The Intellectual Situation
What does a left foreign policy look like?
For the first sustained period in generations, it’s an exciting time for the American left. While November almost certainly promises the restoration of the Clintons, and significant political victories remain far off, the mood of the country has shifted from the resigned pessimism of the Bush and Obama eras to a kind of bitter, raging “optimism of the will.” The brief sunburst of the Occupy protests has left a lasting mark on the language of poverty and inequality and transformed the way the public thinks about finance capitalism. Black Lives Matter has the lips of police chiefs even more spittle-flecked than usual. The prospect of reparations for slavery has, remarkably, become a topic of political consideration. In the space of five years, the avowedly socialist magazine Jacobin has acquired more than sixteen thousand subscribers. Inequality and the costs of globalization are once again up for discussion, even on the right. The train that set off in Seattle in 1999 and was derailed by the war on terror seems to be back on track, and moving at a speedy clip.
Even our endless presidential campaign has its own leftist resurgence in the figure of Bernie Sanders. Although Sanders, a soi-disant socialist, is in most political terms an American liberal, he is our liberal, perhaps the first authentically liberal candidate with a shot at the nomination in decades. Many of the things he wants for our domestic politics are things the left wants, or would accept without violent carping: single-payer health care, tighter financial regulation, free public education, a minimum wage on which working people might conceivably live. Moreover, the things Sanders says he wants are, mercifully, the things he actually wants. The neurotic inability to declare one’s real beliefs and values, which seems intrinsic to the Democratic Party (see “Politicopsychopathology,” Issue 15), is alien to Sanders, who has spent his political life largely outside it.
He has run into difficulties, of course, as with his clumsy early handling of Black Lives Matter and impolitic responses to arguments over reparations. But the importance of these confrontations lies less in Sanders’s opinions than in their happening at all. Sanders is the first Democratic candidate in many years to even appear to be responsive to social movements, or to want to encourage their growth. His campaign and platform can be criticized profitably from the left. It’s worth remembering that when Obama’s impressively long list of volunteers threatened to become a movement, he immediately handed it over to the Democratic National Committee, effectively demobilizing his millions of supporters, whose later protests he condescended to or serenely ignored. If and when Sanders loses the nomination, his supporters may outlive him and his campaign.
But on one significant topic — American foreign policy — Sanders has remained flat-footed. In December, after the shootings in San Bernardino by self-declared supporters of the Islamic State returned the war on terror to the center of the campaign, Sanders refused to answer questions about ISIS and seemed annoyed that reporters had raised the issue at all. On the Syrian conflict he has been at sea. At that month’s Democratic debate he bizarrely referred to Jordan’s King Abdullah as a “hero,” and in January he called Abdullah “one of the few heroes in a very unheroic place.” One doesn’t often hear democratic socialists go out of their way to praise hereditary dictators. Sanders has gone further out of his way, repeatedly suggesting that the US strengthen its ties to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. “They have got to start putting some skin in the game,” he said in one debate, the theory being that these countries will put up the money and the troops needed to combat extremism in the Middle East, diminishing the American role and thus the opportunity for American malfeasance. Of course the problem is the opposite: both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, two of the US’s strongest and least salubrious allies, are already putting lots of money into the Syrian conflict, much of it going to al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (also supported by the US) and the Islamic State.
Sanders’s confusion has often seemed preferable to Hillary Clinton’s murderous certainty: as secretary of state she sank an early peace deal in Syria to deepen the US proxy war, and as a candidate has outdone her hawkish self in calling for a no-fly zone, an insane policy that could lead to war with Russia. But Sanders’s ultimate lack of a policy doesn’t promise an end to the conflict, and it’s not always clear that Sanders is as war-averse as he first appears.
As a congressman and senator of twenty-six years, Sanders has a lengthy foreign-policy voting record. That record does little to suggest his views as an independent socialist differ from the Democratic mainstream. He voted for American participation in the Kosovo war in 1999. He supported Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon. He also approved sanctions against Iran and the appropriations bills that have funded our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He did join 127 other Congressional Democrats in voting against the invasion of Iraq, but on September 14, 2001, he voted for the Authorization for Use of Military Force, which provides the President and the military with a blank check for war-making on ISIS or any other group judged Islamist and militant. Support for authorization was overwhelming but not unanimous — Sanders could have joined California Democrat Barbara Lee in opposing it. Though Sanders has criticized Clinton for the NATO intervention in Libya, his opposition is somewhat disingenuous: Sanders cosponsored a resolution calling for the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi, which the 2011 bombings accomplished (and more). He also supported the US drone program, though in a more limited form than that in use today.
