The Baffler
Max B. Sawicky,  April 16, 2018

Syriana

Weak liberal arguments are failing us again

The Baffler
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“‘Explosion without an objective,’ declared Miles Blundell, is politics in its purest form.’”—Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day

 

U.S. Imperialism should be a thing again, but some theoretical adjustment is suggested. Scholarly analyses have tied it to narrow economic interests, to deep imperatives of Capitalism, and to strategic geopolitical machinations. Neglected is the hypothesis that the lethal projection of power resulting in the slaughter of innocents can be just an artifact of pedestrian political bullshit.

I’d like to dispense with some secondary objections to Trump’s attack on Syria. The most common is procedural—that deeply idiotic policies should first be ratified by the U.S. Congress. Of course, this isn’t wrong, but it glosses over critiques of the deep idiocy itself. It’s defensible as a momentary tactical move, to try to slam on the brakes, except it never works.

A related objection is that stupid military exercises should only be done in concert with our allies. It is vulnerable to the same rejoinder, and even so, Trump has checked that box.

Then there is the wonky point that an action must be founded on a strategy, some plausible path to a worthwhile objective. It’s hard to associate Trump with a “strategy,” but in this case there is a simple Trumpist rebuttal that in its own terms makes sense—if bad actors are forced to pay a price for the use of chemical weapons, there will be less use of chemical weapons. I would say it’s logical, though it is vulnerable to empirical critique. In the case of the Assad regime, this is not the first go-round. The experiment has been conducted before.

Stepping back, the onus against the use of chemical weapons suffers from some large gaps. The most obvious is, there are many horrible ways to die at the hands of military attack. Why are chemical weapons special? Is it possible that an emphasis on chemical weapons tends to legitimize other commissions of mass casualties? I fear that it does. That is also the record in Syria.

We could also note that the definition of chemical weapons is conveniently limited to weapons not used by the U.S. military or its allies, such as white phosphorous or fuel-air bombs.

A special procedural variation goes to the manifest incompetence of the Trump Administration. In other words, this would be worth doing if Democrats were doing it, because they would do it right. Again, this glosses over the fundamental wrongness of the policy itself.

The most common objection is procedural—that deeply idiotic policies should first be ratified by the U.S. Congress.

I say wrong based on my own Chomskyan foreign policy line. You can construct your own. How hard could it be?

1) The United States always intervenes militarily based on a humanitarian rationale, but this is never the actual reason.

2) Even when there is a potential humanitarian rationale, military interventions always screw up. They never accomplish their objectives. So they fail on the grounds of efficacy. We don’t need to be brow-beaten about the awfulness of the latest Hitler-of-the-month. Doubting the wisdom of an intervention does not put us on the side of the adversary.

I raised these wet-blanket points in the heat of G.W. Bush’s Iraq adventure. The response of liberals, especially the hive-mind of the likes of Daily Kos, was hostile. Weak liberal arguments failed in 2003 and are failing now.

In that latter vein, the Trump attack creates some new domestic political openings. My favorite can be summed up as, whither “The Resistance™”? The natural, unfocused anti-Trump impulse is readily harnessed against Trump’s latest expression of pique, but their deep affection for the Clinton and Obama political identities poses a problem. Trump’s attack has been supported in principle by both. One of Hillary’s chief foreign policy mavens, one Anne-Marie Slaughter, has tweeted an endorsement of the bombing. So far, both the Clintons and the Obamas have been silent. To their credit, the “Indivisible” people have come out strong against the policy.

I’d say Obama has a reasonable, if not great, excuse for reticence. It wouldn’t do for the previous president to bird-dog every move by his successor. This excuse is not available to Ms. Clinton.

So the horrifics of the bombing notwithstanding, this is a great political opportunity for the Sanders’ legions in their intra-party battles. Bernie has been all over this issue. On a narrower level, the same could be said for the Kucinich campaign for governor of Ohio.

I checked out some of the most fervent Clinton voices on Twitter to see how they were reacting—Peter Daou, Tom Watson, Eric Boehlert, Neera Tanden. They had very little to say about Syria in the first twenty-four hours after the president’s announcement. Most of it doubts Trump’s motives, as indeed everyone should, but there is little or nothing in criticism of the actual policy. Otherwise all they’re promoting is impeachment porn, which I happen to enjoy as much as anybody, but still.

Another backwater of U.S. politics is the intra-left civil war over the Assad regime. Voices can be found for either supporting Assad against U.S. aggression, or sympathy for some component of the resistance to Assad. Assad has certainly confirmed his credentials for butchery. His opposition, however, is quite a mixed bag. Finding some wortthwhile component to support is difficult on its face, and even when help has been provided, the resources have found their way to people nobody would want to help. Overriding these practical considerations is the pervasive judgment that Assad has won, that it’s really over.

We also see some exaggerated triumphalism on the part of those who dispute a Trump-Russia connection. How can Trump be a Russian agent if he is attacking Russia? Several rebuttals are possible. One, Putin may have planned to help make Trump president, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a shitty plan. Two, Trump as literal “agent” is a straw man. That he is susceptible to the influence of oligarchs, not excluding Russians, ought to be obvious by now. Three, Trump-Putin resembles the economic model of a two-sided monopoly. Putin has kompromat on Trump, but its usefulness is questionable. After all, if he burns his client by surfacing something like a pee tape, his influence goes up in smoke. He can threaten, but his threats lack ballast. Four, there is some question how much actual damage to Russians, or anybody besides helpless civilians, the latest attacks have caused. So this entire episode does not undercut suspicions of a Trump connection to the Russian state.

I’m no Middle East expert. From where I sit, the only sure thing for U.S. policy in Syria is supporting the Kurds, an island of secularist sanity between the Turkish dictatorship and Assad. If I was president, I’d be arming them to the teeth. Everything else seems problematic. Otherwise my catechism on U.S. military interventions is . . . don’t.

Max B. Sawicky is an economist and writer in Virginia. He runs MaxSpeak.Net and co-edits ThePopulist.Buzz.

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