Robespierre Monument

'The French Revolution involved great changes in the art of war…'

Month: February, 2018

The Tropes of Anti-Anti Imperialism, Part 2: False Regionalisms

Part I can be read here.

In “The Enemy at Home: U.S. Imperialism in Syria” I essentially argue against what I regard as a deeply liberal approach to the war on Syria that atomizes history. What does this mean? The atomizing of history refers to the attempt to shear the events in Syria away from a wider Arab context of struggle against colonialism and imperialism, supplemented by the attempt to forget or suppress memory around the wider patterns of US imperialism across the world and in the Arab world specifically. In atomized history, the US can promote war in a single region for over half a century, and Arab nationalist republics can conspicuously burn while monarchies remain stable, with only an extended series of “isolated incidents” to show for it all. As expected, there has been backlash against my article in some quarters. Most of it is just noise. Nonetheless, the anti-anti imperialist tropes at work in some of that noise have become endemic, so I will address them in a series of posts, in a way that hopefully transcends controversy around a single article and speaks to the wider issues of war and peace today. At the same time, in order to keep matters grounded and for points of clarity, I will occasionally refer back to the only formally written reply I’ve received, an attack that contains all the hallmarks of anti-anti-imperialism: aggressive and arrogant, to be sure, but also specious.

II. False Regionalisms

c20b9361-5d74-472b-874a-6f5399dc30a3

One means by which anti-anti imperialists deny the existence of a US war on the Syrian Arab Republic is to suggest that the US does not have a larger strategy in West Asia. Instead, there exist a number of “multi-polar” conflicts in which the US may or may not play a significant role. Within these conflicts, US actions are largely contradictory, confused, or improvised. This being the case, categorizing US wars in the region together under a general theory amounts to a series of apples-to-oranges comparisons. Thus, to invoke joint struggle against an apparently non-existent US project does rank injustice to internal relations within Arab states.

One more specific way an anti-anti imperialist may contest arguments about a US project is to rely on a broad principle: as every Marxist knows, the nation-state cannot be a unitary actor because it is a site of political and class struggle. On this premise, those who see a US project at work may be dismissed on grounds of “tankie conspiracism” or whatever other catchy dismissal is sweeping social media. The problem with this trope is that it abuses a true-enough banal abstraction to make a virtue out of unpreparedness. Adopt this line of thinking and you will always be desperately lost and confused. You will always fall behind and you will never catch up. When a state acts with its military, with concrete actions, you will scratch your head without a counter-strategy of your own. You will miss the forms of unity (concrete diplomatic and military actions) that emerge amid contradictions (whatever internal debates produced those actions), for even the most intense tactical debates within imperialism occur within set boundaries.

In Israel, for example, we know that there are always so-called “hardliners” screaming for “Greater Israel.” We know that their sadistic dream has not yet been realized in full. But we also know that Israel as an entity rushes to occupy and colonize when the objective conditions permit, and that armed and popular resistance is the equalizer that compels Israel to retreat. And we know, as both leaks and public policy papers demonstrate, that Zionist state managers draw up long-term contingency plans. Advocates for the atomization of history could never have been prepared for what the objective conditions known as “the Syrian war” have an allowed Israel to pursue: a settler expansion into occupied territories of Syria. Likewise, anti-anti imperialists will continue to flounder when confronted with the question of why US imperialism continues to destroy certain nations (that is, when they are able to acknowledge the destruction at all, of course), and not others.

For the sheer magnitude of this history of US aggression, of which we are witnessing an especially ugly episode, it is worth returning to the pattern of war in West Asia that voices like the blogger “Cautiously Pessimistic” insist people keep compartmentalized: the Black September War of 1970; the October War of 1973; the Lebanese War of the 1970s and 1980s; the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s; the First Gulf War of 1991; the Second Gulf War of 2003; the July 2006 War on Lebanon; and the 2011-and-after wars on Libya, Syria, and Yemen. In some of these wars, the US provided military aid: to the Jordanian monarchy (against the PLO and allied Arab republics), Israel (against the Egyptian and Syrian states), the Phalangist-led Lebanese state (against the PLO and allied Lebanese National Movement), both Iran and Iraq against each other, Israel again, rebel movements against Arab republics, and Saudi Arabia, respectively. Throughout these wars, the US and its proxies consistently attacked not only revolutionary organizations, but also the populations sympathetic to them. And needless to say, in some of these cases, the US intervened directly with its own military.

That is one extensive list of events. How many lives did those wars destroy, taken together? We have before us a region subjected to constant war, with the US making the violence possible. (And this list is limited, leaving off the prior wars—in Syria 1920, Palestine 1936 and 1948, and the Six Day War of 1967—brought about by the US’s colonial forebears, France and Britain.) One wonders what kind of advisor cautions against recognizing any kind pattern and claims only to see isolated incidents. Better yet, one wonders what kind of observer misses the significance of what that half a century of military aggression has provided for the US in terms of geopolitical control and military hegemony in the year 2018: a new military base in Israel (described by a comrade as a “military base inside of a bigger military base”), doubtlessly installed for use in a coming regional war; an underreported military base in Lebanon; 8,992 troops stationed in Iraq; and several bases hosting US personnel in Saudi Arabia.

This list is not exhaustive. It is nonetheless a list that proves accurate the statement, supplemented as it is by a qualifier, that, “although the United States’ tactical alliances have varied from this pattern at particular conjunctures, and while there have been and continue to exist major tactical disagreements within the U.S. empire about policy in West Asia,” the “general strategic trend” that sees close relations between US and monarchies on the one hand and US military assaults on revolutionary movements on the other holds true. (Elsewhere I have written: “Taken together, the cases of Egypt and Iran demonstrate that the US is not opposed to Arab nationalism per se, but to any and all attempts at independence from its global grip.”) Deliberately ignoring my caveat to launch a bad-faith attack, “Cautiously Pessimistic” writes, “A canny observer may spot an interesting omission from [the list of retrograde monarchies close to the US]–what about Qatar?” Of course, Qatar’s diplomatic isolation is nothing like what faces Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq. It has been neither invaded nor occupied. But if we grant that there have been recent diplomatic affronts to Qatar, does engaging more closely with the “tactical exceptions” of US policy, like Qatar at the present moment, tell us anything about the general rule?

