What to do about Syria

Syrian government forces patrol the Khalidiyah neighbourhood of Homs, mid-2013. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Syrian government forces patrol the Khalidiyah neighbourhood of Homs, mid-2013. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

You would think that, having stayed in Cairo for much of the last year, I would feel closer than in New York or Boston to the Syrian catastrophe taking place only a few borders away. But it doesn’t work that way. Egypt has enough of its own problems: massacres, mass arrests, one dictator on trial, another one running for president; these aren’t as replete with murder but they fill the mind as blood fills the brain after a hemorrhage, and expunge thought. You imagine Aleppo for a second and flinch: There’s enough not to think about without not thinking about that. 

To be sure, Syria is here, in the form of thousands of refugees who have fled the killing. (The UN says there are almost 150,000 in Egypt; some estimates run double; in any case, Lebanon hosts many times that, more than a million.) But neighbors harass them, police persecute them, they stay out of sight. Many Egyptians are conscious of the influx mainly because of the Syrian restaurants that have sprung up here and there, succulent roast chicken splayed on the plate, mehshi and manakish that scarcely taste of dispossession. The food’s good; why isn’t everybody happy?

When I visited Cairo in 2011 I met and became friends with Razan Ghazzawi, the fierce feminist and Pasionaria of the resistance, who in a short time taught me a great deal about the revolution’s dreams. The war had been going on for just four months then, and already it had worn down everybody’s psyches; she’d come to Cairo for six weeks to meet Egypt’s own revolutionaries and replenish her energies, at a time when events on the Nile still seemed in the vanguard of change. Now my closest Syrian friend here is a gentle refugee who shares my house; I’ll call him Youssef. He supports Assad, not militantly but with the vague erasing nostalgia traditional to exiles, threadbare asperities who fled France with the Bourbons, beggared bourgeois on the run from Bolsheviks. He interviewed Bashar once for a Syrian paper, while Assad Senior still lived, and can go on at length about his unassuming manners. We don’t talk politics much, since I disagree with most everything he says. Still his affection for the regime — which isn’t ancien yet, rather quondam et futurusis barely political; rather it’s a memory of stability, secularism, and calm, and an amnesia about their foundations in blood. He and Razan wouldn’t abide each other if they ever met, but they have some things in common. Razan’s vision of what freedom meant was clear as if it were etched in fire, and very much a product of Syria’s splintered map: a place where people could realize their differences without shame or fear. Stability and calm were preconditions for that. Youssef’s gauzed vision of the placid days of old includes the notion that you were at liberty to be yourself then — with the unspoken caveats of privilege and discretion; but making sure everybody, not just the lucky, could live free of surveillance and enjoy the sweet seclusions of security and privacy also preoccupied the original revolutionary dream. The overwhelming violence has made their imaginations definitively incompatible. Violence breaks bodies, but it also murders dreaming.

The violence also stamps out efforts to imagine a solution. Increasingly the Syrian state’s violence is matched by the violence of political Islamists who oppose almost all the original revolutionaries’ democratic ideals. Syria has become “a magnet for jihadist recruits,” writes Peter Neumann. Like many, he blames Assad for fostering these movements, then allowing them to slip from his control. But it’s also clear that this burgeoning radicalism owes plenty to American policy, and American allies. For one thing, the United States’ left hand keeps unravelling what its right hand does. As Adam Shatz notes,”the American government is fighting Sunni extremists in Iraq, while its allies, notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are arming the same Sunni extremists in Syria.”

Fighter for Jabhat al-Nusra ((Support Front for the People of Levant) kills captured Syrian government soldiers, 2013

Fighter for Jabhat al-Nusra (Support Front for the People of Levant) kills captured Syrian government soldiers, 2013

More broadly, though, every successive American intervention in the region has backfired, creating more of the violence it was supposed to stop.  And this makes it even harder for well-meaning Americans facing the Syrian horrors to figure out what to do.

The swashbuckling American military adventure in Afghanistan in the 1980s, to counter the Russian invasion, helped create both the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and the former now controls large swatches of the country once again. The American incursion in Saudi Arabia in 1991, to roll back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, helped refocus the embryonic al-Qaeda’s attention on the US, while turning it from a regional annoyance to a global franchise. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003, justified in part by lies that Saddam Hussein supported al-Qaeda, aimed to extirpate radicalism of all kinds from the Middle East; instead, eleven years later, a significant part of Iraq’s Sunni population has been thoroughly radicalized and supports al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is now fighting in Syria, in its new incarnation as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). On top of that, the American campaign in Libya failed to build a functional state; but, like the long American involvement in Afghanistan, it stirred up a spillover of arms and fighters that destabilizes surrounding countries, from Mali to Lebanon. (Seymour Hersh maintains that the US has been sending Libya’s spare weaponry to Syria’s rebels through Turkey.) Patrick Cockburn summarizes much of this grim history of incompetence:

The four wars fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria over the past 12 years have all involved overt or covert foreign intervention in deeply divided countries. In each case the involvement of the West exacerbated existing differences and pushed hostile parties towards civil war. In each country, all or part of the opposition have been hardcore jihadi fighters. Whatever the real issues at stake, the interventions have been presented as primarily humanitarian, in support of popular forces against dictators and police states. Despite apparent military successes, in none of these cases have the local opposition and their backers succeeded in consolidating power and establishing stable states.

Western interventions in the broader Middle East – from the Maghreb to Pakistan – have done nothing to stop extremism. Instead, they’ve created and spread it.

There are principled and abstract reasons for Western leftists to resist the cult of liberal interventionism. But this history furnishes a pragmatic and specific argument for opposing it in Syria. A moral consciousness, however — one not content to concentrate on the restaurant menus while ignoring the dead and refugees — still gropes for some kind of answer. It’s natural for leftists facing the naked reality of mass murder to want some scope for action, some space where the Enlightenment ideal of thought informing practice can recover its aptitude.

Hmm. Banner from the  sixth annual Marx Conference,  “Left Perspectives on the International Crisis of Capitalism," Tel Aviv, 2012

Hmm. Banner from the sixth annual Marx Conference, “Left Perspectives on the International Crisis of Capitalism,” Tel Aviv, 2012

It’s in this light that I read a new piece by Danny Postel, which is all over Twitter these days.  Its title promises “Alternative Left Perspectives on Syria.”

Postel contends that “The responses of most leftists to the Syrian uprising” have been “deeply disappointing.” The Left’s inadequacies “fall into three main categories:”

1. explicit support for the Assad regime
2. monochrome opposition to Western intervention, end of discussion (with either implicit or explicit neutrality on the conflict itself)
3. general silence caused by deep confusion

But wait: there’s hope.

There is a fourth camp, however: a small but growing group of progressives who embrace the goals of the Syrian revolution. There are several shades within this camp – it includes Marxists, pacifists, feminists, Third Worldists and leftists of various sorts. Some support the armed struggle in Syria, others do not, standing instead with the nonviolence activists in Syria. But what unites this camp is its solidarity with the Syrian struggle for dignity, justice and self-determination.

The writings of this vanguard “directly challenge the dominant narratives on the Left about Syria and offer a critical alternative to it.” And Postel gives us a ladder of links: “collected in one place, some of the key texts of this dissident left camp.”

To call these leftists “dissidents” is self-congratulatory. Certainly there are some on the left who support Assad, but they’re hardly hegemonic; they strike me as marginal and devoid of influence.

Just as certainly there’s a larger body of leftists who are uncertain, after military intervention seems to have proven its uselessness but no other form of action presents itself. So when an “alternative” steps loudly to the fore, a Fourth Way, one plausibly expects that it will proffer a guide to the perplexed: that it will tell the hesitant what they can do to help.

