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Friends of Syria or Friends of Imperialism?

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By Stephen Gowans

The Friends of Syria—an 11 country coalition ranged against the Syrian government—favors what it calls a “democratic” transition in Damascus. There are multiple problems with this.

The coalition says that the current president, Bashar al-Assad, must have “no role in Syria.” How odd that an ostensibly democracy-promoting coalition should dictate to Syrians who it is who can’t be president of their country, rather than democratically leaving the question up to Syrians themselves.

Equally strange is that half of the coalition members do not support democracy in their own countries. Five of the 11—nearly one-half—are not, themselves, democracies, but are monarchies and emirates (Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) and one, Egypt, is a military dictatorship.

The formal democracies that make up the coalition’s other half—the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Turkey—are not promoting democratic transitions within the territories of their coalition partners, limiting their intervention to Syria alone.

Yet, while Syria has hardly conformed to the Western model of a multi-party democracy, it is not at all the undemocratic dictatorship it has been made out to be. It is not, for example, a Saudi Arabia. It has a parliament. It is anti-colonial and anti-imperialist. And parts of the state, much to the annoyance of the US State Department, remain committed to socialist goals. Presidential elections are scheduled for 2014. Any Syrian, so long as he or she meets minimal basic criteria, is free to run. If Syrians don’t want Assad, they’ll be free to toss him out then.

On the other hand, coalition member Saudi Arabia is a family business. The Saud family calls the shots. There’s no chance they’ll be tossed out in elections, since they’ll never have any. If Washington were truly interested in cobbling together “Friends of” coalitions to promote democratic transitions in undemocratic countries, it would have long ago put together a Friends of the Saudi People group.

Not that the United States ought to be ranging the globe, foisting its brand of democracy on others. Rather, its selective commitment to democracy promotion (only in countries not under its thumb but not in satellite states), speaks volumes about what US foreign policy is really about—and just how far removed from a meaningful democracy the US version is.

Equally fatal to the idea that the Friends seek democracy in Syria is this: one of its number, Egypt, is ruled by a government installed by the military, after it ousted a democratically-elected government. The charge that Syria’s Assad has to go because he is killing his own people (insurgents) hasn’t stopped the Egyptian military from killing demonstrators who call for the restoration of their elected government. They deserve the appellation “pro-democracy protestors” more than do the Islamist insurgents who used turmoil in Arab countries to inspire a return to jihad against the secular Arab nationalists in Damascus.

And what of the coalition’s formal democracies? All are former colonial powers. They cared not one whit about democracy when they held the greater part of humanity in colonial thrall, including the people who lived in what is modern day Syria. By their actions and duplicity, they’ve revealed themselves to care as little about democracy in the Arab world as they did when four of them (the Turks, Italians, British and French) ruled Arabs by edict from afar.

Six former colonial powers in a coalition with five tyrannies, telling Syrians who they can’t have as president, supporting a group of exiles who wait in the wings for the signal to traipse onto the Syrian stage as Washington’s marionette, is hardly the picture of democracy-promoters. If you believe otherwise, then democracy is nothing but a euphemism for imperialism, an emotionally appealing word tossed around as a cover for the very negation of what the Friends of Syria profess to seek.

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October 23, 2013 at 10:32 pm

Posted in Imperialism, Syria

Is Canada Imperialist?

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By Stephen Gowans

Canadians measure their country against the United States. And the US benchmark defines their aspirations. If only Canada had a military to bestride the globe, moan many Canadians, a foreign policy leadership involved in all significant matters of international affairs, a reputation as a global leader, and an informal empire of countries governed by marionettes answerable to Ottawa. While many Canadians would like to elevate Canada’s role on the world stage to that of an imperial power on par with the United States, some on the left have gone beyond other Canadians’ aspirations. These leftists define Canada as a country with an “imperialist project,” all the better, perhaps, to show that just like their US counterparts, they too have an honest to goodness imperialist beast to slay, right here at home.

Todd Gordon, author of Imperialist Canada, cites numerous examples of retrograde Canadian behaviour on the world stage. These include Canada supporting a coup in Honduras, taking a lead role in promoting market-oriented reforms in Haiti, and military participation in the occupation of Afghanistan. Gordon believes these actions show Canada to be an imperialist country, just like the United States.

But in Gordon’s world, dominating other countries politically, backed up by military might—in other words, having an empire, whether formal or undeclared—is not the essential feature of imperialism. And for a leftist aspiring to wrestle with an imperialist beast at home, it’s a damn good thing. Turns out, Canada doesn’t have one.

So, if Canada is empire-free, how is that it has come to be called imperialist? Gordon says because Ottawa’s foreign policy supports Canadian business interests abroad (it “drains the wealth” of other countries.) Implicit in this view is the idea that any country with foreign investment outflows, and a foreign policy aimed at protecting and promoting them, is imperialist. Which means that counting the countries that aren’t imperialist becomes a task a kindergarten student can handle. One…two…three…four….According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, even developing countries generate massive foreign direct investment outflows, $356.5B in 2011.

By Gordon’s definition, then, imperialism becomes a near universal, applicable to all countries but the poorest. That’s fine, so long as we acknowledge that if almost all countries are imperialist then imperialism doesn’t mean much of anything. When Lenin spoke of the advanced industrial countries carving up the world amongst themselves into mutually exclusive spheres of influence, we knew what he meant. A few rich countries dominated the rest of the world, and had hostile relationships with each other. Lenin’s definition wasn’t a near universal that would allow leftists in practically every capitalist country to claim that their country was also imperialist. If “imperialism” means much the same as “capitalism with foreign investment outflows” we no longer need the term imperialism. And exactly where is Canada’s unique sphere of influence anyway?

