides Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu saw Israel as having no other choice:

In characteristic fashion Gaddafi sprinkled odd comparisons in his responses. He likened the clampdown on dissidents to what he called Israel’s crackdown of al Qaeda terrorists in the Gaza Strip.

“Even the Israelis in Gaza, when they moved into the Gaza strip, they moved in with tanks to fight such extremists. It’s the same thing here! We have small armed groups who are fighting us. We did not use force from the outset… Armed units of the Libyan army have had to fight small armed al Qaeda bands. That is what’s happened.”


  1. it’s Power,not Powers. i’ve been corrected on this myself…

    Comment by jp — April 16, 2011 @ 5:22 pm

  2. I also screwed up with Goldstone. His first name is Richard, not David. I might introduce errors like this on a regular basis and have a contest for my readers. If you pick out an error, you get a free subscription to the blog.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 16, 2011 @ 5:33 pm

  3. marvel comics used to offer a ‘no-prize’ for things like this – i won one as a kid and you got an empty envelope. i hope i still have it buried somewhere.

    Comment by jp — April 16, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

  4. “But when the equivalent death toll in Misurata is 20 times as high…”

    I don’t think you’ve worked this out correctly. If the Palestinian population is four times the size of Misrata, then dividing the death toll by four discloses that the equivalent figure in Misrata would be 375 – proportionately, the killing in Misrata is lower than that in Gaza. I don’t personally think such analogies are helpful, unless they’re handled with extreme care.

    More generally, I think the point about civilians is that the category of non-combatant always tends to be eroded if not obliterated in the context of war, especially modern counterinsurgency wars. Even if Qadhafi were taking pains to protect civilians, which he is not, the fact that he is waging a counterinsurgency war means that his enemy just *is* the population in general; and there is no clear boundary between armed rebels and unarmed civilians. This does not excuse Qadhafi – rather, it explains why the decision to wage a counterinsurgency war is already a decision to kill large numbers of civilians. Qadhafi is not unique or special in that regard.

    Comment by Richard Seymour — April 16, 2011 @ 6:28 pm

  5. Its not right to extrapolate from 257 in a population of 400,000 over two months to imagine 300,000 New Yorkers dead. That is manipulative (granted the person you are manipulating first and foremost is your self but that doesn’t make it better). Do we even know for a fact that Gaddafi has been using cluster munitions or have we simply been told this?

    Comment by Amicus — April 16, 2011 @ 6:43 pm

  6. Yes, Richard, I accept your correction. I based my Gaza figures on a one-year extension but thinking about it now, I should have not done this. In any case, the killings in Misurata have only been accelerating since Kuperman’s op-ed piece. At the very least, we are talking about casualty figures that are very much in the same ballpark.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 16, 2011 @ 6:57 pm

  7. Probably right. There’s also the point that HRW’s figures are unlikely to be exhaustive. I’d be very surprised if HRW monitors captured all of the killing. On the other hand, if Kuperman’s piece is intended to suggest that the narrative of genocide is wrong, and that the main thrust of Qadhafi’s assault is aimed at people presumed to be enemies of the state, then I think it’s basically right. The real controversy here is not at the level of stats, or even morals, but politics. In this respect, Kuperman’s very interesting – he’s a right-wing thinker, basically, but someone whose commitment to ‘Realism’ in international relations gives him a critical perspective on the claims of humanitarian intervention which results in useful work. His work on Rwanda, which I’ve cited, is an example of just this kind of thing.

    Another problem here is that there’s an exile leadership allied to the transitional council that has been pushing the narrative of genocide from very early on – I recall this argument from a spokesperson on Al Jazeera right at the beginning of Qadhafi’s crackdown. These are the same people who have pushed the incorrect and unhelpful argument that Qadhafi carried out the Lockerbie bombing, and that if he wins he will carry out a wave of terrorist attacks in the European continent. It’s understandable why they would resort to such tactics – they think this is what will win them wider political support and put pressure on European political leaders to throw money and arms at the rebels. Alas, it’s only created a fug, which the Qadhafi apologists can all too easily exploit.

    Comment by Richard Seymour — April 16, 2011 @ 7:17 pm

  8. In some ways, the thing I find most objectionable about Kuperman is that ridiculous looking whisker he affects. He must think that it makes him look “hip”.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 16, 2011 @ 7:23 pm

  9. […] Louis Proyect notes: My hometown New York City has a population of just over 8 million. That is 20 times the size of Misurata. So an equivalent casualty rate for NYC over a two-month period would be about 5000, right? And over a 12 month period would be 30,000? Now of course this would not be ”genocide” but it would be a massacre of immense proportions. […]

    Pingback by How Libya is making smart people turn stupid — updated — War in Context — April 17, 2011 @ 3:17 pm

  10. Is it a bird, is it a plane, no it’s Kuperman. Well done on pricking this realist bubble. Realism is utter cynicism. The flip side not the antidote of world order revisionism either of the fascist or the humanitarian kind. Good that Marxists attempt a marxist analysis rather than borrowing from hostile ruling class ideologies. Stalinism became the most vile reflection of realism in the international marxist movement prepared to countenance any evil, any betrayal, any villainy, any alliance in the pursuit of the status quo.