What’s notable about the “body of writings and arguments” Postel presents is that it does nothing of the kind.

I’ve read almost all the texts he links to. Few of the writers outline strategies, or offer innovative ways to assist the revolution. For the most part they just describe how they feel, a repertory of emotion that runs the limited gamut from sympathy and solidarity to moral agonizing to self-congratulation. These are legitimate sensations, but more existential than political. It would be hard to call them constructive. Is this the new pathway for the left? In fact, I think the writings Postel posts do point out something about the left, but nothing as bold or hopeful as he imagines.

solidarity-of-labour

Walter Crane, “International Solidarity of Labour,” 1897

Postel links to almost no proposals that are both concrete and in any way practical. I count three exceptions. The admirable Gilbert Achcar opposes intervention but urges arming the (liberal) rebels (it seems, though, that the US has been doing this covertly for some time).  Mary Kaldor invokes international law: “The first step,” also the only one she mentions, “would be to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.” She notes that, since Syria never signed on to the ICC, this requires a vote by the UN Security Council. Russia has repeatedly voted no, but “the current context might change things.” Might. It’s also possible that Vladimir Putin might hand Crimea back to the Ukrainians and retire. It’s not very responsible, however, to make this kind of outcome seem easy.

Finally, the always-brilliant Richard Falk, after painstakingly dissecting the inadequacy of existing options, calls (but not optimistically) for a renewed commitment to negotiation.

Just as doing nothing is unacceptable, mounting a military intervention is unrealistic, and perhaps undesirable, and for now politically impossible.

What is left to fill the gap between the unacceptable and the unrealistic is diplomacy, which has proved to be futile up to this point, but hanging on to the slim possibility that it might yet somehow produce positive results, is the only conceivable way forward with respect to the Syrian situation. It is easy to deride Kofi Annan and the frustrations arising from the repeated failures of Damascus to comply with the agreed framework, but it remains impossible to  find preferable alternatives.

This is glum, but realistic.

But that’s it.  Nobody else has much to propose. The 2011 open letter from the Campaign for Peace and Democracy has a lot of well-known signatories (Ed Asner, Noam Chomsky) but I don’t know why Postel thinks it “challenges a dominant narrative.”

The Campaign for Peace and Democracy expresses its deep admiration for the amazing courage shown by the people of Syria, struggling for democratic reforms in the face of horrific repression. … We stand with the people of Syria in their remarkable struggle for democracy.

The open letter, often published in the New York Review of Books, used to be a distinct literary genre among the New York intellectuals; it’s no one’s fault if it seems dated as a Baroque eclogue. “Standing with” the oppressed and slaughtered is still a noble gesture. It’s churlish, but perhaps nonetheless important, to point out that while Syrians die, the standers remain standing.

But is there a plan beyond the posture? Two years later, Thomas Harrison and Joanne Landy – the CPD’s co-directors, both peace activists with long and distinguished records – produced a personal statement, of which Postel also approves. I have huge admiration for the authors, but this text leaves more questions than answers.

The fate of Syria must not be decided by foreign powers or forces … Equally, we condemn the attempts by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the other Gulf states to manipulate the Syrian revolution by promoting reactionary Islamist forces within its ranks … Consistent with our strong opposition to any kind of military intervention in Syria by the U.S., or other foreign powers, we also oppose providing air cover or establishing no fly zones.

All right, but what are you for?

We stand for full democracy, an independent labor movement, and complete equality for women, sexual minorities, religions and ethnic groups everywhere.

And:

We will do everything we can to support Syrian groups and individuals who share this democratic vision, and we call on people throughout the world to do the same.

But what is “everything you can”? What are you going to do?

Are you sure?

Are you sure?

In some cases, the writers wrestle tangibly with their inability to find answers, and the result can be moving. Mohammed al-Attar, an exiled Syrian playwright, confesses:

During an open debate organized by London’s Royal Court Theatre at the end of August 2011, I was asked: “How can we support the Syrian people in their revolution without inevitably serving the interests of political agendas?” I was silent for a few seconds, unsure of what to say, before tentatively replying: “I’ve no doubt that it is still possible to separate the fundamental justice of the protestors’ cause from the distortions of politicians and the media.”

Much has changed since then but the same question continues to be put forward, and I have no clearer answer than that my brief and improvised one which I provided at the Royal Court Theatre.

Al-Attar’s piece is well worth reading, but it is not clear why Postel regards it not as an analysis of the trauma of political commitment in a divided world, but as a clear prescription for action.

But more often the pieces Postel praises just read like leftists exalting their own superiority to other leftists, because they have deeper moral feelings. Thus Bill Weinberg accuses the left in general of

treason against our natural allies in Syria—the secular, progressive forces in the opposition to the Assad regime, now besieged by ruthless armed actors on all sides. … Our natural allies in Syria are in this democratic resistance (not in the dictatorship!), and they will need solidarity whether the US intervenes or not.

But what are we going to do for them? We don’t know.

Heeding these voices does not mean we have to support Obama’s intervention. But it does mean (at least) that we have to find ways to oppose it that do not betray and alienate Syrians who have for over two years been fighting for freedom and are now fighting for their very lives.

What ways? Apparently we’ll start writing a lot about our intense moral commitment, a strategy that probably won’t alienate anybody, except perhaps the few people who pay attention — but won’t help anybody either.

Then there’s Postel himself. He calls for a “New Internationalism.” This entails lots of rhetoric:

But for progressives, especially ones who profess the values of solidarity and internationalism, the story surely can’t end at America’s shores. Struggles around the world for justice and dignity matter to us. We believe that we have a stake in them and their outcomes. We take sides.

How do we take sides? By “supporting and sympathizing with popular struggles against authoritarianism and for human dignity.” Well, sympathizing, at least. We good leftists are not afraid to restate the tough questions; we’re just afraid to answer them.

Where does [the peace movement] stand on the struggle to topple Assad’s murderous dictatorship? How does it propose the bloodshed be brought to an end? What is to be done?

There are no obvious, clear-cut answers to these questions … These are vexing problems. … But only having a position on what shouldn’t be done, while avoiding the question of what should be done, is a copout – and a betrayal of the tradition of internationalism. The question of what should be done is much thornier, to be sure — it requires more thinking, analysis, reflection, even soul-searching.

Feuerbach, Schmeuerbach: I'll change the world later

Feuerbach, Schmeuerbach: I’ll change the world later

Postel never tells us what is to be done, but searching our souls is, in fact, an end in itself. Marx stands inverted: we may not be able to change the world, but we can think about it. “The point is to place the plight of the Syrian people front and center on the agenda and to think seriously about how to resolve it.” Postel concludes:

What if progressives devoted just a fraction of the energy and effort that went into mobilizing against a US military strike to the cause of bringing Syria’s nightmare to an end? It might not make a concrete difference – all the efforts to resolve the conflict thus far, including those of Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, have come to naught … But the effort would at least be an expression of solidarity and internationalism. Factoring the Syrian people – who have been largely absent from the progressive discussion – prominently into the equation would represent a welcome departure from the solipsistic, US-centric tendencies of the American peace movement.

We will not “make a concrete difference”; but we will express ourselves, and thus feel like the heroic internationalists of olden times. Postel seems unaware that this is not an alternative to solipsism, but an example of it. He gives no clue what you could do to end the “nightmare,” no suggestion how the “energy and effort” should be directed, just faith that we’ll be morally better if we expend it. Absent some proposal for a concrete solidarity more substantive than a warm, mushlike emotion, Postel hasn’t factored “the Syrian people” into an equation here at all, except as spectators of our own catharsis.