In a Briarpatch Magazine article titled “Canada’s imperialist project” Gordon says that Ottawa’s foreign policy is “increasingly aggressive” but offers no evidence that it’s any more aggressive nowadays than it was a hundred years ago. Canada’s long history of entanglment in other countries’ military aggressions makes Gordon’s examples of Canada’s supposedly new muscular foreign policy—supporting coups in Honduras and Haiti, and a largely symbolic military presence in Afghanistan—seem rather wimpy by comparison. Canada sent troops to Europe in 1914 to participate in a bloodletting that had nothing whatever to do with Canada, intervened militarily in the civil war in Russia to crush the nascent Bolshevik revolution, participated in the UN “police action” in Korea from 1950-53 to prevent the Koreans from uniting under Kim Il Sung, and joined NATO to roll back communism. However, Gordon appears to harbour the delusion that foreign policy in Canada used to be a rather benign affair until the country underwent “significant transformations…over the last 20 years of neo-liberal entrenchment.” This is the myth of the capitalist golden age, within which lurks the deception that it’s not capitalism, but its neo-liberal variety, that is the problem.

Canada has long had enterprises with investments overseas, governments that support them, and a foreign policy subordinate to that of countries that have normally been understood to be imperialist—Great Britain initially and the United States later on. But Canada has never had the clout to dominate other countries politically—not in a world in which the greater power has always been in the hands of truly imperialist countries.

But we don’t have to call Canada what it isn’t to recognize that it doesn’t wear a white hat on the world stage (contrary to what many Canadians believe). Nor do we have to stretch the definition of imperialism on a Procrustean bed to make it fit Canada. Like other capitalist countries, Canada uses what leverage it has to promote the interests of its corporations, bankers and wealthy investors abroad, and this involves the exploitation of people in other countries, some of them the world’s poorest.

Canada may have recognized the coups in Haiti and Honduras, but it didn’t engineer them. (The Marshall Islands recognized the coups, too. Does that make the Marshall Islands imperialist?) Canada participated in the occupation of Afghanistan, but it didn’t initiate it, and nor was its contribution large enough to make a significant difference. The United States led the NATO operations in Yugoslavia and Libya, in which Canada played bit roles. It is unimaginable that Canada would have—could have—led these campaigns. Participate vs. led. Canada participated in WWI, but no one thought its participation made the country imperialist—only part of an imperialist bloc led by Great Britain. Today, Canada is part of a much larger imperialist bloc led by the United States, in which exist separate semi-independent sub-imperialist blocs based on the vestiges of once formal European empires.

Which isn’t to say that Canada wouldn’t have engineered coups d’état, initiated invasions and fought wars for the re-division of the world had it the resources to do so and an empire, formal or otherwise, to defend and enlarge. Capitalist imperialism depends on two conditions. A compulsion to seek profits abroad. The means to dominate. Canada has the first, but not the second. If Gordon would like to call Canada an aspiring imperialist power, I’m happy to agree. But for the moment, the reality is that Ottawa contents itself with the being a second stringer on team USA, called in every once in a while to relieve the first string, and free to do its own thing, so long as it checks with Washington first. Hardly the picture of an imperialist.

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November 23, 2012 at 11:29 pm

Posted in Canada, Imperialism

If this is Stalinism, count me in

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Richard Seymour, the left author and force behind the well-known blog Lenin’s Tomb, has dismissed my critique of his support for Syrian rebels as a pitiable Stalinist diatribe.

Have I any reply? a what’s left reader asked.

My surmise is that Seymour called my critique “Stalinist” because, in his view, his sympathy for Trotskyist politics could only be significant to a Stalinist, and also because it’s Trotskyist second-nature to denounce critiques from the left as “Stalinist’. (Yes, it’s true, too, the same can be said for many self-identified Stalinists, who are just as quick to denounce critiques from the left of their own positions as “Trotskyist.” )

My drawing attention to Seymour’s identification with Trotsky was superfluous (the argument stood on its own.) But it gave Seymour an easy out in name calling and therefore was ill-advised. Still, I’m sure he would have found another label for me— “authoritarian,” or “bankrupt” or “mechanically” anti-imperialist. These are the insults du jour.

So why did I drop the T bomb? Because I think it’s fair to say that Seymour’s analysis owes much to Trotskyist thinking—as it could be said just as fairly that my own owes much to thinking that would not have been out of place in Soviet politics. If that, then, is what “Stalinism” is, then I am guilty as charged and Seymour’s description of my argument as Stalinist is fair and accurate.

As for replying to the points Seymour raises in his new article I can only say this: He appears to have set for himself a test of his forensic skills. Can he persuade others to accept an absurdly indefensible—almost fantastical—position? Judging by what his readers have written on his blog, his forensic skills have proven to be not quite up to the task of lugging the dead weight of an indefensible position up the hill of reason and good sense.

As some of his own readers have pointed out, a revolution must be judged, not by its imperfectly understood origins or aims, but by its destination and outcomes. It is clear to anyone whose mind is not addled by disdain for revolutionary governments that fail to live up to the Trotskyist ideal, or hope that the latest uprising is a signal for the outbreak of socialist revolution on a world scale, that the overthrow of the Asad government, should it come, will not usher in a popular, democratic regime, pregnant with the possibilities of socialist revolution, but a subaltern US client state and the elimination of what elements of socialism remain in the Syrian economy.

The predictable apology of a Ba’thist? Hardly. I am not a Ba’thist, and nor would I belong to the Ba’th party were I Syrian. My politics incline more to the left than the Ba’th could comfortably accommodate. But I am sympathetic to the aims of the Syrian state, and have found much in its record to be admired, namely, its non-sectarian aspirations, anti-Zionism, support for Palestinian liberation, anti-imperialism and amelioration of the material circumstances of a once oppressed agrarian population. On balance, the Syrian state has been far more progressive than regressive, and has done far more that is worthy of praise than condemnation.

