Prof. Chomsky pointed out that the U.S. defines "International Community" (or "Global Community") as only including countries that agree with the U.S. power structure. Since those ~187 other countries of the world don’t agree to materially support a military strike on Syria, they are no longer included in the “International Community.”
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.
Yesterday would have been uber-diplomat Richard Holbrooke’s 72nd birthday. He died December 13, 2010 while on the job as our top envoy to Afghanistan, and one can’t help thinking that whatever 1960’s idealism still existed in terms of making that country a better place, died with him. At least symbolically.
That is not to say that Richard “bulldozer” Holbrooke wasn’t a strident advocate for the use of military force — he was for sure, and I believe it was only to his and our ultimate detriment. But unlike his neoconservative cohorts in Washington, Holbrooke believed in starting wars (Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Iraq) as a matter of humanitarian intervention, not merely for “securing the realm” or for preserving “western interests.” That is not to say his positions on those wars were any better than those of his neocon peers, it’s merely a distinction, one being that humanitarian interventionists like Holbrooke and Hillary Clinton actually believed American power could transform societies. Neoconservatives, on the other hand, have shown time and again that while they are quite good at breaking things (and regimes), putting Humpty Dumpty back together again was never high on the priority list.
I raise the spirit of Richard Holbrooke now because I heard an old clip of him speaking on P.O.T.U.S Radio on Wednesday, in tribute to his birthday. It referred to the day in 2009 he was named special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and there were a number of VIPs there to share in what was probably his last true moment in the sun. The radio spot tracked his Associated Press obituary, which noted his early service as a provincial representative for the U.S. Agency for International Development in South Vietnam and then as an aide to two U.S. ambassadors in Saigon during the Vietnam War:
Holbrooke spotted an old friend in the audience, John Negroponte, his one-time roommate in Saigon (the former South Vietnamese capital now called Ho Chi Minh City) who later was the first director of national intelligence and a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
“We remember those days well, and I hope we will produce a better outcome this time,” Holbrooke said.
This seems so sad, veering into Shakespearean territory. Here is man who spent his entire life grooming to be in a position to produce “a better outcome” than Vietnam, and then he helps, in essence, to duplicate it, by supporting a military invasion that ripped the fabric of Iraqi society apart and turned nearly every religious and ethnic group against us at some point during the last 10 years . The U.S spent trillions and strained its powerful military and sent millions of Iraqis fleeing — and to what end?
By the time the Bush Administration was on its way out and Holbrooke could have put his diplomatic skills to the test for a Democrat in Afghanistan, the world had unfortunately moved on. The military was everything, not just a means to getting men like Holbrooke to the negotiating table. The new president seemed happy to keep the military on this course, whether that was to hell in a hand basket didn’t appear to matter, as long as the brass got blamed and some kind of deadline for withdrawal could be achieved.
So, after a voluminous career that stretched back to the Kennedy Administration, Holbrooke found himself patronized and later ignored by the young whippersnapper President, who never seemed to let him flex his legendary skills to get the job done for “Af-Pak” the way he had presumably did for the Balkans. Afghan President Karzai appeared to hate him, preferring military men like Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who had gobs of fun at Holbrooke’s expense in 2010, right in front of Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings. McChrystal lost his job because of it, but Holbrooke looked very much the weaker man throughout the entire episode.
While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that Holbrooke’s own ego didn’t do him any favors (more than once being called a ‘bull in a china shop’), making him as many enemies as friends during his 2009-2010 stint, one thing is clear: the military was (and remains) in control of the entire war and foreign policy effort in Af-Pak. The State Department as Holbrooke had known it was and is a shell of its former self — strangled by the petty bureaucracy at Foggy Bottom, subservient to the military mission, always begging for scraps at the trough.
And the military was — and is — not negotiating. In fact, “negotiation” and “diplomacy” seem like quaint terms these days, right behind “Geneva Convention” and “law of war.” Depending on the “deal” the Obama Administration makes with Karzai for post-2014 military relations, the U.S could likely leave Afghanistan the same way it left Iraq, a country on the brink of disaster.
Holbrooke seems to have sensed this was coming down the road, perhaps staring up at the future from his diminished perch had made him see things more clearly. James Mann, who wrote extensively about Holbrooke for his book The Obamians in 2012, quotes Holbrook’s wife, Katy Marton:
“He thought that this (Afghanistan) could become Obama’s Vietnam,” she said. “Some of the conversations in the Situation Room reminded him of conversations in the Johnson White House. When he raised that, Obama didn’t want to hear it.”
There was even a question over his last words, the first reports being that he told his doctor “to stop this war.” The context in which he said this has been in dispute (his doctor says it was made in “painful banter” as he awaited the surgery from which he never emerged, alive).
It was clear that the humiliation, his isolation, the failure of any way forward in Afghanistan had taken its toll, however, and was foremost on his mind when he collapsed. According to Mann’s well documented account:
On Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010, Richard Holbrooke played tennis on Long Island with Bill Drozdiak, the president of the American Council on Germany, a former foreign correspondent who became friendly with Holbrooke when both were living in Europe. They played for about an hour. Drozdiak thought Holbrooke seemed unusually pale, pudgy and out of shape, as if he’d been working too hard.
Afterward, they sat and talked. Holbrooke said he was in despair over his role in the administration. He simply could not establish a relationship with Obama, Holbrooke said. The president seemed remote and cold-blooded, at least in Holbrooke’s presence. And, as if that weren’t enough, Holbrooke’s problem wasn’t just with Obama: Holbrooke thought many in the White House were against him …
The following Friday, Holbrooke was at a meeting in Hillary Clinton’s State Department office when he suddenly became flushed and stricken with pain. He was taken to the State Department medical office, but collapsed and went by ambulance to George Washington University Hospital. He died there three days later of a ruptured aorta.
What would Holbrooke say today, now that his idea of “humanitarian intervention” has been completely discarded in favor of targeted killing, covert “dirty” wars and yes, a relatively low urgency for the humans themselves. Would he justify it, especially if he were given a prestigious inside view? Should he own it, considering that he and his “muscular Democrats” had set the stage for this evolution in the 1990’s, and had supported Obama’s tough “counter-terrorism” approaches from the beginning?
Daniel Ellsberg suggested in this interesting eulogy after Holbrooke’s death in 2010, that for as idealistic as Holbrooke was, his career came first. Perhaps the daily soul sacrifice working in the Obama Administration — for the scraps of condescension he got in return — was too much for the man. He must have known that the war enterprise was as dirty as it was doomed to failure, but he was committed to defending it nonetheless.
But we will never really know. We can safely say however, that this isn’t exactly the legacy Richard Holbrooke wanted to leave behind. Or this. Or this. In fact, it’s probably worse than he would have imagined.
“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
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