Why does Obama want to bomb Syria? Some on the Left seem confused. Recently Tariq Ali and Robert Fisk, both well-informed, articulate and brilliant intellectuals, have tried to explain potential motivations for a U.S. attack on Syria. They have addressed only a small piece of the problem, however.
Ali writes: “Backing the targeting of Syria are two old friends: Saudi Arabia and Israel. Both want the regime in Iran destroyed. The Saudis for factional reasons, the Israelis because they’re desperate to exterminate Hizbullah. That’s the endgame they have in sight and Washington, after resisting for a bit, is playing ball again. Bombing Syria is the first step.” Thus, at attack would be a geopolitical move to stop or thwart Iran. Robert Fisk concurred, writing, “Iran is ever more deeply involved in protecting the Syrian government. Thus a victory for Bashar is a victory for Iran. And Iranian victories cannot be tolerated by the West.”
Human rights has nothing to do with it we are told because past atrocities got a pass from the U.S. Fisk points to when Israel “killed up to 17,000 men, women and children in Lebanon in 1982.” Another example, when Iraq was “our” ally against Iran it used gas on the Iranian army and this also led to no U.S. retaliation. Yet, this merely reveals U.S. hypocrisy and geopolitical considerations, not necessarily long term causes. The two are combined in what Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky have called “worthy and unworthy victims.” The Lebanese and Iranians were considered unworthy victims, but today the Syrian victims of chemical weapons are considered worthy. Victims that don’t benefit geopolitical interests are ignored or even condemned.
Not everyone agrees about who is responsible for the recent attacks in Syria, but most on the Left agree that the human rights is the immediate rhetorical pretext. Of course, Obama was not President during either of the episodes Fisk describes, suggesting that there are structural forces that Obama is merely a part of such that the differences contributed to by his presidency are irrelevant. Yet, both Fisk and Ali have under-theorized these forces or failed to adequately describe them in their analyses. One appreciates that they are writing short, journalistic pieces, but critical journalism must be linked to structural explanation, otherwise it doesn’t say much.
A basic term used by the Left use to be ideology, where rhetoric or discourse becomes linked to material forces. What are the material forces, the interests, the power blocks that are served by human rights ideology? We have the new breed of defense intellectuals like Samantha Power whose career advanced by pointing out atrocities among worthy victims. Obama was drawn to this analysis, advancing Power to be his U.S. Ambassador. This despite Power’s description of Hillary Clinton as a “monster” during Obama’s first presidential campaign. Ali asks “Cui prodest? as the Romans used to inquire. Who profits?” The other groups who profit include those in the United States who benefit from having a pretext for war or the use of military weapons systems. These include: defense corporations, the Pentagon and national security agencies, politicians in military dependent districts, engineers and academics on the military’s payroll, universities and others investing in defense stocks, even industrial and service sector workers involved in making bombs or feeding troops.
A comprehensive account of why we have war can’t be reduced to geopolitical rivalries alone. If the country of Lichtenstein were to find Assad offensive, they would not bomb Syria. The U.S. is clearly not Lichtenstein and not merely because of its size, after all Indonesia has a population of about 240 million or more and it will not be bombing Syria either. The difference of course is that the U.S. has a history of interests in the region, tied to the control and use of oil and the location of Israel in the Middle East, with Israel being a key U.S. ally and having political influence in the U.S. Size, interests, allies, and the role of the Israeli lobby can’t be sufficient or even adequate explanations, however. One big difference between the U.S. on the one hand and Indonesia and Lichtenstein on the other, is the scale of military power projection that that U.S. has. This allows the U.S. to be the global policeman, albeit one not accountable to global judiciaries.
Neglecting the Warfare State and Permanent War Economy
The U.S. spends hundreds of billions of dollars on “defense” (which is mostly offense), tied to a permanent war economy including budgets for nuclear weapons, security operations, and payments for debt and health costs associated with war. This economy favors a militarized foreign policy. The vast concentration of military economic power/capital translates into concentrated political and media capital, providing space for defense intellectuals and policy wonks favoring bombing as the security cure all. This enduring concentration of military, economic, political and media power constitutes both the warfare state and the permanent war economy. It’s allied with the oil, auto, financial and associated industrial complexes of the power elite. These are the leaders in corporations, government and leading academic circles who dominate decision-making. They are tied to firms, regions, and occupations dependent on military spending.
If we look to the past, we see the U.S. government has often bombed countries to get its way, often with disastrous results as Robin Wright explained in a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. Bombing of cities causes reprisals as Jacques Maritain noted back in the 1930s. If we look to the future, the U.S. will be bombing yet another country and any geopolitical explanations will seem trivial. The reason for this triviality is the larger context of this game, defined by the enabling conditions created by the warfare state and the permanent war economy. The rhetorical and geopolitical reasons may differ, but the enabling conditions will be the same. So we have the rhetorical context at the first level, the geopolitical game at the second level, and the warfare state and permanent war economy at the third, highest level, of explanation. Without the third level, the second level becomes impossible. The first level enables the second and third levels, as ideology becomes a useful discourse, a material force that sustains economic, political and military interests. Yet, most critical social scientists understand that the winning ideologies have had more powerbehind them. The power comes from money, support from political leaders and media moguls, and paradigmatic victories in the academy. The latter refers to how most universities today have no courses on disarmament, demilitarization of the defense industry, civilian industrial policy, or even the role of militarism in the cycle of violence.