It’s easy to make fun of this Fourth Way, this brave alternative, which enters with a flourish of trumpets and exits with something between apology and sigh. But I don’t want to make fun. These writers are honest, and a lot of them are very smart, Postel included. Their failure to deliver what Postel promised is instructive.

The lesson they teach is that we on the left aren’t exempt from the diseases of the imperial ego. Leftists may opposite liberal interventionism, but its animating fantasies are ones to which they’re not immune. The basic idea that we in our powerful we-ness ought to be able to change the world; that our good intentions have the authority to make reality malleable; that injustice is friable before the force of our desires — that basic idea is pretty much the same, regardless of whether it’s armed with drones and aircraft carriers, or open letters and petitions. The brand of internationalism for which Postel feels such acute nostalgia was always predicated on a naive faith in morality combined with power. It’s painful for leftists to come to terms with a case where “solidarity” is difficult, where there aren’t easily intelligible solutions, and where any action risks making the unbearable worse. The proposition that there are limits to what you can do is intolerable to Westerners. The more this is brought home to you, the more you fall back on believing that “expressing solidarity” is action, that there is a magical power in the very intensity of one’s moral agonizing that must, inevitably, find a pliant answer in reality, must bend politics to its will.

You're sounding multipolar. Take your medicine. Leaders of the BRICS blog (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), 2010,

You’re sounding multipolar. Take your medicine. Leaders of the BRICS blog (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), 2010.

The spirit of disenchantment is more and more characteristic of our world. Geopolitics used to be so comfortably bi- or unipolar. Human RIghts Watch, where I worked, was founded in the confidence that there were few things you couldn’t fix by getting the United States government to act. Washington was the fulcrum of their advocacy for decades; this peculiar dispensation where Beijing, Moscow, and even Brasilia and Pretoria are independent actors has brought about a grating and harsh adjustment. Even for more uncompromising leftists, it was reassuring to think that opposing America could put you on the right side of most of the world’s wrongs. These days, responsibility is strewn too promiscuously around. And after Iraq, after Rumsfeld and his known unknowns, awareness of power’s limitations has become too general for comfort. Twenty years ago we were taught to say “never again” to Rwanda. But how can you cope with somebody like Alan Kuperman, whose detailed study of the Rwandan genocide found that, with utmost political will and celerity of action, the West could not have prevented more than a quarter of the deaths? The idea that our solidarity is not a cure for everything comes hard.

I hate to see moral solemnity go to waste, though. There are practical things that an earnest leftist could do about Syria, if she wants to, rather than sitting around expressing solidarity to the void.

Here are some suggestions.

1) Go to war. I’m serious. Everybody wants to be George Orwell these days, a fearless deflater of hypocrisies. Christopher Hitchens thought he was Orwell. Paul Berman thinks he is Orwell. Even young Jamie Kirchick dons the Orwell drag, though he ends up looking more like a cross between Enoch Powell and Evelyn Waugh. But if you ask these ersatz Orwells what they’ve done for their causes, they’ll sound more like Flaubert: “I stayed at home and wrote.”

Orwell didn’t. Is Syria the Spanish Civil War of our generation, a crossroads of profound moral choice? Then choose. Orwell went to Spain. So did Arthur Koestler, Ernest Hemingway, Willy Brandt. So did Auden:

The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.

Wounded British volunteers in Republican Spain return to the front following convalescence at Benicàssim

Wounded British volunteers in Republican Spain return to the front following convalescence at Benicàssim, 1937

That war is memorialized in poetry, more perhaps than any other of the twentieth century’s wars. Why? Because the Thirties really was a moment when individual choice took on a communal meaning — stopped being existential and became political.

The Anschluss, Guernica — all the names
At which those poets thrilled, or were afraid

— they still resonate, because history turned personal in them. That’s the burden of Edgell Rickword‘s lines, which every lefty schoolboy used to rattle off:

From small beginnings mighty ends:
From calling rebel generals friends,
From being taught in public schools
To think the common people fools,
Spain bleeds, and Britain wildly gambles
To bribe the butcher in the shambles.

Or there’s John Cornford, poet and Communist, killed on the Madrid front in 1936, at the age of 21. He wrote to his distant lover before he died:

The wind rises in the evening,
Reminds that autumn’s near.
I am afraid to lose you,
I am afraid of my fear.

On the last mile to Huesca,
The last fence for our pride,
Think so kindly, dear, that I
Sense you at my side.

And if bad luck should lay my strength
Into the shallow grave,
Remember all the good you can;
Don’t forget my love.

How different people were then! There are parts of that poem that an agonizing moralist or a muscular liberal, a fan of Hitchens or a signatory of the Euston Manifesto, might sympathize with. But they could never write the line “I am afraid of my fear” — because they’d feel it, too deeply.

I’m indulging in an excuse to quote poetry here: sentimental of me. But the poems say better than I can what I’m trying to say. Nobody on the left wants to put his own life on the line anymore. If “internationalism” requires a sacrifice, we expect the State to do the sacrificing for us. If comes to intervention, or policing, or punishing the guilty or protecting the good, the State will furnish the bodies, and they won’t be ours. When did we become so dependent on the powers we once wanted to overturn?

Member of the International Brigades at Montblanch, near Barcelona, October 25, 1938: photo by Robert Capa

Member of the International Brigades at Montblanch, near Barcelona, October 25, 1938: photo by Robert Capa

Those damn fool romantics in the Thirties took things personally, instead. If their governments wouldn’t stand up and say no, if their polities or parties were run by those “Whose suave compliance sealed the fate / Of thousands left to Franco’s hate,” they stepped up themselves; they went to Spain. They took up a weapon like Orwell or drove an ambulance like Auden, they acted. “They floated over the oceans; / They walked the passes. All presented their lives.” More than 40,000 people joined the International Brigades in some capacity, combat or no.

What’s your proposal? To build the just city? I will.
I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic
Death? Very well, I accept, for
I am your choice, your decision. Yes, I am Spain.

The only ones who shoulder this kind of responsibility today are the jihadists, people still used perforce to thinking of principles outside the State’s compass. The secular leftists sit at home and express their solidarity from the sofa’s safety.

Of course, even setting aside the serious and principled pacifists, there are perfectly decent reasons not to go to Syria. For one thing, governments have cracked down harshly on the jihadists who travel there and on their allies who recruit; they call it terrorism. Moazzam Begg, for instance, the heroic survivor of Guantanamo, is now in jail in the UK, charged with trying to train people for Syria. The same officials might start confusing foreign leftists with foreign jihadists, a terrible mistake since the jihadists actually do something, or might apply the same provisions for consistency’s sake. For another thing, there’s no reason on earth to think the Free Syrian Army has any use for a bunch of volunteers who don’t speak Arabic, know nothing about modern weapons, and get their medical knowledge from studying Foucault.

So maybe I should expand my point a bit. Though violence in Syria has metastasized like a cancer, the struggle in Syria is not waged just through violence. And there’s work you could support or even participate in from outside Syria’s borders. I can name just a few Syrian organizations carrying on the fight on the front of human rights: the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Violation Documentation Center (VDC), the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCSyria), Syrian Women for the Syrian Intifada (SANAD); there are more. (Please add others in the comments if you like.) There are companion projects outside Syria which try to use the documentation such groups collect to raise humanitarian resources, like the #100000Names Oral Memorial for Syria. It is arduous to determine whether you can actually help any such efforts rather than getting in the way; it’s a terrible thing, the risk of realizing one’s own superfluity. That’s a danger you don’t encounter on the couch. But an individual commitment is better than an abstract solidarity.