What’s missing isn’t the anti-imperialist Sanders. It’s the antiwar movement he was once part of, and which no longer exists.Tweet
The alternative to American militarism that Sanders offers is a weak one, the dominant theme a tepid multilateralism. “We cannot and should not be policeman of the world, nor bear the burden of fighting terrorism alone,” his website says. “The United States should be part of an international coalition.” This is a nice sentiment, but not, after the experience of the last sixteen years, a meaningful one. Obama said that “America is not the world’s policeman” in 2013; George W. Bush said, “I don’t want to be the world’s policeman” in 2000. From Bush’s “coalition of the willing” to Obama’s fondness for NATO, multilateralism has long been the cheerful mask of American hegemony. Sanders seems ready to do little more than perpetuate it.
How can this be true? Sanders has otherwise been an opponent of American adventurism for decades. During the war in Vietnam, he applied for conscientious-objector status. (His application would be denied, but by then the draft had ended.) In the 1980s, as mayor of Burlington, he was the highest-elected American official to meet with the Sandinistas, whom he supported; he was an ardent opponent of US attempts to destabilize the Nicaraguan government and a foe of the American proxy wars in Latin America more generally. He visited Havana seeking to meet with Castro and honeymooned in the Soviet Union. In one debate with Clinton, he went on a memorable tirade against Henry Kissinger (whom Clinton had cited as a friend and adviser), holding him responsible for the Cambodian genocide because of his support for overthrowing President Sihanouk. (“I am not shocked or surprised by the statement,” a Cambodian People’s Party spokesman said on learning of Sanders’s remarks, “but I am surprised that a foreigner in the US presidential debate is speaking the truth about Cambodian history.”)1 These are clear signs of a candidate with roots in the solidarity politics of the socialist left — someone for whom anticommunism did not trump all other principles, and for whom anti-imperialism was a principle and a reflex, rather than a mood to be indulged from time to time.
Where is this Sanders now? The failure of the antiwar Sanders to emerge has been roundly criticized in the usual precincts — the late Alexander Cockburn having prepared the way in column after column (“that brass-lunged fraud from Vermont, Bernard Sanders, ‘socialist progressive,’ who has endorsed Clinton’s bombs”). But perhaps what’s missing isn’t the anti-imperialist Sanders. It’s the antiwar movement he was once part of, and which no longer exists.
Today there is much less public discussion of US actions abroad than when Sanders sought to be a conscientious objector. To be sure, an anti-interventionist mood prevails on the left. But what is missing is a left internationalism worthy of the name — one that envisions a more peaceful and equitable world order, in which the US plays a diminished role. The prospect, however slight, of a Sanders presidency prompts a question: What would a left foreign policy look like? If the left took power, what would it propose? When it comes to the banks, taxes, workplaces, the left’s ideas are relatively abundant — they have been furnished by protest movements. As always, social movements affect the party and its likely candidate. But most of our social movements today are turned inward, and have little to say on the fundamental American question affecting the world.
One reason why the Sixties antiwar movement continues to be a source of both nostalgia and inspiration for the left is that it had genuine radical potential. Having begun as a movement to stop a war, it nearly became a wholesale revolution that reshaped American politics and foreign policy. It was John Kerry, speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971, who best summed up the movement’s aims: “So when thirty years from now our brothers go down the street without a leg, without an arm, or a face, and small boys ask why, we will be able to say ‘Vietnam’ and not mean a desert, not a filthy obscene memory, but mean instead where America finally turned and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning.” That turning never took place: thirty years after Kerry’s speech, the war on terror commenced in earnest. Kerry voted in 2001 along with his colleagues Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton to invade Afghanistan, and in 2002 with Clinton again to invade Iraq. Just as Kerry abjured his antiwar past as the 2004 presidential candidate — he ran as a war hero, not an antiwar hero — the movement, in the long run, fell far short of its hopes.