The same, however, cannot be said for the significant part of the forces that oppose Damascus and seek to bring the Asad government down. There is no question that the rebels (or “terrorists” as they would be called were Asad on Washington’s side) will, if they prevail, clear the way for the Syrian National Council to supply the key personnel to a successor government. And nor is there any question that the successor government, should it be formed, will immediately sever connections with Iran and Hezbollah—disrupting the so-called “axis of resistance”—and steer the ship of state on a course set in Washington. There is no ambiguity about this, because the SNC has already said that this is what it will do. [1]

It shouldn’t take a mind of especial perspicacity, then, to see that rebels and terrorists who are backed politically, diplomatically, materially and militarily by the United States, its western allies, and its subalterns in the Gulf, will not usher in a genuine popular, democratic government in Syria anymore than Solidarity ushered socialism into Poland, the latter being a misplaced hope of politically naive leftists of an earlier decade. The destination and outcome of that uprising was accurately foreseen by people with a firmer grasp on reality—the ones denounced at the time as pitiable Stalinists.

1. Jay Solomon and Nour Malas, “Syria would cut Iran military tie, opposition head says”, The Wall Street Journal, December 2, 2011

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August 17, 2012 at 10:57 pm

Dissembling Concern Over Violence, UN General Assembly Takes a Side in Syria’s Civil War

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Professing grave concern over Syria’s escalating violence, the United Nations General Assembly on Friday demanded that “all in Syria immediately and visibly commit to ending violence.”

This would be all to the good except that the General Assembly’s idea of what constitutes “all in Syria” and what it means by “ending violence” amounts to one side in the civil war (the Republic) laying down its arms unilaterally, while President Assad steps down and cedes his authority to an interim government approved by the “international community,” which is to say, the very same countries that are furnishing the rebels with arms, logistical support, diplomatic assistance, territory from which to launch attacks, salaries for fighters, lucre to induce government officials to defect, and propaganda.

The resolution is hardly a plea for peace. It’s a demand that the Republic capitulate. Significantly, the resolution’s sponsor, Saudi Arabia, is the rebels’ main arms supplier. No wonder the Bolivian representative to the UN was moved to declare that the aim of the text is not to assist the Syrian population, but to ‘defeat Damascus’.” “Anybody who doesn’t believe that needs only read it,” he said.

Indeed, the text is perfectly clear: peace means regime change and regime change means peace.

“Rapid progress on a political transition,” the General Assembly said is “the best opportunity” to resolve the conflict peacefully. That is: peace equals Assad stepping down. Or, peace, yes, but on the rebels’, which is to say, the United States’, terms. And UN General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon, echoing US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, has underscored the equating of peace with Assad’s departure, defining “political transition” as a necessary condition of peace.

Importantly, the United States—whose efforts to eliminate Syria’s Arab nationalist government antedate the Arab Spring—opposes Assad, not because he is a “dictator” or “kills his own people” as the propaganda has it, but because his government has long charted a course on foreign and economic policy independent of Washington. Assad’s crime, in the view of Washington, is to have tried to privilege the Syrian population over the interests, both immediate and distal, of US banks and corporations.

Significantly, the resolution ignores the political and constitutional concessions the Syrian government has already made in what has turned out to be a fruitless attempt to engineer a peaceful settlement with an opposition that is hostile to peace. With Libya as a model for how a opposition with the backing of only part of the population need not negotiate with the government it opposes if it can enlist the support of the United States and Europe, the Syrian rebels have never had an incentive to sit down with Damascus and work out a modus vivendi. On the contrary, all the incentives are on the side of an intransigent commitment to violent overthrow of the government. The overthrow comes about as a result of the support in arms and political and propaganda backing the United States and its allies provide, and therefore is effectively authored in Washington, but attributed, for political and propaganda purposes, to the rebels’ own efforts. Having the US State Department, CIA and Pentagon on your side can more than adequately make up for the deficiency of failing to win the support of significant parts of the population.

The General Assembly’s text demands that “the first step in ending the violence must be made by the Syrian authorities,” who are called upon to withdraw their troops. It is highly unlikely that a US ally would ever be called upon to withdraw its troops in the face of an armed insurrection. This is a standard reserved exclusively for communist, socialist, and economic nationalist governments—those whose commitment to self-directed, independent development runs counter to the unrestrained profit-making of US banks and corporations. No international body has ever seriously demanded that Saudi Arabia refrain from violence in putting down rebellions in its eastern provinces, or that Bahrain—home to the US Fifth Fleet—cease its use of violence to extinguish its own, local, eruption of the Arab Spring (a military action against civilians ably assisted by Saudi tanks.) Asking Damascus to unilaterally lay down its arms is a demand for capitulation, disguised as a desire for peace.

Parenthetically, the uprisings in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are regularly depicted in the Western media as “Shia” and backed by Shia Iran and therefore sectarian, not as popular democratic movements against tyrannical monarchies. By contrast, the Syrian uprising, though having a strong sectarian content and being principally Sunni and supported by the Sunni monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar and the Sunni-dominated government of Turkey, is depicted as a democratic uprising against dictatorship, not sectarian.

The United States and Israel, in backing the General Assembly resolution, denounced Syria’s use of “heavy weapons, armour and the air forces against populated areas”—though Washington’s concern for using overwhelming military force against populated areas stops at Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Populated areas of Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon have felt the heavy hand of Israeli heavy weapons, armour and air force. And Turkey’s rulers—who allow their territory to be used by the rebels as a launching pad for attacks on Syria—continue to kill their own people in their longstanding war against Kurd nationalists.

Ban Ki-moon warned the Syrian government that its actions “might constitute crimes against humanity or war crimes, which must be investigated and the perpetrators held to account,” words he never uttered in connection with Nato’s assault on Libya nor Saudi Arabia’s and Bahrain’s use of violence to quell uprisings in their countries. Nor have his predecessors uttered similar words in connection with the United States’ and Israel’s frequent and undoubted crimes against humanity and war crimes. Moreover, Ban hasn’t warned Syria’s rebels that they too will be held to account for their crimes. (The Libyan rebels haven’t been.)

