I recently got a chance to discuss American militarism and antiwar politics with Ralph Nader. The Center for Study of Responsive Law created this video in affiliation with the Amherst Political Union.
It shouldn’t be easy for a group of Antiwar.com writers and supporters to just walk in and dish about foreign policy at the Left Forum, which claims to be the biggest annual convocation of Leftwing activists in the country.
But it was — easy, that is. In fact, some of us probably made it harder for the Leftwing participants at the New York City confab to prove to us that that they weren’t just humanitarian “imperialists” in disguise. Imperialists – that’s a dirty word in these parts, on any side of the aisle.
Which made for an interesting panel discussion on Saturday, moderated by this writer, who was trying to drill down on the question of whether the United States had any moral obligation to intervene in Syria because a) there was (or at least it began as) an organic freedom movement trying to topple a repressive government that had been tacitly supported by America for years, and b) there is a growing human crises that stands to get worse, not just for Syria but for the entire region, which is already fragile from war, refugees and sectarian strife.
This question is particularly salient today because the Obama Administration is expected to “decide” this week whether the U.S will start assisting the rebels with heavy arms (something my co-panelists and many in the audience clearly oppose). And while President Obama has already ruled out “boots on the ground,” there is an ongoing debate about the “less likely” option of helping to impose a no-fly zone and “deploying American air power to ground the regime’s jets, gunships and other aerial assets,” according to an Associated Press report on Sunday.
With help from the Russians and Hezbollah on the ground fighting for Bashar Assad’s Syrian Army forces, the government has in the last week taken back the city of Qusair and is on the march north to recapture Homs and Aleppo, the very source of the rebellion’s strength. The fall of Qusair blocks a strategic supply route for the rebels and the fall of the two other major cities would reopen the government’s access to the coast and a vital corridor of predominantly Shia-Allawite support. In other words, it’s not looking too good for the revolution.
I was joined Saturday to talk about these developments and more by Gareth Porter, John Walsh, Chase Madar, Evan Siegel, and Lorraine Barlett, all of whom who would either consider themselves Left or libertarian, but decidedly anti-war and comfortable working with the Right end of the spectrum on national security issues. All save for Seigel have written for Antiwar.com or The American Conservative magazine.
The audience was decidedly Left, and, judging from the exhibition hall downstairs, way more comfortable with Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky than Randolph Bourne or Ron Paul. But judging from many of the knowing smiles and murmurs of agreement throughout the nearly two-hour discussion – surprise – we had a lot in common, at least on foreign policy.
First off – there seemed to be a hard line against intervention in Syria or anywhere else. “Bombs for peace” didn’t hold well with this crowd. “(Intervention) will only complicate and cause more death than help in Syria,” said Siegel, an adjunct professor at the New York City College of Technology and veteran peace activist. “They have to work it out for themselves,” said Walsh, a microbiology professor who co-founded ComeHomeAmerica.us and over the course of his own activism has shifted from Left, closer to libertarianism. He appeared the most unyielding of them all on the panel, saying any move to assist the rebels would be seen as imperialist in nature.
Porter agreed. “Don’t be suckers,” he said simply. A mantra for our times. More seriously, Porter entered into an exposition in which he explained that the National Security State — the Armed Forces, the National Security Council, Joint Chiefs and Pentagon — were disinterested in a Syrian intervention anyway. “It’s not in the interest of the National Security State,” he insisted, “because they believe the cost of war to the National Security State itself would be greater than the benefit to the National Security State. In other words, it’s about their bottom line.”
In that vein, Madar, who has written extensively on recent U.N. Ambassador nominee Samantha Power, said fierce liberal interventionists like her pick and choose their “crises” and show their bias when they conspicuously leave politically unfeasible or inexpedient conflicts off their list of struggles worthy of outside assistance.
When I interviewed a few of the audience members after the session they seemed to share much of the sentiments. “It’s ridiculous to push on one side and not give them the chance to decide for themselves,” said Linda D’Angelo from Ohio. “We can’t put our fingers in all of the dykes.”
Not everyone was digging the tone and direction of the speakers, who were basically asserting that the excuse of “humanitarianism” was often used to meddle, but that the United States has only really intervened for its own interests, and in Syria, there was no interest at stake. Furthermore, whether there was an “interest or not,” all five speakers advocated a consistent hands-off policy. For at least one bespectacled man in the audience who spoke up, this equated with allowing a “slaughter” to continue.
He waited patiently to be called upon and when he was, unleashed a Gatling gun of invectives on the panel, calling them and Antiwar.com, “apologists for genocide,” “Islamophobes,” and “crypto-Stalinists.”
Interestingly, after a brief skirmish broke out, with members of the panel and the audience defending the speakers from his accusations, the man abruptly walked out. But not before he was quietly jeered by both sides on his way to the door.
But the question of whether the U.S might have some obligation to do something in the face of a humanitarian crisis that stands to affect half of Syria’s 20 million population by the end of the year (already, 1.5 million refugees have left Syria, while 4.5 million are displaced inside), still seems to make some uncomfortable. The conversation often drifted toward the history of U.S war policy, empire and the broader principles of anti-interventionism. There seemed to be some consensus around imposing a total arms embargo in order to let both sides fight it out without interference from the Gulf States, Europe, Russia, Iran, U.S.., etc., but then most conceded that it was likely too far gone for that anyway.
Probably the most heartening thing to come out of the 50-minute exchange in that university classroom was the largely positive (not counting the singular fury that left the room) reaction from the audience. One gentleman admitted he had no idea there was this common ground with “the other side” of the political spectrum before.