The antiwar movement’s most dramatic confrontations, the protests outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, were over the party’s embrace of the war and its callous nomination of a war-loving candidate. Today, when the Iowa caucuses come into view eleven months before the actual primary, it’s difficult to believe that the presumptive Democratic candidate, vice president and Vietnam hawk Hubert Humphrey, achieved the nomination without entering a single primary. (Humphrey was, by polling, the most popular choice among Democrats.) Powerful challenges were mounted by Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, both antiwar candidates, but one ended in defeat and the other in assassination. The convention was the last in which Democratic delegates were selected through backroom deals and closed caucuses. Outside, the protests against this state of affairs marked the first phase in a transformation of the Democratic Party by the antiwar movement, as well as one of the movement’s lasting legacies. The McGovern-Fraser Commission that followed ushered in the “new politics”: affirmative action for party posts, transparency in decision-making. Above all, votes in the primary system would exert more influence over the nomination process than delegates chosen by state committees. The Democratic Party primary system we have today is essentially a result of those days of rage.
But as Daniel Schlozman details in When Movements Anchor Parties, the antiwar movement failed both to anchor itself within the party structure and to create a lasting alternative coalition. No national elected official came out of the movement. On its own, the movement fragmented and radicalized, beset by Nixon’s repression on the one hand and by faltering strategies on the other. The distinction from the labor movement in the 1930s is enormous. At that time, organized labor, gaining in strength and numbers, weighed working outside the Democratic Party against negotiating with the party for legislative gains and legitimacy. Labor chose the latter strategy. The result was the passage of the National Labor Relations Act and the election of officials who declined to send in troops when workers occupied factories. (This is not to diminish the costs, over time, of being so close to the Democratic Party and blandishments of power, but the benefits were significant.) Nothing comparable occurred with the antiwar movement. By the time its electoral reforms delivered a candidate — George McGovern of McGovern-Fraser — it was too spent a force to work with the candidate. In 1972, McGovern suffered what was then the worst electoral defeat of the postwar era, until Mondale outdid him in 1984.
What could have happened instead? The experience of Chicago proved to many radicals that, in the words of a 1969 Nation piece, “the basic institutions of liberal politics — the unions, the convention system, the mass media and the Democratic Party itself — are undemocratic.” This was true. But the move to work outside existing vehicles for social transformation left the movement rudderless. The impressive actions against the war — the moratorium, the shutdown of US college campuses after the bombing of Cambodia — likely did spur legislative action. But hostility to the very concepts of parties and institutionalization meant that no lasting alternative emerged. Though some unions were indeed antiwar, they were not routinely mobilized by the New Left as an antiwar force, as they could have been. The big mainstream group, the National Mobilization Committee to End the War, collapsed in the 1970s. What if it had turned instead into an institution dedicated to reevaluating all American commitments abroad — something to rival the Council on Foreign Relations? The lasting sour mood over Vietnam suggests that skepticism of American intentions abroad ran deep enough to have made this happen.
The narrow demand to end the war in Vietnam meant that once the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, the movement had little left to pursue beyond the sunlit quadrangles and back-patting panel discussions of academic life. Devious American projects in Central America in the 1980s brought parts of the movement back to life. There were once again victimized parties with which to sympathize, like the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, the FMLN in El Salvador, and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. These offered the last major opportunities for international solidarity for the descendants of the 1960s American left, as other figures from the movement began their drift toward the Democratic Party right. “Clean for Gene” McCarthy supporters populate the ranks of the Clintonite hawks, from the odious Lanny Davis (lobbyist for dictators in Honduras, Equatorial Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Bahrain) to Hillary Clinton herself.
What of the spectacular protests against the Iraq war — another opportunity for an anti-imperial project to assert itself and achieve some lasting form? An impressive number of American protesters took to the streets on February 15, 2003, but much smaller countries, such as England, France, and Italy, turned out many more. Here, the anti-Iraq-war contingent remained more mood than movement. Attached to George W. Bush as the Sixties movement was to Vietnam, it had nowhere to go once Bush left office — a departure that only term limits, not the movement itself, could bring about. The two major protest organizations left behind — the ANSWER Coalition and MoveOn — proved likewise feeble, as the former shrank from view and the latter turned into a spammy listserv. When Obama sent more troops to Afghanistan (as promised), vastly expanded the drone assassination program, led a NATO intervention in Libya, and increased CIA-assisted support of “moderate” rebels in Syria while bombing Assad and the Islamic State, there was virtually no opposition, loyal or otherwise.
