Rolling Back the Revolution

Ivan Molloy Rolling Back Revolution: the emergence of low-intensity conflict (Pluto Press, 2002, £18.99, $29.95)


It is Molloy’s thesis that Low Intensity Conflict (LIC), though having characteristics in common with American imperialist strategies deployed over many decades, emerged as a specific strategy during the Reagan administration, following direct intervention’s loss of popular legitimacy after the exposure of the appalling US war of aggression against Vietnam.


 Molloy constructs a conceptual model of LIC’s “conflict profile” and looks at the context of LIC’s emergence and it’s likely environment for full operation.

The author focuses in particular on two case studies which, he asserts, illustrate particularly well the environment for and application of LIC: Nicaragua and the Philippines in the 1980s;the former being an exercise in toppling a revolutionary Government, the latter in propping up local thugs against an indigenous revolutionary movement. Indeed, Molloy asserts that LIC is applicable to threats to US “national security interests” from revolutionary nationalism, and that it is inappropriate to apply an analysis of LIC to terrorism or drug trafficking, not least because , the author asserts, these latter designations have often been used against revolutionary nationalist movements precisely in order to discredit them in the eyes of local, regional and especially international audiences. To apply the analysis of LIC to these situations is to fall prey to the techniques of LIC.(One is particularly reminded of Colombia in this connection, where a so-called “war on drugs” disguises a ruthless and cruel imperialist war against the FARC liberation forces).Also, Molloy analyses the ideological rationale which emerged in the US national security apparatus simultaneous with LIC’s development, and his book is an excellent example of how such rationales grow empirically with practice, against a backdrop of ideological/political imperatives.


So what is LIC? Let us cite the definition from the horses mouth, quoted by Molloy:

LIC is ,according to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff ,


“…a limited politico-military struggle to achieve political, social, economic,or psychological objectives. It is often protracted and ranges from diplomatic, economic and psychological pressures through terrorism and insurgency. Low-intensity conflict is generally confined to a geographic area and is often characterized by constraints on the weaponry, tactics, and level of violence.” (Molloy p16).


Molloy conceives LIC as being chiefly political/psychological in nature, enabling the US and it’s Third-World clients to engage in low-intensity warfare (from hereon LIW) against nationalist liberation movements and, crucially, it enabled the US to CREATE  LIW environments in states where originally peaceful liberation movements threatened US “national interests”, hence allowing the US to wage counterrevolution in target states. LIC’s objectives during the Reagan administration

stretched from maintaining US “national security interests” to expanding US power at the expense of the Soviet Union, it’s allies, and against indigenous nationalist revolutionary movements, without the US' becoming directly involved (at least publicly) in any long, expensive conflict, thus circumventing domestic popular opposition which a more direct approach might provoke. Thus LIC practice and rationale evolved in a somewhat piecemeal fashion ,dependent upon the vicissitudes of the situation at hand, but with the overriding requirement that any operation remain low-cost, low-risk and (“deniability”) low-profile. Perhaps of greatest long-term significance is Molloy’s assertion that a major target of LIC was and is the US itself, where it is deployed to generate domestic support for US foreign policy and, specifically, as a long-term propaganda campaign against what the US elites have long called the “Vietnam Syndrome” cited at the beginning of this review. Further, Molloy gives us a specific moment at which LIC was in any sense “finalised” as a particular strategy for furtherance of US imperial interests : Molloy says this occurred by the end of 1987,developed in the context of two different struggles in Nicaragua and the Philippines which, however, display similar “conflict profiles”, which Molloy examines in detail. Indeed, it is these case studies and the comparison between them which lead Molloy to reject the proposition that it was solely Central America which was the “laboratory” for the development of LIC, in addition to his contention that LIC rationale developed very much in tandem with the reception of the results of various types of intervention in this period, rather than being simply conceived from the outset.


The book argues that LIC was also developed because it is more effective than conventional military intervention in combating the kind of Maoist “people’s war” waged acrosss the Third World since 1945,since the latter emphasises gaining the support of the local population ,and this is where the strong “psychological warfare” or “psyops” component of LIC comes into play, since, Molloy says, LIC involves a very strong and possibly protracted element of propaganda and other forms of psychological warfare ,hence there is a large “covert operations” component in LIC.

LIC seeks to be a replica of people’s war, emphasisng the primarily political objective in such types of conflict, by conducting political, economic and civic actions in target countries to deprive national liberation forces of their base, if not to win support for US allies.


Domestically, LIC involves obscuring from the US public the level of US involvement in these actions by “civilianising” and/or “privatising” such conflicts, mobilising local populations behind US interests as well as fighting in those interests without lots of embarrassing  US military uniforms, and by inviting US groups and agencies to support and implement (often secretly) US foreign policy. Indeed, Molloy asserts that the “Reagan Doctrine” was itself an example of LIC psyops, trying to overcome the “Vietnam Syndrome” ,and developing support for the Administration’s backing of the murderous Contra terrorists in Nicaragua.


Molloy’s book was written and published before the events of September 11th 2001.

But it is interesting to think about the aftermath of those events (and, who knows, aspects of the events themselves) in the context of Molloy’s arguments.

It is clear to this reviewer that the atrocious events of that day have been cynically used by the US elites to attempt to bury the “Vietnam Syndrome” once and for all.

We have seen a massive propaganda campaign designed to re-legitimise –in the popular mind- unlimited intervention by US armed forces throughout the third world, and perhaps beyond, designated by the obscenely laughable term “War On Terrorism”.


The Reagan Administration is long gone but, now that much of the “constraint” under which it operated is being swept from the popular mind with rare bellicosity ,the interests which that administration represented are deploying such techniques on a scale and with an intent the hideousness of which even Hawks of the Reagan era could hardly dare to imagine.


The reviewer, Brian Precious, is a student based in London.