Thirteen countries opposed the resolution, almost all of them committed to independent self-directed development outside the domination of the United States. These include Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.

Against this axis of independence are the sponsors and chief backers of the resolution: the US-vassal Sunni petro-tyrannies—champions of a Sunni rebel movement that’s supposed to be (improbably) galvanized by democratic, not sectarian, ambitions—while the United States, its Nato allies, and Israel—authors of the gravest humanitarian tragedies of recent times, hypocritically profess concern over escalating violence in Syria. The resolution can hardly be seen as a genuine expression of humanitarian concern. It’s a demand for the Republic’s, which is to say, the non-sectarian Arab nationalists’, capitulation, disguised as a plea for peace, and a blatant taking of the imperialist side in a civil war.

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August 5, 2012 at 10:27 pm

Richard Seymour: Hallucinating revolutions, pacifying resistance

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While it may stir hopes that a popular rebellion is sweeping away oppression, the Syrian revolt, whatever its origins and proclamations, is hardly that. Its likely destination is a new US client regime in Damascus; its probable outcome the dismantling of what’s left of Syrian socialism, anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism. Would that it were all that romantic leftists fervently wish it to be, but a sober look at the rebellion, and recent history, strongly points in another direction.

Following blogger and author Richard Seymour, the views of many leftist who side with the rebels can be summarized as follows:

• All genuine popular liberation movements should be supported.
• The Syrian revolt is a genuine popular liberation movement.
• Western countries are intervening to tilt the balance in favour of an outcome they want.
• There is no sign they can achieve this.

Since few would disagree with the first point, we can move quickly to the second. Is the Syrian revolt “genuine” and is it “popular”?

If by genuine we mean the revolt is intended to advance popular interests, and that it doesn’t represent the pursuit of narrow interests under the guise of achieving popular goals, then the answer must surely be that the rebel movement’s genuineness depends on what section of it we’re talking about.

It’s clear that the aim of exiles in key leadership positions within the Syrian National Council is to turn Syria into a US client regime. The Muslim Brotherhood’s interests are undoubtedly sectarian, as are those of al Qaeda, a recent addition to the rebellion. Unless we pretend these groups are not part of the rebel movement, it cannot be said to be genuine in all its parts. To be sure, some parts of it are, but other parts—and very important ones—aren’t.

Is the rebel movement “popular”?

We don’t know exactly how much support the rebels have, or how much the government has. But we do know that each side appears to be able to count on the backing of significant parts of the Syrian population—the rebels on Sunnis (though less so the Sunni merchant class); the government on religious minorities. If the rebels represent a popular movement, then, inasmuch as the definition of “popular” depends on having the support of a significant part of the population, the forces arrayed against the rebellion are popular as well.

But should a rebel movement be supported simply because it’s popular? By definition, fascist regimes are based on mass support (without it, they’re merely authoritarian.) Most Democratic Party voters—as well as Republican Party ones—are part of the 99 percent. Both parties are popularly supported. Does that mean leftists ought to support them too? The Nazis too had a vaguely progressive section—that part on which the “socialist” in National Socialist German Workers’ Party turned. But its presence didn’t make the Nazis a popular movement for socialism or any less of a tool of capitalist-imperialist interests.

The counter argument here is that none of these popularly supported parties of the right are “genuinely” popular. (While popularly supported, they don’t advance popular goals.) But that gets us back to the question of whether the Syrian rebel movement is homogenous, united in aiming to oust the Assad government for a common purpose. Clearly, it is not.

On the other hand, we might say that the Syrian state isn’t popular, in the sense of its being said to represent narrow class interests, while the rebel movement seeks to overthrow those interests, and therefore is popular by definition. But there’s no evidence that any significant part of the Syrian rebellion is inspired by class interests, except perhaps key parts of the SNC, whose class interests align with those of the banks, corporations and wealthy investors who dominate the US state, media and economy. At best, parts of the rebel movement seek a liberal democracy, which would rapidly dismantle the remaining socialist elements of the Syrian economy. To be sure, Syria has never been socialist in the manner Trotsky’s followers favour—and a number of leftists on the side of the rebels, including Seymour, who Wikipedia notes is a member of the Socialist Workers Party— are devotees of the Russian revolutionary. But a liberal democracy would be even further from their ideal.

Seymour’s third point is that Western countries are intervening to tilt the balance in favour of an outcome they want. Since there’s no secret about this, we can move to point 4.

The fourth point is that there is no sign the West can hijack the rebel movement. There is an obvious objection to this: Were there a good chance Western governments couldn’t tip the outcome in their favour, they would be energetically opposing the rebellion, not ardently supporting it. Seymour’s point may be based, apart from wishful thinking, on the reality that there are large parts of the rebel movement that Washington does not trust, and therefore is reluctant to assist. The CIA’s role—at least that which is admitted to—has been to funnel Saudi- and Qatari-provided arms to the groups Washington wants to come out on top, and away from those it wants to keep from power. But therein lies the reason the United States will assuredly hijack the rebel movement. It will channel military, diplomatic, political, and ideological support to those parts of it that can be trusted to cater to US interests, and this overwhelming support will allow pro-imperialist elements, in time, to dominate the rebellion, if they don’t already. To think otherwise, is to ignore what happens time and again.