The difference between policy discussions in the Bush years, during which it was safe to accuse the government of both criminality and insanity, and the Obama years, in which a narrow range of options is presented as the full spectrum of reasonable action (arm the Syrian rebels? Stay the course with a bombing campaign? Send a trickle of “advisers,” softly and quietly, to invade Syria?), owes a great deal to the disappearance of the antiwar movement. Like the profession of economics, the field of foreign policy draws its staffers from an elite group of schools and institutions (the Truman National Security Project, the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, the School of Advanced International Studies at Hopkins), whose social-science-trained graduates go into strategic-policy think tanks, congressional staffing jobs, the Departments of State and Defense, and perhaps the White House. But today, while an economist concerned with inequality and distribution can publish the biggest academic best seller of the decade, a foreign-policy expert who presumed that American hegemony was not de facto a good thing would get nowhere, among Democrats and Republicans alike.
Obama’s presidency has been in this sense a “return to normalcy,” one in which the US’s reach continues to grow, now under the safe, capacious awning of foreign-policy “rationality.” No more “dumb wars,” the memorable phrase with which Obama denounced the Iraq invasion in 2003, still means a lot of wars. As Obama has said of Bush I’s national-security adviser, the “realist” Brent Scowcroft, “I love that guy.”
The continued absence of an American antiwar movement is especially surprising given the intellectual resources the left has developed since the 1970s. The sense that the US is not a benign actor in the world is now commonly understood, and an awareness of the stupidity of numerous US interventions — from Mossadegh in 1953 to Libya in 2011 — distinguishes most left-wing commentary on US foreign policy from its more superficially respectable counterparts. Even if Sanders is proof that knowledge of the US’s bad decisions is not bulwark enough against supporting more bad decisions, the attempt to produce a critical mind-set about bombing other countries has been a valuable one.
Among the most tireless skeptics of US interventions is Noam Chomsky, who may also be the greatest intellectual gift the movement left behind. Chomsky has been a fixture of the antiwar left for so long that it’s hard to recall his startling emergence from academic linguistics into the ranks of Sixties radicals. “A slim sharp-featured man with an ascetic expression, and an air of gentle but absolute moral integrity” was how Norman Mailer described him in Armies of the Night, recalling when he and Chomsky shared a jail cell after a protest at the Pentagon. His constancy has made him difficult to appreciate sufficiently; he is the Tim Duncan of intellectual life. But to read Chomsky’s writing — from the careful rebuttals of official nonsense on Vietnam to the magisterial “Responsibility of Intellectuals” to the many interviews and articles he published leading up to, and following, the Iraq debacle — is to see a relentlessly intelligent mind.
The force and clarity of Chomsky’s thinking has become so reliable that we have lost the ability to appreciate it.Tweet
Chomsky is a generous person, if not always to his opponents, and perhaps his most generous contribution to political thought is his willingness to sift through tedious reams of so-called realist foreign-policy thinking to reveal its utter unreality, so that others don’t have to. From Chomsky’s point of view, supposedly hard-bitten, uncompromising realists like Kissinger appear as the true madmen of history. (Kissinger in 1963: “In the decades ahead, the West will have to lift its sights to encompass a more embracing concept of reality. . . . There are two kinds of realists: those who manipulate facts and those who create them. The West requires nothing so much as men able to create their own reality.”)
Chomsky’s staying power is partly due to the simplicity of his response to nearly every ludicrous foreign-policy initiative the US has put forward. It is essentially, as Bruce Robbins has noted in a penetrating essay, a version of the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would be treated. “The standards we apply to others,” Chomsky has written, “we must apply to ourselves.” So regarding the US drug war in Colombia, Chomsky can write: “Imagine the reaction to a proposal that Colombia or China should undertake fumigation programs in North Carolina to destroy government-subsidized crops used for more lethal products.” Chomsky compares the rationale for the American “preventive” invasion of Vietnam to the Japanese preventive bombing of Pearl Harbor. When Chomsky says, as he has repeatedly, that “the US itself is a leading terrorist state,” he not only confounds and deeply irritates his opponents but elucidates the emptiness of the political attack on “terror” as such. Isn’t precision bombing terror? Are the lives of civilians terrorized and murdered in Peshawar by American drone strikes worth less than the lives lost on September 11? The force and clarity of Chomsky’s thinking has become so reliable that we have lost the ability to appreciate it.