Because I present straightforwardly that there have been moments of tactical exception within this well-established pattern of strategic pursuit, it is worth asking what makes these instances exceptions rather than the rule. Why are certain countries burning, and not others? Statements about differing internal political situations and “civil war” will only get you so far. There may be, in just about every country in the world, people who wish to wage an armed rebellion against the central government. But the desire and intent for such thing on behalf of relatively powerless non-state actors does not mean the conditions exist for it to become a reality. For a wide-scale war to transpire against a central government, there needs to be sources of guns and wages for fighters from those who produce or possess large weapons caches and purses. Does there exist, in a given situation, the will and desire of more powerful external actors to bankroll a major war?

In what follows, I will examine two “exceptions” to the rule, Qatar and Egypt. I’ll then conclude with a revision to popular conceptions of the war on Yemen that reduce the US to a mere “supporting role.” In all three cases, I’ll ask what connects them, as component parts of a more generalized US onslaught against the region and its people. Before I do proceed, another caveat: I don’t assume that the strategic project of US imperialism as it stands now–to empower monarchies and Israel as a means to seize resources and geostrategic locations while fomenting permanent war and liquidating all resistance–will last forever. I really can imagine a Vietnam scenario in West Asia, wherein regional revolution and attendant “security breakdowns” produce a mass escape rush of trembling spooks, their ties flopping and shoes slipping and legs dangling as they crawl onto the last choppers from Baghdad with scattered half-shredded embassy documents drifting through the winds behind them. But the Jordanian torture chambers, the Saudi bombings, the US invasions, the very existence of Israel–all point to an ongoing, aggressive, as-yet-undefeated US-led project of destruction-for-profit.

Qatar. It is telling that the blogger “Cautiously Pessimistic” does not mention two monumental interrelated reasons for Qatar’s isolation: its continued relations with Iran and Palestine. It must be emphasized that the Qatari state’s intersection with Palestine is much different from Syria’s. Whereas the latter state is the product of a long series of anti-colonial struggles and founded on explicit anti-Zionist ideology, Qatar’s contact came by way of a vacillating Palestinian faction amid inter-regional jockeying and competition. The resulting relationship, however, is no less “material,” even if the support in question is much smaller in scale.

To understand why the connection to Palestinian resistance exists, one must understand some unique qualities of its point of contact, Hamas. The organization began formally in 1987 as the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its arrival came in the twilight years of the PLO as a nationally representative institution. There is good reason the Muslim Brotherhood did not gain a popular base in those preceding decades of revolutionary fervor. In the immediate wake of the Nakba, the Muslim Brotherhood emphasized piety to a refugee people demanding national struggle. An amusing account offered by ‘Abd al Qadir gives some perspective: after a massive act of Israeli aggression in 1953, he turned to his organization seeking a plan, only to hear the head of his Muslim Brotherhood branch insist that the proper response was to “pray and give alms.” Al Qadir subsequently left the Brotherhood and joined the Communist Party.

Other Palestinian members of the Muslim Brotherhood found national struggle later on in Fateh, with the most famous instance being the trajectory of Yasser Arafat’s right-hand man, Khalil al-Wazir. After decades of exodus and marginalization, the Muslim Brotherhood sought to re-establish itself as a major political force in Palestine as late as 1987, and it did so as a resistance party—an “Islamic resistance” at the same time beholden to nationalist Palestinian struggle. As PLO fell apart and Fateh lost legitimacy following Oslo, Hamas gained for itself a wide base of support, ranging from pious Muslims to Palestinians more broadly insistent on a resistance platform. This duality in many way shapes the precarious place in which the organization finds itself today.

Before the outbreak of protests in 2011, Hamas leadership was based in Damascus, receiving myriad support from the Syrian Arab Republic. It increased relations with Qatar at a time when the latter was boosting its relation with the Muslim Brotherhood more broadly as an asset for interregional competition, primarily against Saudi Arabia, its main competitive partner in weapons-funneling to anti-government militias into Syria. (It must be noted about Hamas’s relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood: “Hamas recently distanced itself from the international Brotherhood movement, but its leader affirmed that it remains part of the Brotherhood’s ‘intellectual school…’”) In 2012, Hamas relocated from Damascus to Doha, as the Muslim Brotherhood was then playing a prominent role in the opposition (including armed opposition) to the Syrian Arab Republic, as it had done historically well before 2011. The move just so happened to come before some conciliatory language towards Israel in a revised charter, implicitly sanctioning the existence of Israel in a two-state solution bearing “a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 1967.” Whatever the internal reasons for Hamas’s language, it appeared as political moderation following political realignment towards a Gulf monarchy.

Still nonetheless accountable to supporters who expect resistance to Israeli colonialism, Hamas as recently as February of 2018 sent a warm congratulatory message to the Syrian government for shooting down an Israeli F-16. Once again, the duality of Hamas’s commitments—to both the wider Muslim Brotherhood and to Palestine—produced not only its current balancing act, but also the networks through which it nurtured a changing relationship with Qatar. Among the demands issued to Qatar by Saudi Arabia for an end to the blockade, whose leadership is currently pressuring the PA to concede Palestinian national claims after establishing an open alliance with Israel and receiving a visit from Trump, was to cut its ties to Hamas. Even in this “exception,” the Palestinian issue (especially in its links to Iran, with which Qatar maintained relations) remains paramount.