A brief example. In the summer of 1982 the Marxian economist Paul Sweezy hailed the rise of Poland’s Solidarity trade union movement as “heartening proof of the ability of the working class….to lead humanity into a socialist future.” [1] Maybe when you’ve lived on a starvation diet for years a discarded four-day old hamburger plucked from a McDonald’s dumpster starts to look like a steak dinner. Solidarity too was termed a genuine popular liberation movement, but it, like so many others so characterized, led, not forward, but backward. We know now that Solidarity’s high-profile supporters—The Wall Street Journal, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan—had a better idea of what Solidarity was all about than Sweezy did—to say nothing of much of the anti-Communist left. Those who didn’t have their heads stuck in a utopian cloud saw clearly enough that Solidarity would not lead to “genuine” socialism, but to the breakdown of the Polish state, chaos in the Warsaw Pact, and a step along the road to rolling back Communism; which is what happened, and the decades since have been marked by the deepest reaction. Henry Kissinger recently concluded correctly that the Syrian rebellion “will have to be judged by its destination, not its origin; its outcome, not its proclamations.” Judging Solidarity by its destination and outcomes, we can hardly be optimistic about the Syrian rebellion, nor parts of the left grasping its probable destination.

The reply to this might be, “Well, at least we should support the genuinely popular elements of the rebel movement.” Seymour wants us to do this by seeing to it that arms flow freely to the rebels, as Gilbert Achcar (another follower of Trotsky’s thought), wanted to do with the Libyan rebels. This naively ignores who’s providing the arms, who they’re provided to, and what’s likely to be expected of the recipients in return. The main weapons suppliers, the Saudi and Qatari tyrannies—and who could ask for more convincing supporters of a genuine popular liberation movement?—are not channelling arms to genuine popular liberation groups. Instead, it seems very likely that military support is being heaped upon those sections of the rebellion that are amenable to a post-conflict working arrangement with US-allies Turkey, Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council and to settling in comfortably to a subordinate role to Washington. The idea behind arms flowing freely to “genuinely popular” liberation forces is that Washington backs leftists while the Saudi and Qatari tyrannies arm democrats. The naivety is breathtaking—on par with Sweezy’s embracing Solidarity as heartening proof of an imminent socialist future.

There’s more than a soupcon of absurdity in any discussion among Western leftists of “supporting” the Syrian rebels, since support amounts to nothing more than a rhetorical endorsement without any practical, real-word, consequences. It’s not as if an International Brigade is being assembled (backed by what? Saudi and Qatari money) that fervent anti-Assad leftists of the West can join to show real, meaningful support. Except weren’t the last International Brigades fighting against rebels? And come to think of it, aren’t the Saudis and Qataris backing an international volunteer brigade…of jihadis? If supporting Syria’s rebels meant anything at all, Western leftists would be making their way to Turkish border towns to offer their services to the Free Syrian Army, or the local CIA outfit attached to it. Perhaps a collection can be taken up to raise airfare for Seymour to travel to the nearest FSA recruiting center to put real meat behind his support for Syria’s “genuine popular liberation” movement.

Despite its surface appearance of empty clap-trap, Seymour’s position does have a practical, real-world aim—to neutralize opposition in the West to Western intervention on the side of the rebels by the people who are most likely to mount it—the Western left. Once you accept the argument that the rebels are a genuinely popular liberation movement and that massive outside intervention by imperialist powers won’t tilt the outcome of the rebellion in their favour, then all that’s left to do—as a way of showing solidarity with the rebels—is to raise not a single objection to their receiving aid from your own government. Which means that Seymour, who fancies himself a champion of popular causes against powerful conservative forces, may, on the contrary, be a pacifier of dissent against the most reactionary force around—US-led imperialism.

1. Paul M. Sweezy, “Response to The Line of March Symposium,” Line of March, #12, September/October 1982, 119-122.

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July 27, 2012 at 10:29 pm

The United States’ Barbarous Policy on Iran

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“Sanctions,” New York Times’ reporter Rick Gladstone writes, have subjected “ordinary Iranians” to “increased deprivations” in order to “punish Iran for enriching uranium that the West suspects is a cover for developing the ability to make nuclear weapons.” [1] In other words, Iran is suspected of having a secret nuclear weapons program, and so must be sanctioned to force it to abandon it.

Contrary to Gladstone, the West doesn’t really believe that Tehran has a secret nuclear weapons program, yet even if we accept it does believe this, the position is indefensible. Why should Iranians be punished for developing a capability that the countries that have imposed sanctions already have?

The reason why, it will be said, is because Iranians are bent on developing nuclear weapons to destroy Israel. Didn’t Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threaten to “wipe Israel off the map”?

Regurgitated regularly by US hawks and Israeli politicians to mobilize support for the bombing of Iran, the claim is demagogic rubbish. Ahmadinejad predicted that Israel as a Zionist state would someday disappear much as South Africa as an apartheid state did. He didn’t threaten the physical destruction of Israel and expressed only the wish that historic Palestine would become a multinational democratic state of Arabs and the Jews whose ancestors arrived in Palestine before Zionist settlers. [2]

No less damaging to the argument that Iranians aspire to take Israel out in a hail of nuclear missiles is the reality that it would take decades for Iran to match Israel’s already formidable nuclear arsenal, if indeed it aspires to. For the foreseeable future, Israel is in a far better position to wipe Iran off the map. And given Israel’s penchant for flexing its US-built military muscle, is far more likely to be the wiper than wipee. Already it has almost wiped an entire people from the map of historic Palestine.

But this is irrelevant, for the premise that the West suspects Iran of developing a nuclear weapons capability is false. To be sure, the mass media endlessly recycle the fiction that the West suspects Iran’s uranium enrichment program is a cover for a nuclear weapons program, but who in the West suspects this? Not high officials of the US state, for they have repeatedly said that there’s no evidence that Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program.

The consensus view of the United States’ 16 intelligence agencies is that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program years ago. Director of US intelligence James Clapper “said there was no evidence that (Iran) had made a decision on making a concerted push to build a weapon. David H. Petraeus, the C.I.A. director, concurred with that view…. Other senior United States officials, including Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have made similar statements.” [3]

Rather than weakening this conclusion, stepped up US espionage has buttressed it. Iran’s leaders “have opted for now against…designing a nuclear warhead,” said one former intelligence official briefed on US intelligence findings. “It isn’t the absence of evidence, it’s the evidence of an absence. Certain things are not being done” [4] that would indicate that Iran is working on nuclear weapons. Even Mossad, Israeli’s intelligence agency “does not disagree with the US on the weapons program,” according to a former senior US intelligence official. [5]

So, contrary to the claim that the West “suspects” Iran of concealing a nuclear weapons program, no one in a position of authority in the US state believes this to be true. Neither does Israeli intelligence. Why, then, is the United States and its allies subjecting ordinary Iranians to increased deprivations through sanctions?