Yet the hegemony of Chomskyism has hobbled the internationalist left in one respect. For if Chomsky is invaluable as a critic of the US (and by extension Israel), he is less valuable as a critic of any other state. Chomsky’s internationalism is a kind of Americanism: When the US does it, it’s likely to be bad. This is, of course, usually true. Of the interventions Chomsky has opposed in recent years — Afghanistan, Iraq (twice), Libya — he has had ample cause, and the results have spoken for themselves. But on intervention by other states, he has been equivocal, or even assenting. Regarding the Indian intervention in then East Pakistan in 1971, and the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978, he expressed partial approval, because each helped to halt mass murders (though the primary goals were by no means humanitarian); equally gratifying to Chomsky may have been the fact that both were carried out against US wishes. Still, though India was not the world hegemon, it was certainly a hegemon. Indira Gandhi used the pretext of the intervention, and the fact of having soldiers massed on the border between West Bengal and East Pakistan, to round up twenty thousand Maoists in India. Her intervention in another country thus enabled a repressive counterinsurgency at home. Was the intervention justifiable then? The guides to thinking through this problem are not within Chomsky’s purview.2
Chomsky’s American antistatism — bracing and helpful as it has been — sometimes makes other kinds of internationalism difficult. If the temptation facing one set of political figures is to wake up every morning wondering whom to bomb next, the temptation facing the left is to keep one’s hands clean; to withdraw from the world, taking up an older but no less simplistic approach to foreign policy, isolationism à la George Washington and Ron Paul. Maybe that is the most honorable position, the least susceptible to mealymouthedness and hypocrisy. But so long as the seeking of national political office, the taking of state power, continues to be a goal of the left, it is incumbent on us to figure out what we might do — what ought to happen should some Chomsky-like figure (Bernie!) happen to find himself attaining the presidency.
Aggressive expansion has been a practice of the United States at least since the Louisiana Purchase and the decline of the Federalist Party, which opposed Jefferson’s massive land grab. By the end of the 19th century, concomitant with the spectacular growth of US industrial power and the seizure of far-flung territories like Hawaii and the Philippines, a foreign policy extending beyond the Western Hemisphere began to emerge. Secretary of State John Hay’s “Open Door” proposals in 1899, regarding the importance of keeping Chinese markets open, were an early statement of American attitudes toward foreign markets. The US, the occupation of the Pacific Islands notwithstanding, remained ambivalent about formal colonialism; it largely pursued access to markets not by building an imperial trading bloc but through free-trade policies that favored its own markets, backed by the implicit threat of force.
As Perry Anderson argued recently in a pair of articles for the New Left Review, it was only with the end of World War II and the onset of the cold war that the American attitude toward global hegemony shifted from improvisation to deep coherence. Confronted with a rival for world influence that explicitly sought the elimination of capitalism, the US constructed a different model of geopolitical grand strategy. The US would allow Japan’s and Germany’s markets to be reconstructed along protectionist lines (while housing American military bases). This was antithetical to “Open Door” ideas of free markets, but adjunct to the American attempt to extend its influence and power across the globe. It was not American capitalism that the US would protect, but capital as such. Anderson: “The US state would henceforward act, not primarily as a projection of the concerns of US capital, but as a guardian of the general interest of all capitals, sacrificing — where necessary, and for as long as needed — national gain for international advantage.”
To be sure, the US would not be above fighting to maintain supremacy in Far Eastern theaters, or shy of deposing leaders. The US saw the cold war as both an existential struggle and a matter of simple international strategy, and acquired advantages where it could. But overall, its aims were to maintain the economic stability of states within the international order — an order with the US at its head. The “new world order” that came into existence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union was not, in fact, so new at all. The US simply cemented its position as the world hegemon, without which no stable order could exist. The keyword of this order has always been security, often accompanied by the qualifier national. It is this idea — that American power is to ensure the security of free markets and peoples by any means necessary — that a left foreign policy ought to dismantle.
American foreign policy — Obama’s not excepted — has sought to exert control in the name of protecting Americans and the international order. Endless apocalyptic threats, from without and within, have spurred belligerent American expansion and military buildup. Harry Truman’s March 1947 speech against the threat of communism in Greece, essentially outlining the Truman Doctrine, was designed, in the words of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Arthur Vandenberg, “to scare the hell out of the country.” Soon thereafter, Congress approved the first great global application of American economic power, the Marshall Plan. Fearmongering leading to force has been a leitmotif of American life ever since: no country so rich and placid has been so disproportionately overwhelmed by a sense of impending terror (especially after the risk of full-scale nuclear exchange declined in the 1960s). After the establishment of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, Reagan sonorously warned Americans that a Soviet beachhead lay “only two hours’ flying time from our own borders.” Since 2001, of course, the sense of threat has been magnified beyond belief — even though neither al Qaeda (our partners in Syria) nor the Islamic State pose an existential danger to the US or even its allies.