This naturally leads us to ask why don’t the oppositional ideologies have sufficient power? Why is the U.S. peace movement so weak? One reason is that bad design of the peace movement. Yet, there are structural issues to consider as well. In the United Kingdom, the peace movement and failure of the Iraq policy, including the huge costs of war, undoubtedly changed the equation and have encouraged Obama to seek Congressional approval for an attack on Syria. Yet, in the U.S. a Republican Party and allied interests benefit more from these very costs of war (or they become more affordable to the U.S. with its use of the dollar as international currency and Chinese purchases of U.S. debt).
In the U.S. militaristic solutions are partially tied to party competition based on rivals’ attempts to exploit foreign policy crises tied to war, democracy and human rights. During the coup against Honduras, Republicans pressured the Obama Administration to advance “democracy” in Honduras by supporting the coup, i.e. an Orwellian version of democracy defined by militarist thugs. There were U.S. economic interests in Honduras which together with a militarist strain in the State Department sustained the coup as well. Nevertheless, Republicans together with a journalistic corps that is largely superficial and war hungry, usually put pressure on any politician seeking a diplomatic solution, particularly when the human rights of “worthy victims” becomes an issue. Here we see how geopolitics at the second level helps shape the human rights discourse at the first level, i.e. the media can help trigger a need to intervene for “human rights” concerns when these are consistent with geopolitical calculations. Otherwise, we would have a kind of civil war within elites, with the state going after the media. The media can go after the state by directing militaristic discourse against any political leader who seeks a more diplomatic solution when such solutions can be subsumed by “concerns” for “worthy victims.” If you throw Israeli interests into the picture, you have another ally for certain media-policy decisions, but the destruction of a stable Syria is hardly in Israel’s real interests, i.e. the needs of its citizens versus its own military industrial complex. The Israeli warfare state might like to get rid of Hezbollah of course, but Israeli calculations, the human rights discourse and even geopolitics are secondary. The correlation of U.S. and Israeli warfare state interests don’t necessarily define causation.
The warfare state and permanent war economy necessitate and make possible enemies and wars. These interests and the weakness of oppositional peace forces are necessary conditions for any war or military action. Obama has inherited these forces and made alliances with defense intellectuals and Wall Street to get elected, stay in power and reproduce notions he assimilated for which he has been politically rewarded. Yet, he also understands that being a war president and wasting huge amounts of money on a future conflict will weaken his legacy, political party and the United States. A moderate bombing campaign is a way to compromise, but often triggers an escalation of forces that undermines the ability to restrain militarism, military spending and the domestic power of militarists.
Militarism Sustained by Limited Economic Policies
The Obama coalition did not simply inherit an unwinnable situation. Economic policy and foreign policy have been decoupled by Obama and many of his critics. Obama’s early focus on healthcare as opposed to a) jobs, b) civilian industrial policy, and c) creation of domestic civilian industrial complexes helped sustain what appears for many observers to be the “path dependent,” history-written, predetermined options he has before him. Left journalists and others’ myopic fascination with discourse and geopolitics simply sustains a very deterministic ideology which is essentially dystopian and deconstructive. Simply put, the idea that it’s about opposing Iran, supporting Israel, with some hypocrisy thrown in reproduces a kind of intellectual determinism and hopelessness. Without a larger explanation, the Left will simply be “bearing witness” and involve protestors without portfolio.
There is a clear alternative and that exists by creating a different kind of economy based on sustainable, domestically anchored green jobs, technologies, and businesses. These can be cooperative, locally controlled or have support from cooperative networks of government, university and mass consumer procurement and patronage. The creation of new investment in mass transportation, sustainable infrastructure and alternative energy could create the civilian industrial complex alternative to the warfare state. Such a complex could compete with the warfare state for both budgetary resources and the political and intellectual direction of the country. It could generate the defense and sustainable conversion, innovative development, and budget surpluses useful for meaningful foreign aid and technology transfer programs. These could be useful in ending the global cycle of violence.
Obama made some moves in this direction, but never promoted (or was pushed by) a mass movement supporting a more comprehensive economic vision. His policies while favoring Buy American policies, did not sufficiently support domestically anchored U.S.-owned firms as opposed to some ad hoc alliance of transnationals and medium-sized, U.S. owned companies. Obama never backed a conversion program for the defense industry. He never made cooperative enterprises a significant part of his economic program. His investments in mass transit research and development were minimal in comparison with his Chinese competitors. Aside from the auto industry, he has no policy tied to “national champions,” with even Ford and GM disinvesting from the U.S. He has not championed cooperative, community-controlled banks.
There’s no coherent system in which R&D and production are anchored by ownership and control by local, domestic constituencies. The Left needs a kind of socially responsible, more domestically-anchored and worker/community owned General Electric. It needs to Think Big as C. Wright Mills and Stanley Aronowitz have explained. This approach means creating green, civilian industrial and domestically anchored production triggered by moving money into new kinds of banks, firms and economic sectors. Any number of thinkers (including Gar Alperovitz, Brian D’Agostino and Jon Rynn) have supported this democratic approach in recent books, but their message is usually lost to the myopic appropriation of topicality and crises. This appropriation is carried out by those failing to advance a long-term, anti-militarist program allied with disarmament, conversion and intellectual Glasnost vis-à-vis the warfare state. The Left will either be part of the myopic, topical discursive problem or part of the Glasnost reconstructionist disarmament solution.
Jonathan M. Feldman is part of the Global Teach-In network, www.globalteachin.com.