The answer, according to Henry Kissinger, is because US policy in the Middle East for the last half century has been aimed at “preventing any power in the region from emerging as a hegemon.” This is another way of saying that the aim of US Middle East policy is to stop any Middle Eastern country from challenging its domination by the United States. Iran, Kissinger points out, has emerged as the principal challenger. [6]

Indeed, it did so as long ago as 1979, when the local extension of US power in Iran, the Shah, was overthrown, and the country set out on a path of independent economic and political development. For the revolutionaries’ boldness in asserting their sovereignty, Washington pressed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq into a war with Iran. This served the same purpose as today’s economic warfare, sabotage, threats of military intervention, and assassinations of Iran’s nuclear scientists: to weaken the country and stifle its development; to prevent it from thriving and thereby becoming an example to other countries of development possibilities outside US domination.

Uranium enrichment has emerged as point of conflict for two reasons.

First, a civilian nuclear power industry strengthens Iran economically and domestic uranium enrichment provides the country with an independent source of nuclear fuel. Were Iran to depend on the West for enriched uranium to power its reactors, it would be forever at the mercy of a hostile US state. Likewise, concern over energy security being in the hands of an outside power has led Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and South Korea to insist over US objections that they be allowed to produce nuclear fuel domestically, without sanction. With US nuclear reactor sales hanging in the balance, it appears that their wishes will be respected. [7] Iran will be uniquely denied.

Secondly, uranium enrichment provides Tehran with the capability of developing nuclear weapons quickly, if it should ever feel compelled to. Given Washington’s longstanding hostility to an independent Iran, there are good reasons why the country may want to strengthen its means of self-defense. The hypocrisy of the United States championing counter-proliferation—and only selectively since no one is asking Israel to give up its nuclear weapons, and the United States hasn’t the slightest intention of ever relinquishing its own—reveals the illegitimacy of the exercise.

The reason, then, for punishing Iranians with new and more debilitating privations is not because their government has a secret nuclear weapons program —which no one in the US state believes anyway—but because a developing Iran with independent energy, economic and foreign policies threatens Washington’s preferred world political order—one in which the United States has unchallenged primacy.

1. Rick Gladstone, “Iranian President Says Oil Embargo Won’t Hurt”, The New York Times, April 10, 2012.
2. Glenn Kessler, “Did Ahmadinejad really say Israel should be ‘wiped off the map’?” The Washington Post, October 6, 2011.
3. James Risen and Mark Mazzetti, “U.S. agencies see no move by Iran to build a bomb”, The New York Times, February 24, 2012.
4. Joby Warrick and Greg Miller, “U.S. intelligence gains in Iran seen as boost to confidence”, The Washington Post, April 7, 2012.
5. James Risen, “U.S. faces a tricky task in assessment of data on Iran”, The New York Times, March 17, 2012.
6. Henry A. Kissinger, “A new doctrine of intervention?” The Washington Post, March 30, 2012.
7. Carol E. Lee and Jay Solomon, “Obama to discuss North Korea, Iran”, The Wall Street Journal, March 21, 2012.

Written by what's left

April 12, 2012 at 10:44 pm

Posted in Imperialism, Iran

Syria’s Uprising in Context

with 8 comments

Since the beginning of the unrest in Syria, “the government has said that while some protesters have legitimate grievances, the uprising is driven by militant Islamists with foreign backing.” [1] This hardly squares with the view of Western state officials and media commentators who say that an authoritarian regime is killing its people and violently suppressing a largely peaceful movement for democracy.

Who’s right?

There’s no question that there has been a longstanding Islamist opposition in Syria to Ba’athist rule. The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party has been in power since 1963. The party’s roots are in Pan-Arabism, non-Marxist socialism, and liberation from colonialism, imperialism and religious sectarianism. Being secular, socialist (though diminishingly so) and dominated by a heterodox Shiite sect, the Alawi, Syria’s lead party has held no appeal for the Sunni majority, which has leaned toward the Muslim Brotherhood.

Neither is there any question that Islamist uprisings have become a habitual occurrence in Syria. Condemning the Alawi as heretics and resentful of the Ba’athists’ separation of Islam from the state, the Muslim Brotherhood organized riots against the government in 1964, 1965, 1967 and 1969.

On coming to power in 1970, Afiz Assad—the current president’s father– tried to overcome the Sunni opposition by encouraging private enterprise and weakening the party’s commitment to socialism, and by opening space for Islam. This, however, did little to mollify the Muslim Brothers, who organized new riots and called for a Jihad against Assad, denigrating him as “the enemy of Allah.” His “atheist” government was to be brought down and Alawi domination of the state ended. By 1977, the Mujahedeen were engaged in a guerrilla struggle against the Syrian army and its Soviet advisers, culminating in the 1982 occupation of the city of Hama. The Syrian army quelled the occupation, killing 20,000 to 30,000.