Egypt. I could do anti-anti imperialist critics one better and mention the case of Egypt. As is well known, Egypt under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser was the beacon of Pan-Arabist hopes for the reunification of Arab peoples under a single socialist state and regional independence from colonialism and imperialism. Today its head of state, General Abdel Fattah Sisi, invites Israeli bombings in Egyptian territory of the Sinai. This is a case of neocolonialism par excellence. The reasons for how this happened is not actually dissimilar to what occurred with the hallowing out of the Palestine Liberation Organization during the Oslo Accords, in order to supplement the creation of another neocolonial entity, the Palestinian Authority. Both cases depended on a conjunction of “external” and “internal” factors.

How does a resistant national formation morph into a consolidated neocolonial regime? Let me start with a framework and then move to specifics. We may note that a hostile external entity, say the United States and/or Israel, sufficiently pummels, through war as one reliable means, the whole of the confrontational entity—national institutions of a resistant entity in all of their variety—in order to weaken the target’s bargaining power, which may be expressed in a number of ways, from unique access to vital commodities to military strength. The resort to war is particularly effective because it mires in violence the one entity capable of holding a given state to account for popular demands: the people.

Once this process of weakening has reached an advanced enough stage, it becomes easy to induce aspiring neocolonial entrepreneurs inside the targeted periphery state with financial prizes and security packages, producing a dependence of the refashioned national bourgeoisie on imperialist powers for both capital (self-enrichment) and guns (increased protection against the poor). The masses of workers are thereafter left scrambling for undignified forms of labor, only to face the brunt of US-made or Israeli-supplied weapons if they get out of line.

Each of these traits were present in the trajectory of the Arab Republic of Egypt from its revolutionary high point between 1956 and 1967, to its subsequent Thermidor culminating in the Camp David Accords of 1979. That period of revolutionary ascent notably began with a major anti-imperialist victory over France, Britain, and Israel upon the successful reclamation of the Suez Canal. It ended with a massive military defeat to Israel in the Six-Day War. In hindsight, it is certainly easy to make critiques of Egyptian leadership by noting how the 1956 victory was attained through the mobilization of popular militias, standing on guard to defend the Egyptian homeland against imperialist invasion, while the 1967 defeat lacked a strategic resort on behalf of the periphery nation to People’s War.

Be that as it may, the 1967 war produced an outcome with long-term political implications that would be compounded by another war in 1973. Together, these wars eroded popular morale enough to aggravate cracks in the ideological hegemony of Arab nationalism. The overall value losses were immense as well. After Egyptian leadership had diverted societal resources to confront a better-equipped perpetual colonial threat in the State of Israel, the Egyptian state encountered a balance-of-payment crisis that bourgeois leadership (Sadat), in taking advantage of weakened resistance nationalism, sought to remedy through new channels of foreign aid. As the Camp David Accords demonstrate to this day, that aid came with political stipulations. While those stipulations carried relatively few consequences for the Egyptian bourgeoisie, they continue to exact a price on both the Egyptian and Palestinian masses.

For the Egyptian masses, the Camp David Accords ushered in a new era of pauperization: decreased or eliminated social services, fewer jobs, and a better-equipped police state. These reflect the wider worldwide trends of neocolonial states following the US’s decision, undertaken during the height of the Vietnam War, to de-link the US dollar from gold, which thereby undercut a global rush to gold and instead forced the world to accept an unlimited flow of US dollars. In Egypt, this process began before the Camp David Accords—it even helped to develop the very bourgeoisie that signed the accords. Ali Kadri writes: “In the early stages of the intifah [“opening up”], remittances from the Gulf exchanged on the black market had a much higher purchasing power and created a work model of earning without effort. In 1976, the dollar black market rate exchanged for five times the official rate.”

The influx of these dollars frustrated the dual exchange rate and “national money creation rose to meet the conversion demands drawn on the black market in favour of foreign wage earners and importers.” As the Egyptian bourgeoisie, including “vast sections of the regime’s bureaucracy,” turned towards those financial markets, they naturally turned away from the prior social pact between society and society that Nasser sought, regardless of the limitations of his rule, to mediate through service programs such as jobs, health, and education. In 1979, as part of the Camp David deal, the US began to deliver an annual aid package of around $2 billion that would help to protect the neocolonial authorities from popular recrimination. The terms of that aid are designed to benefit US weapons manufacturers. As noted by James Gelvin, “The United States does not give money to Egypt for military equipment; it gives the Egyptian military a list of equipment the American government will purchase on its behalf in the United States.” A one time resistance front that Israel once sought to destabilize through war, Egypt has now become a war asset that the US and Israel hope to keep stable.

The price of the Camp David Accords for Palestinians, especially those living in Gaza, remains extreme. The terms of the agreement set down in the course of 1978 ensured that Israel, for its “part” in pretending to give the Sinai over to Egypt, would be granted an increased military edge underwritten by the United States in the form of two additional military bases at Eitam and Etzion in the Negev. (These terms were consecrated in a letter from Ezer Weisman, then Israeli Minister of Defense, signed by US Secretary of Defense Harold Brown.) Furthermore, the agreements called for a solution to Palestinian statelessness while conspicuously sidestepping mention of the PLO.

The Palestine National Council, the legislative branch of the PLO, instantly saw the writing on the wall. At its 14th Session in Damascus in 1979, the PNC declared that the Camp David Accords “violate Palestinian, Arab and international legitimacy and pave the way for tighter imperialist and Zionist control over our Arab region and Africa, employing the Egyptian regime, in the context of its alliance with imperialism and Zionism, as a tool for the repression of the Arab and African national liberation movements.” In keeping with acknowledgement of its role linking Southwest Asia to Africa, Ali Kadri argues that the incorporation of Egypt into the imperialist order, the effective elimination of its capacities to resist imperialist and Zionist plots, even enabled “the Congo holocaust” in addition to recent US and Israeli wars on Lebanon and Iraq.

Where lies the common origin between the pauperization of the Egyptian masses and the Palestinian prisoners of Gaza? What is to be gained between Egyptians and Palestinians by ignoring the obvious common link of US support for Egyptian neocolonialism and Israeli settler-colonialism, respectively? Between the agonizing poverty confronting Egyptian society and the barricades surrounding the Palestinians of Gaza, the common denominator is US imperialism.

