Syria: A Chemical Romance

This is a repost of my article at The North Star.

All empires produce the same lies. That their enemies (ever changing) are barbarians; that they defend civilization, honor, and morality against the latter’s outrages; that they provide the necessary peace and stability for a world that would fall into chaos absent their muscle; and that any action is justified to this end, however apparently remote from these lofty goals, because of the need to maintain the empire’s ‘credibility’ in the face of its domestic and foreign opposition. This credibility, of course, has nothing to do with what one normally understands by that. It is not a matter of being honest or truthful or transparent in one’s dealings. Empires are never any of these things: a tyrant can be an important ally one day and a cruel enemy of humanity the next, like the erstwhile ruler of Iraq. One can declare that the tyrant of Syria has crossed an internationally recognized moral line by the alleged use of chemical weapons, when one has repeatedly done the same. One can decry the Assad government as oppressive and violent, which it certainly is, and that it kills civilians on a large scale when threatened, which it certainly does, and yet see no harm in an absolute monarchy doing precisely the same thing with the active support of the empire.

Why then care about the empire’s moral denunciations, one way or the other? Empires have no morality, in the end, except to believe that without them things would be worse. This is a truth happily affirmed by the imperialist right, the ‘realists’ who defend it exactly in those terms, as one can read in any book by the likes of Niall Ferguson, Max Boot, and so forth. In this sense, they are more honest than the liberal moralists who take on the burden of the world unasked for, and when so playing the giant Atlas care little about whom they trample underfoot. The only honesty of imperialism is the straightforward presentation of the empire’s interests, but this rarely motivates anyone much. That is why all the ‘realist’ literature has the wink wink, nudge nudge tone of the old boys club: ‘you’re not supposed to say this, of course, but privately, we all know that’… On the other hand the moralist imperialists are possibly even worse, since unlike the realists there is no empirical content to their reasonings at all. The mission civilisatrice is both conclusion and point of departure of their arguments, and the ‘responsibility to protect’, as Freddie de Boer has pointed out, is justified exclusively by counterfactuals that nobody can contest, because they never happened. It is perhaps this cynicism that finally led to the surprising defeat of the British government on its motion for punitive strikes on Syria; a sign perhaps that the antiwar movement has had at least an indirect effect on the ‘credibility’, in the imperialist sense, of such arguments.

Given this, the whole charade about whether chemical weapons have been used and if so, whether by Assad or his subordinates or perhaps somehow by the rebels is rather beside the point. We know already that the regime of Assad has killed tens of thousands and is willing to continue to do so to remain in power, a power which it has used for the purposes of the self-aggrandizement of a long-necked eye doctor and the naked plunder of the country’s produced wealth. As with Assad senior before him, Bashar al-Assad’s pretend ‘anti-imperialism’ fools only those who want to be fooled by it. Even the pretense of a developmental dictatorship, once the rationale for the nationally-oriented middle classes in the Arab world to support the pan-Arabic Ba’ath programme, has faded entirely. Assad makes deals with Israel while pretending to be champion anti-Zionist, and keeps the peace in the Golan Heights. He pretends to be the saviour of the Arab dignity against the empire, just like Saddam Hussein did, while being equally happy to do what the empire wants when this suits his rule, just like Saddam Hussein did. This is illustrated by his enthusiastic participation in the CIA’s ‘extraordinary rendition’ program. (In Saddam’s case, of course, the cooperation consisted of going to war with Iran: a conflict sponsored by the West… with chemical weapons.) Nor is Assad serious about some kind of developmental programme in the style of the 20th century’s ‘postcolonial’ period. On the contrary, like all the other rulers whose predecessors justified their rule in developmental terms, he has given up even this raison d’être in the face of the pressure of the world market, and has undertaken a neoliberal turn of his own; one which maps remarkably well onto the central sites of rebellion against his dictatorship.

The argument about chemical weapons should then be left for what it is. It matters not tremendously whether thousands die through artillery bombardment or through chemical weapons. This is not to say that the ‘international taboo’ on chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and the desire to rid all states of these should be treated cynically by the left. On the contrary, the effects of such weapons have become all the more visible by the latest incident of their use, and it underlines their fundamentally profoundly anti-human nature. It is all the more significant because due to technological constraints, it is generally (though not universally) a set of weapons only usable by states against their subjects, and this should give us all the more reason to uniformly oppose their existence, let alone their use. But what does deserve to be treated with contempt is the notion of their being such a taboo in the first place, and that the United States and the cruise missile moralists are the correct instruments for enforcing it.