In an effort to win the Islamists’ acquiescence, Assad built new mosques, opened Koranic schools, and relaxed restrictions on Islamic dress and publications. At the same time, he forged alliances with pro-Islamic countries and organizations, including Sunni Sudan, Shia Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. While these measures secured some degree of calm, Islamists remained a perennial source of instability and the government was on continual guard against “a resurgence of Sunni Islamic fundamentalists.” [2]

The United States hasn’t created an opposition, but it has acted to strengthen it. US funding to the Syrian opposition began flowing under the Bush administration in 2005 [3] if not earlier. The Bush administration had dubbed Syria a member of a “junior varsity axis of evil,” along with Libya and Cuba, and toyed with the idea of making Syria the next target of its regime change agenda after Iraq. [4]

Around the same time, Syrian exiles in Europe founded the Movement for Justice and Development, openly calling for the overthrow of the Ba’athist government. The Movement was one of the key recipients of US lucre. The leader of the organization, Anas Al-Abdah, is a member of the Syrian National Council, the main exile opposition group, which French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague have designated a legitimate representative of the Syrian people [5] –a matter one would think should be decided by Syrians, not outsiders, and least of all not former colonial powers. The group “has a significant contingent of Islamists.” [6]

The Syrian National Council’s foil is the National Coordinating Body for Democratic Change in Syria, led by opposition figures who live inside the country. The body, left-wing and secular, is open to dialogue with the Assad government and subscribes to the three no’s: no to foreign intervention, no to sectarianism, and no to violence. [7]

The Islamist-heavy Syrian National Council, by contrast, follows the three yeses: Yes to foreign intervention, yes to sectarianism, and yes to violence. It has “called on the international community to take aggressive …steps, including the possible establishment of a no-fly zone in Syria” [8] and appears to be tied up with the Free Syrian Army, a largely Sunni formation which operates out of Turkey and has, it says, about 10,000 fighters. [9] “The Saudis and Qataris are reported to be funding and arming the opposition” while “Western special forces are said to be giving military support on the ground.” [10]

SNC leaders say that if they succeed in achieving their goal of replacing Assad they’ll cut Damascus’s alliance with Iran and end arms shipments to Hezbollah and Hamas [11]—a policy that would be welcome in Washington and Israel.

In September, The New York Times reported that the Obama administration was discussing how to bring about Assad’s ouster but that “the administration does not want to look as if the United States is trying to orchestrate the outcome in Syria.” [12] It is no longer necessary for Washington to conceal its regime change ambitions. Its description of the unrest as violent dictatorship against a peaceful demand for democracy, rather than the alternative and more descriptive narrative of secular government against an armed Islamist rebellion, has become hegemonic. Who’s going to blame Washington for intervening on the side of, what’s understood to be, a popular rebellion for democracy? Accordingly, the State Department now openly acknowledges that it “will continue working with Syria’s political opposition to ensure an eventual political transition” [13], which is to say it will continue to pursue its longstanding policy of working with the opposition to bring about the Ba’athists’ overthrow.

Washington’s motivation for ousting Assad has nothing whatever to do with his handling of the rebellion. Assad’s reaction to the uprising is only relevant as raw material to be shaped, twisted and manipulated into a pretext for overt intervention. Washington’s concerns lie elsewhere, unrelated to the welfare of Syrians or attachment to spreading democracy. Indeed, were Washington impelled by humanitarian concerns and a desire to overturn tyranny, it would be difficult to explain its foreign policy record.

When democracy-hating Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet and paradise for foreign investors, violently put down a popular uprising last year, Washington sat on its hands. Sometimes raw interest trumps principle, explained the United States’ newspaper of record, The New York Times, as if US foreign policy is normally governed by principle, and departures from it in favor of interests are aberrations, rather than the opposite.

The cracking of Shiite skulls in Bahrain was ably assisted by the Sunni petro-monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which dispatched tanks and troops—the same democracy-abominating countries which have taken a lead role in demanding that Assad undertake democratic reforms. Every one of them absolutist states, they have joined the United States, Britain and France in a preposterously named “friends of Syrian democracy” group. Qatar, one of its members, was instrumental in providing material and propaganda support to the Libyan rebels—many of whom, like their Syrian counterparts, were militant Islamists. The spectacle of the Gulf Cooperation Council aligning itself with what is called a pro-democracy rebellion is a bit like the Wall Street Journal backing the communist-era Solidarity trade union as the true face of socialism in Poland. Whatever Solidarity was, it was not the true face of socialism, which is why the Wall Street Journal backed it.

Neither has Washington taken effective, concrete measures to prevent Israel from cracking down violently on Palestinians who rise up against Israeli oppression, let alone recognize Israeli oppression as illegitimate. Washington’s violent intervention in Iraq on entirely baseless grounds, and its authoring of a colossal humanitarian tragedy there, hardly recommends the United States as a country whose foreign policy is governed by a commitment to peace and democracy, though its commitment to war and the plundering of countries unable to defend themselves is undoubted.

No, Washington’s ambition to overthrow Syria’s Ba’athist state is a longstanding one which pre-dates the current uprising. The US state has been keen to install a pro-imperialist government in Damascus since at least 1957, when it tried unsuccessfully to engineer a coup there. In 2003, the United States initiated a program of economic warfare against Syria, and in 2005, if not earlier, started to funnel money to opposition elements to mobilize energy for regime change.

Apart from Syria’s irritating Washington by allying with Iran, backing Hezbollah, and providing material assistance to Palestinian national liberation movements, the country exhibits a tendency shared by all US regime change targets: a predilection for independent, self-directed, economic development. This is expressed in state-ownership of important industries, subsidies to domestic firms, controls on foreign investment, and subsidization of basic commodities. These measures restrict the profit-making opportunities of US corporations, banks and investors, and since it is their principals who hold sway in Washington, US foreign policy is accordingly shaped to serve their interests.

The US State Department complains that Syria has “failed to join an increasingly interconnected global economy,” which is to say, has failed to turn over its state-owned enterprises to private investors, among them Wall Street financial interests. The State Department is aggrieved that “ideological reasons” continue to prevent the Assad government from liberalizing Syria’s economy. As a result of the Ba’athists’ ideological fixation on socialism, “privatization of government enterprises is still not widespread.” The economy “remains highly controlled by the government.” [14]

The Wall Street Journal and Heritage Foundation are equally displeased. “Hafez al-Assad’s son Bashar, who succeeded him in 2000, has failed to deliver on promises to reform Syria’s socialist economy.”

