The unelected Saudi monarchy began the year by executing 47 people. It continues to bomb hospitals, homes, and civilians in Yemen as it has done for nearly a year. In October of last year, a few weeks before the election, the Turkish state almost certainly arranged bombings in Ankara that killed more than one hundred people at a peace demonstration. The ruling party won the election, have now accelerated their own war on the Kurdish population of their country, and are targeting anti-war academics. Egypt’s current dictatorship came to power in a coup and cemented its power with a major massacre in August of 2013. Israel has spent the months since October extrajudicially executing Palestinians. When the Swedish Foreign Minister mentioned the possibility of investigating these executions, a former educational secretary in Israel suggested that the Swedish Foreign Minister should be assassinated.
All of this is to say, a quick regional roundup of very recent atrocities suggests that there are few governments in the region that have not lost the moral authority to govern. If Syria’s dictator, Assad, must go, perhaps these other governments must, as well.
But how? What if, in a moment of republicanism, the US decided on regime change in the Saudi Kingdom? What if in a fit of sympathy for the Kurds, Washington were to draw up a plan to bomb Turkey from the air until it withdrew from the Kurdish areas? Or to bomb Cairo, until Sisi resigned and elections were held? Or to bomb Israel until it ended the occupation of Palestinian lands?
Or, if they wanted to avoid open warfare, perhaps Washington could sponsor some republican armed groups in Saudi Arabia, provide advanced weapons and conduct assassinations on behalf of the Kurds and the Palestinians, arm and train the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, all in the name of helping the oppressed?
All of these would be horrible ideas, with horrible outcomes. The result would be tremendous death and suffering, and the intended beneficiaries of these policies, the ordinary people in these countries, would suffer the most. What’s more, it’s not clear – whatever the moral authority of the targeted regimes – that the US (or any other government) has the moral authority to go around deciding, through violence, who governs. Instead, as painful and long as the road to liberation is, it is the task of the oppressed people in the region to liberate themselves from dictatorship and occupation. What outsiders in the West can offer is not war, but solidarity – often in the form of stopping the West from helping (or being) the oppressors.
This used to be somewhat widely understood. After World War II, a body of international law was created and one of the intentions motivating it was to prevent war. International aggression was deemed the supreme crime of WWII, the crime from which all the other crimes flowed. When the US went to war in Vietnam, the antiwar movement spelled out a series of arguments, none of which depended on the angelic nature of the Vietnamese communists that the US was fighting or the Soviet Union that was supporting them. Those arguments included legal (international law), moral (aggression was the wrong means, for the wrong ends, and would cause harm to people), and practical (war would be harmful to US interests, create more enemies, be costly in economic terms and in lives). The US ruling class blamed the antiwar movement for a “Vietnam Syndrome” that constrained the US’s ability to fight wars.
Antiwar arguments held through the 1980s, through decades of covert operations. They were present in 1990/1 when the US first attacked Iraq. There were cracks in the antiwar bloc in 1999, when the US went to war in Kosovo, but among leftists, the antiwar idea remained strong. Even in 2001, when the US invaded Afghanistan after 9/11, the opponents of war held to all three lines of argumentation – legal, moral, and practical, despite the horrible nature of the Afghanistan’s Taliban government that was targeted by the US. The movement peaked in 2003, in the lead-up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, with millions of people in the streets and the declaration that global public opinion was a second superpower – again, despite the horrible dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Antiwar arguments continued to be made in spite of the nature of the governments targeted. Antiwar movements sought alternatives to aggression, especially the use of international law and diplomacy. They also made a deeper critique of the arms industry and war profiteering, of the power politics of regime change, of racism and indifference to the lives of people bombed, and of war propaganda and deception.
In 2011, the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya faced no meaningful antiwar opposition. Leftists split like they hadn’t in decades over a question that had not arisen even with governments at least as bad or worse than Gaddafi’s (Saddam Hussein, the Taliban) by human rights measures. Hillary Clinton was able was able to quote Julius Caesar (who was writing about a country that his Roman army destroyed and annexed using genocidal warfare, including kidnapping and publicly murdering the opposing general at a parade) and say “we came, we saw, he died”, as a kind of joke. The moves from the beginning of the civil war to the establishment of a no-fly zone to regime change and Gaddafi’s lynching all proceeded with almost no debate or dissent and with amazing speed. A “Libya Cure” was found to the “Vietnam Syndrome”.
Today, the Syria civil war rages with about 10 countries participating, some of whom, including the US, are fighting on both (or perhaps more accurately multiple) sides. The number of people in the West – including leftists – who are arguing that war is not the answer, is almost zero. The number of people – again including leftists – who see war as the answer if it can meet this or that imaginary criterion is much higher. People who oppose regime change through war are ridiculed as naive or unprincipled.
But are they (we) ridiculous? Has the record of war really changed so much since 2011? Did Libya really disprove the many arguments that antiwar movements used to hold to? Is Syria a case of the success of war as a strategy for accomplishing something? Something other than more war and more destruction?
Here are some easy predictions: In the years ahead, we are promised austerity, poverty, violence, and ecological catastrophe. If societies want to deal with any of these problems, they will also have to deal with the problem of war, because through all this, we will also have war. As a result, people will need to develop antiwar movements. The arguments that those movements will rely on will be the same ones that are mocked today, the very same ones that used to be more widely accepted, but have somehow been forgotten.
Justin Podur is a Toronto-based author and blogger.