Spanish Republican poster, 1937

Spanish Republican poster, 1937

2. Remember the refugee. A leftist who wants to cast off the shackles of the quotidian and go engage in meaningful action need not look for Syrians in Syria; that is one consequence of the war. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) counts 2,700,000 Syrian refugees in surrounding countries. They calculate more than half of these are under 17 years old; 38% are younger than 11.

Those figures reflect only Syrians who have gone to the UN for assistance; hundreds of thousands more are unregistered and underground. Estimates for the total in flight go as high as 9 million, out of a total Syrian population of less than 23 million.

There is plenty to be done. A dedicated leftist might settle herself in Beirut, or in Cairo, or in Turkey near the southern border, and attach herself to one of the organizations working with refugees, whether in cities or in camps. In Egypt, Syrians face xenophobia and violence from a population propagandized into thinking they are allies of the Muslim Brotherhood. Police pick them up on pretexts; some are deported. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees now number 30% of the country’s population. They suffer arbitrary curfews, police harassment, physical assault.

Syrian refugee in a tent compound in Boynuyogun, Turkey, near the Syrian border. Photo: Vadim Ghirda/AP

Syrian refugee in a tent compound in Boynuyogun, Turkey, near the Syrian border. Photo: Vadim Ghirda/AP

And if the exhausting labor of daily humanitarian work seems overwhelming, there’s advocacy needed as well, to change the hearts, minds, and laws of wealthy nations that don’t want to let refugees in. European and American migration policy — the politics of the closed door — means there is nowhere to resettle most of these people; they will remain in unsafe countries and conditions, in semi-permanent limbo. The West would much rather pay money to keep Syrians in tents than offer them a final destination in Detroit or Turin. Sweden, the most generous European state, has taken in just over 14,000 Syrian refugees, and given them permanent residency. France has accepted under five thousand. That’s still better than the United States. In August 2013, the US agreed to resettle 2000 Syrian refugees, though later in the year the Washington Post reported that “nobody’s actually been admitted yet, since they have to go through an extensive screening process for possible terrorist ties.” Already prejudice is at play. A right-wing US website warned, “Sure most people just see refugees, but Democrats see voters …  If the Muslim Brotherhood Jihadists lose in Syria, their leaders will flee to Europe and America where they will suborn, undermine and plan acts of terror. … Obama isn’t all that interested in Christian refugees.”

All these numbers are trivial against the appalling figures of three million people externally displaced. Even the UNHCR, confronting the recalcitrance of countries unwilling to accept supplicants, has set its sights absurdly small.

UNHCR is proposing that countries admit up to 30,000 Syrian refugees on resettlement, humanitarian admission, or other programmes by the end of 2014, with a focus on protecting the most vulnerable. However, in light of the growing needs of the Syrian refugee population, this goal represents only the first benchmark in securing solutions for this group. … UNHCR has called upon States to make multi-annual commitments towards a goal of providing resettlement and other forms of admission for an additional 100,000 Syrian refugees in 2015 and 2016. [emphasis added]

That makes just 130,000 refugees the UNHCR hopes — with little likelihood of success — to resettle in the next three years, out of at least three million. Less than five percent.

Serious leftists are prone to dismissing humanitarian work as merely palliative. They imagine it’s a bandage not a cure, an evasion of the “real” issues within Syria itself. It’s not. Work with refugees gets to the heart of how states define citizens, how they value lives, how they decide who belongs and who is cast out. Leil-Zahra Mortada, an Arab activist living in Spain, writes:

There is so much to be done. And it is not charity we are talking about, nor the corrupting relief mentality. It is radical and revolutionary work that is needed. It is stepping out of the narrow Eurocentric vision of semantics into political action. It is not only Assad and the Islamists who are killing the Syrian people, it is international systems like the EU border regime and the international relief mafias to name but a few. This is not about Syria, and this is not “just a faraway civil war”. They are dying right here, on EU borders, and they are in EU immigrant detention camps. If it is not for Syria, and out of belief in the Syrian revolution, or even in the right for every people, wether they meet our shades of color or not, to rebel, it should be out of coherence with our political beliefs. Our fight on the EU front is needed. This is a people who has risen against a brutal dictatorship, only to see that they have a whole world to overcome. A world of international meddling, whether in the form of Islamist militias, or international relief, or leftist patronization. A world of closed borders and complicit governments that once again put their profit over life. A world of apathy. This is what the Syrians and the Palestinians in Syria are facing. Questions that are not only related to Syria, but related to international and intertwined local struggles.

3. FIght for diplomacy. Finally, if, for understandable reasons, you don’t want to lobby your government for military action, you need to fight to make a diplomatic solution possible.

If you don’t believe in war, diplomacy is the only way out left. And diplomacy these days is as messy as war, though less bloody. It’s messy because that unipolar world we used to live in, convenient as it was, is gone. It’s messy because Syria has become a vast playground of the polarities, a prone place where different countries pursue and divvy up their divergent interests. Obama funnels a few arms to the Free Syrian Army; Russia and China and Iran vocally and materially support Assad; the Gulf monarchies shower largesse on the jihadists.

A place at the table: Sign from Kaffranbel, Syria, 2013

A place at the table: Sign from Kafranbel, Syria, 2013

It’s not enough, then, to push the American administration or the EU to do this or that. Pressure needs to fall as well on the oil-soaked leaders of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, on Putin and Rouhani.

It’s hard to say what, for a Western leftist, this might mean. Effective advocacy for peace would be internationalist, but not in the easy sense of announcing prefab solidarities. It would mean listening across a lot of borders. It would mean trying to acquaint yourself with what’s left of the left in Russia or Iran, or with civil societies that aren’t of the left at all, and seeing if they have any practical concern with ending violence in Syria, or even ways to speak about it. It would mean reacquainting yourself with negotiation and compromise, which are always painful. It might mean recognizing your powerlessness, which is even more so.

That path lies beyond the scope of what I’m writing here. Our left critiques power, and is abstemious about engaging with it. That’s part of its genius, and its virtue. But something more is needed now, if you’re serious about Syria, than proclaiming sympathy or oneness. A more rigorous engagement requires putting something at risk — if not your life then your self-image at least, your private drama, your unquestioned faith in your purity and your efficacy. Action is dangerous. Hannah Arendt wrote:

Action … always establishes relationships and therefore has an inherent tendency to force open all limitations and cut across all boundaries … To act, in its most general sense, means to take an initiative, to begin.  It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before.

This is different to but not incommensurate with what the poet said:

Tomorrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
To-morrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But today the struggle.

"Syrian women, revolt against all authority!" Poster by the Syrian People Know Their Way collective, from http://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/razan-ghazzawi/seeing-women-in-revolutionary-syria

“Syrian women, revolt against all authority!” Poster by the Syrian People Know Their Way collective, from http://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/razan-ghazzawi/seeing-women-in-revolutionary-syria

 

Sex imperialism

Let me take that off you: Oprah's liberation strip show

Let me take that off for you: Oprah’s liberation strip show

In early 2001, Oprah Winfrey made a famous appearance at Madison Square Garden, for “V-Day,” Eve Ensler’s enormous, $1000-a-ticket benefit for feminism. What happened is etched in many memories (there were cheaper seats, too), but I’ll let Ms. Magazine describeOprah performed “Under the Burqa,” a kind of inverted “Over the Rainbow” about a foreign land:

a heart-wrenching, spine-tingling story written by Ensler to personify the daily terror and misery of women’s lives in Afghanistan under the Taliban’s harsh gender apartheid rule. Oprah Winfrey gave an “Oscar-winning” performance to the piece as she described women in Afghanistan crying out in pain with no one to hear or acknowledge their suffering, because in Afghanistan life for women under the brutal Taliban hardly exists. An Afghan woman wearing the all-inhibiting burqa appeared as vocal sounds of pain and agony filled Madison Square Garden.