    Marxists neither wish to uphold the balance of power nor revise it but abolish it and the only force that can do that is the international working class. It was amazing how quickly the Stalinists turned against the Arab revolution as soon as they thought it was safe to do so and they thought that a bit of imperialist intervention ostensibly on the side of the Libyan arm of the revolution would do the trick. It didn’t and by jumping the gun they just exposed themselves as a bunch of tyranny loving counter-revolutionaries.

    For socialists it was right that the Libyan uprising take advantage of the intervention to push back Gadaffi and consolidate whilst urging their brothers and sisters in Tripoli to overturn the tyrant if they were in any kind of position to do so. Our task was to point out the real motivation for the West’s intervention, the impossibility of imperialism acting in the general interest of humanity and the likelihood of mission creep towards either propping up Gadaffi, partition of the country or regime change swapping one potential humanitarian disaster in Benghazi for another actual one in Tripoli.

    Comment by David Ellis — April 17, 2011 @ 9:33 pm

  11. I made a similar point about Palestine. One needn’t get into Cast Lead. The deaths during the Intifada have been similarly low in regard to female casualties.

    Comment by omooex — April 18, 2011 @ 5:07 am

  12. […] Louis Proyect at Unrepetant Marxist echoed many of these same arguments, and his article is a much better read than mine. The reference to Kuperman’s Op Ed on Iran must be hat-tipped to him. […]

    Pingback by Any War But Humanitarian War | Hyphenated-Republic — April 18, 2011 @ 5:08 am

  13. I concur with Ellis. NATO’s intervention in Libya confused many because of the complexity of the situation — one more reason to reject the cookie-cutter fill-in-blank method Proyect has consistently decried in favor of historical and concrete analysis of the class forces involved.

    One terrible result of all this has been the ever-growing dependence of the Libyan revolutionaries on the West’s military might as a result of after they “saved” Bengazi. After being rebuffed by Gaddafi’s forces, fighters chanted “Sarzoky, where are you?”

    I hope Achcar is happy that he got what he wanted.

    Comment by Binh — April 18, 2011 @ 5:16 am

  14. The reason the Libyan ‘revolutionaries’ are dependent on NATO is because they don’t have the support of the broad population. Gaddafi hardly controls a war machine, his military is quite weak and reliant on a few well paid brigades run by family.

    Comment by purple — April 18, 2011 @ 1:47 pm

  15. Yeah, well, it might be weak in comparison to NATO but in comparison to the opposition, it is quite powerful enjoying a heavy artillery, tank, and training advantage.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 18, 2011 @ 1:53 pm

  16. Purple, if the revolution was so weak, why did Gaddafi lose control of every city except Tripoli back in Feb-March?

    Comment by Binh — April 18, 2011 @ 11:58 pm

  17. Binh, they can’t answer this question. They prefer to sweep it under the rug. In fact, history for them does not exist from 2004 through the announcement of a no-fly zone in March. Neoliberalism, expulsion of Palestinians, torture, extraordinary renditions, expelling “illegal immigrants”–it all fell into a black hole.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 19, 2011 @ 12:04 am

  18. ^– Only the NYT asks questions and questions are inherently bourgeois.

    Comment by Binh — April 19, 2011 @ 12:58 am

  19. I just came across this silliness:

    Comment by Jenny — April 20, 2011 @ 2:27 am

  20. Louis, if your left opponents are, despite their diverse positions, part of “the anti-anti-Qaddafi crowd”, are you part of “the anti-anti-imperialist crowd” or would you prefer that it be referred to as “the anti-anti-NATO crowd”?

    There’s nothing wrong with anti-imperialists using the words of a dissident faction of the imperialist ruling class against the propaganda being put out by the dominant faction of same. I grant you, though, that those on the left who circulate articles like Kuperman’s should point out who he is and, to some extent at least, try to situate his politics within the spectrum of ruling-class opinion.

    @Jenny: Thanks for the link to Adam Larson’s blog posts on Libya! I can’t independently verify a lot of what he writes, but it seems quite logical, and I’m sure that any weaknesses in his analyses will be exposed by pro-imperialists and, if the budget crisis limits the number or pro-imperialist trollers, by (presumably unpaid) anti-anti-imperialists. BTW, please explain why you called it “silliness”! Did you do that so as not to get Louis mad at you for posting it?