The obvious response to the arguments in favor of heightened national security is that every expansive step in the war on terror has made the US and the world increasingly less safe; that in pursuit of “security,” security itself has been compromised. The pursuit of extraregional hegemony by the US has been a disaster, unmotivated and unnecessary. The multiplication of actual threats and violence to countries everywhere has been the consequence.
But to charge that security politics has produced insecurity is to give legitimacy to security politics. The real first step to a left foreign policy is simply to acknowledge the following: US hegemony not only has been a moral and human catastrophe but also is in decline. What US policy has masked is the growth of world powers besides the US. The decline of US hegemony was already visible during the Bush Administration, when Latin American countries, led by Brazil, began to seek alliances with Iran, Russia, and China. It has become obvious in the Syrian Civil War, which several powers — Iran, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar — have been exploiting to pursue ends hostile to each other and often to the US (which is itself unwilling or incapable of exerting influence the way it might have years ago).
To imagine a world in which American primacy is no longer taken for granted requires a scaling back of aims and a deconstruction of the project of “security.” It requires, above all, a slow and steady revision of the American worldview, in which the presumption of leadership has been discarded, and a new, less hospitable order has been accepted.
Such an intellectual shift would require a realistic reckoning with what forces for liberation exist in the world, without extravagant hopes or illusions — call it a “left realism.” Does this mean that a nation must refuse to “intervene,” that a respect for the nation-state and its sovereignty trumps all? It doesn’t, and the historical record contains many instances where a timely intervention might have halted a war: for example, against the Germans prior to the invasion of Poland. But the record is more full of overweening, preventive actions that prolonged and augmented catastrophe, such as the British intervention in World War I, when a swift German victory over France might have been preferable.
What has clearly been a force for instability has been the presumption that US-led forces will always be ready to intervene when a country seems poised to slaughter its own citizens. The case of Libya is exemplary. When the Arab Spring reached Benghazi, Qaddafi’s forces launched a counteroffensive and appeared to the US, as well as France and Britain, on the verge of slaughter. But the conflict was heightened because the rebel forces assumed — correctly, as it happened — that the US and its allies would intervene. As Rajan Menon pointed out last year in an excellent realist article in the National Interest, there were no efforts to pursue nonmilitary steps between February 18, when the uprising began, and March 17, when the no-fly zone was declared. Why? Libya was a weak state, with a decrepit military and few allies in the region. The intervention, followed by a sly enlargement of goals to include the removal of Qaddafi, would offend no one. (This is presumably why Hillary Clinton found it OK to joke about his death — “We came, we saw, he died” — with classic American vulgarity.) What would happen if the Arab Spring came to Saudi Arabia, a state as repressive and undemocratic as Qaddafi’s Libya? The same thing that has happened with Turkey’s murder of thousands of Kurdish civilians since 1984, or Russia’s flattening of Grozny: nothing.
A similar pattern of intervention seemed at hand at the beginning of the Syrian conflict, when Obama declared Assad’s use of sarin gas a “red line.” Based on this rhetoric, and what happened in Libya, the opposition to Assad expected that the US would forcefully intervene in the way that it had in Libya. But both the US and the rebels miscalculated. Syria had an ally in the region, Iran, and a much larger ally outside the region, Russia, which had bases on Syrian soil. Russia, it turned out, had also been offended by NATO’s overthrow of Qaddafi. Putin would not countenance the same action against Assad. The result was a mirror of the lead-up to Qaddafi’s overthrow, and then a sudden reversal: the determination of the armed opposition led to an increase in bloodshed, but no help came. A peace deal in 2012 that might have led to Assad’s departure was scuttled by Western powers, under the idea that Assad’s fall was imminent. It wasn’t. A rebellion turned into a civil war, which turned into a massive proxy war of regional and extra-regional powers, a spiral of death only recently paused by a belated cease-fire. No clearer instance of the limits of both American power and political romanticism exists than now in Syria. But beyond this sobering fact, the conflict has offered little in the way of clarity for the left. No settlement will be satisfying or humane. The only option is to support peace, virtually at any cost.