The woman crept up behind Oprah over the stage. As the audience gasped over the misery-murmurs soundtrack, Oprah turned and lifted the burqa off her. Thundering cheers! The tableau of liberation was entrancing. It told us that freedom lay in the hands of Westerners to give; that we were the voices, the hands, the absent lives, of others; and that the gift would be easy, like Superwoman getting a phone-booth makeover – “the ‘hey presto’ transformation of suffering into strength with the flick of a hem,” as Noy Thrupkaew wrote. This was imperialism lite, no boots on the ground; all you needed was a celebrity and a portable article of clothing. Just over six months later we all would be at war, and while these lessons may not have been too useful for the travails ahead, they were remembered. Eleven days after the September 11 attacks, CNN aired a film on the burqa in Afghanistan; it became its most-watched documentary ever. Six weeks later, Laura Bush would assure the nation that “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” If the fight turned out longer and harder than expected, still the image and ideal remained, an emancipation embodied in omnipresent Oprah and hence impossible to escape, through all the ravages of Fallujah and Bagram and Abu Ghraib. One of the sponsoring organizations for victorious “V-Day” was a group called Equality Now.

Equality Now, founded in 1992, is a US organization fighting to diffuse worldwide the waning impulses of absolutist Western feminism from forty years ago. It campaigns for reproductive rights but, even more militantly, against pornography and prostitution. It’s also been exceptionally good at publicity, particularly by recruiting that kind of American celebrity who believes their fame is an anointing – that they can use it to liberate the tired, the poor, the war-torn, and also the wrongly dressed and inappropriately employed. Julia Stiles! Joss Wheedon! Glenn Close and Oprah!  Equality Now is at it again this week, with a campaign aimed at the drab and unexciting UN; no institution is intrinsically unsexy, and already the publicity machine is starting to roll. There’s a campaign page at Tina Brown’s Daily Beast, headlined “Call to Arms”; there are the endorsements from the famous and the only-slightly-faded. The aim is to roll back more than a decade of progress at the UN, and around the world, in safeguarding sex workers’ health and safety.

Beauty and the Daily Beast: Equality Now campaign page

Beauty and the Daily Beast: Equality Now campaign page

The campaign stems from a year-old letter that Equality Now organized to Helen Clark, the head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). As Prime Minister of New Zealand, Clark oversaw the law reform that decriminalized sex work in her country in 2003. FInding her unreceptive to their solicitations, Equality Now called for public protest. They want you to write to UNDP, UNAIDS,  the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), and UN Women, but the gist is simple: Damn the evidence. Get me rewrite!

[We] express great concern about two recent reports on efforts to prevent HIV within the commercial sex industry: the Global Commission on HIV and the Law report HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights and Health (“Global Commission Report”) released on 9 July 2012, and the UNDP, UNFPA and UNAIDS report Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific (“Asia Pacific Report”) released on 18 October 2012. …  [W]e are deeply concerned with both reports’ incomplete and misleading information regarding the effects of decriminalizing prostitution and surrounding activities.

The two reports linked above are ground-breaking work. The former, by 14 distinguished jurists and experts including former Presidents of Botswana and Brazil, examines the role of the law in promoting or impeding effective responses to HIV/AIDS. The latter surveys 48 countries in the Asia / Pacific region, investigating how their legal regimes around sex work affect both health and human rights. Two aspects strike Equality Now as especially noxious.

ONE. The reports called on governments to “Decriminalise private and consensual adult sexual behaviours, including same-sex sexual acts and voluntary sex work” (Global Commission Report, p. 9). The Asia Pacific Report found that criminalization of “sex work or certain activities associated with sex work …  increases vulnerability to HIV by fuelling stigma and discrimination, limiting access to HIV and sexual health services, condoms and harm reduction services, and adversely affecting the self esteem of sex workers and their ability to make informed choices about their health” (p. 1).

TWO. The reports called for a clear distinction, in policy, law, and public understanding, between sex work and sex trafficking, “which are not the same. The difference is that the former is consensual whereas the latter coercive.”

Criminal sanctions against human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of minors are essential—but the laws must clearly differentiate these activities from consensual adult sex work. (Global Commission Report, p. 29)

The Asia Pacific Report said laws that conflate “human trafficking and sex work and define sex work as ‘sexual exploitation’ contribute to vulnerability, generate stigma and create barriers to HIV service delivery”.

The unwillingness or inability of people to recognise that people can freely decide to engage in sex work means that sex workers are often automatically labelled as victims of trafficking when they are not. Often sex workers are portrayed as passive victims who need to be saved. Assuming that all sex workers are trafficked denies the autonomy and agency of people who sell sex. (pp. 3, 15)

“We respectfully request that you re-examine the findings and recommendations included in these two reports,” Equality Now writes in civil UN-ese, meaning: Retract these conclusions, or else.

With a little help from the law: Anti-prostitution poster from World War II

With a little help from the law: Anti-prostitution poster from World War II

Equality Now is an eradicationist organization. They believe all sex work is exploitation, and hence “trafficking.” They want prostitution eliminated. To this end they’re trying to press the so-called “Swedish model” on the UN; they claim it “addresses demand by decriminalizing the person in prostitution and criminalizing the buyers and pimps.” This sits rather strangely with the headline they chose for their campaign, above: “Keeping Prostitution Illegal.” In fact, though, that is what the “Swedish model” is about. It decriminalizes the “person in prostitution” about as much as traffic laws decriminalize the person in speeding car. The brothel raids and the stings on johns trawl up sex workers, not just clients, in their nets; police pick out and pick up sex workers, photograph them, stamp stigma on their lives; and there’s always a battery of other policies and punishments — loitering and solicitation laws, civil forfeiture, seizing cars and homes, even taking children — that can be used to drive women out of sex work. Melissa Giri Grant notes,

A 2012 examination of prostitution-related felonies in Chicago … revealed that of 1,266 convictions during the past four years, 97 percent of the charges were made against sex workers [as opposed to clients and others], with a 68 percent increase between 2008 and 2011. This is during the same years that [eradicationist activists] lobbied for the Illinois Safe Children Act, meant to end the arrest of who the bill describes as “prostituted persons” and to instead target “traffickers” and buyers through wiretaps and stings. Since the Act’s passage in 2010, only three buyers have been charged with a felony. These feminist-supported, headline-grabbing stunts subject young women to the humiliation of jail, legal procedures, and tracking through various law enforcement databases, sometimes for the rest of their lives.

The Global Commission report charges the Swedish model with “Victimising the ‘victim.'”

The Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) has answered the claims Equality Now made in its letter; I won’t recap its arguments here, save to note that Equality Now repeatedly misrepresents and distorts the results of studies. (For example: Equality Now asserts a government report in New Zealand found “no great change” in sex workers’ access to health services, and use of safer sex, in the wake of of law reform. But the government report actually says something quite different — that effective, and sex-worker friendly, “HIV/AIDS prevention campaign that ran in the late 1980s” had already generated across-the-board improvements, hence the room for positive change was small. Meanwhile, a 2007 study by researchers at the University of Otago in Christchurch found that decriminalization had made sex workers more willing to choose and refuse clients, a right the reform law specifically guaranteed them — the numbers who felt they couldn’t do so fell from 63% in 1999 to only 38% in 2006. They were also readier to report abuses to police, and in general more empowered about the conditions of their work.)

