Anti-Imperialism 2.0: Selective Sympathies, Dubious Friends

The new imperialism is caring a bit too much about the suffering of people who are being brutalized by a regime which is not currently an ally of the United States – and the new anti-imperialism is not giving a damn at all, solidarity that extends beyond the border permissible only if the drawing of attention to their plight could not possibly be used as ammunition by the “humanitarian” militarists of the American empire. The world, in this view, is divided into but two camps: those with America and those against it, with the good anti-imperialist’s outrage dialed up if the atrocity can be linked to the United States, as well it should be, but dialed down to total silence if it’s not.

This is, of course, the “anti-imperialism” of the reactionary, in more than one sense: How a person of the left responds to a pile of dead women and children is in effect dictated by how the U.S. government itself responds, the advocate of the poor and forgotten consigning foreigners to their fate – “not our problem, pal,” as one popular liberal congressman essentially put it on cable TV – if their interests have the misfortune of being perceived as aligned with America’s, the left’s commitment to internationalism abandoned for an inverted form of muddled nationalism that sees U.S. imperialism as not just one factor to consider in a complex world, but the only factor relevant in how we in the imperial core should view what happens on the rest of the globe. And if your cause is sullied by the perception it’s America’s cause too? The leftist sounds just like that liberal who sounds like Pat Buchanan: Sorry, pal, if you wanted our solidarity you should have been born somewhere that better lends itself to a black-and-white anti-imperial critique.

If “America” is reduced to the U.S. government and “help” for those suffering limited to a war in which the civilian to be saved invariably becomes the collateral damage to be denied, then surely the plight of non-Americans in unaligned states is not, or at least should not be, “our problem.” Libya and Iraq both illustrate that no matter how bad things are, there’s a way to make them worse. The problem is: If all those opposed to war can offer is a shrug and a lecture on how things were even worse in Vietnam, it should come as no surprise when good people – not to be confused with politicians – who want to help those they see suffering are tempted by the false but ready-packaged solutions on offer from the imperialists. As Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes in his book, The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War, part of the reason imperialists of the far-right and liberal variety were able to claim the mantle of humanitarianism was the fact that tragedies in places like Rwanda appeared to be the product of non-intervention. “Their motives might have been insincere,” Ahmad writes of the “humanitarian” interventionists who exploited that genocide to sell future wars, “but their position had the merit of not appearing indifferent.”

The vulgar reductionism that passes in some quarters for anti-imperialism (but looks a lot like simple abandonment of people deemed impure by those in imperialist countries), which sees every struggle as reducible to “aligned with America or not,” with no particular thought given to the fact that one country is not exactly the same as another, is what’s fashionable now that radical analysis is expressed in 140 characters or less. It’s a gift to imperialists – at least they care – while an insult to those whose existence the Western left finds it convenient to erase, the better to tar those left to the mercies of a foreign regime as undeserving of a second’s sympathy.

“My impression,” said Syrian leftist Yassin Al Haj Saleh in a recent interview, “is that they simply do not see us; it is not about us all. Syria is only an additional occasion for their old anti-imperialist tirades, never the living subject of the debate.” Perceiving the U.S. has intent on regime change, many on the left have hyped the jihadist threat posed by the opposition to the Assad regime, downplaying the many more people killed by the secular, beardless dictator or outright dismissing their deaths as propaganda (or just the unfortunate consequence of fighting a war on terror). “Do victims have different values based on who their murderers are?” asked Saleh, imprisoned by the regime for 16 years before taking part in the 2011 uprising. “Why, as the regime is bombing many regions in the country every day, killing dozens of people every day, are the leftists in the West as silent as the rightists?”

The problem with solidarity as some see it is that Syrians have the misfortune of being in Syria, not, say, Saudi Arabia or Israel. That being the case, appearing to support their struggle, or even acknowledging their suffering, doesn’t lend itself to attacking U.S. imperialism; in this view, it only serves the interests of imperialism, of which there is only one variety: American, which manifests its imperialism in Syria by providing some money and arms to some of Syria’s rebels, that some Free Syrian Army fighters received $50 to $100 a month making them money-driven “mercenaries” or “Contras” while thousands of Afghans reportedly paid $500 a month by Iran to serve as another proxy force in Syria – like the actual Contras of Nicaragua, who fought to defeat a popular revolution and restore an unpopular, reactionary regime – are simply ignored in analyses that purport to analyze foreign intervention in the conflict. Meanwhile, that Russia, another imperial power, has provided much more to the regime they are fighting – billions of dollars in fighter jets and cruise missiles and armored vehicles – is of no real concern, or at least not to be condemned, under the thinking that the actions of one’s own government shouldn’t just be one’s priority, but one’s singular focus.

