Millions marched against Trump for fear he’d cause devastation at home and abroad. This resistance movement still remains a powerful social force, and recently one of the movement’s biggest fears — a new war — was fully realized when Trump bombed the Syrian government and expanded the Middle East wars, at a time of immense risk of confrontation with Russia.
Immediately after the Syrian bombing Trump sent battleships to North Korea, and threatened to strike “preemptively,” á la Iraq in 2003. Then Trump escalated the Afghanistan war by dropping the world’s biggest non-nuclear bomb, at 21,000 pounds, whose one-mile blast radius creates nuclear-style havoc without the pesky label. The message is clear: Trump has become a seriously dangerous war president, the snake shedding his “isolationist” skin.
Society reeled from the newest war, but the fertile soil for protest barely produced a sprout. The establishment “supported” the new war, either directly by cheerleading or indirectly via silence.
The rest of the left was against the war but they didn’t bother to organize a protest. The only notable group that did — the ANSWER coalition — found little help from other left groups. The few protests that were organized were small or denounced by others on the left as being “pro Assad.” Trump was certainly pleased by the non-opposition and division against his new war.
Into the giant antiwar void crept the neo-Nazi “alt-right” groups, including leading white supremacist Richard Spencer, who loudly broke his support of Trump by protesting the new Syria bombing in front of the White House. Other alt-right-associated individuals or organizations — including altright.com and Infowars — loudly denounced their former Fuhrer.
In some ways the white supremacists protested more loudly and militantly than the left, which declined to ring any alarm bells, opting to minimize the aggression by dismissing the strike as “symbolic,” or “routine.”
While much of the alt-right unconditionally denounced the bombing, some on the left gave partial legitimacy to it by focusing half of their post-bombing energy on denouncing Trump’s target, Assad, helping to put the American public back to bed instead of agitating them into the streets.
Trump apparently silenced his critics by doing what they feared most. How did this happen?
In the political realm theory and action are inseparable. For revolutionaries the point of political theory/analysis is to directly intervene most effectively through organizing/action. The “what” of theory must be tightly connected to the “how” of organizing, sometimes referred to as “praxis.”
When it comes to theory/analysis on imperialism and war, the point is not just about understanding the “who,” “what,” and “why” of the conflict, but “how” to directly intervene to stop it.
Ultimately the only place that U.S. residents can directly intervene against war is in their own country, which is why any revolutionary analysis of the Syrian conflict must be oriented to agitating the U.S. public into action against “their” government’s war actions. Anything less is either abstract commentary or ineffectual moralizing.
Because theory is meant to prepare the working class to take action, a flawed theory results in inaction and political paralysis in the face of war. Leon Trotsky once compared a flawed theory to a leaky umbrella, “useless precisely when it rains.”
It’s raining now and instead of mass protests we have a sedated left, the result of several years of flawed analysis about the situation in the Middle East, coming to fruition just as the bombs began to rain down against yet another government.
What was the error? With each uptick in U.S. military intervention in Syria the left ignored or minimized it. Instead of educating the public about how the U.S. was openly organizing a proxy war — the logic of which leads to direct military intervention — much of the left focused instead on how “monstrous” Syria’s President Assad was.
The left ignored the The New York Times reporting that Obama was working with regional allies to recruit, train and arm soldiers, while funding them to attack the Syrian government. In 2013 The New York Times revealed that the U.S. had been overseeing a regional “weapons pipeline” to arm fighters. But this news barely registered on the left’s radar.
Instead of demanding that this intervention stop, many on the left gave it the green light; some actually demanded that the U.S. militarize the conflict by further arming Syrian rebels, or echoing the demand of some rebels to impose a military “no fly zone” in Syria (an act that requires war).
The conflict would likely have ended several years ago without the direct intervention of the U.S., which not only gave guns and training but made regime change promises to allies, who were emboldened to go “all in” against the Syrian government by aiding the rebels, tearing the region apart in the process.
The majority of the left’s analysis focused on how awful Assad was, as if the U.S. public wasn’t already aware of the nonstop media coverage that turned him into a “monster,” a “butcher,” “Hitler,” etc. The left now appears too confused to protest; the conflict appears “very complicated.” People hate Trump but they are told Assad is even worse, so why protest a new U.S. war if the target deserves death?
It’s this conclusion that the U.S. government hopes to produce in every war. Saddam was a “monster,” Gaddafi was a “monster,” the Taliban are “monsters,” Milosevic was a “monster,” the Vietnamese too. Every new enemy of the U.S. military is compared to Hitler, because it is “moral” to kill Hitler, an idea now rebranded as “humanitarian intervention.” Every war the U.S. has ever waged was labeled “humanitarian,” including “taming the savages” during the indigenous American genocide.
The left shouldn’t fall victim to dehumanizing the enemy of the U.S. It’s true that Assad is no prince, but he’s a problem the Syrians have to deal with, not us. We have our hands full with Trump. The vast majority of nations have awful leaders, and all capitalist nations would react similarly to Assad when faced with protests that morphed into an armed revolt: they’d use vicious repression.
Saddam was every bit as “tyrannical” as Assad, having drowned in blood every threat against him. But you’d be hard pressed to see any anti-Saddam protest signs in the streets during the massive anti-war protests in 2003. The demand was simple: “Don’t Attack Iraq” or “No War.” Nobody was accused of being “pro-Saddam.”