Gathering at the Wellington office of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, for the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, 2011

Gathering at the Wellington office of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, for the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, 2011

I will make two points, though. One is that Equality Now cultivates a rhetoric of care built round the idea of “Listening to Survivors.” Listening is admirable; but in this case, it becomes an accusation against any and all opponents: those other people, the ones you’re listening to, aren’t real. Thus, one eradicationist cites a “survivor” approvingly:

To support decriminalising the sale of sex would be to support prostitution itself. … I believe if a prostitute or former prostitute wants to see prostitution legalised, it is because she is inured both to the wrong of it and to her own personal injury from it.

This is a moral rephrasing of the old Marxist claim of false consciousness: your class position, or in this case your sin, invalidates your voice and deafens my ears to your inauthentic pleas. Moreover, the audible “survivors” aren’t so audible in the end. They fade into placeholders for institutions that can, and will, speak on their behalf. The letter to Helen Clark bemoans that “If the drafters of the reports – in particular the Asia Pacific Report – had consulted with a broader range of stakeholders, including anti-trafficking and women’s rights organizations as well as trafficking survivors” — well, everything would have been different. In essence this means: Do nothing till you hear from me.  In fact, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law held seven regional dialogues and reviewed 680 written submissions in its work. The Asia Pacific report draws on extensive consultations with advocacy groups, including sex worker groups, in the countries it analyzed. Integrating usually-unheard voices into the conversation is likely to rouse acute institutional anxieties; but you really can’t just claim those voices were never there.

 Listen to Carmen, fools. And now can we just pretend these “reports” you published never happened?

The second point is that, while Equality Now talks the talk of protecting the helpless against exploitation, its concerns flow from a different point where morality and politics, respectability and power, meet. Ninety-seven organizations signed the letter to Helen Clark; but while most of them seem dressed in the appealing-looking garments of sober feminism, quite a few are wearing a burqa underneath. For instance, Ruhama, a powerful Irish “anti-trafficking” group, sounds awfully progressive, opposing prostitution because it’s so “deeply rooted in gender inequality and social marginalisation.” Ruhama, though, is a front. Behind it lurk several Catholic religious orders which, for decades, imposed forced labor and virtual slavery on “fallen women” in the notorious Magdalene Laundries. Moral rigor and a quest to recover political authority drive its campaigning, not indignation at the gendered injustice its parent groups enforced for years.

There’s a history behind this power quest. Anthropologist Laura Agustin argues that the earnest focus on “prostitution” as a social problem in Britain’s 19th century came with the emergence of middle-class women as a group who needed occupations, purpose, and identities. “Social critics and philanthropists constructed an identity for ‘the poor’ in general, and ‘prostitutes’ in particular, which necessitated intervention, at the same period when the same critics, in need of and desiring employment, designated themselves as peculiarly suited to intervene.”

Philanthropy came to be seen as an appropriate sphere of paid employment for middle-class women, who designated themselves as those authorised to care for a group of working-class women they designated prostitutes. Both groups were engaged in the search for livelihoods and a degree of independence during the development of industrial capitalism. In the new ‘prostitution’ discourse, both figures, the victim and the rescuer, belonged to a new vision of society in which good conduct was linked to bourgeois, domestic marriage and family.

Slumming with a purpose: Victorian philanthropists go in search of the deserving and undeserving poor

Slumming with a purpose: Victorian philanthropists go in search of the deserving and undeserving poor

What Agustin doesn’t say [in this article, I mean; see in the comments, below, for references to places where she’s drawn out the implications!] is that this vision of “intervention” paralleled other interventions in the larger, political sphere: imperialism, militarism, the projection of British might, the growth of a governing class of males whose identities were built on intruding in other countries and morally recuperating other peoples. Deviant within and barbarian abroad were matching objects of colonial improvement.

Behind every successful empire is a good woman: France brings the benefits of civilization to suitably impressed people in funny hats

Behind every successful empire is a good woman: France distributes the benefits of civilization to suitably impressed people in funny hats

Elizabeth Bernstein has pursued these ideas in a contemporary frame. She argues that “antitrafficking activism,” as practiced by both feminists and their faith-based allies, “has been fueled by a shared commitment to carceral paradigms of social, and in particular gender, justice … and to militarized humanitarianism as the preeminent mode of engagement by the state.”  You fight the enemies of your version of liberation, at home and abroad. You need the big guns on your side; feminism turns to the State. The battle requires the government to flex its muscles, through its police under the streetlights of Chicago as much as through the soldier boys in the alleys of Kabul. It’s no coincidence that Equality Now defines its demand for protests to the UN as a “call to arms.” It’s no coincidence that eradicationist Gloria Steinem, touring India and pressed to explain why she refused to dialogue with sex worker activists, fell back on a strange anti-Blitzkrieg rhetoric: “The truth seems to be that the invasion of the human body by another person – whether empowered by money or violence or authority — is de-humanising in itself. … [P]rostitution is the only [job] that by definition crosses boundary of our skin and invades our most central sense of self.” Does she mean all prostitution is rape, or all penetrative sex is? Shouldn’t we defend against an invasion by any means necessary — police, armies, the full panoply of power? Indeed, isn’t the best defense maybe just invading something ourselves?

It’s no coincidence, either, that both the war-cry against uncivilized and misogynistic Muslim peoples and the clamor to crack down on sex trafficking met in the receptive embrace of the Bush administration. Bush is gone, of course. But the powerful impulses are both still there. And their common feature, the guilty secret of their involuntary incursions, is still there too. The objects of rescue, the victims of intervention, don’t get to lift the veil of their own volition, or speak for themselves.

The niqab is back in the news these days. Banned in France and Belgium, it now faces prohibition in part of Switzerland. It’s a hot topic in Britain, where a Liberal Democrat minister called for a “national debate” on whether the State needed to “protect” women from veilish wiles. One right-wing British blogger drew an analogy I found illuminating, like a white phosphorus flare. It’s all, in the end, about State power, whether embodied in laws or bombs:

While the two situations are not directly analogous, there are, nonetheless, noteworthy similarities between the objections made to humanitarian military intervention in foreign countries and the objections made to state intervention in the matter of the niqab. Concomitant similarities can be observed in the arguments in favour, which speak to a common impulse.

Opposition to a niqab ban is frequently undergirded by a suspicion of State power as irrational and indiscriminate as anti-War hostility to American power — in neither case is it conceded that power can be harnessed for benign, progressive or utilitarian ends. … The wisdom of intervention in either case may be disputed, but the motivating humanitarian impulse in both cases is the responsibility to protect and should be debated as such.

In other words, you must concede the principle that the State has an absolute right to intervene (“protect”) in either case; the only permitted argument is about the pros and cons of particular interventions. The females who choose to cover their faces, and the peoples who slave away in oppression while unable or unwilling to resist, are equally incapacitated children, whose very muteness demands a decision-making power located somewhere else. Confronted with a woman, “a proud Welsh and British citizen, a molecular geneticist by profession and an activist in my spare time,” who says, “I find the niqab liberating and dignifying; it gives me a sense of strength,” the man sees nothing but mind-forged manacles:

Coercion does not necessitate physical imprisonment, and religious authority exerts a particularly pernicious hold over those taught from birth to accept it without question.

