A Slice of the Anti-war/Syria position in NYC

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.

Siegel, Madar, Porter, Walsh & Barlett at LeftForum 2013
Siegel, Madar, Porter, Walsh & Barlett at LeftForum 2013

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.



A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Weakness

90 Days, 90 Reasons is a project conceived by author Dave Eggers to rekindle young(ish) America’s romance with Barack Obama. Each day features a post by someone you might have seen in movies or heard on NPR. Today’s post is by Reza Aslan, “an internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religions” who’s on The Daily Show a lot. He believes that “The difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is not solely a matter of policy or priorities.”

The difference is about something far more fundamental and significant to the lives of every American. It is a difference of world views. If you want to know how Mitt Romney views the world, you need not focus on the train wreck that was his recent junket to England, Israel, and Poland. True, the former governor’s first foray into foreign affairs gave Americans a glimpse of what a Romney presidency would look like to the rest of the world. The results were not encouraging.

Oh God, let’s get this out of the way.

In England, Romney managed to alienate nearly the entire British people by questioning their preparedness for the Olympics.

Is this going to become the liberal version of Churchill-bust fever? Why should we care? Whoever resides at No. 10 Downing will drool when Washington rings a bell. Lament that fact or celebrate it, but don’t tell me that the opinions of the British people make any difference.

In Israel, he delivered a shockingly ignorant speech in which he blamed the massive disparity in GDP between Israel and Palestine not on forty years of Israeli military occupation but on “cultural differences.”

OK, now we’re getting somewhere. This is important. What’s next?

In Poland, Romney was denounced and boycotted by the party of his host, Lech Walesa, because of his assaults on American labor unions.

Yes, but Romney was endorsed by Walesa himself, which I would consider an odd thing to omit if either fact told us anything about what a President Romney might do. Can we talk about that, please?

On the eve of his departure, Romney gave a much-anticipated speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFA), laying out for the first time his foreign policy philosophy. In that speech, Romney described his vision for America on the global stage by using a term that has become so toxic, so outmoded, so universally proven to be a dangerous, self-destructive, and intellectually bankrupt expression of the global order, that until Romney revived it in his remarks at the VFA, most Americans assumed they would never hear it again. Romney called for a new “American century.”

Ah, something relevant! Well, this is certainly a solid point in favor of Obama. He’d never be so toxic, so outmoded, so intellectually bankrupt as to say — oh.

“If we meet our responsibilities, then — just like the 20th century — the 21st century will be another great American Century,” Obama said in his commencement address today at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

“That’s the future I see,” Obama told the cadets. “That’s the future you can build.”

That was less than three months ago. Aslan must have missed that, but he does sketch a bite-size history of The Project for a New American Century that will hit Jesse Eisenberg’s yurt like a knowledge grenade, so that’s something. And then things actually get interesting:

Barack Obama has made many mistakes in foreign policy (the failed reset with Russia comes to mind). Some of those mistakes, like his horrific handling of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, will have consequences for decades to come.

I don’t know what Aslan dislikes about the “reset” — Obama hasn’t sent Navy SEALs to take out Vladimir Putin? — but “horrific handling of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict” doesn’t need much elaboration. Which is a good thing, because Aslan doesn’t risk his seat with the cool kids by harshing their O-buzz any further. Nope, he goes right back to swooning:

But the one thing that President Obama understands at a deep, visceral level is that there is no longer any such thing as a unipolar or even a bi-polar world, and there never will be again. This is a president who recognizes that in a world in which the borders and boundaries that divide us into distinct and separate nation-states are becoming ever more porous, America can no longer dictate its will to other peoples. American might can no longer be based upon how many guns it can deploy (hard power) but on whether it can convince its enemies to lay down their guns first (soft power). American values can no longer be beholden to America’s security and economic interests, and those interests can no longer supersede the fundamental desire of all peoples everywhere to live lives of freedom, dignity, and democracy, even if it means losing our perfectly pliable dictatorial allies.

And so on. Obama has been perfectly willing to dictate his will, deploy guns, and help dictators — freedom, dignity, and democracy be damned — and Aslan knows it. Watching a seemingly thoughtful person bury so much inconvenient truth in pablum is truly depressing.

The Worst Horror Imaginable

…is to be called an ‘Arab.’ At least that is my take away from the latest Obama ad to appease bigots. In today’s Electronic Intifada, editor Ali Abunimah notes how easily and breezily this slips by the sensible Eastern Establishment censors:

But The Hill fails to note the blatant anti-Arab racism in the ad. It features a clip of an 11 October 2008 exchange at a Minnesota town-hall style campaign event between McCain and a woman in the audience. The exchange can be seen starting 15 seconds into the ad:

WOMAN: “I have heard about him [Obama]. He’s an Arab.”

MCCAIN: “No ma’am, no ma’am, he’s a decent family man, citizen, whom I just happen to have disagreements with.”