In the face of war with Syria many left groups have foregone demands entirely, focusing instead on “condemning” every party to the war. Each party is declared equally guilty, which partially absolves every individual party, since “if everyone is guilty nobody is guilty.” This is the surest road to ambivalence and inaction if an antiwar movement is the goal. This lack of prioritizing guarantees ineffectual organizing and empty streets. The urgency to mobilize against U.S. imperialism is effectively muted. A demand isn’t an abstract slogan, but an urgent call to mobilize.
People should be putting only one government on trial for the Syrian conflict: the one they live under. Syrians should focus on Syria and Russians on Russia. U.S. residents only have proper jurisdiction in their own nation, where they are empowered to directly charge, convict and punish the guilty party, their government, through organizing and mobilizing the broader community into action.
The U.S. working class can do very little to stop the Syrian government from doing anything, nor are there Syrian revolutionary groups of any substance for U.S. residents to offer direct support to (the exception being the Syrian Kurds in Rojava).
It’s only inside of the United States where the government can be directly challenged, and even brought down via revolution when necessary. This is why for decades anti-war movements globally have used a general strategy in relation to organizing against war, which can be summarized as “the main enemy is in your own country.” This is the only internationalist approach to anti-war work. Real power must be leveraged, now, to stop the further expansion of this war. The U.S. public can show real solidarity to the Syrian people by stopping the biggest imperialist power in the world from further intervening there.
Demands and Social Movements
Strategic demands are a special weapon for the working class. They are indispensable tools for organizing, and effective demands are ones that agitate the broader population into action. Because most of the population will not unite over a litany of demands, the best demands are those that are limited, or singular, often referred to as “united front” demands, capable of uniting and rousing the population into action.
The most effective united front demand against U.S. imperialism has always been some variation of “Out Now,” or “Stop War” or “Hands Off Iraq” (or Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, etc.). One unifying demand that the working class can agree on, versus the laundry list of condemnations that cause confusion and disunity, resulting in passivity.
Demands are not a laundry list of opinions about whom you like or don’t like. The U.S. public doesn’t need to know “who” to support in this conflict, they need to know “how” to stop the war. No antiwar groups in any country waste their breath denouncing the target of the attack.
Several left groups combine their “demands,” such as “No Support for Trump or Assad.” Do the millions of people who marched against Trump — and hear daily anti-Assad media messages — need to be told “No Support for Trump or Assad”? Will this demand agitate them into action? The obvious answer is “no,” since you’re telling them what they already know while asking them to do nothing.
What people want to know is what to do now that their government has bombed yet another government. The public understands the matter is very serious, especially since Syria and Russia are tightly aligned and the situation is spiraling out of control.
Trump’s Dangerous Foreign Policy Shift
By not organizing protests against an expanded Syria war Trump is given a freer hand, and the neo-Nazi’s that call themselves “alt-right” are given an opportunity to gain further populist credentials by doing what the left used to do: unapologetically denounce U.S. foreign wars without condition.
The alt-right also seems to have a clearer analysis about what is happening in the White House. Trump’s election sidelined the section of the establishment that ran foreign policy for decades, often referred to as the “neocons.” Trump stymied them by campaigning as an “isolationist” who sought rapprochement with Russia. This approach found expression in Trump’s appointing General Flynn and fascist Steve Bannon to positions of power where military decisions are made.
Trump proclaimed the end to the U.S. policy of “regime change” in Syria, and the peace process already in place — which effectively excluded the U.S. — would soon make concrete what everyone already knew: that Assad had won the war and would reclaim his “legitimacy” in global diplomacy.
Assad’s victory over Obama’s regime change strategy infuriated the neocons, who wanted to push Russia out of the Middle East and out of Eastern Europe, thereby maintaining the decades-long mastery of the U.S. over these regions.
Hillary Clinton was the candidate of the big banks and neocons, and consequently she campaigned on war with Syria, using the euphemism of a “no fly zone” to get rid of Assad. A big chunk of Trump’s populism was his being perceived as “antiwar” (with the exception of ISIS).
Post election the “neocons” waged an internal struggle with Trump which they’ve recently won, transforming Trump from an isolationist into the warmonger they wanted. The proof is in the pudding: Trump’s isolationist General Flynn was taken down by internal media leaks, replaced by neocon-oriented General McMaster, who, according to the Washington Post, was responsible for pushing isolationist/fascist Steve Bannon off the National Security Council, only days before Trump bombed Syria, based on zero evidence of a gas attack (the alt-right asked for evidence of the gas attack, whereas much of the Left simply accepted Trump’s pretext for war).
The internal balance of power has shifted, and the dominant section of the U.S. establishment has reasserted itself over foreign policy. Trump has learned his place, and the rest of the world is a far more dangerous place as a consequence: tensions with North Korea have exploded at the same time while the military used its MOAB super-bomb in Afghanistan.
The “alt-right” will use Trump’s war to further their populist position, but they are too weak to lead any movement currently. If the left remains paralyzed on this issue the white supremacists will have space to grow.
There is immense revolutionary potential for a U.S. anti-war movement. The anti-Trump movement has prepared the population for the next steps; it’s up to the left to provide guidance at a time when Trump escalates his wars as the military budget starves the country.
It is the job of the U.S. left to unite the broader population around a united front demand, such as “No War With Syria” or a similar demand that focuses our energy into a powerful force that can push the anti-Trump movement to the next level, while exerting the revolutionary energy capable of stopping the war on Syria, Russia, North Korea, and beyond.