The blogger elects to remain veiled in anonymity, so all I know is he’s one of the pro-war, Islam-fearing fans of the neocon website Harry’s Place, a type that’s done so much to damage British public life. In an interview with Norm Geras — co-author of the invading-things-is-fun Euston Manifesto — he declares that “dislike any ostentatious displays of religious or political affiliation. Slogan-bearing badges and t-shirts, religiously observant haircuts, dress codes and iconography of any kind.” One senses further prohibitions down the pike. The sinister beauty of power is that it corrupts even before you have it; just the scent, the fantasy of it, intoxicates. And the same spirit that drives you to enthuse over stripping women of their veils, or herding them into Black Marias on a moonless evening, is the spirit that informs imperial dreams of imposing one-size Mao jackets on the unisex masses, toppling statues and towers, Rumsfelding it over subject peoples like a Roman titan. Your idealism? No vaccine against megalomanhood. Human rights activists are hardly immune to State-worship. The whiff of power deranges their brain cells no less than anybody’s.

Police arresting a niqabi woman in Paris, April 12, 2011, © EPA

Police arresting a niqabi woman in Paris, April 12, 2011, © EPA

And, as long as we’re talking about power: a colleague noticed something interesting over at the New School for Social Research. The Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy is offering a practicum for students to do research, in a project for Equality Now. “This project would analyze the legalization of prostitution and formation of sex workers’ rights groups. …  Equality Now seeks to better understand the movement to legalize prostitution and form sex workers’ rights groups in order to refute arguments for legalization and lobby for adoption of the Nordic Model instead.” The students will:

Examine the history of sex workers’ rights groups in the following countries and answer the questions below: Netherlands, Germany, Australia, Venezuela, Brazil, Senegal, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Nepal, India, Philippines and the United States (particularly in Nevada)

– What is the history of the formation of sex workers’ rights groups in these countries?
– Who are the groups, what are their funding sources, and where is the influence on their policies coming from (for example is a larger international NGO working with them)?
– Are the sex worker’s groups pushing for legalization in those countries where it is not already legalized? (Look only at India, Nepal, Philippines, US, South Africa)
– In those countries where it is not legalized, what are the local women’s rights groups in these countries saying about legalization? (Look only at India, Nepal, Philippines, US, South Africa)

“Please keep in mind that this is a confidential work product developed for Equality Now and not intended for distribution or publication.” OK, don’t put it on the website where a Google search can turn it up, then. Now, it’s obvious what this is: it’s what we call oppo research, trying to figure out what your foes (bad people “inured to the wrong” of prostitution) are doing. Many organizations dabble in this at one point or another, though they don’t usually call on students at a distinguished university to help. But this is where the power question comes in. I don’t like the tone of the questions — the funding sources, the suggestion of foreign influence. Most sex worker groups are poor and marginal. In countries where sex work “is not legalized,” the organizations’ very existence is often endangered. Even where sex work is at least partly legal, they’re still stigmatized as advocating immorality, and any number of contrived crimes from promoting public indecency to spreading pornography to running a brothel can provide excuses to shut them down, and even jail their members.

So what exactly is this information going to be used for? Has the professor (a good guy, I think, with a history of work on migration issues) who’s overseeing the practicum asked Equality Now? Has the New School put safeguards in place to make sure its students’ research will only be used for ethical purposes, and will not endanger the safety, human rights, or freedom of sex worker advocates and activists? The school is asking its students to monitor sex workers’ groups for an NGO that really doesn’t like them. And the school needs to be answerable for any consequences. The history of power politics around sex workers’ rights and freedoms is too acute and recent — and the possibility of even inadvertently endangering people is too strong — for an academic institution to pretend this is purely an academic question for very long.

NB. A comment (below) states that the Milano School is not part of the New School for Social Research but a parallel institution to it within the overall New School structure. Sorry for the confusion.

Alleged sex workers arrested in a "rescue" raid on a lodging in Kathmandu, Nepal, September 15, 2013

Alleged sex workers arrested in a “rescue” raid on a lodging in Kathmandu, Nepal, September 15, 2013

Syria, Cameron’s crackup, and the virtual world of humanitarian war

A man carries a wounded child away from an anti-Assad demonstration after regime forces opened fire, Syria, 2011

A man carries a wounded child away from an anti-Assad demonstration after regime forces opened fire, Syria, 2011

The night air is full of hypotheticals these weeks, and reality feels like a far-off country.

David Cameron lost tonight. It was sweat-inducing drama, the kind that makes you focus so closely on the grimaces and rumors that you forget about the war. By 13 votes, his motion to give a loose preliminary OK to Syrian intervention went down. (He’d tried to scale it back as a vague non-binding slightly amnesiac go-ahead to his government, like a Dad saying “Sure, someday” to a preteen daughter who wants to marry Justin Bieber.) Most of the UK papers seem to focus on Cameron’s humiliation, and Labour leader Ed Miliband’s triumph, as though a lot of other people’s lives aren’t at stake in this one way or the other. Everybody agrees there is another, spectral loser: Tony Blair.

All over but the shouting: Cameron in the House of Commons, August 29

All over but the shouting: Cameron in the House of Commons, August 29

Not just Blair’s righteous policy of bringing freedom to the benighted, of shaking the world like a kid’s kaleidoscope and reshuffling the pieces. But Blair himself. Two days ago he stepped directly into the debates, with a piece in the Times that stirred up memories of mendacious arrogance in the worst way.

People wince at the thought of intervention. But contemplate the future consequence of inaction and shudder: Syria mired in carnage between the brutality of Assad and various affiliates of al-Qaeda, a breeding ground of extremism infinitely more dangerous than Afghanistan in the 1990s; Egypt in chaos, with the West, however unfairly, looking as if it is giving succour to those who would turn it into a Sunni version of Iran. Iran still — despite its new president — a theocratic dictatorship, with a nuclear bomb. Our allies dismayed. Our enemies emboldened. Ourselves in confusion. This is a nightmare scenario but it is not far-fetched.

And then he goes maundering about Egypt, seemingly his pet obsession these days, claiming that not bombing Syria would help the Muslim Brotherhood and hurt the military government in Cairo, which is striving to bring stability to the country despite “actions or overreactions” like killing a thousand people in a fit of pique. (Blair, immune to facts as ever, seems unaware that Egypt’s diehard secularists and the junta they helped to power generally look with favor on Assad; the generals overthrew Morsi in part because he opposed the dictator.) But Blair’s intrusion triggered all the wrong recollections in the public. Maybe if he’d shut up, Christian soldiers would be marching off to war.

Here’s a question, though. Why did Blair need to imagine this horrific post-non-intervention future to prop his argument? Isn’t the slaughter that’s already happened enough? More than 100,000 have died in the conflict, according to Syrian activists and the UN. Why can’t Blair rest his case on this vast carnage, instead of dreamy geopolitical speculations and “nightmare scenarios” about how things could get even worse? Isn’t the nightmare now?

Tony Blair as Prime Minister (L) and after (R): Forgive them, Father, for they know not who can replace me

Tony Blair as Prime Minister (L) and after (R): Forgive them, Father, for they know not who can replace me

The reason, I suspect, is that Blair knows, and we know, and he knows that we know, that the “humanitarian” intervention he imagines will not do much to help. The dead are past aiding — even Blair, with his propensity to impersonate Jesus, probably gets that — but what is the chance that the mechanized violence of Western powers can forestall more violence in Syria? Will more killing save more lives — killing in the self-protecting way the West does it? Iraq haunts Blair, haunts every word he says, not as a sin (he’s Godlike enough to absolve himself) but as a miscalculation. Humanitarian intervention there only accelerated murder. Better not to look at the past, and better not to promise the deaths will end. Instead, focus on the infinite horrors you can pack into an imaginary what-if. The hypothetical can always be worse than anything real.

