Sunday, 17 August 2014

Oliver's Army


 Should President Obama send the National Guard to Ferguson, Missouri, to prevent the racist police force oppressing the black community?

 I bumped into a friend who used to be in the Socialist Workers Party yesterday morning, and we got to talking about Syria. It didn't start well. I asked him if he knew that Saudi Arabia and Qatar didn't fund the Islamic State. He didn't. The late Tony Cliff used to start speeches by saying, "Here is the balance of class forces in the situation." How can you presume to pass judgment on any political event, but especially the most significant conflict of our time, when you have no knowledge of what is going on there at all? I don't know that much. I remember seeing Yalla Souriya comment on Twitter once, in a comment aimed at Joshua Landis, that if you hadn't been to Syria in the last six months, you could only see 5 or 10% of the picture.But compared to people like that I'm the font of wisdom.
And how they do presume is to talk about another conflict, and assume that the forces are all the same. In this case Kosovo, "The Albanians appealed to the Americans to help, they started bombing, the Serbs were forced out."

 Now there are a number of things to say here. Firstly, I don't know a lot about Kosovo. If somebody puts a convincing argument about the balance of forces, casualties, and so on, I'm open to change my mind, and form more of an opinion than I do at the moment.But I know that there are still a lot of Serbs in Kosovo, particularly in Mitrovice, that they are not being daily killed by the Albanians, that they are unwilling to integrate with the new state - generally, there are always some exceptions who reach between communities - rather than being in fear of fascist terror from their new overlords. It can be hard to expect Serbs to learn an alien language like Albanian so that they might live in bilingual harmony, but that was what was always expected in reverse in the old Yugoslavia. For independence-minded Kosovans the result has been a huge success. They are free, grateful to war criminals like Tony Blair for bringing it about, but not irretrievably beholden to the West because of some Faustian pact to give them the illusion of independence, while Halliburton was given the economic power in perpetuity. I remember one resident of Belgrade writing at the time that the bombing wasn't a joke, but the casualties were very limited, and might be a price worth paying for Kosovo's freedom. When airstrikes were proposed last year, none of the opponents would tell what the size of the death toll would be, just that you don't know what would happen once the bullets start flying.You can see the contradiction here with knowing how things are going to turn out because all imperialist interventions are the same. I would bet that fewer people were killed in Belgrade in 1999 than have been killed by Assad, by a long, long, way. Mentioning such things become moralism when it is about those revolting outside the Western sphere of influence, it would be a righteous condemnation of injustice, if it were Israel, or South Africa, or Ferguson, Missouri. Chomsky's distinction between worthy and unworthy victims, "A propaganda system will consistently portray people abused in enemy states as worthy victims, whereas those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy," is turned on its head, and doesn't look any prettier when it repeats the stories of the Russian and Iranian states, who Syrians know as their enemy, as they are helping Assad to commit genocide against Syrians. To presume to tell Syrians that they need to be protected from the Americans. That would be like telling the people of Ferguson that they need to be protected from the National Guard. It would be objectively on the side of the racists. Never mind that supporters of the Iraq war used to tell the Left that we were pro-fascist for not going along with Bush and Blair, because that was a very different conflict that was a war of choice for Iraq's oil. 

 Should Obama send the National Guard to Ferguson? It should be at least two questions. Is it a good thing, and should it be opposed? I think as a capitalist and imperialist institution, the federal US government is a pretty poor instrument of liberation. So, no, it would generally be an option I'd propose, though I would not being telling people that it was a problem on the same order of magnitude as the local cops, because that would be nonsense.

 Should it be opposed? If there is the possibility that black people can control their own streets, as I heard suggestion on the BBC earlier, then go for it. If there isn't then you can welcome the breathing space the National Guard provide, without thinking that they are there to do anything but create the conditions for the cops to be in control again. 

 It would be nice if people looked at Syria with a relevant and nuanced approach. Syria isn't a country run by the Americans. It used to be a Russian client state, it has become so dominated by Iran since the revolution started that it is hard to say whether Assad or the Iranians are in control now. That's one reason the Americans were never going to invade, that there wasn't going to by some magical power by which mission creep converts any intervention into the Iraq war; they don't go fucking with other Great Powers vital interests all the time. They want to make money, and that doesn't happen so much if you have a Cuban Missile Crisis every five minutes. So every time Assad's violence has reached a new level, the Russians have claimed they will get upset by any American response, and the Americans have backed off. Along with all the other pressures, such as that not to get involved in Middle East wars, it forces any "intervention" to a minimum.