Moreover,

The state dominates many areas of economic activity, and a generally repressive environment marginalizes the private sector and prevents the sustainable development of new enterprises or industries. Monetary freedom has been gravely marred by state price controls and interference.
[...]

The repressive business environment, burdened by heavy state intervention, continues to retard entrepreneurial activity and prolong economic stagnation. Labor regulations are rigid, and the labor market suffers from state interference and control.

…systemic non-tariff barriers severely constrain freedom to trade. Private investment is deterred by heavy bureaucracy, direct state interference, and political instability. Although the number of private banks has increased steadily since they were first permitted in 2004, government influence in the financial sector remains extensive. [15]

The US Library of Congress country study on Syria refers to “the socialist structure of the government and economy,” points out that “the government continues to control strategic industries,” mentions that “many citizens have access to subsidized public housing and many basic commodities are heavily subsidized,” and that “senior regime members” have “hampered” the liberalization of the economy. [16]

All in all, Syria remains too much like the socialist state the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party founders envisaged for it, and too little like a platform for increasing the profits of overseas banks, investors and corporations. Accordingly, its regime of self-directed, independent, economic development must be changed. The militant Islamist uprising, helped along by US money, propaganda and diplomatic support, has set the stage for Washington to realize its regime-change ambitions. Washington has framed the conflict as one between peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators and a murderous tyrant whose thirst for power has driven him to the extremes of killing his own people. Assad has, by this reckoning, “lost legitimacy” and must step aside.

Of course, the idea that the conflict is the latest in a long line of militant Islamic eruptions against a secular Syrian state is never to be entertained. Neither is the notion to be contemplated that the insurgency has evolved into a civil war. There were more casualties in the US Civil War than in all other US wars combined, yet complaints about Abraham Lincoln killing his own people–and on a grandiose scale–are never heard. The Spanish Republic was never abominated, except by rightists, for killing the Spaniards who rose up against it. In these conflicts, there were material and class interests at stake—and the clash of them led to the killing of rebel forces by the government and of government forces by the rebels. And so too in Syria. Yes, in civil wars, governments do kill their own people.

I’m on the side of the Syrian government. The Assads backed away from the Ba’athist commitment to socialism further than I would have liked, but I recognize that the possibilities for achieving socialism in a small Third World country have become vanishingly small since the demise of the Soviet Union (and were not without formidable challenges before then.) All the same, the Ba’athists continue to obstinately hold on to elements of the party’s socialist program; hence, the US State Department’s complaint about “ideological reasons” getting in the way of privatization.

Moreover, Ba’athist Syria remains an organized force against Zionism and for Palestinian national liberation, and it’s not clear that a successor government would follow the same path. Importantly, what would likely follow Assad’s ouster is hardly to be embraced: A country thrown into chaos by competing militias and warlords, where torture and the systematic extermination of the old regime’s supporters run rampant, as has characterized post-Gaddafi Libya, or the installation of a US puppet regime to facilitate the exploitation of Syria’s land, labor and resources by Western captains of industry and titans of finance. A third choice of more space for other political parties and the parliament being given new powers is academic. The hard-core of the rebellion won’t be satisfied with anything less than the complete extirpation of the Ba’athists and what they stand for: some measure of socialism and the secular state. Neither will the United States, Britain, and France settle for the continuation in Damascus of a state committed to independent, self-directed economic development and alliance with Iran.

The choice, then, is between, on the one hand, the triumph of yet another eruption of imperialism under the guise of humanitarian intervention, and on the other, the preservation of the Ba’athist state, and Syria’s self-determination. If the Ba’athists are overthrown, a blow will be struck for imperialism. Their survival will preserve the life of an organized force against Zionism, imperialism and for some measure of self-directed development toward socialism.

1. Anthony Shadid, “Assad says he rejects West’s call to resign”, The New York Times, August 21, 2011.
2. US Library of Congress. A Country Study: Syria. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/sytoc.html
3. Craig Whitlock, “U.S. secretly backed Syrian opposition groups, cables released by Wikileaks show”, The Washington Post, April 17, 2011.
4. Moshe Ma’oz, “Damscus vs. Washington: Between the ‘Axis of Evil’ and ‘Pax Americana’”, in Bruce Cumings, Evarand Abrahamian and Moshi Ma’oz. Investing the Axis of Evil: The Truth about North Korea, Iran and Syria. The New Press. 2004.
5. Jay Solomon, “Clinton Meets With Syrian Opposition,” The Wall Street Journal, December 6, 2011.
6. Charles Levinson, “As Syria strikes kill scores, opposition seeks backing”, The Wall Street Journal, February 10, 2012.
7. Mazda Majidi, “Will Syria be another Libya?” Liberation, November 29, 2011.
8. Jay Solomon and Nour Malas, “Syria would cut Iran military tie, opposition head says”, The Wall Street Journal, December 2, 2011
9. Dan Bileksky, “Factional splits hinder drive to topple Syria leader”, The New York Times, December 8, 2011.
10. Seumas Milne, “Intervention in Syria will escalate not stop the killing”, The Guardian (UK), February 7, 2012.
11. Jay Solomon and Nour Malas, “Syria would cut Iran military tie, opposition head says”, The Wall Street Journal, December 2, 2011
12. Helene Cooper, “U.S. is quietly getting ready for Syria without Assad”, The New York Times, September 19, 2011.
13. Charles Levinson and Gregory L. White, “America Exits Syria as Russia Makes Push”, The Wall Street Journal, February 7, 2012.
14. US State Department website. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3580.htm#econ. Accessed February 8, 2012.
15. Index of Economic Freedom 2012. http://www.heritage.org/index/country/syria. Accessed February 8, 2012.
16. US Library of Congress. A Country Study: Syria. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/sytoc.html

Written by what's left

February 10, 2012 at 11:47 pm

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