It’s very striking how little the discussion in Britain dealt with what’s actually happening in Syria beyond the chemical attacks. It’s as if the proposed intervention had nothing at all to do with the civil war. “It is not about taking sides in the Syrian conflict,” Cameron told Parliament, oddly enough since only one side was slated for bombing.

It is not about regime change or even working more closely with the Opposition. It is about the large-scale use of chemical weapons and our response to a war crime – nothing else.

What an odd war he wanted, one with a motive but not a goalIt’s a bit hard, moreover, to square this with Nick Clegg’s assertion that “The sole aim is the relief of humanitarian suffering.”  (What the hell is “humanitarian suffering”? The adjective seems to have taken refuge with the wrong noun: surely he meant “humanitarian aim” or “humanitarian relief.” But out of such Freudian slips does truth step, naked.) How would Clegg relieve suffering? Would all the suffering stop if the chemical weapons were disabled? No; there have been plenty of other deaths. Something bigger, some kind of “taking sides” or even “regime change” would be required.

In fact, Clegg and Cameron offer the lowest-common-denominator version of “humanitarianism,” in which it means no more than a mix of punishment and personal catharsis. We have to “respond to a war crime.” This won’t stop further war crimes, but we’ll have done our part. It’s barely a step down from that to “We want to bomb something, and Syria is there. In this light, “humanitarian suffering” really does refer, perhaps, to the suffering of the humanitarian himself, who feels impotent and guilty, who wants to do good and can’t imagine how, who has migraines from knowing that none of his actions will accomplish the ends he posits, and who would like a large explosion to relieve him. Bombing Damascus is a bit stronger than Alka-Seltzer, but it’ll do.

Demonstrator's sign outside the Houses of Parliament, August 29: AFP

Demonstrator’s sign outside the Houses of Parliament, August 29: AFP

The argument for humanitarian intervention inhabits a strange half-reality, not quite resembling anything else in the languages of democratic politics. It’s almost never a discussion about “What will happen if we do this?” It’s a fever dream about “What will happen if we don’t?”

Back two years ago when the Libyan bombings were bruited, the editors of n+1 asked: “Has there ever been a truly successful, truly humanitarian humanitarian intervention?”

 Not of the Vietnamese in Cambodia, who deposed the Khmer Rouge for their own reasons (the Khmer kept crossing the border, and also murdered their entire Vietnamese population), and then replaced them with Hun Sen, who has been ruling Cambodia with an iron fist for more than thirty years. Not the Indian intervention in Bangladesh, under whose cover the Indian government arrested all student protesters in India. And not NATO in Kosovo, which, while it stopped Milosevic and ensured the safety of Kosovo, could not make it a viable state … and also led to the ethnic cleansing of the Serb population. Too bad for the Serbs, to be sure; but the creation of a safe space for the expulsion of a civilian population cannot be what anyone had in mind when they launched the planes. That there has never been a successful humanitarian intervention does not mean that there cannot be one in the future. But the evidence is piling up.

All these misfortunes still have ample defenders in retrospect, though, and the justification always takes the same form: What if we hadn’t done it? Things would be worse. It is no coincidence that some of the best-known advocates of humanitarian war, like the power-worshpping Niall Ferguson, are historians fascinated by alternative histories. Ferguson has written whole books that rewrite the past; he defends the what-if approach to understanding because it refutes Marxism and other attempts to trace laws that make history make sense. Life is random. Something completely unpredictable could always happen, or have happened.

What are the implications of chaos for historians? … The counterfactual scenarios [that historians] need to construct are not mere fantasy: they are simulations based on calculations about the relative probability of plausible outcomes in a chaotic world. … Perhaps the best answer to the question, “Why ask counterfactual questions?” is simply: What if we don’t? Virtual history is a necessary antidote to determinism.

Slumming among the angry Arabs, Niall Ferguson rescues a brown person and shares killer-app lessons from the Western worldview

He surely hopes to sound oracular like Lawrence of Arabia, the imperial hero intoning “Nothing is written.” Instead, he ends up a bit like Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, rambling on about chaos theory: Fuckups are inevitable, the dinosaurs will always get loose, leave while you’re still alive. His scenarios are more like movie pitches than histories. But the method’s utility in excusing policymakers’ catastrophes (like those of his idol Kissinger) is obvious. Who knows how much worse things would have been, without our fucked-up attempt at fixing them? If the US hadn’t invaded Cambodia and unleashed the Khmer Rouge, something else would have gone wrong. 

Everything settles into indeterminacy this way. There is no proving a hypothetical. You can always invent a rate of forced flight from a Kosovo where the NATO invasion never happened that’s satisfyingly much greater than the one we know. You can always find a way to say that Iraqi mortality for 2003-2013 would have been as great or greater if Saddam had stayed in power — because he would have nuked his own people, or diverted the Euphrates, or weaponized the Middle East Coronavirus. This spares you the unpleasantness of looking at what actually took place, analyzing the melancholy figures, seeing what caused the painfully factual deaths or displacement. So much more agreeable to understand the unreal than reality!

Stuck in a jungle somewhere between lectures, Niall Ferguson (Jeff Goldblum) discusses chaos theory with crusty adventurer Henry Kissinger (Sam Neill) and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (the ever-radiant and enlightened Laura Dern)

But an argument that’s merely flimsy when used to analyze history turns deadly when used to decide what to do here and now. The incessant drumbeat of “What will happen if we don’t?” drowns out the two more important questions: “What will happen if we do?” and “What is happening now?” Only the latter, because they deal with facts and with the consequences of a specific course of action, have even the possibility of instructive answers. The advocates of “humanitarian intervention” seem to turn every debate into a panic. It’s not just that the incited desperation overpowers the ability to judge. It’s that moving debate into a never-never land reached by the road-not-taken degrades all political discourse. The dreamwork starts to construct our daytime lives.

I can’t bring myself to stand in blanket opposition to any humanitarian intervention at all, in Syria or elsewhere. What I feel sure of, is that the arguments used to hawk the war in Britain are destructive and dangerous. They swivel our attention away from the reality of death in Damascus and Homs. Instead they insult the dead by imagining “nightmare scenarios,” ones somehow worse (at least for us, if not them) than what is occurring now, ones that suggest the ongoing disaster is not yet disastrous enough for minds acclimated to atrocity. They do this to conceal the poverty of their plan, which isn’t a plan at all and would help almost no one. They convince us that a dystopian future is the only alternative, because they are incompetent or unwilling to do anything about the present.

The Commons was right to vote these proposals and their shabby logic down. I would like to think there is a little interval of time for the rest of us to learn about life and death in Syria, and debate in concrete terms what can be done to support the Revolution. But the US is already heaving itself to action, greaved and ready, for the aimless killing — “nothing else,” “the sole aim” — the UK refused. I don’t need a theory to know chaos when I see it. I don’t need an alternative history to know there have to be alternatives.

Dead bodies, allegedly of rebel fighters, around the town of Qusair after its recapture by regime forces: images from Syrian state TV, June 2013

Dead bodies, allegedly of rebel fighters, around the town of Qusair after its recapture by regime forces: images from Syrian state TV, June 2013

Humanitarian imperialism

On the other hand, for those wary of how human rights is instrumentalized as an excuse for intervention — as in the “responsibility to protect,” a rhetorical construct promoted equally by Human Rights Watch and NATO — this is the book for you.