Because it’s Russia and other foreign powers backing the lead slaughter in Syria, though, the crimes that would be condemned were they in Gaza are met with a yawn if they’re in Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp outside Damascus that has been subjected to a total, starvation-inducing. A February 2015 report from the United Nations’ Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, noting that Syria’s uprising turned violent when the Assad regime responded to protests with bullets, observes that the government has used this tactic – “preventing the flow of food, medical supplies, and sometimes water and electricity” – in towns across the country that are held by the armed opposition. “Infants have died as a result of the Government’s ‘surrender or starve’ siege strategy,” the report notes. In addition, the regime has used “cluster munitions, thermobaric bombs and missiles” against “civilian objectives, such as schools and hospitals,” as well as crude and indiscriminate barrel bombs filled with chlorine gas, causing “thousands of civilian casualties.”

This repression came in response to a revolution led by revolutionaries whose names we in the West never bothered to learn. People like Omar Aziz, an anarchist dissident, who, “At a time when most anti-imperialists were wailing over the collapse of the Syrian state and the ‘hijacking’ of a revolution they never supported in the first place . . . were tirelessly striving for unconditional freedom from all forms of despotism and state hegemony,” as Palestinian radical Budour Hassan writes. Aziz, who died of a heart attack in a regime prison, helped put into practice the politics Western leftists purport to believe in, “establishing non-hierarchical grassroots local councils” that allowed those in areas liberated from regime control to take control themselves. The councils helped coordinate the distribution of food and other basic goods, responding to the siege conditions imposed by the state with mutual aid, showing that the services offered by centralized power can be delivered by the people themselves.

The last thing any state wants is an example in its back yard of a functional alternative to repression. They had to be crushed – shamefully, in the eyes of some, in the name of state sovereignty and “anti-imperialism.”

Since the killing is sponsored by one imperial power and not another, though, silence is the duty of the Western revolutionary, which is a shame for the revolutionaries in Syria whose existence we in the West are duly bound to deny. While the groups fighting the U.S. empire in Iraq were treated with some nuance – not every Muslim with a gun and a beard is a terrorist – rhetorically attacking the U.S. empire requires embracing the vulgar Islamophobia of the far right and its portrayal of every Islamist as an Islamic State-style jihadist.

Silent for the cause

This regression, this abandonment of internationalism for the black-and-white comfort of vulgar geopolitical analysis, is more than just a matter of prioritization; the main target for those in the West who oppose war should of course be the American empire and its Western allies, who are forever in search of monsters they created to destroy. That emphasis is understandable and indeed commendable: it takes no courage, for instance, to condemn the crimes of North Korea. The problem is not the focus, but the rejection of any form of solidarity with the people of Syria or any attempt to understand their struggle as anything but the work of outside agitators from Washington and Riyadh whose meddling invalidates their cause, reducing them to no more than “imperial proxies,” that poses the problem. So afraid of providing propagandistic grist to imperial powers whose policies they think they have all figured out, many on the left have embraced silence over solidarity, even taking to shushing those who would dare utter a word of condemnation.

In Egypt, a U.S. ally, the left was quick to show support for those who took to the streets to protest a dictator for life (the counter-revolution gave them another dictator instead). When the Arab Spring came to Damascus, however, the silence was conspicuous even though the dynamics were largely the same: the masses, impoverished by a corrupt and brutal neoliberal regime, demanded dignity and democracy. Rather than give up the power he inherited from his father, however, Assad dug in and responded to the uprising against his regime with all the violence a modern state can muster: imprisoning and torturing the moderate opponents he claims he’s never had; leveling whole neighborhoods with bombs he says he doesn’t possess. Though America had just restored diplomatic relations with his regime, and George W. Bush had sent people to his prisons to be tortured, Assad had not risen to the status of a reliable client – and so condemning him came to be seen as aiding imperialism.