 And "intervention" is a conflation that needs constant unpacking. Just as I'd rather see the residents of Ferguson in control of their streets, I'd rather see the Free Syrian Army armed than any American bombing. Doing the first in 2012 would have obviated any need for the latter, and it doesn't help when Westerners proudly proclaim, "I'm against Western intervention," that buries the argument that the Syrian people have a right to the arms they need under a mountain of shit about the evils of America. That arming the FSA was a feasible solution is now becoming a major argument in mainstream American political discourse. Partly because it's a useful partisan tool against or to distinguish from Obama, partly because it is the truth. Phyllis Bennis was telling al-Jazeera (TV station funded by the fairly reactionary monarchy Qatar. They aren't funding ISIS, you doofus. Nor is Saudi Arabia, the corrupt reactionary monarchy that was Osama Bin Laden's enemy. Have you got this straight yet?) that the US government never did anything good, that it wouldn't do any good to send more guns to the region. It is true that there have been fewer genuine resistance movements outside its sphere of influence to support, the way the Soviet Union sent arms to liberation movements in Africa and Central America - without anyone on the left saying we need to stop those imperialist interventions.But here is one, and anti-aircraft weapons would have put an end to the constant bombing of civilians.A war the rebels have been close to winning, where now even sections of the Alawite community are turning against Assad, as a corrupt régime becomes ever more unequal and unstable as the war goes on. There is a rare intersection between the actual need to stop genocide, the US ideology of freedom, and a people already trying to take control of its destiny.

 Phyllis Bennis also claimed that we had no way of stopping weapons going to Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS. That's the reverse of the truth. A proper supply of weapons would give the FSA proper command and control, a stability that would attract those who have wanted a revolution of dignity from the beginning. People claim, as Phyllis Bennis did, that they favoured the early revolution, but it is all different people involved now. That's largely not true, often those claiming to have been in favour in 2011 were just as bemused then as they are now. And it is the same people, just that those fighting against the Assad régime - and you can't eat and drink and reproduce your existence if you can't make it through the day without being tortured or killed - have become more Islamist because there were no secular alternatives, and have parasites like ISIS appear who leech off the revolution without fighting Assad, because there is not the support to actual rebels to resist this. They have been resisting ISIS and Assad the best they can, but it doesn't help when ignorant Westerners pretend they don't even exist.

 When social workers or burglary victims worry about involving the police a similar argument occurs. You don't want to do it, but sometimes there is no choice. One example of this came in 1969 in Northern Ireland. The security forces, at the behest of the sectarian Protestant state, had killed Catholics and provoked rioting. The British government sent troops in , with the excuse of protecting Catholics. Eamonn McCann wrote an editorial for Socialist Worker saying, "The British troops have been presented in the press as restoring “law and order” and welcomed by the Catholic population. Certainly the mass of Catholics, after three days of bitter fighting were relieved to see the RUC and the Specials withdraw, and to this extent were glad to see the British troops. But it should not be thought that the presence of British troops can begin to solve their problems." I think that would be a good way to look at Syria. Now that Syria has been allowed to fester, there is the basis for a backlash of support for the worst kind of imperialist intervention, because the policy of Hands Off Syria has clearly been seen to fail. 

 The only way to take this to a better place is to propose a better alternative. Some of those arguing that this could have worked in 2012 say it won't work now, which may be a sign of their opportunism, they just want to blame rather than propose action. Certainly Syria is in a mess inconceivable two years ago. But there is an irreducible minimum of support for more secular outcomes. And the sharpening of divisions with the rise of ISIS has inspired the rebels to greater unity in fighting them and Assad. It is hard now, it may be very hard now without the Americans getting involved in some way. But having been through the myth that they were going to destroy the Middle East and start a war with Russia last year, I'm now more willing to look at what is actually proposed on a case-by-case basis to see whether actions would be good for the Syrian people or not. Better that Syrians have control, but away with the suggestion that the Americans are the force Syrians need to resist in the here and now.

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