Mission accomplished? Syria, the antiwar movement and the spirit of internationalism

The Assad killing machine, which was overwhelmingly nonchemical to begin with, can continue unfettered on its rampage. The killing fields of Syria – no end in sight.

Danny Postel
3 October 2013

The American peace movement has been celebrating what it sees as its victory on Syria. “The US is not bombing Syria, as we certainly would have been if not for a huge mobilization of anti-war pressure on the president and especially on Congress,” writes Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). This represents “an extraordinary, unforeseen victory for the global anti-war movement,” she goes on, one that “we should be savoring.” Robert Naiman of the organization Just Foreign Policy vaunts “How We Stopped the U.S. Bombing of Syria”.

This turn of events is “something extraordinary – even historic,” writes my good friend Stephen Kinzer, coming from a different but overlapping perspective. “Never in modern history have Americans been so doubtful about the wisdom of bombing, invading or occupying another country,” writes the author of the classic Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. “This is an exciting moment,” he rhapsodizes, “the start of a new, more realistic approach to foreign policy.”

The tireless progressive journalist David Sirota, whom I admire a lot, extols “How the Antiwar Majority Stopped Obama.” The opposition of “angry Americans” to the administration’s push for a military strike, he contends, proved “absolutely critical” and is “why there now seems to be a possibility of avoiding yet another war in the Middle East.”

I completely understand this jubilance. And yet it leaves me feeling uneasy.

Let me be clear: I too was against the Obama administration’s proposed military strike on Syria. I thought it strange that after two and a half years of doing essentially nothing about the deepening crisis in Syria, the White House suddenly decided to act with such a sense of urgency that it was unwilling to wait for the United Nations inspection team to complete its job. As if the world should just trust American claims about weapons of mass destruction. That went really well last time.

I also thought chemical weapons were exactly the wrong issue. To paraphrase Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center, why draw a “red line” at the use of chemical weapons but not at 100,000 dead? Or at two and a half years of crimes against humanity? The vast majority of the civilians killed since the Syrian uprising began in March of 2011 have died by means of conventional, not chemical weapons.

I agreed wholeheartedly with the International Crisis Group that the Obama administration’s case for action was based on “reasons largely divorced from the interests of the Syrian people,” who “have suffered from far deadlier mass atrocities during the course of the conflict without this prompting much collective action in their defence.”

Hinging its case on chemical weapons turned out to be a huge strategic mistake as well. Russia cleverly short-circuited the Obama administration, taking advantage of the thinness of its case. So Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles will be removed from the equation – then what? The Assad killing machine, which was overwhelmingly nonchemical to begin with, can continue unfettered on its rampage. Chemical weapons issue – solved. The killing fields of Syria – no end in sight.

Given this horrific picture, it’s hard for me to share the peace movement’s triumphalism. Yes, a US military attack was thwarted – good. But is that where the story ends?

For libertarian isolationists like Rand Paul, paleocon America-Firsters like Pat Buchanan, and Realpolitik Tories of the sort who long dominated the Republican Party’s foreign policy apparatus, yes, the story ends in Washington. It’s all about us. People in far-flung lands are not our concern – not unless the vital strategic/national security interests of the United States are at issue.

But for progressives, especially ones who profess the values of solidarity and internationalism, the story surely can’t end at America’s shores. Struggles around the world for justice and dignity matter to us. We believe that we have a stake in them and their outcomes. We take sides.

Indeed the project that Phyllis Bennis directs at IPS is called The New Internationalism. That’s a name with a noble legacy behind it. I was an intern at IPS 24 years ago. The recent death of longtime IPS fellow Saul Landau has brought me back to that time. Saul, whom I remember fondly, was a New Left Third Worldist par excellence. Solidarity with liberation struggles, especially in Latin America, formed the core of his politics. He wasn’t merely against US policy; he was passionately for emancipatory movements and leaders – Allende in Chile, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the FMLN in El Salvador.

In the early weeks of 2011 progressive internationalists like Phyllis Bennis were decidedly for the Tunisian revolutionaries who rose up against the dictatorship of Ben Ali, the protestors in Tahrir Square who demanded the ouster of Egypt’s tyrant Mubarak, and those in Bahrain who demonstrated against the tyranny of the US- and Saudi-backed monarchy. Our position as progressive internationalists in those cases wasn’t primarily about the US – it was about supporting and sympathizing with popular struggles again authoritarianism and for human dignity.

The Syrian uprising began very much in the same spirit and as part of the same wave of revolts across the Arab world. But the response of Western progressives to the Syrian case has been quite different. And the specter of a US military attack (predictably) sucked all the oxygen out of the room, imposing a kind of tunnel vision on progressives. “Where have these people been the past two years?” asks the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in London.  “It’s a bit late,” the organization inveighs, “to start marching for ‘no war in Syria.’” “What is emerging in the United States and United Kingdom now is a movement that is anti-war in form but pro-war in essence.”

That may sound harsh and seem overstated, but it reflects a frustration that many Syrians share. The peace movement is emphatically against US intervention, but where does it stand on the struggle to topple Assad’s murderous dictatorship? How does it propose the bloodshed be brought to an end? What is to be done?