If the bigotry contained in the exchange is not obvious, try replacing the word “Arab” with “Jew” and then imagine what the response would have been to how McCain handled it then, and to Obama using it now.

Continue reading “The Worst Horror Imaginable”

Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead

In an otherwise OK report on the attorney general’s assassination address, Adam Serwer of Mother Jones quips, “There won’t be any drone strikes in Denver anytime soon.” I say, “Wanna bet?”

I mean it. I assume that “Denver” is a synecdoche, so Serwer just needs to clarify “soon” and we can start haggling over the extent to which his wealth will be redistributed.

Better make that Afterlife Advice video soon.

Let’s run down what we know: The current administration has asserted the legal authority to assassinate U.S. citizens without any external oversight. Non-citizens might as well be insects; they can be obliterated at the whim of a lowly joystick operator. Even if you trust Barack the Benevolent to draw some bright line at drone use within the borders of the United States, he may not be president 10 and a half months from now, and he certainly won’t be five years from now. Drones are proliferating among domestic law-enforcement agencies at all levels. So far, these craft are unarmed, but how long before some smart manufacturer or deranged authoritarian suggests using armed drones to preserve the sanctity of the Rio Grande? Wouldn’t that save the lives of our brave ICE officers? And so on, with the DEA, the FBI, and the rest.

The first drone assassination on American soil may not happen on Obama’s watch, but it will undeniably be part of his legacy.

Liberal Demands Assassination Orders Be Filed in Triplicate

On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder finally explained why it’s legal for him to annihilate you on a hunch. The nation’s liberals arose as one to condemn this brazen attack on American principles of…

The banality of zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
Hehe, just kidding. The nation’s liberals were all listening to Rush Limbaugh during Holder’s speech, but a few of them skimmed it later. And, boy, were they ever pretty much OK with it. Mother Jones‘s Kevin Drum, who has raised being “pretty much OK” with things to the status of serious analysis, sighed and shrugged a little more vigorously than usual:

I’m glad Holder gave this speech. I’m glad that he expanded (a bit) on the three circumstances that govern the Obama administration’s decisions to kill U.S. citizens abroad. I’m glad he agrees that these decisions are “extraordinarily weighty” and “among the gravest that government leaders can face.”

Nonetheless, even more than a thousand words of throat clearing can’t hide the fact that Holder simply provided no evidence that the rigor of the executive branch’s due process procedures matches his rhetoric; no evidence that these procedures are consistently followed; and negative evidence that there’s any reasonable oversight of the process. Merely informing Congress is the farthest thing imaginable from rigorous, independent oversight.

Holder’s job, of course, was an impossible one. The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has made a deliberate decision that actions like this are authorized by a combination of the 2001 AUMF and the president’s inherent commander-in-chief powers.

Now you need to know that this Bush comparison isn’t meant to be as damning as it sounds; Drum was pretty much OK with Bush killing whomever he wanted (see the first link above). But process is somewhat kind of semi-significant to liberals, so Drum appended this postscript:

This post wasn’t about my own position on this topic, but here it is. I agree that we’re at war. [Drink! – Ed.] Like it or not, the AUMF is an extremely broad grant of authority. I agree that stateless terrorists pose unique challenges. I agree that targeting them for killing is sometimes necessary, even if they’re U.S. citizens. I agree that Holder’s three principles form a good starting point for deciding when a targeted killing is justified.

But it’s simply not tolerable to take the view that the entire world is now a battlefield, and therefore battlefield rules of engagement apply everywhere. If you want to kill a U.S. citizen outside of a traditional hot battlefield, there needs to be independent oversight. The FISA court performs this function for surveillance, and we know from experience that it rarely gets in the government’s way. But at least it’s technically independent and forces the executive branch to follow its own rules. It’s the absolute minimum that we should require for targeted killings too.

And here we have the American liberal’s ideal form of government oversight: the kind that generates a lot of paperwork (and civil service man-hours) but “rarely gets in the government’s way.” It’s the absolute minimum we should require — if by “absolute minimum” you mean “absolute maximum” and if by “require” you mean “quickly suggest then never mention again.” Only crackpots really give a damn about this stuff.

Obama vs. Romney: There Goes One Lesser-of-Two-Evils Argument

Kevin Drum, the Leonidas of the left 49-yard line, predicts the ways in which a Romney presidency would differ from an Obama presidency. Drum assumes that Romney would have a Republican majority in the Senate, so this is not a best-case scenario for liberals. I scanned the list for anything related to foreign policy and civil liberties, and here’s all I found:

We might stay in Afghanistan significantly longer than we would otherwise — though I’m not sure about this. …

Romney has talked tough on China, but that’s just campaign bushwa. He’d quickly find out that his options are extremely limited on this score. On foreign policy more generally, Obama is actually fairly tenacious, despite Romney’s bluster to the contrary, and I doubt that Romney would be able to move much further to his right.

So, on two sprawling issues that could make a difference in a tight race, it’s practically a wash. No wonder liberals have aimed so much ire at another Republican.