    Comment by Aaron Aarons — April 20, 2011 @ 9:25 am

  21. are you part of “the anti-anti-imperialist crowd”

    Oh sure, I am frequently confused with Danny Postel and Marc Cooper.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 20, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

  22. Jenny, thanks. The silliness is mine.

    Binh: Is it possible a well-planned multi-city uprising might achieve a temporary control of “every city except Tripoli” (an exageration but not by too much), while still lacking the widespread social acceptance to hold all those areas for long? The revolution is clearly strong in the east, weak in the west. It’s like ice on a lake – one side might freeze nice and solid, the other’ it’s just a thin crust that’s been broken everywhere but Misrata. Partition would make the most sense, if we weren’t so obsessed with toppling the whole regime. Anythigg but partition now will ensure a lot of unhappy people subjected to the enemy’s rule, one way or another.

    On the article, Louis makes some fair points, but I value Kuperman’s contribution to an extremely slanted public discourse anyway.

    Comment by Caustic Logic — April 20, 2011 @ 10:52 pm

  23. Also, while citing Mr. K, I have to admit I knew nothing of his politics or background until these reports.

    Aaron: Thanks. I’ve been told lately I have no credibility, but I figure you don’t even need it when you can show your work and reasoning undeniably like this. The death toll and the insanity of the regime are being systematically inflated to keep the panic behind this “humanitarian” regime change effort, it seems.

    Comment by Caustic Logic — April 20, 2011 @ 10:56 pm

  24. Alan J. Kuperman: useful idiot. Well, at least he has one up on you.

    Comment by gowans — April 20, 2011 @ 10:58 pm

  25. Jeez, I completely forgot about you, Gowans. Are you still writing propaganda for Mugabe? What will you do when he dies? That will leave you at a loss, I assume.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 20, 2011 @ 11:13 pm

  26. Caustic — the rebels have had success in the West as well. They continue to hold out against all odds. That should tell you something about how “thin” their support is there.

    Comment by Binh — April 22, 2011 @ 10:36 pm

  27. Richard Seymour writes @#4:

    Even if Qadhafi were taking pains to protect civilians, which he is not, the fact that he is waging a counterinsurgency war means that his enemy just *is* the population in general; and there is no clear boundary between armed rebels and unarmed civilians. This does not excuse Qadhafi – rather, it explains why the decision to wage a counterinsurgency war is already a decision to kill large numbers of civilians. Qadhafi is not unique or special in that regard.

    A war against an insurgency is not necessarily a “counterinsurgency war” in the sense described. At one extreme, you have a military campaign where efforts are made to target only insurgent combatants. At the other extreme, you have the kind of counterinsurgency perfected by the imperialists in Guatemala and El Salvador in the 1980’s, where the aim of the government was to drain the pond, i.e. the population, that the fish, i.e., the insurgents, swam in. The counterinsurgencies in those countries involved the frequent massacres, in non-combat situations, of tens or hundreds of unarmed civilians at a time, and atrocious sexual violence, designed to demoralize the population, as well. So far, what Gaddafi’s forces are doing appears to be a lot closer to the former than to the latter.

    Comment by Aaron Aarons — April 24, 2011 @ 9:19 am

  28. Kuperman consistently cherrypicks, misrepresents, and distorts his sources. Examples here:


    Comment by Kellie Strøm — April 28, 2011 @ 1:21 pm

  29. The number 257 for deaths in Misrata is bogus. HRW never made that claim. I write about this in my blog on the Dailyh Kos today:
    Boston Globe oped supports Gaddafi with fraudulent journalism

    Now we can see that the failure to cite was not accidental because this HRW publication is no doubt the basis for the Alan K. distortion:

    Misurata’s population is roughly 400,000. In nearly two months of war, only 257 people — including combatants — have died there. Of the 949 wounded, only 22 — less than 3 percent — are women.

    But Dr. el-Fortia didn’t say that only 257 people have died did he? He said that only 257 deaths had so far been recorded by the hospitals [as of some date before April 10th], which is quite another matter isn’t it? Because in Misrata we hear many stories of corpses rotting in the streets because people can’t get to them. Because nobody bothers to take dead people to the hospital. Because Muslims, when they can get to the bodies, bury their dead in 24 hrs. Because the hospitals themselves are under assault by Gaddafi’s forces, a point that HRW makes in very first para of the article from which Alan K. no doubt is taking his numbers to create the illusion that HRW is saying “that Moammar Khadafy is not deliberately massacring civilians but rather narrowly targeting the armed rebels who fight against his government.”

    Comment by Clay Claiborne — May 3, 2011 @ 7:04 pm

  30. if only 3% are womens I follow most of 97% are figthers
    if death would a random process we’d have close to 50% each sex

    Comment by baridosk — September 26, 2011 @ 5:54 pm

  31. Comment by baridosk — September 26, 2011 @ 5:54 pm

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