To reiterate the main point: Sadat’s surrender came after a period of mobilization and struggle. It was a surrender elicited by imperialist war. As Max Ajl has written, US aid offered to Egypt in the Nasser period was initially offered as an inducement to “bridle Egyptian radical nationalism.” Where that did not work for the US and Israel, “war was a means – a successful one – to prevent neighbouring or nearby nations from neutralizing Israeli freedom of action.” Ajl refers to Guy Laron’s quotation of Yizthak Rabin on the eve of the 1967 War to give this tactic clear articulation: “…it is in our mutual interest to deal with [Iraq, Syria, and Egypt]. We should contain Nasser in the southern Arab peninsula, neutralize the Iraqis and screw the Syrians.” Thus, “For Israel, taking land and preventing development were two sides of one coin.” Ajl adds an additional note helpful to our purposes: “Ideology and colonial state-formation provide the parameters within which political actors act.” This explains succinctly how an Arab nationalist ideology alone does not guarantee the substance of what the US establishment (and of course Israel) desires to prevent: independence and resistance.

Yemen: A Brief Revision. Where I have highlighted patterns of US state behavior outside of its borders in general and in West Asia in particular, anti-anti imperialist critics such as the blogger “Cautiously Pessimistic” highlight differences, writing: “Iraq, certainly, is a place where the US started a war by invading, and it’s unarguable that, if the US hadn’t invaded in 2003, Iraq would not have been at war then. Libya and Syria, where the US intervened in existing internal conflicts that had already escalated into civil wars, are less clear-cut cases, and in Yemen, the main outside intervention has come from the Saudi military, with the US playing much more of a supporting role.”

There is little need to dwell on the case of Libya. That war was won by the US in the form of regime change. The rebel successes in Benghazi were made possible by an air intervention after NATO, a Cold War creation of the United States, predictably trespassed the bounds of an already-imperialist UN Resolution 1973. Libyan society has since been so profoundly degraded that markets now auction off Black Africans for chattel slavery. Meanwhile, the United States’ AFRICOM project has gained a bridge from the Mediterranean North to West and Central Africa.

When it comes to Yemen, my concern about the propagandistic reduction of the US role compels me to back up slightly and take a longer view. The US was promoting war in Yemen well before its drones arrived. I would therefore like to begin before 2011 and consider the Yemen of yesteryear, namely the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen—Yemen as the groundswell for the Arab world’s sole Marxist government and the base area for region-wide revolution. There is a larger story to be told about that project, which has since been lost to counterrevolution and war. Between 1967, the year the People’s Republic of South Yemen began upon British withdrawal, and the end of the PDRY in 1990, this beautiful peninsula province and Indian Ocean post—origin coast of the common coffee culture today taken for granted the world over—provided almost unconditional sanctuary to countless Arab revolutionaries. George Habash had a particularly deep affection for it, for throughout the brutal Lebanon war years of the 1980s and spiraling rounds of brutal factional disputes, the PLO found for a time a safe zone in Aden in which to mediate disputes and draft agreements. Unsurprisingly, the United States did not share Habash’s affection.

As Fred Halliday wrote in his dissertation about the foreign policy of the PDRY, “while the pattern of east-west conflict in Arabia had, up to 1967, been dominated by the Egyptian-British clash in the south-west corner of the Peninsula, the post-1967 independent regime in Aden now found itself increasingly confronting not Britain but the major power that replaced it in Arabia, namely the USA.” Halliday’s work furthermore gives an account of how the US held a number of strategic initiatives in the Arabian Gulf thwarted by the PDRY’s anti-imperialism, including the presence of its oil monopolies in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and its relationship with Saudi Arabia, staked on oil and anticommunism, made ironclad through the 1957 Eisenhower Doctrine. Over the years, the US grew further irritated by a number of initiatives undertaken by the PDRY leadership in revolutionary solidarity across the region, from their decision to assist Egypt by blockading crucial Red Sea passage points during the 1973 war to their training camps provided to the PFLP, of which a CIA National Foreign Assessment Center report complained in 1981.

As is typically the case when confronted with recalcitrance, the US crafted reactionary alliances and pursued destabilization of the PDRY. As Salim Rubbiya ‘Ali, President of South Yemen between 1969 and 1978, relayed to US Congressman Paul Findley: “Now, the belief is held by the people of my country that all suffering, all damage caused by subversives is the work of the US government… All military equipment we capture is US equipment, and this makes the people feel the US is behind the attack.” When the PDRY lent support to Egypt in 1973, the US sent it threats in the form of aircraft carriers off the Southern Yemen coast that it kept in place for about a year. A major US escalation came under the Carter Administration, which in 1978 initiated plans to sell the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) $400 million worth of weapons for a war with the PDRY. Through Saudi Arabia baggage services, the US temporarily withheld and then increased arms supply to YAR, headed at this point by the now deceased Ali Abdullah Saleh, in 1980 once Saleh foreswore off pursuing the objective announced in the first foreign policy statement of newly independent South Yemen by Qahtan Muhammad al-Shaabi in 1969: reunification of Yemen.

The article “The Silent Demise of Democracy: The Role of the Clinton Administration in the 1994 Yemeni Civil War,” written by Carlos A. Parodi and Elizabeth Rexford, provides a window into the US role in Yemen in the 1990s. After Yemeni reunification finally succeeded for a time in May 1990, the new state entity continued to pay the price for any deviation from the US’s vision for the region, particularly when its leadership openly opposed US troop invasions following the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and instead advocated an “Arab solution.” When war broke out in 1994 between “Northern” and “Southern” factions of the Yemeni state, US President Bill Clinton and his Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Robert H. Pelletreau gave full diplomatic support to Saleh’s Northern faction, which had started the war after a Parliamentary session in 1993, carrying out political assassinations against members of the Yemeni Socialist Party, the successor organization of the National Liberation Front that had formed the ruling party of the PDRY until reunification. This support was not accidental. It was in line with the US vision for Yemen: if reunification would happen, it would happen on the condition of the destruction of the remains of the YSP and its radical pro-Palestinian Pan-Arabism. Consistent themes emerge again.