Four years of daily atrocities later and no one has any good answers, but to some on the left even raising awareness is akin to a war crime. “Selling ‘Peace Groups’ on US-Led Wars,” was the headline on The Huffington Post to an article by two antiwar activists in Minnesota. Their target? As so often happens on the left: other leftists, namely the members of another antiwar group, the “Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria,” whose critics charge that it has sold out its founders’ Quaker roots by promoting – and pay attention to the language employed here – “speakers and essayists with strong ties to the violent uprising to topple the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, resulting in a war that has already taken some 200,000 lives” (the majority, they fail to note, killed by the Assad regime).

Though the authors identify one speaker hosted by the group whose ex-husband was, a decade or so earlier, once in the same room as Dick Cheney, they fail to uncover any actual militarists in the “peace group” they claim requires those scare quotes; the peaceniks had, in fact, just a few weeks earlier heralded on their Facebook page a protest “against US-led Coalition airstrikes in Syria.” But to the more reactionary members of the antiwar movement, that post does not exonerate but further damns, for rather than condemn “the violent uprising” against a dictator – and abandon support for the right of oppressed peoples to resist their oppressors, from Ferguson to Palestine – the group highlights the fact that those leading the protest against U.S. imperialism were Syrians themselves, in Syria, who were part of “a civilian secular nonviolent activism group” founded in 2011 uprising. Further, its members are still fighting for revolution, the post stated, not for a dictator or a caliphate, which some on the left (and far right) portray as the only options. What made these pacifists imperialists was their refusal to erase the existence of Syrians and reduce the conflict in their nation to “Assad or foreign-backed Jihad.”

That concern for the victims of a regime that kills its own citizens with billions of dollars in Russian weapons and thousands of foreign fighters courtesy Hezbollah and Iran could be conflated with support for the United States sending in cruise missiles instead was, perhaps, understandable in late 2013, when it seemed the United States might just weaponize the suffering of the Syrian people and start another war. In an August 31 address from the White House Rose Garden, President Barack Obama gravely informed the press that, his chemical weapons “red line” having been crossed – a sarin attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta had just killed hundreds of civilians, with Assad’s security forces the only ones definitively proven to have both sarin and the means of simultaneously delivering it to 7 to 12 non-contiguous neighborhoods – he had decided “the United States should take military action against the Syrian regime.” While the anti-imperial case should have been made in terms of alternatives to war, one can at least see why some would prefer to bolster the perceived strength of the antiwar argument by ignoring or downplaying the alleged problem to be “solved.”

What has happened since, though? Bombs are falling on Syria but they are, rather importantly, not being dropped on the Assad regime, the dictator whose downfall was once demanded by the West now finding himself since at least August 2014 seen as a lesser evil – a potential partner, even – in the war on the Islamic State (which is itself the product of the bombs dropped by Assad in Syria and the U.S. and its allies in Iraq, extreme violence a demonstratively effective means of creating extremists all over the world). Less than a year after Obama said he would strike him and his regime, U.S. officials now “assure Mr. Assad, through Iraqi intermediaries, that Syria’s military is not their target,” according to The New York Times. Speaking to the BBC, Assad himself confirmed he gets information on the U.S.-led air strikes on Syria, which helps explain how both U.S. and Syrian jets have been able to launch successive strikes on the city of Raqqa without any collisions or “friendly fire.”

Yesterday’s enemy is tomorrow’s friend

This shift may seem abrupt, but it was long in the making. Back in December 2013, it was already the elite consensus in Washington that the collapse of the Assad regime would be “the worst possible outcome for U.S. strategic interests,” according to a RAND Institute report on a workshop on Syria policy attended by “experts from the U.S. intelligence and policy communities.” In a July 2014 Op-Ed in The New York Times, Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the extremely establishment Council on Foreign Relations, reflected this consensus when he argued the Obama administration should be “capitalizing on Mr. Assad’s anti-jihadi instincts,” adding: “The greatest threat to American interests in the region is ISIS, not Mr. Assad.”

