[Midden-Oosten] Syria and the failure of the international left
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Zo Sep 15 17:34:00 CEST 2013
Sleeping with the Enemy: The Global Left and the 'No to War' Discourse
Sep 15 2013
by Khalid Saghieh [http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/contributors/23435]
The threat of a military strike on Syria has not aroused the enthusiasm of
many. It has succeeded, however, in bringing the Syrian revolution to the
discussion table. Until now, Syria has been notably absent from the list of
priorities on the Western agenda, apparently a matter of little interest to
governments and public opinion alike, to both the left and the right.
For the past two and a half years, the Syrian revolution did not manage to
entice Western governments to push for an end to the tragic spiral of
events. As long as each of the opposed parties in the Syrian conflict lack
the capability and volition to ensure Western interests in the region, why
make the investment of interference? Such was the gist of General Martin
Dempsey’s remarks [http://democrats.foreignaffairs.house.gov/113/Letter_for_Rep_Engel_19_Aug_13.pdf]
on the Syrian situation two days before the Ghouta massacre. Such
indifference, however, was not exclusive to the governments of United States
and European countries. Public opinion similarly lacked interest in the tens
of thousands of deaths as well as the destruction of cities and villages. It
was not until death in Syria crossed one of the West’s red lines—by showing
evidence of the use of chemical weapons—that the people in Syria became a
matter deserving of interest. At that point, the warships moved into
position. Meanwhile, antiwar sentiments and commentary opposed to Western
military intervention moved against them.
I am not concerned here with sorting out those who supported the strike from
those who protested it. I am also unconcerned with the right-wing arguments
put forward in this context that combined hatred for the Democratic Party
with Islamophobia to end up with what is practically a defense of the Syrian
regime. Rather, I am concerned with the debacle that came to painful light
through the positions taken and discussions had by those on the left side of
the political spectrum in reaction to the threat of a Western military
strike on Syria.
Among the first to throw this debacle into sharp relief were the political
activists who participated in anti-war protests and, in doing so, received a
double blow. On one side, they saw themselves standing side-by-side with
people holding up pictures of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and, on the
other side, they were surrounded by general anti-imperialism slogans without
any particular relation to the Syrian people. The real tragedy, however,
does not lie here. The sight of anti-war demonstrations drawing together
sections of the far right and far left is familiar. The real tragedy
emerged through the discourse that came, in the end, to dominate the
left-wing opposition to the military strike. This discourse took its
vocabulary from the tracts of the far right and, instead of turning its guns
on imperialism, turned them on the Syrian people.
Indeed, a kind of role reversal happened between imperialism and its
enemies. President Barack Obama did not exactly wear himself out designing
an ideological banner for his next war. This time, there would be no “battle
for democracy” or war in the name of “freedom for Afghan women.” Not even
“freedom for the Syrian people.” This would be a war, rather, about American
“red lines” and “national security.” Here, imperialism appeared totally
bare, stripped of its characteristic self-presentation as the gate of
redemption for the peoples of the world. To find a discourse singing this
familiar refrain, one must move to the opposite side, where important
anti-war left wing activists and thinkers have taken it upon themselves to
promote the “white man’s” ideology, having paradoxically borrowed and
redeployed an imperialist discourse in the name of fighting imperialism.
They do not object to the idea of using the military strike to redeem the
Syrian people. Rather, they object to it on another basis: the revolutionary
Syrians do not deserve to be redeemed [http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/06/syria-pseudo-struggle-egypt]
because they have not proven their radical qualifications and
secular-democratic orientation, so we should not interfere on their behalf.
In making its case against military intervention, the discourse of
opposition to the military strike thus fell into the trap of cultural
imperialism when it thought it was standing against military imperialism.
Perhaps most disturbing of all, some have attempted to “apply” the 2003
invasion of Iraq to the Syrian situation, or at least read the latter
through the lens of the former. It has evidently escaped this group that the
very same discourse at the core of George W. Bush’s ideological mantra has
been reconstructed to the letter by the Syrian regime and its allies. It has
gotten to the point that you can find a full sentence from one of Bush’s
speeches on the war against terror in the mouth of either Hizbollah’s
Secretary-General (who, at long last, is obsessed with the “takfiris”), or
select leaders of the secular Arab left. In the name of resistance to the
military strike, the Bush discourse thus flutters between lines spoken by
leftists who fought the Iraqi invasion tooth and nail. Perhaps the
neoconservatives’ spirit has finally possessed them.
It was the same imperialist trap that pushed other leftists to switch over
to the call for peace. Theirs is an auspicious call, yet surprising in that
it comes directly after the moment chemical weapons were used, as if whoever
wielded them is asking the victims to embrace Sarin gas after inhaling it.
The sense of surprise does not last long upon realizing that these are
peaceful calls of despair
from all that moves on Syrian soil. Perhaps those who sounded this call do
not see a need for a conflict to begin with, so long as those fighting in it
do not match the profile according to the imperialist catalog, itself.
The danger of the global left’s discourse in its many permutations is not
only that it dons imperialist garb in making its supposedly anti-imperialist
argument, but that its logic betrays its opposition to any sort of
interference whatsoever—whether imperialist or otherwise, under UN auspices
or not, in or out of line with international law. Those who have built this
discourse oppose military intervention not because of the intervening
power’s identity, but because of the people on whose behalf that power would
be intervening. They oppose intervention not because of the objectives of
the former, but because of the lacking qualifications of the latter.
The issue here is not one of sorting the “good leftists” from the “bad
leftists.” I do not think that such a categorization is possible, anyway.
However, I am haunted by a question: What makes a sincere leftist discourse
slip into becoming a retouched version of the Islamophobic right? It seems
that there is an elephant in the room. Is it the ghost of the Soviet Union?
Eurocentrism? Priorities of geostrategy?
I do not know what the elephant is. But I know the ant. I know that the Arab
revolutions, since their beginnings, were revolutions without specific
promises and claims. They were revolutions against oppression and injustice
more than they were revolutions aimed at implementing premeditated programs
and ideas. To borrow from Walter Benjamin, these are “revolutions nourished
by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated
grandchildren.”* Perhaps, in this meaning, a revolution like that which has
emerged in Syria has not emerged in the other Arab countries. The
revolutionaries of Syria appear in this game to be effective subalterns:
those who do not have a voice and who can't speak to Western academic
circles, even the left-wing ones among them. Mount Qasyun alone hears their
voice and awaits their arrival, no matter how long it takes.
* Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, trans. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1968): 260.
[This article was originally published in Arabic on Jadaliyya. It was translated into English by Angela Giordani]
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