It is worth jumping ahead to the post-2011 war to glimpse how anti-anti imperialists, upon forgetting the premises of a half-century of US intrusion into the Arabian Peninsula, conceptualize the current horrors. The US is playing a “supporting” role in the war on Yemen, we are told. Here is a clear consequence of atomizing history, a dubious description of US operations that reads as if it were ripped straight from a CNN headline. If true, the US still remains culpable for the destruction of Yemen. But one problem among several with this buzz phrase, “supporting role,” is that it says little about why the US is involved at all. At the very best, we are left with the impression that the US, which boasts of the largest military in the world, is led into major famine-inducing and cholera-spreading wars by smaller regional powers. This thinking is not all that much different the way apologists for US imperial aggression in Vietnam have tended to insist was the case with Ngô Đình Diệm and the Republic of Vietnam, or for that matter that the US is dragged into “unnecessary” wars by Israel.

As an explanation, it will not do. Even if the absurd premise of the haplessly misguided behemoth is granted for the sake of argument, it can only be forwarded with an underestimation, whether deliberate or ignorant, of the US contribution. If US involvement in Yemen were a mere matter of happenstance, rather than one of directed strategy, why has the US stepped in, as Stephen Gowans emphasizes, to bomb Yemeni targets directly whenever it has deemed the Saudi Air Force unfit for the task? Why does it go so far as to run the command and control logistics of the war, including providing target locations and training to the Saudi bomber pilots? I suggest instead glancing back at my arguments about the destructive corollary of a national US economy structured on war and then considering that “the Obama administration went ahead with a $1.3 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia last year despite warnings from some officials that the United States could be implicated in war crimes for supporting a Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians.” True to imperial form, US planners knowingly deem it in their interests to pursue acts that destroy human life on a grand scale.

That at least two major US markets subsidized by the US federal government, arms and mercenary firms, as well as the ability of financial firms to bet on the bonds tied to the private corporations that produce them, depend on instability should provide some disturbing clarity about, as I wrote before, “the extent to which this destruction is intrinsic to the entire U.S. imperialist enterprise: that as long as the United States is an empire, there will be smaller and weaker nations reduced to rubble and flames.” If we add to that the fact that the targets of the recent US bombings in question—fighters from Ansar Allah—have made overtures to other anti-Zionist resistance factions across the region and , it is evident once again how “the political imperatives as well as the capital accumulation circuits of the war…remain deeply intertwined.”

The masses of Yemeni people who have declared their solidarity with Palestine with massive street protests in Sana’a amid starvation, disease, and bombs, have apparently not received word that Palestine is a far-off country without major implications for “struggles in their own [country],” as per the blogger “Cautiously Pessimistic.” No—it is more accurate to say that they are building on traditions of solidarity, firmly established in their own country’s radical history. I’ll turn to US Congressman Findley’s report-back from a meeting with Foreign Minister Mohammed Salih Mutiyya’ of the PDRY in the 1970s, again quoted in Halliday’s work. Mutiyya’ explicated to Findley the PDRY’s objections the US (as well as his belief that the US had attempted regime change against it):

“He [Mutiyya’] said it was necessary to view the question in context of the whole Arab world. The reason for severance was the Israeli attack on the Beirut airport. Without US support, he said, the attack could not have occurred. Nor could the Israeli occupation of Arab lands and the denial of Palestinian rights to their lands.”

Mutiyya’s words were a repudiation of what the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine came to refer to as “false regionalisms.” A hallmark of US strategy, the DFLP argued, was to promote the impression that Arab peoples divided by colonial borders were distinctly Palestinian, Jordanian, Syrian, Egyptian, Iraqi, etc. If the US could bring about this impression, struggling peoples of the region would become preoccupied with narrow nationalisms. Arab peoples’ problems would have uncommon roots, isolated and self-contained. As some commentators appear to be baffled as to what the liberation of Palestine has to do with events in Syria, it would appear that this benchmark of US strategy has borne some major successes. Some further addendum of the centrality of the Palestinian issue is required next.

Advertisements

The Tropes of Anti-Anti Imperialism, Part 1: The Rise of Imperialist Internationalism

In “The Enemy at Home: U.S. Imperialism in Syria” I essentially argue against what I regard as a deeply liberal approach to the war on Syria that atomizes history. What does this mean? The atomizing of history refers to the attempt to shear the events in Syria away from a wider Arab context of struggle against colonialism and imperialism, supplemented by the attempt to forget or suppress memory around the wider patterns of US imperialism across the world and in the Arab world specifically. In atomized history, the US can promote war in a single region for over half a century, and Arab nationalist republics can conspicuously burn while monarchies remain stable, with only an extended series of “isolated incidents” to show for it all. As expected, there has been backlash against my article in some quarters. Most of it is just noise. Nonetheless, the anti-anti imperialist tropes at work in some of that noise have become endemic, so I will address them in a series of posts, in a way that hopefully transcends controversy around a single article and speaks to the wider issues of war and peace today. At the same time, in order to keep matters grounded and for points of clarity, I will occasionally refer back to the only formally written reply I’ve received, an attack that contains all the hallmarks of anti-anti-imperialism: aggressive and arrogant, to be sure, but also specious.

I. The Rise of Imperialist Internationalism

My most recent writing on the subject of the United States and Syria can be read in Viewpoint Magazine. The article has a targeted audience, a limited scope, and a specific purpose. It addresses English-language readers (and presumably self-identified leftists) generally, but particularly those living in the United States. Its basic purpose is to theorize the role of the US in Syria as a contribution towards the construction of a renewed antiwar movement. The article clearly demarcates these limitations: “How does the destruction in Syria fit into broader historical patterns? How do we situate the war on Syria into the histories of U.S. imperialism, the Arab world (including Palestine), and the relationship between the two? It is only by positing those questions that we can develop the theoretical grounding necessary to build the movements and establish the alliances required to defeat the U.S. war machine in Syria and elsewhere.” Since its publication, I have encountered two forms of critical response (a generous description, I admit), often intertwined. One form, much more rare, criticizes the article on its own terms, for what it actually attempts to accomplish. Another form insists that the article should’ve been about something else. For now, I’ll deal with the latter.

