The American peace movement has been celebrating a Pyrrhic victory on Syria. “The U.S. is not bombing Syria, as we certainly would have been if not for a huge mobilization of antiwar pressure on the president and especially on Congress,” writes Phyllis Bennis Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank in Washington. This represents “an extraordinary, unforeseen victory for the global anti-war movement,” she goes on, one that “we should be savoring.”
This turn of events is “something extraordinary—even historic,” writes my friend Stephen Kinzer, the author of Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. “Never in modern history have Americans been so doubtful about the wisdom of bombing, invading or occupying another country,” he continues. “This is an exciting moment,” he rhapsodizes, “the start of a new, more realistic approach to foreign policy.”
I completely understand this jubilance. Yet it leaves me feeling uneasy.
Let me be clear: I too was against the Obama administration’s proposed military strike on Syria. How strange that the White House, after two and a half years of doing essentially nothing about the deepening crisis in Syria, decided to act with a sense of urgency. Washington was even unwilling to wait for the United Nations team to complete inspections—as if the world should simply trust American claims about weapons of mass destruction. (Fool me once…)
After two and a half years of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s crimes against humanity, chemical weapons were exactly the wrong issue for the Obama administration to center its policy on. Toparaphrase Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center, why draw a ‘red line’ at the use of chemical weapons but not at 100,000 dead? The vast majority of civilians have died by means of conventional, not chemical, weapons.
Hinging its case on chemical weapons turned out to be a huge strategic mistake as well. Russia cleverly short-circuited the Obama administration, taking advantage of the thinness of its case. So Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles will be removed from the equation. Yet the Assad killing machine can continue unfettered on its rampage. Chemical weapons issue: solved. Syria’s killing fields: no end in sight.
Given this horrific picture, it’s hard for me to share the peace movement’s triumphalism. Yes, a U.S. military attack was thwarted. But is that where the story ends? For libertarian isolationists like Senator Rand Paul (Republican, Kentucky), paleo-con America-firsters like Pat Buchanan, and RealpolitikTories of the sort who long dominated the Republican foreign policy apparatus, the story indeed ends in Washington. People in far-flung lands are not their concern, unless vital strategic or national security interests of the United States are at stake.
But for progressives, especially ones who profess the values of solidarity and internationalism, the story surely cannot end at America’s shores. Struggles around the world for justice and dignity matter to us. We believe that we have a stake in them and their outcomes. We take sides.
In the early weeks of 2011 progressive internationalists emphatically supported popular struggles abroad:the Tunisian revolutionaries who rose up against the dictatorship of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali; the Egyptian protestors in Tahrir Square who demanded the ouster of tyrant Hosni Mubarak; and the Bahrainis who demonstrated against the tyranny of the US- and Saudi-backed monarchy. Our position as progressive internationalists in those cases was not primarily about the U.S. We were against authoritarianism and for human dignity.
The Syrian uprising began very much in the same spirit and as part of the same wave of revolts across the Arab world. But the response of Western progressives to the Syrian case has been quite different. “Where have these people been the past two years?” asks the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in London. “It’s a bit late,” the organization inveighs, “to start marching for ‘no war in Syria.’”
The peace movement is emphatically against U.S. intervention, but where does it stand on the struggle to topple Assad’s murderous dictatorship? “What is emerging in the United States and United Kingdom now is a movement that is antiwar in form but pro-war in essence,” said the Syrian Observatory. That may sound harsh and seem overstated, but it reflects a frustration that many Syrians share. The specter of a U.S. military attack sucked all the oxygen out of the room, imposing a kind of tunnel vision on progressives.
How does it propose the bloodshed be brought to an end? There are no clear-cut answers. But only having a position on what shouldn’t be done, while avoiding the question of what should be done, is a cop out and a betrayal of the tradition of internationalism. The question of what should be done is much thornier. Of course there are many progressives, especially in the peace movement, who are uncomfortable supporting an armed rebellion or advocating the delivery of arms to one. But the point is to place the plight of the Syrian people front and center on the agenda and to think seriously about how to resolve it. More than 100,000 Syrians have been killed and nearly seven million displaced from their homes, with an average of 5,000 fleeing into neighboring countries every day. The humanitarian horror is colossal. It demands serious thinking.
Back in 2000 I chaired a panel on Kosovo at a conference of the Radical Philosophy Association in Chicago, and the Slovenian Marxist Slavoj Žižek was among the panelists. During question-and-answer period, an audience member began to articulate a widely-held position on the Left: Although Serbian forces had committed horrible atrocities in Kosovo, foreign military intervention would only make things worse and must be opposed. Žižek, having heard this argument before, interrupted his interlocutor just as the word “but” was on its way out.
“And what do you propose should have been done about it?” Žižek thundered. The room went silent. An uneasy moral clarity had been imposed on the discussion. It was a forceful statement, yet it was not a rhetorical question. Žižek demanded an answer to the problem. It’s not enough to stand against; we must also stand for, and think through what that means concretely, on the ground, where lives are at stake.
I want to put Žižek’s question to antiwar activists vis-à-vis Syria.So you opposed a U.S. strike on Syria. I did, too. And that battle has been won. Mission accomplished, the peace movement seems to be saying as it takes its victory lap. But should antiwar activists feel quite so satisfied, as the death toll in Syria continues to mount with no end in sight?
To be fair, some antiwar organizations point in the right direction, at least rhetorically. Peace Action calls for “real alternatives and solutions based on serious multilateral diplomacy, adherence to domestic and international law and massive humanitarian aid…as well as an arms embargo and a cease-fire.” But for the last two and a half years such calls have gone unheeded.
“Dialogue, civil resistance, out-of-the box alternatives that no one expects to succeed—there are always other options,” reads an e-blast from the American Friends Service Committee. To its credit, the AFSC is partnering with the UK-based organization Responding to Conflict “to support a network of courageous Syrian peacemakers who are working on the local level to build a future in which all Syrians can co-exist safely and peacefully.” This is important work but it is unlikely to stop the carnage.
What if progressives devoted just a fraction of the energy and effort that went into mobilizing against a U.S. military strike to the cause of bringing Syria’s nightmare to an end? It might not make a concrete difference. (In fact all the efforts to resolve the conflict thus far, including those of Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, have come to naught.) But the effort would at least be an expression of solidarity and internationalism. Factoring the Syrian people, who have been largely absent from the progressive discussion, prominently into the equation would represent a welcome departure from the solipsistic, U.S.-centric tendencies of the American peace movement.
Danny Postel is associate director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He is the author of Reading “Legitimation Crisis” in Tehran and co-editor of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future and The Syria Dilemma. On Twitter: @dannypostel.