With this in mind, it’s worth revisiting Obama’s remarks from the fall of 2013. Rather than make the case for U.S.-led regime change, the president claimed his military action would be of the “limited” variety with no “boots on the ground”; effectively a wagging of the imperial finger in the form of a couple dozen missiles hitting a select few regime targets to send the message: be a good modern ruler and stick to killing your own people with conventional arms. That could be dismissed as rhetoric, but what’s notable is how he followed up on it: Not by unilaterally going in guns ablaze, claiming as he did in Libya that it’s not really a war that requires the consent of Congress if it’s only foreigners who are at risk of dying, but by turning to that legislative body, one of the most dysfunctional (by design) in the developed world – knowing that the parliament in Britain had just rejected a similar authorization.

Assuming politicians are cynical, what can we deduce from this? Perhaps, I would argue, the president wanted to look tough – his own damn “red line,” originally offered as a way to be seen as “acting” while avoiding the risks of actually doing so, could not just be crossed without consequence, now could it? – while at the same time shifting ownership of a war he and the Pentagon did not particularly want a Congress that would give him hell if he did nothing but would be hesitant to do anything itself. It didn’t even get that far, anyway: Before anyone could cast a vote in Congress the White House had already embraced a Russian plan to whisk Syria’s chemical weapons out of the country, with U.S. officials claiming that was the idea all along.

Today, the U.S. government is now sharing intelligence with a regime it once threated to bomb; it’s still verbally committed to a change in government, but it has cut off funding for the Free Syrian Army it once claimed was the future and is instead training a nominal amount of rebels for a new force, separate from the rest of the Syrian opposition, to fight the Islamic State, not Assad, a force that may never exist outside a sheet of paper as most rebels, never the easily controlled proxies they were billed as in simplistic analyses of the conflict, haven’t given up on regime change themselves. Still, some on the antiwar left remain convinced that overthrowing Assad was and forever will be the overriding goal of the United States, the developments of the last year and a half dismissed as a distraction from the imperial long game (with Syrians on the ground still relegated to the status of proxies or spectators). Some haven’t caught on to the fact that while they were focused on not giving the U.S. any anti-Assad ammo – going beyond skepticism to reflexively denying reports of his crimes and baiting as imperialists anyone who concluded he maybe was as bad as the massacres suggested – was the fact that when the American fighter jets came, they came for the jihadists that some on the left (and the Assad regime itself) have spent years claiming were the real threat. Were there not so many dead, that darkly comic fact might be good for a hearty laugh; chuckle or not, it does point to the pitfalls of apologism.

Focusing on the crimes of one’s own government is indisputably good and just; insofar as foreign policy is subject to any democratic input at all, the chances of influencing the policies of the state one lives under are probably greater than the chances of influencing another. But this does not, in fact, require absolute silence about the crimes of all others: the anti-apartheid movement and the efforts to promote divestment from Israel both show the value of speaking out and increasing the public relations cost of injustice, the world’s lesser criminals more susceptible to that pressure than the world’s greatest. Moral credibility is also an asset in the fight against war, one that can be easily lost by way of making excuses for those who wage it without the help of the U.S. empire – and who, as a result of the ever-shifting alliances required by realpolitik, may someday find themselves rehabilitated and transformed from an Official Enemy to Our New Ally.

Denial isn’t just a policy in Egypt

Better than willful ignorance of inconvenient evils is an acknowledgement that yes,, non-American evil does exist in the world – and America waging war is the worst way to deal with it. Instead of just opposition, though, we should be offering alternatives to imperialist intervention lest we be seen, not altogether inaccurately, as treating some war crimes as more equal than others. That doesn’t mean blindly accepting the demands for intervention from a desperate people, nor does it mean condemning them either. It does begin with listening, though: we might learn that, in some ways, the oft-`mocked Syrian “revolution” has achieved some revolutionary changes – and the revolutionaries could use our help.

More than 4.5 million people – 1 in 5 Syrians, or nearly the total population of Islamic State-held territory in both Iraq and Syria – live in the autonomous cantons of Rojava, which would not exist were it not for the 2011 uprising. The media has focused on the militias in the region that fought off the Islamic State, the Peoples Protection Units (the YPG for men and, notably, the YPJ for women), but the cantons themselves are a radical experiment in direct democracy. Almost all major decisions are made by regular people participating in communes, not professional politicians elected to multi-year terms in a legislature. These communes decide how to spend public funds and even how much to charge for basic goods, though the “social contract” governing Rojava insists that all decisions must respect the right of all to work, housing and health care, as well as the right to “express their ethnic, cultural, linguistic and gender rights.”