In setting demarcations, I also reveal what the article most certainly is not: a dossier on the subject of “Syria.” (Any such attempt would inevitably fall short, anyways.) If anyone is disinterested in or hostile towards the goal undergirding the entire article as the assumed basis for shared grounds—the necessity of rebuilding an antiwar movement in the United States—then it goes without saying that they’ll have no use for such an article. But for those who are interested in the reconstruction of the antiwar movement, I’ll first address a question that should frankly be considered preposterous: why isn’t this article about Russia, Turkey or Iran, all of which are nation-states with military roles in Syria?

I actually do consider US imperialism uniquely dangerous at this point in history, but we need not even indulge a discussion of Russia’s role in Syria to get the most pressing point on this issue. The fact is, such a question coming from US organizers indicates extreme cognitive dissonance, or at the very least an awesome inability to study US society holistically. The strategy of Trump and his associates to nurture anti-social white nationalist ideology for the purposes of brutal domestic repression and social control represents only one piece of the total problem. The strategy of his ostensible “resistance” in the Democratic Party to stigmatize the nativist Trump for, of all possible offenses, a lack of patriotism only consolidates consent for white supremacy in the form of the US nation-state itself. After all, Trump’s white nationalist strategy merely capitalizes on hundreds of years of settler-colonialism and war, and more recently the racist accumulations arising from the normalization of quotidian state practices such as mass incarceration, ICE deportation, and militarized border control. Both parties of capital have identified their preferred alien enemies of the state: immigrants for the GOP, Russia for the Democrats. It goes without saying that both parties find shared enemies in recalcitrant nations and global competitors to US rule, from Venezuela and Korea to China.

These ultimately complimentary brands of xenophobia do not exclusively circulate in state and media. They stream into, and in turn develop strength from, rhetoric and practices found within the broader US populace. A recent Syria-related demonstration in Washington, DC, provides a glimpse as to where this is all going. A protest event organized February 9th, named “Speak Up for Syria’s Civilians” assembled at the White House to demand “international leadership to protect Syria’s civilians, followed by a march to the Russian Ambassador’s House, holding to account the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity.” The language may be cagey, but it reads like a possible call for war with Russia. Assuming that people who tend to be moved by humanitarian concerns for Syrians are not generally on board with Trump’s overall agenda, we can see in these forms of mobilization the tendency underlining Democratic Party hysteria about Russian subversion towards imperialist reconciliation. For underlying the liberal accusations of disloyalty against Trump, at all times, is the implication that liberals will embrace him once he turns against their preferred military target. (We have already seen this take place, when he ordered the bombing of a Syrian government military target.) As it stands, any contradictions between the two major wings of capital in the United States will be resolved through war—a potentially massive one. Any US leftist who shares priorities with the two wings of capital is only helping to manufacture total consent for white supremacy, spanning from college social justice advocates to Republican Party voters. In the process, these leftists perhaps more than anybody else deliver the coup de grâce against the remains of domestic US opposition to the dictatorship of capital.

Besides, after many years doing antiwar work, I am well aware that the “appropriate” time to discuss US imperialist activities, as they are actually happening, will never actually arrive. US officials, much like Russia-obsessed leftist stalwarts of the “Syrian Revolution,” always invoke some eastern menace in response. More interesting is the ways in which anti-anti imperialists have given leftish-sounding language to similar tactics. For instance, I stand accused, as I have been for years, of “denying the agency” of Syrian people as it is usually phrased in a compulsive nod to recent trends in liberal academia. (As a side note, the word “agency” contains little value if not grounded in Marxist theory; search long enough and you will even come across Columbia University books celebrating the “agency” of footbinding.) The blogger “Cautious Pessimist” uses a different phrase: “Imperial Purity.” The point of both phrases is to suggest that anti-imperialists, in their narcissistic self-absorption, make “everything” about the US. (I must ask, do these people know anti-imperialists outside of the US? There are quite a few, and their hatred for US imperialism could often be described as pure.) The function of this trope is to construct a strawman of anti-imperialists who believe the US is “omnipotent” in order to distract from or downplay what is accurate in their assessments of the powerful capabilities and ill intentions that the US actually does possess.

This trope is not new. Neither is it limited to leftists. It is an argument that has before been voiced by conservative academics and US officials, rendering its arrival on the lips of self-described radicals a perfect death knell for the memory of internationalism. I don’t know what the consensus of the 1973 Pinochet coup in Chile is in left-wing politics today, given our addled language and abandoned traditions, but there was once a time where leftists widely viewed that event as an unambiguous atrocity committed by CIA, a sinister conspiracy executed by the agents of capital against the Chilean people, consigning them to decades of US-backed junta rule. That lesson was bequeathed to subsequent generations by anti-imperialists of the period who refused at the time to listen to one Dr. James Theberge, Professor of Latin American Studies at Georgetown’s Center for Strategic and International Studies when he insisted—anticipating the rhetorical evasions of the anti-anti imperialists of today—that blaming Richard Nixon and the CIA were “intemperate and ill-informed claims” reflecting “the paternalistic mentality towards Latin America and the illusion of American omnipotence that is still pervasive in certain circles in the United States.” Theberge might’ve spread disinformation for the CIA, but hey, at least he didn’t deny Chilean agency!

