The War on Syria & the New Anti-Anti-Imperialists

The war on Syria has led to an increase in anti-anti-US imperialism among western leftists. I’m calling it anti-anti-imperialism, as opposed to simple pro-US imperialism, because some of the people in question don’t support US involvement in the war. What they find objectionable is the fixation on US imperialism to the alleged exclusion of all else, including Assad’s barrel bombs. The charge is “inverse imperialism” or Orientalism or US-centricness, whereby anti-imperialists, mirroring the imperialists they abhor, exaggerate the role of the United States, overlook indigenous dynamics, and deny “the agency” of Syrians.

I believe I’ve represented anti-anti imperialist POV correctly. In case of I haven’t here’s Murtaza Hussain of First Look Media on Twitter.

Now, you can exaggerate the power of anything. Just as you can overstate the ill effects of racism and cancer, you can overstate the ill effects of U.S. imperialism in its myriad forms: the military, the CIA, the IMF, Thomas Friedman, etc. But you really have to go for it. You have to say things like, the United States is the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” Well, actually, MLK kinda nailed it, didn’t he? Another try: the United States quashes democratic movements around the world and gets rid of heads of state it doesn’t like. Whoops, that’s accurate as well. The U.S. imposes poverty on — argh!

Perhaps it would help to get specific: the United States spearheaded the uprising in Syria. That’s an overstatement. Are people saying this? Perhaps a few, but they’re not permitted a prominent perch. “Respectable” voices are busy exaggerating the strength of the Syrian rebels, downplaying their atrocities, and downgrading Al Qaeda through euphemism into a mere “armed group.” In other words, they’re dutifully disseminating pro-American, pro-Western propaganda. Such is the dominant discourse. Indeed, at a time when the head of Human Rights Watch blames the destruction of Iraq on Maliki, when the U.S. press writes about mayhem in Libya without so much as mentioning NATO’s bombing, when virtually none of the thousands of articles on Golden Dawn note its roots in US-sponsored paramilitary groups, when the colonial causes of Boko Haram and the Rwandan genocide also go virtually unmentioned, it’s odd to believe that the problem is an overemphasis on imperialism.

Hussain’s failure to tell the truth weakens his argument against stretching it. (Likewise, I don’t much mind that Molly Crabapple argues against exaggerating the role of the US in Syria. I do much mind that she wants more US military intervention in Syria.) He paints a benign portrait of U.S. imperialism, saying that “post-Iraq war…[the] viewpoint that U.S. actions should be viewed critically makes sense.” Does he believe it didn’t make sense to view U.S. actions critically prior to the Iraq War? Perhaps not, because in another tweet he mentions the U.S. war in Vietnam as one of the isolated “horrible things.” For Hussain, US imperialism is…complicated, sometimes good, sometimes bad; it depends on the circumstances. U.S. imperialism isn’t a “monolith,” he says, but “more like a cacophony of competing voices.”

Where in this “complicated” picture are the countries better off for U.S. imperialism? Can you name one? Because I could rattle off 50 worse off, from Haiti to Palestine to Pakistan. Deny agency? US bombs, and loan conditions, obliterate the agency of people around the world. That’s why — contrary to anti-anti-imperialists’ suggestions that the movement against imperialism is a white western phenomenon — indigenous peoples around the world use their “agency” to resist American aggression and control.

But then to look at the effects of U.S. imperialism is to miss the point. The point is that U.S. imperialism is the cornerstone of a global system of injustice. Hussain, a good liberal, presumably has no problem with people whose organizing principle is opposition to economic inequality. He might even abide people who, to paraphrase his tweet, view world events through the prism of opposing capitalism. Yet he chafes as those who comprehensively oppose a system in which one country (4% of the world’s people) has some 40% of the world’s wealth, which it uses to maintain military dominance and impose its will on other nations. Hussain seems to equate militarism with imperialism, ignoring the economics of empire. Anti-anti-imperialists might be blind to the core purpose of the US military, but imperialists surely aren’t. “McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15,” writes Thomas Friedman. “And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”

Hussain probably won’t respond to this post, so I’ll do so for him. I’m guessing he would walk back his comments white-washing US imperialism, acknowledge its awfulness, and stress his narrower point that US imperialism “occasionally can be a lesser evil.” But when? To which cases is he referring? Not Syria: Hussain opposes US intervention. Perhaps he’s referring obliquely to his support for NATO regime change in Libya. Obliquely may be the wise way to refer to one’s support for an act that has led to so much horror. As it backed the country’s latest and most serious coup attempt, the largest bloc in parliament said Libyans are “drowning in a swamp of terrorism, darkness, killing and destruction.” Freedom by NATO.

Note that Hussain didn’t endorse the US bombing of Libya in the name of lesser evilism. He said it was a product of “nobility and good intentions,” and he blamed the subsequent mayhem on the lack of “help” from the United States, criticizing Americans for failing to “see their project through to completion.” In his view, the problem wasn’t too much U.S. imperialism but too little.

So, then, perhaps anti-anti-imperialism is pro-imperialism, after all.

When faced with criticism from the left, anti-anti-imperialists tend to dismiss it as dogmatic nitpicking. But the difference between supporting the bombing of Syria or Libya and opposing it is not minor. Nor is the difference between a western left that opposes US imperialism and one that opposes imperialism except when it doesn’t, except when the awful man is really awful and “they” really need “our” help and this time it’s different I promise and how could bombing opponents be so heartless?

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