In stark contrast to the extreme form of patriarchy promoted by the Islamic State, women in Rojava are playing a leading role in the social revolution and “have the inviolable right to participate in political, social, economic and cultural life.” After visiting the region, Janet Biehl, whose husband Murray Bookchin’s non-hierarchical approach to socialism has provided much of the philosophical basis for the revolutionary project, wrote that women “are to this revolution what the proletariat was to Marxist-Leninist revolutions of the past century.” Key administrative positions are filled not by one person, but by “one male and one female – for the sake of gender equality and also to keep power from concentrating into one person’s hands.” At the local level, 40 percent of the discussion with communes must be led by women. The economy, meanwhile, is increasingly based on cooperatives and decided anti-capitalist; in some towns, money itself has been abolished.

Though this region has no doubt benefited from the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State, it’s worth remembering that the alleged humanitarians of the U.S. government were perfectly willing to see this experiment in libertarian socialism violently crushed. When the Islamic Stated threatened to take over the town of Kobane, Secretary of State John Kerry said it was sad but not important. “Kobane is one community and it is a tragedy what is happening there,” he told the press, but “we ought to be focusing first . . . in Iraq. That is our current strategy.” Only international solidarity, pointing out the contradictions in the imperialists’ stated aims and their actual policy, and the town’s proximity to the Turkish border and journalists assembled on the other side of it led to a shift in policy.

It is possible to oppose such an intervention, against a force the United States helped create, while understanding why people might request it – and not condemning for that. Solidarity need not take the form of calling for bombs or no-fly zones, nor should it: Rojava, for instance, faces a total embargo – no goods can legally cross its borders – that is enforced by the Turkish state and the Kurdish government in Iraq, both of which are U.S. allies. We in the West can be calling out this policy of intervention, and the related policy of officially labeling as “terrorists” those who have shown they’re better than both Assad and the U.S. government when it comes to fighting actual terrorists, which prevents reconstruction and threatens the ability of the region to be self-sufficient in terms of its defense, which undoubtedly pleases the interventionists. The people of Rojava are calling for this and those of us privileged to be born in the West should be calling for it too if we would like to see our principles realized in the real world, not just espoused on social media.

Expressions of solidarity – declaring that foreigners are not forgotten – are also not without their worth. “We are living through a huge catastrophe; a second Nakba,” a Palestinian from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, Hakim Saeid, told Mondoweiss, referring to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the land that became Israel. He lamented the lack of support from the Palestinian diaspora, which is vocal when the Zionists are doing the killing but has been muted with respect to Assad. “We aren’t asking them to burn embassies or do anything huge,” he said. “We are only asking for them to have peaceful demonstrations so that our voices, which have been chocked, may reach the world.”

“I don’t count on any government,” Saeid added. “I count on people who are able to amplify our voices. I count on them to come out and speak.”

The tragedy that is Syria today is compounded by the silence of those who, were it a different imperial power aiding the Assad regime, would be holding candle-light vigils and declaring their intent to speak truth to power on behalf of the powerless, perhaps not changing a whole lot but at least – and this isn’t nothing – adding another voice speaking truth to the historical record and increasing the political cost of butchery, guarding against that butcher’s acceptance back into the “international community” and providing some semblance of comfort to those who now feel totally forgotten by the world. Being aware of imperialists’ interests and skeptical of the rhetoric deployed against their enemies needn’t manifest itself as whistling and turning one’s head at the crimes of capitalists aligned with a competing power. Borders shouldn’t stop the radicals who don’t even believe in such arbitrary geopolitical divides from extending both material and verbal support across them. States kill enough things; solidarity shouldn’t be one of them.

This piece first appeared at Pulse Media.

Charles Davis is a writer in Los Angeles whose work has aired on public radio and been published by outlets such as Columbia Journalism Review, The Daily Beast, The Guardian and The New Republic. You can follow him on Twitter @charliearchy.