There are no obvious, clear-cut answers to these questions, as Nader Hashemi and I recently stressed in an interview. These are vexing problems. This is why the book we recently coedited, The Syria Dilemma, brings together contending perspectives from twenty-two different thinkers and activists. “Morally serious people sharply disagree over what should be done,” we write in the book’s introduction. “There are compelling arguments on various sides of the issue.” Indeed there are roughly a dozen distinct positions in the book.

But only having a position on what shouldn’t be done, while avoiding the question of what should be done, is a copout – and a betrayal of the tradition of internationalism. The question of what should be done is much thornier, to be sure — it requires more thinking, analysis, reflection, even soul-searching. In his exemplary contribution to the book, Richard Falk, one of the leading voices for peace and human rights over the last half-century, does exactly this. He wrestles with the conflicting issues at play and thinks hard about how the Syrian tragedy can be resolved. This is what internationalism demands we do.

The Lebanese Marxist Gilbert Achcar goes further, arguing that “it is the duty of all those who claim to support the right of peoples to self-determination to help the Syrian people get the means of defending themselves.” Achcar (author of The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising and Eastern Cauldron: Islam, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq in a Marxist Mirror and co-author, with Noam Chomsky, of Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy) celebrated the British Parliament’s no vote on a Syrian military strike and yet is clear about his “resolute support to the Syrian popular uprising.”

Of course there are many progressives, especially in the peace movement, who are uncomfortable supporting an armed rebellion or advocating the delivery of arms to one. We included two essays in The Syria Dilemma arguing against this course (one by Charles Glass, one by Marc Lynch). OK, if that’s your view, then what would work better? The establishment of “No Attacks on Civilians” zones in Syria, as longtime humanitarian and peace activist Mary Kaldor suggests in her contribution to the book? Or something else?

The point is to place the plight of the Syrian people front and center on the agenda and to think seriously about how to resolve it. More than 100,000 Syrians have been killed and nearly 7 million displaced from their homes, with an average of 5,000 fleeing into neighboring countries every day. The humanitarian horror is colossal.

Back in 2000 I chaired a panel on Kosovo and the Left at the international conference of the Radical Philosophy Association in Chicago. Among the panelists was the Slovenian Marxist Slavoj Žižek. There was a moment in the Q & A period that I’ll never forget. Someone in the audience began to articulate what was a widely-held position on the Left: that while Serbian forces had committed horrible atrocities in Kosovo, foreign military intervention would only make things worse and must be opposed. I say began to articulate because Žižek, having heard this argument before and knowing exactly where it was going, interrupted his interlocutor immediately after the preamble, just as the word “but” was on its way out.

“And what do you propose should have been done about it?” Žižek thundered with his characteristic intensity. It was one of those moments when time freezes. The room went silent. An uneasy moral clarity had been imposed on the discussion. It was disconcerting. It rattled everyone. And yet profoundly illuminating. It was a forceful, even performative statement, yet it wasn’t a rhetorical question. What, Žižek demanded to know, is your answer to the problem? (Tellingly, none was forthcoming.) If not x, then what? It’s not enough to stand against – we must also stand for, and think through what that means concretely, on the ground, where human lives are at stake.

I want to put Žižek’s question to antiwar activists vis-à-vis Syria (leaving aside, for the moment, Žižek’s views on Syria, which I will address in a subsequent piece). So you opposed a US strike on Syria. So did I. As well we should have. And that battle has been won. US military action in Syria is no longer on the horizon. So now what do we do?

Mission accomplished, the peace movement seems to be saying as it takes its victory lap. But should antiwar activists feel quite so satisfied, as the death toll in Syria continues to mount with no end in sight?

To be fair, some antiwar organizations point in the right direction, at least rhetorically. Peace Action calls for “real alternatives and solutions based on serious multilateral diplomacy, adherence to domestic and international law and massive humanitarian aid…as well as an arms embargo and a cease-fire.” But what if those appealing calls continue to go unheeded, as they have for the last two and a half years, despite all efforts – what then?

“Dialogue, civil resistance, out-of-the box alternatives that no one expects to succeed—there are always other options,” reads an e-blast from the American Friends Service Committee. Are there really always other options? To its credit, the AFSC is partnering with the UK-based organization Responding to Conflict “to support a network of courageous Syrian peacemakers who are working on the local level to build a future in which all Syrians can co-exist safely and peacefully.” I strongly support that kind of work. But what it if fails to stop the carnage? Then what?

What if progressives devoted just a fraction of the energy and effort that went into mobilizing against a US military strike to the cause of bringing Syria’s nightmare to an end? It might not make a concrete difference – all the efforts to resolve the conflict thus far, including those of Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, have come to naught (that is, the very efforts that antiwar groups continue to call for, as if they hadn’t been going on, and failing, for two and a half years). But the effort would at least be an expression of solidarity and internationalism. Factoring the Syrian people – who have been largely absent from the progressive discussion – prominently into the equation would represent a welcome departure from the solipsistic, US-centric tendencies of the American peace movement.

This article was originally published on Critical Inquiry on Septenber 30, 2013.

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