There were nodding heads all around. Mission accomplished? Perhaps.
U.S. Cooption of the Human Rights Movement Continues.
"When political people have finished with repression and violence PEN can indeed be forgotten. Until then, with all its flounderings and failings and mistaken acts, it is still, I think, a fellowship moved by the hope that one day the work it tries and often manages to do will no longer be necessary." —Arthur Miller who once led PEN.
"To advance from a nuanced dissent to a compelling vision, progressive policymakers should turn to the great mainstay of twentieth-century U.S. foreign policy: liberal internationalism…(which) should offer assertive leadership — diplomatic, economic, and not least, military — to advance a broad array of goals…–"Suzanne Nossel, new Executive Director of PEN American Center in Smart Power, Foreign Affairs (Emphases, j.w and c.r.)
Suzanne Nossel is a disturbing choice as the new executive director of PEN, American Center (PEN), an American branch of the worldwide association of writers and related professions devoted to free expression and "the ideal of one humanity living in peace in the world." The stark contrast between the statements of Arthur Miller and Suzanne Nossel above is enough to sound an alarm. But Nossel’s career path, the masters she has served, the stances she has taken and the activities she has sponsored demonstrate profound differences with PEN. PEN cannot remain true to the ideals articulated by Arthur Miller with Nossel at the helm. She is an embodiment of the ongoing, and all too successful, cooption of the Human Rights movement by the U.S. government.
Created by Melody Weinstein, Michael T. Heaney, and Marco Roldán, The Activists: War, Peace, and Politics in the Streets describes, “…activism in the anti-war movement in the United States after 9/11. Through the lens of several well-known activists and dynamic organizations, it investigates varieties of activism, as well as the personal experiences that bring people together to create a movement. It paints a complex and intimate portrait of the world of activism.”
Contact Michael T. Heaney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-236-3369 for details.
Where wars DO come from:
“It is not civilizations that promote clashes. They occur when old-fashioned leaders look for old-fashioned ways to solve problems by rousing their people to armed confrontation.” –Kenichi Ohmae, The End Of The Nation State, (New York: The Free Press 1995), p. 11.
Why of course the people don’t want war. … That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along –Head Nazi Hermann Goering
Mr. Bertie Felstead: “A German began singing All Through The Night, then more voices joined in and the British troops responded with Good King Wencelas… the next morning, all the soldiers were shouting to one another, “Hello Tommy, Hello Fritz” … The Germans started it, coming out of their trenches and walking over to us. Nobody decided for us – we just climbed over our parapet and went over to them, we thought nobody would shoot at us if we all mingled together… There wouldn’t have been a war if it had been left to the public. We didn’t want to fight but we thought we were defending England.” England’s Oldest Man Remembers The 1915 Christmas Truce
People do not make wars; governments do. –U.S. President Ronald Reagan
President George W. Bush and seven of his administration’s top officials… made at least 935 false statements in the two years following September 11, 2001, about the national security threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. …an exhaustive examination of the record shows that the statements were part of an orchestrated campaign that …led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses. –Charles Lewis and Mark Reading-Smith, False Pretenses: Iraq THE WAR CARD Orchestrated Deception on the Path to War, www.publicintegrity.org
Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. …The feudal barons of the Middle Ages, the economic predecessors of the capitalists of our day, declared all wars. And their miserable serfs fought all the battles. The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon one another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt. And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose–especially their lives. …the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war and they alone make peace. Yours not to reason why; Yours but to do and die. That is their motto … The Anti-war Speech That Earned Eugene Debs 10 Years in Prison, Socialist Party convention in Canton, Ohio, 16 June 1918
By contrast, where wars DON’T come from:
…we preferred hunting to a life of idleness on our reservations. At times we did not get enough to eat and we were not allowed to hunt. All we wanted was peace and to be left alone. Soldiers came and destroyed our villages. Then Long Hair (Custer) came…They say we massacred him, but he would have done the same to us. Our first impulse was to escape but we were so hemmed in we had to fight. – Crazy Horse/Tashunkewitko
The Aztec strategy of war was based on the capture of prisoners by individual warriors, not on working as a group to kill the enemy in battle. By the time the Aztecs came to recognize what warfare meant in European terms, it was too late. – Aztec
New England’s first Indian war, the Pequot War of 1636-37, provides a case study of the intensified warfare Europeans brought to America. Allied with the Narragansetts, traditional enemies of the Pequots, the colonists attacked at dawn. … The slaughter shocked the Narragansetts, who had wanted merely to subjugate the Pequots, not exterminate them. The Narragansetts reproached the English for their style of warfare, crying, “It is naught, it is naught, because it is too furious, and slays too many men.” In turn, Capt. John Underhill scoffed, saying that the Narragansett style of fighting was “more for pastime, than to conquer and subdue enemies.” Underhill’s analysis of the role of warfare in Narragansett society was correct, and might accurately be applied to other tribes as well. Through the centuries, whites frequently accused their Native allies of not fighting hard enough. -James W. Loewen, LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME, (New York, NY: Touchstone 1996), p. 118
Voice of Art, the new documentary series on Pharrell Williams’ I Am Other YouTube channel, is releasing Part 1 of its new episode entitled “Iraq Veterans Against the War” on Friday, June 29 2012. The episode features the historic march and returning of Global War on Terrorism service medals by members of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) in Chicago during the May 2012 NATO summit.