This has not stopped some on the left from seeking more traditional kinds of solidarity. Much of the critique of American foreign policy over the cold war years was buoyed by support for leftist governments or movements, from the Cuban revolution to Nicaragua. Though such movements have grown sparse with the decline of decolonization and international socialism, today an analogous glimmer comes from the state of Rojava in northern Syria, where, improbably enough, local Kurds have founded an egalitarian society inspired by the work of the American anarchist Murray Bookchin, transmitted through the prison writings of Kurdistan Workers’ Party founder Abdullah Öcalan. Support for this movement has been strong on the Anglo-American left (rightly so), above all in the writings of David Graeber, who has compared the situation of the Rojava revolutionaries to that of the anarchists in the Spanish Civil War — and argues that they should receive similar support.
But such thinking can easily lead to the embrace of a military solution centered on the US: the Al Jazeera English (and generally antiwar) reporter Mehdi Hassan and (more predictably) Joel Gillin of the New Republic have argued for arming Kurdish rebels. American airstrikes have already been helping Kurdish forces combat the Islamic State, which at the time of this writing is on the verge of defeat in Syria. But what then? The Kurds are only being used by American powers as a tool: if and when ISIS in Syria is defeated, their American support will dry up. They can’t move outside their territory, and they won’t topple Assad. And it is absolutely right — imperative, even — for social movements in the US to support democratic allies against Assad. But a left foreign policy cannot simply mean backing any leftist project that happens to come along.
We should be circumspect in our enthusiasms not least because US involvement in Syria has served a broader and older goal: the war on terror. This war, with its omnipresent surveillance and planet-spanning assassinations, represents the most massive expansion of American militarism under the rubric of “security” since the beginning of the cold war. Reflexive interventionism has only been augmented by the rationale of a conflict whose ambit is everywhere. With drone strikes and support to allies bombing others (such as the Saudi war on the Houthis in Yemen), the US is intervening all the time. Nixon’s 1968 campaign slogan, “Peace with honor,” has been traded for war without end.
The consensus around intervention — often called, after a 2001 UN commission, the “Responsibility to Protect” — has become intimately bound up with the war on terror. The project of any leftist government would start here, by dismantling both the war apparatus and the presumption that the US’s existence is predicated on guaranteed intervention. Amazingly, it is Obama himself, in the sunset of his otherwise frustrating and belligerent presidency, who has begun to seek out ways to change the attitude of the “international community” toward intervention. In this respect, the characteristic Obama is not the one who declared a red line, but the one who largely refused to act on it and has rejected calls to do more. This is the same President who privately has taken to calling Libya a “shit show.” Fine words, but it’s his shit show. A left presidency would be one in which this realistic appraisal would come as a matter of habit, rather than after months or years of prevarication and worse.
A movement to end the war on terror — resuming the project of the peace movement of the Sixties — would be only the beginning of a left foreign policy. Take, for instance, the “Pivot to Asia,” a military buildup around China that has the eventual goal of deploying 60 percent of all Navy and Air Force units to the region. Eighty thousand US soldiers are already stationed in South Korea and Japan. The stated reason for this massing of forces is the militarization of the region by China — but it seems just as likely that any buildup by China is responding to the long and increasing domination of the region by the US.
In other words, to look beyond one war is to see the next one looming. For a real left foreign policy, “containing China” would no longer present itself as axiomatic, because security would no longer be the watchword of everyday life. It would, instead, be peace.
When Hillary Clinton pressed Sanders on who his foreign policy advisers were, he harrumphed, “Well, it ain’t Kissinger, that’s for sure!” As of this writing, it has emerged that Jeffrey Sachs agreed to advise Sanders on foreign policy. As much as Sachs has moved to the left in recent years, a panoply of horrors not altogether dissimilar to Kissinger’s might be attributed to him, such as the deployment of mass privatization (“shock therapy”) that greatly decreased life expectancy in then de-communizing Russia and Poland, and led to the deaths of millions of people. Sanders’s other named policy advisers — Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress and Gordon Adams of American University — are unexceptional figures of the defense-policy establishment. ↩
It should be said that Chomsky was a signatory to a 1974 letter protesting Gandhi’s torture of Maoist prisoners. ↩