[Marxism] Sleeping with the Enemy: The Global Left and the 'No to War' Discourse

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Sep 15 07:22:16 MDT 2013


Sleeping with the Enemy: The Global Left and the 'No to War' Discourse
Sep 15 2013 by Khalid Saghieh خالد صاغية

The threat of a military strike on Syria has not aroused the enthusiasm 
of many. It has succeeded, however, in bringing the Syrian revolution to 
the discussion table. Until now, Syria has been notably absent from the 
list of priorities on the Western agenda, apparently a matter of little 
interest to governments and public opinion alike, to both the left and 
the right.

For the past two and a half years, the Syrian revolution did not manage 
to entice Western governments to push for an end to the tragic spiral of 
events. As long as each of the opposed parties in the Syrian conflict 
lack the capability and volition to ensure Western interests in the 
region, why make the investment of interference? Such was the gist of 
General Martin Dempsey’s remarks on the Syrian situation two days before 
the Ghouta massacre. Such indifference, however, was not exclusive to 
the governments of United States and European countries. Public opinion 
similarly lacked interest in the tens of thousands of deaths as well as 
the destruction of cities and villages. It was not until death in Syria 
crossed one of the West’s red lines—by showing evidence of the use of 
chemical weapons—that the people in Syria became a matter deserving of 
interest. At that point, the warships moved into position. Meanwhile, 
antiwar sentiments and commentary opposed to Western military 
intervention moved against them.

I am not concerned here with sorting out those who supported the strike 
from those who protested it. I am also unconcerned with the right-wing 
arguments put forward in this context that combined hatred for the 
Democratic Party with Islamophobia to end up with what is practically a 
defense of the Syrian regime. Rather, I am concerned with the debacle 
that came to painful light through the positions taken and discussions 
had by those on the left side of the political spectrum in reaction to 
the threat of a Western military strike on Syria.

Among the first to throw this debacle into sharp relief were the 
political activists who participated in anti-war protests and, in doing 
so, received a double blow. On one side, they saw themselves standing 
side-by-side with people holding up pictures of Syrian President Bashar 
al-Asad and, on the other side, they were surrounded by general 
anti-imperialism slogans without any particular relation to the Syrian 
people. The real tragedy, however, does not lie here. The sight of 
anti-war demonstrations drawing together sections of the far right and 
far left is familiar.  The real tragedy emerged through the discourse 
that came, in the end, to dominate the left-wing opposition to the 
military strike. This discourse took its vocabulary from the tracts of 
the far right and, instead of turning its guns on imperialism, turned 
them on the Syrian people.

Indeed, a kind of role reversal happened between imperialism and its 
enemies. President Barack Obama did not exactly wear himself out 
designing an ideological banner for his next war. This time, there would 
be no “battle for democracy” or war in the name of “freedom for Afghan 
women.” Not even “freedom for the Syrian people.” This would be a war, 
rather, about American “red lines” and “national security.” Here, 
imperialism appeared totally bare, stripped of its characteristic 
self-presentation as the gate of redemption for the peoples of the 
world. To find a discourse singing this familiar refrain, one must move 
to the opposite side, where important anti-war left wing activists and 
thinkers have taken it upon themselves to promote the “white man’s” 
ideology, having paradoxically borrowed and redeployed an imperialist 
discourse in the name of fighting imperialism. They do not object to the 
idea of using the military strike to redeem the Syrian people. Rather, 
they object to it on another basis: the revolutionary Syrians do not 
deserve to be redeemed because they have not proven their radical 
qualifications and secular-democratic orientation, so we should not 
interfere on their behalf. In making its case against military 
intervention, the discourse of opposition to the military strike thus 
fell into the trap of cultural imperialism when it thought it was 
standing against military imperialism.

Perhaps most disturbing of all, some have attempted to “apply” the 2003 
invasion of Iraq to the Syrian situation, or at least read the latter 
through the lens of the former. It has evidently escaped this group that 
the very same discourse at the core of George W. Bush’s ideological 
mantra has been reconstructed to the letter by the Syrian regime and its 
allies. It has gotten to the point that you can find a full sentence 
from one of Bush’s speeches on the war against terror in the mouth of 
either Hizbollah’s Secretary-General (who, at long last, is obsessed 
with the “takfiris”), or select leaders of the secular Arab left. In the 
name of resistance to the military strike, the Bush discourse thus 
flutters between lines spoken by leftists who fought the Iraqi invasion 
tooth and nail. Perhaps the neoconservatives’ spirit has finally 
possessed them.

It was the same imperialist trap that pushed other leftists to switch 
over to the call for peace. Theirs is an auspicious call, yet surprising 
in that it comes directly after the moment chemical weapons were used, 
as if whoever wielded them is asking the victims to embrace Sarin gas 
after inhaling it. The sense of surprise does not last long upon 
realizing that these are peaceful calls of despair from all that moves 
on Syrian soil. Perhaps those who sounded this call do not see a need 
for a conflict to begin with, so long as those fighting in it do not 
match the profile according to the imperialist catalog, itself.

The danger of the global left’s discourse in its many permutations is 
not only that it dons imperialist garb in making its supposedly 
anti-imperialist argument, but that its logic betrays its opposition to 
any sort of interference whatsoever—whether imperialist or otherwise, 
under UN auspices or not, in or out of line with international law. 
Those who have built this discourse oppose military intervention not 
because of the intervening power’s identity, but because of the people 
on whose behalf that power would be intervening. They oppose 
intervention not because of the objectives of the former, but because of 
the lacking qualifications of the latter.

The issue here is not one of sorting the “good leftists” from the “bad 
leftists.” I do not think that such a categorization is possible, 
anyway. However, I am haunted by a question: What makes a sincere 
leftist discourse slip into becoming a retouched version of the 
Islamophobic right? It seems that there is an elephant in the room. Is 
it the ghost of the Soviet Union? Eurocentrism? Priorities of geostrategy?

I do not know what the elephant is. But I know the ant. I know that the 
Arab revolutions, since their beginnings, were revolutions without 
specific promises and claims. They were revolutions against oppression 
and injustice more than they were revolutions aimed at implementing 
premeditated programs and ideas. To borrow from Walter Benjamin, these 
are “revolutions nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather 
than that of liberated grandchildren” (See here for example). Perhaps, 
in this meaning, a revolution like that which has emerged in Syria has 
not emerged in the other Arab countries. The revolutionaries of Syria 
appear in this game to be effective subalterns: those who do not have a 
voice and who can't speak to Western academic circles, even the 
left-wing ones among them. Mount Qasyun alone hears their voice and 
awaits their arrival, no matter how long it takes.

[This article was originally published in Arabic on Jadaliyya. It was 
translated into English by Angela Giordani]

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