There is no need, however, to go all the way back to 1973 to find examples of this maneuver performed by, let us say, compromised individuals. At a recent speech in Canada, Barack Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice pled that “we” cannot let recent events in Iran “be about Trump or the US,” and that “we ought to speak up foil for its bad behavior and we cannot let the Iranian government have that opportunity.” Here is Rice’s attempt, to turn to another popular phrase “center” Iranian “voices”: “Trump’s remarks about the Iranian protesters were manipulated by the Iranian regime. We must support the pro-democracy sentiments of Iranians. Iran supports terrorism and destabilization.” Since these remarks come from a woman who worked in the highest levels of the very US empire that actually does conspire against Iran with sanctions and war threats, it is safe to read them as demands for enlistment. Some people may hear her words and decide to voluntarily report for duty. Their political prerogatives may be those of the US empire, but they’d at least be transparent. What is unbelievable, and what says a lot about our times, is that because I quote US ruling class actors with the explicit intention to resist their actions I can be accused of “[adopting]…the viewpoint of capital and the state “ by those literally adopting the above-quoted viewpoints of capital and the state!

If anybody is wondering why a US antiwar movement is necessary (to say nothing of an anti-imperialist movement), it is necessary to consider the bigger picture of what’s been lost since its demise. On that note, let me turn to a set of basic observations about the relevance of studying history. On the one hand, history does not contain the capital-A answer to the problems of our world today. On the other hand, history contains the events and processes that led us to the world we inhabit today. If your goal, as an individual or as a collective, is to construct a movement for revolutionary change, history will provide, if not a clear indication of what “worked” and what did not (after all, we continue to live under capitalism), at least a series of indications of what advanced the struggles of the people and simultaneously decreased the power of the ruling class, and vice versa. If we live in the United States, our consideration would then have to become more specific, as an unusual aspect of our struggle against the resident ruling regime is that it is not simply against a state with its coercive apparatuses ruling over the limited territory allotted to it by the nation-state system. Rather, its military power (only one form of its cumulative power) extends to over 800 military bases in over 70 additional countries. To put that in perspective, the total number of outside military bases belonging to Britain, France, and Russia number 30 combined. It helps, I believe, to think of this kind of authority as “imperial sovereignty.”

Our next step would then be to consider if, since the era when imperial authority of this magnitude began to take shape, its power has ever been significantly eroded. We may consider when the US ruling class felt that its grip was slipping. As related by Max Elbaum on the height of the antiwar movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Henry Kissinger lamented the fact that 250 State Department employees had resigned over imperialist aggression against Vietnam, he fearfully noted that “the entire edifice of government was falling apart.” This domestic crisis of legitimacy for US rulers cast such a long shadow that it still haunts them today, forcing them, wherever possible, to subcontract wars-for-profit to other states and run them in secret. The rulers have even given that lurking shadow a name: “the Vietnam Syndrome.” After the demise of the antiwar movement and the revolutionary fervor that came with it, US officials rejoiced at their ability to launch aggressive wars once again without any major opposition from a maladjusted domestic populace. After decades of bad memories, it was high time get back to the good old days when they ordered genocidal bombing campaigns upon Korea while only having Paul Robeson and a few assorted peace groups to worry about. After US Special Forces successfully burned Panama City to the ground in Operation Just Cause of 1989 and the US Air Force bombed Iraq relentlessly in 1991 with barely a domestic peep to be heard, then President George H.W. Bush effectively declared victory for his class’s counterrevolution: “It’s a proud day for America. And, by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”

In surveying this history and the overall tug-of-war between the forces of revolution and counterrevolution contained within it, we might ask about the analyses, alliances, and coalitions that animated the height of the people’s struggles. Put succinctly, the alliances and coalitions at work were internationalist. That word, of course, held a much different meaning than it seems to now, for it indicated then that revolutionaries living in the US would take the actions necessary to inhibit the offensive capabilities of the US military overseas, ever repressive and violent in countries like Vietnam, that oppressed and attacked them at home, in cities like Detroit where quite literally soldiers returning home from carrying out war on Vietnam were ordered to attack Black freedom fighters in July of 1967. What it most certainly did not mean was converging with the geopolitical aims of, and sharing messages and slogans with, the US regime.

At the height of the US antiwar movement, “systemic analysis” was the mode of thought that informed these alliances. “Making connections” was the phrase of the day. This task did not simply involve analogizing varied forms of pain and struggle, although that aspect was certainly important for purposes of mobilization. Just as crucially, it meant identifying the exact state networks and multinational corporations inflicting and profiting from the pain and struggle that must be alleviated through liberation. This latter part is absolutely key. It illustrates the difference between making abstract comparisons and building a plan of action. Through systemic analyses, we identify a common enemy and potential sites of confrontation. We gain the knowledge upon which we are able to construct strategy and devise tactics through the power of organizations and mass movements (and not just as individual commentators on the internet), and in the process make a material contribution to liberation, for ourselves and for others.

The task of making these connections was not only taken up by people’s movements. It was also taken up by the intellectuals and scholars immersed within those movements. For example, in a clear strategic attempt to expand the field of struggle against the most powerful common enemy of the oppressed worldwide, Walter Rodney drew a connection between the US’s war on Vietnam and its earlier campaigns to exterminate Native Americans, writing:

“In recent times, it has become an object of concern to some liberals that the U.S.A. is capable of war crimes of the order of My Lai in Vietnam. But the fact of the matter is that the My Lais began with the enslavement of Africans and American Indians. Racism, violence and brutality were the concomitants of the capitalist system when it extended itself abroad in the early centuries of international trade.”

Rodney was updating earlier observations made by Marx: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.” Eduardo Galeano made a similar argument, proposing that the problem of combined and uneven development—the inequality between nations in the global order that enables imperial sovereignty and provides the ability of some states today to invade and dismember other societies—is a structural imbalance built on processes of colonialism dating back upwards of 500 years. Alas, for the opponents of systemic analysis, remembering all of these insights is just an act of romantic yearning. But how could that be when, as I argued in Viewpoint, “the U.S. practice of destroying societies wholesale, as the United States had attempted in Vietnam” continues today? The US ruling class’s wars have not ceased. Depressingly, only our collective resistance has abated.

