Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Leftists, Empire, and Military Intervention

There are some on the left calling for U.S. military action – not bombs necessarily, but at least weapons – in support of the Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State radicals in Syria.  There is a moral calculus involved, so I don't want to doubt their leftist credentials, but I, nonetheless, don't agree with them.  We generally should not be supporting American empire in this realm – the realm of foreign policy, military power, and the military-industrial complex.  Our top priority, by far, ought to be to oppose and hinder U.S. military adventures.  Sure, there are competing objectives, and they should be weighed against each other, hence the moral calculus.  But considering the power of the American military and the corporations that benefit from its dominance, as well as the decades of carnage committed by the U.S., I fall on the side of opposing American military intervention here.

I don't approach this from a pacifist point of view, and I don't believe that there could never be a reason for us on the left to push the United States to take some action related to foreign policy or even military action.  I just think that anyone who understands the nature of American empire right now, and particularly in this region, should consider calling for U.S. intervention, even limited intervention, a bad idea 99.9% of the time.

ISIS is worthy of condemnation.  That requires little explanation.

The Kurds defending Kobani seem worthy of support from the left.  That is certainly true, and appears to be motivating some of the people calling for American military action.  We are told that we should be listening to the Kurds, since they are the ones on the ground who best know what they need.  That is also, of course, very true.  But that ought not be the end of the analysis when the solution presented is to empower American imperialism.  And empowering American imperialism is exactly what pushing for weapons or limited strikes would be doing.  The left would be trying to push a multi-trillion dollar military-industrial complex – one that would be happy to supply arms to just about anyone as long as long-term profits are not threatened – to do just what we want and no more.  We would be trying to lobby slimy politicians like Dianne Feinstein, who delights at putting a humanitarian facade on imperial adventures and would undoubtedly co-opt any successes the pro-intervention left has at influencing the debate.

But the pro folks have argued that historical examples demonstrate that success is possible or that opposing intervention would repeat the failures of the past.

David Graeber analogized helping the Kurdish fighters with defending the Spanish Republic in 1937.
If there is a parallel today to Franco’s superficially devout, murderous Falangists, who would it be but Isis? If there is a parallel to the Mujeres Libres of Spain, who could it be but the courageous women defending the barricades in Kobane? Is the world – and this time most scandalously of all, the international left – really going to be complicit in letting history repeat itself?
But the important question for me would be, "what would have been the parallel to the United States of today back in 1937?" There was none. If the call is for leftists to go and fight against ISIS alongside the Kurds and independent of the American nation-state, as many did with Spain nearly 80 years ago, then he has a powerful argument.  I would not be opposed to such a movement.

Kamran Matin used other analogies to bolster his argument:
Moreover, a cursory review of historical evidence shows that taking tactical advantage of specific geopolitical circumstances has been a common feature of most progressive movements. Much of the ‘third world’ national liberation and anti-colonial movements of the last century exploited Cold War rivalries between the USSR and the US. To this very day the Palestine liberation movement has received support from regional anti-democratic states such Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states. In Europe itself the Irish Republican movement received support from dictatorial regimes at loggerheads with the west, e.g. Libya under Muammar Gaddafi.
And perhaps this could work even today in that 0.01% of instances.  But, there are no longer two global superpowers to play against each other.  The U.S. stands alone as the sole global superpower and world's policeman.

Perhaps we could push this machine towards a crude intervention, and maybe that would be the thing to do in certain circumstances – facing down an out of control train where anything we can throw at it to slow it down or stop it would be better than letting it roll over all of us. But the leftists calling for this campaign want a circumscribed and limited intervention – and one that might even, somehow, undermine American empire before it realizes its mistake! Here, again, is Matin:
So the left should not, in fact cannot afford to, a priori rule out western military assistance for the defenders of Kobani. Rather, it ought to focus on the explicit terms and circumstances of such assistance, and the wider political project and movement that Kobani represents, and carefully examine the likely implications of the provision of such a limited assistance for a democratic left project in the region that would in effect undermine the objectives of the providers of the assistance.
No a priori rule here, just a reasoned weighing of the costs and benefits. But I'm not sure all of these analyses are based on a reasoned weighing of costs and benefits.  James Bloodworth argues in The Independent that protesters opposing U.S. bombing might as well hold a rally for a massacre of civilians:
Meanwhile the Stop the War Coalition decided that, rather than join one of the many Kurdish anti-Isis demonstrations in London, it was more appropriate to protest against US airstrikes on Isis positions.
Considering it is those same airstrikes - in support of Kurdish fighters – that are helping to holding back Isis forces in Kobane, this is as good as to say that a massacre of Kurdish civilians is preferable to any US involvement in the conflict. Or to pursue this as a metaphor, it is a bit like protesting against the solving of a murder because you do not like the police.
Except this isn't just about not liking the U.S., it is about recognizing that the vast majority of massacres in the region have been committed by the U.S. military, and supporting these strikes simply empowers and emboldens that military machine. Certainly a massacre of Kurdish civilians would be horrible, but U.S. airstrikes are not the only way to avoid that outcome, nor do they guarantee avoiding that outcome.  I would support actions to push Turkey from preventing fighters and/or weapons from joining the side of the Kurds.  I would support a call to allow donations to various organizations fighting against ISIS that the U.S. has labeled "terrorist."

Whatever outcome a successful campaign to push American empire to take limited action in support of Kurdish fighters might have in relation to preventing loss of life and pushing ISIS back from some of its conquests, they would be dwarfed by the boost to American empire.  And stunting American empire ought to be a priority for the left, especially considering its impact in the region over the last 25 years: wars, targeted killings, sanctions and other actions killing (conservatively) millions of innocent people; the propping up of vicious dictatorial regimes; the massive exploitation of resources; and, the growing number of permanent U.S. military and corporate installations that no other nation maintains in the region.  For these reasons I believe calling on the US to do anything militarily to support the Kurdish fighters against ISIS ultimately does more harm than good.  There are other actions we can take though, and I'm all for doing something.  I'm not interested, however, in supporting the military-industrial complex or American empire, except in the most dire and rare of circumstances.