Part of the issue is that collective resistance requires ideological support. Structural changes in the composition and channels of capital have produced a major ideological crisis. It is essential to consider the depth of that crisis, the possibility that white supremacy and colonial worldviews permeate not only their traditional domains of “conservatives” and “liberals,” but those of the self-described radical left as well. Let us turn to a salient example. The Marx of Walter Rodney has an opposite today in the Marx of, say, Christopher Hitchens. We ought not dismiss what Hitchens, loathsome as he very well was, still has to teach us about the place in which we find ourselves simply because he discredited himself with too blatant an imperialist turn in supporting the invasion of Iraq. No, he believed in that moment that he was acting as an internationalist, which he often claimed to have picked up from his Trotskyist political upbringing. He made his argument on those terms. “There is no longer a general socialist critique of capitalism,” Hitchens complained in 2001. “[C]ertainly not the sort of critique that proposes an alternative or a replacement.” The Eastern bloc had collapsed, US empire had stood tall, and by 1999, the “anti-globalization” protests in Seattle had convinced Hitchens that anti-systemic movements had become hopelessly reactionary in the face of US-led international capital, a cover for decaying and defensive dictatorships, paranoia, and superstitious bigotries:

“I do remember thinking that [the Port Huron Statement of 1962] had a sort of archaic character to it, exactly the kind of thing that Marx attacked, in fact, in the early critiques of capitalism. What [Students for a Democratic Society] seemed to want was a sort of organic, more rural-based, traditional society, which probably wouldn’t be a good thing if you could have it. But you can’t, so it’s foolish to demand such a thing. This tendency has come out as the leading one in what I can see of the anti-globalization protesters. I hear the word globalization and it sounds to me like a very good idea. I like the sound of it. It sounds innovative and internationalist… The Seattle protesters, I suppose you could say, in some ways came from the left. You couldn’t say they came from the right, although a hysterical aversion to world government and internationalism is a very, very American nativist right-wing mentality.”

This set of observations informed Hitchens’ later support for the US invasion of Iraq. If US-led capitalism was internationalist, it could therefore modernize. It could reduce superstition and deliver enlightenment. We know what US-led capitalism—through NATO, NAFTA, the World Bank, etc.—has wrought: more poverty, more inequality, more violence. And let us not forget that Hitchens didn’t solely claim Thomas Paine and Jefferson as his inspirations; he also claimed Marx. He therefore did not necessarily experience some grand conversion from the left to the right. He was simply following through to the logical conclusions of the “Marxism” in which he believed, and he employed his imperialist reasoning, in the name of teleological progress and historical materialism, well before 2001. “1492 was a very good year and deserves to be celebrated with great vim and gusto,” Hitchens wrote in 1992, on the centenary of Columbus’s arrival to the Americas, adding:

“…[T]hose who view the history of North America as a narrative of genocide and slavery are, it seems to me, hopelessly stuck on this reactionary position. They can think of the Western expansion of the United States only in terms of plague blankets, bootleg booze and dead buffalo, never in terms of the medicine chest, the wheel and the railway . . . [I]t does happen to be the way that history is made, and to complain about it is as empty as complaint about climatic, geological or tectonic shift.”

Well, there you have it! The longtime resident “Marxist” at the left-liberal Nation magazine giving full-throated support to a holocaust, and all the while, at least at the time, a more or less accepted figure of the “left,” until his supposed defection of 2001 when he was met with unprecedented adulation and awards and book sales. It requires imperialism to produce such a variation on Marxism. And how deep really is the ideological separation between Hitchens the “Marxist” and today’s alt-right, when both in their own ways settle on the wisdom of genocide and white European rule? When Hitchens advocated for the US invading Iraq in the name of international solidarity, the problem wasn’t only that the war would produce monumental violence. The problem extended to the larger dangers of re-legitimizing white European rule as a progressive principle, expressed in practice as the right of the US and its European allies to determine the fate of, violate, and destroy other societies. The Marx of Hitchens asserts victory over the Marx of Rodney in the New Imperialist Internationalism when left-liberals like Juan Cole advocate NATO “intervention” in Libya in the name of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades in Spain and the Marxist Gilbert Achcar instructing leftists demand CIA arms flows into North Africa. This is an internationalism opposite that once pursued by the Black Panthers, the Revolutionary Action Movement, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, etc.–all true opponents of the system. This new “internationalism,” which repeats the priorities of the State Department, is a grotesque mutation—it is the system itself at work. To reconstruct anti-systemic internationalism, those living inside aggressor nations must return to certain traditions of antiwar activity.

Now, why Syria? If we consider the US war on Syria and the debates around it, we come across several glaring problems, which explain why I find it important to place the fate of Syria into broader historical context. One problem is that the war was efficiently run for years in secret: while US Special Forces amassed in neighboring Turkey and Jordan to arm and train militias to carry out attacks on the Syrian state, it somehow became plausible to insist that there was no war. Another problem is the widespread belief that because of the presence of other state actors in Syria—Russia, Iran, Turkey—revolutionaries in the US may adopt a permissive attitude towards the US role. Or, in the logic of the humanitarian imperialism that has reigned supreme since the 1990s, the belief that the US can possibly act either as a counterweight to “local” repression. Or better yet still, that the US could act as a friend to revolutionary movements. And then there are other popular refrains: the US role in the war has been minor, or that its intention is simply to destroy ISIS. Although these last explanations sometimes come with a disclaimer against formal US intervention, by obfuscating and confusing US strategy and presence, they effectively protect Hitchens’s preferred world wherein core white supremacist imperialism determines the affairs of the colonized periphery states. I would ask readers to imagine the kinds of unspeakable horrors the US empire could get away carte blanche with when these attitudes prevail, but I am afraid those horrors are transpiring now.

In addressing the fact the US continues to attempt destroy societies wholesale, my critics are left two choices: either to downplay the significance of this ongoing practice, or to deny that this practice is ongoing altogether. As we will see, it is not beneath anti-anti imperialists to attempt both.