As mentioned, the empire was all too happy for one of the worst tyrants of the last few decades, Saddam Hussein, to have all manner of chemical weapons, as long as he used them on the empire’s foe, Iran. That he promptly turned these weapons on entire peoples who resisted his rule, and that this could be readily foreseen, counted for very little. The very same story applies in Syria, where the UK had no problem permitting the export of the relevant chemicals to the Syrian government even long after the civil war in Syria had begun. (And no such materials are ever sent anywhere without this being a conscious choice of foreign policy, as those suffering the boycotts of the West, like the peoples of Iran and Cuba, can attest.) I have also mentioned the use of white phosphorus and depleted uranium by the US in Iraq, and could add the use of the former by Israel in Gaza in 2008 to that. And going further back, was this taboo on chemical weapons not established in the first place because of their large scale use in the First World War – precisely by powers like France, the UK, the US and Germany, who are now the enforcers?

One could of course think they have, wisely, learned from the experience. But the persistence of their supply to third party dictators suggests otherwise. What it suggests is that, like the WMD excuse for the war on Iraq, this obsession with punitive strikes and invasions has little to do with the enforcement of taboos on violence (which are obeyed only in the breach) and everything to do with the shoring up of the ‘credibility’ of the empire – the spirit here is not the melancholia of Wilfred Owen, but the older spirit of quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi. Who have learned from the experience are the people who suffer the effects of that mentality, the ones who have to endure the notion of missile strikes to liberate them from bombardments, or the generations that suffered the threat of nuclear destruction at the hands of the players of game theory. It is the empires and their supporters that have a chemical romance, and so do the petty tyrants that now appear as necessary allies, now again as dangerous madmen possessed of powerful weapons, as suits the mood of the day in Washington or London.

The only answer for the left can be, as always, a pox on both their houses. Nothing is sillier than the notion that in such conflicts, it becomes necessary to see one or another party as the instrument of liberation, just because they are the protagonists to the fight. We need not choose between Washington and Damascus, and indeed, it would mean absolutely nothing if we did. From neither, any form of emancipation can be expected except that final emancipation from the flesh that comes from the receiving end of a bomb or bullet. Moreover, as the anti-war coalition in 2003 also showed, the left today does not possess the power to prevent our own states from going to war, let alone that we figure in the calculations of the Syrian Army or the insurgents. It is therefore pointless to engage in grandstanding on behalf of one or another party, and the left habit of ‘upholding’ by means of uncritical whitewashing this or that side in every conflict is as pointless as it is undignified. We should not call on our states to shoot missiles, nor to send arms to the insurgents, about whom we know nothing and whose victory, if it is to have any emancipatory content at all, must take place without NATO armaments in any case. We should also not declare ourselves supporters of the tyrant of Damascus, who inherited his throne from his father (not unlike his rivals in the Gulf). His only claim to rule consists in the proven will of the Assad dynasty to level entire cities, if that’s what it takes to quell any resistance.

As always, it remains right to rebel. One cannot blame the Syrian insurgents, armed and unarmed – and it is worth pointing out that Assad’s brutal repression of unarmed resistance led to the civil war – for rising against a dictatorship that has no more legitimacy than Pinochet did. The interventions from the Gulf states have strengthened immeasurably the position of the religious reactionaries in this struggle. But this should illustrate for the left the futility of expecting regimes explicitly opposed to any emancipatory politics to sustain such politics by means of proxy war, whether Saudi Arabia or the US. What the left can’t usefully do is playing the great game of states, all the more in the absence of any state at all committed to the victory of the remaining left anywhere in the world. In most these countries, the left was only strong insofar as it was entirely beholden to the support of Moscow, and this put them in a great strategic difficulty as soon as actual revolutionary situations were to arise requiring local initiative, or if Moscow’s support were to fall away – as proven by the defeat of the left in Iran in 1979, and its virtual collapse since the fall of the USSR.

Perhaps out of the fires of the present wars in the MENA region, a new left can arise, one that obtains its strength from the struggles in the region itself, not from franchising to this or that foreign movement or international (and this includes, of course, the Trotskyist ones). But the rise of such a left is not helped by grandstanding from socialists abroad, nor from foreign interventions, nor from dressing up every political action or insurgency as being ‘really’ based in the extremely narrow organized industrial working classes of Egypt, Syria, or Iraq. Indeed, in most of the region the pervasive unemployment and unproductivity of labor makes a classically proletarian politics for now impossible: a consequence of the immense weakness of its capital, whose position is further undermined by the strength and activities of the rentier monarchies of the Gulf. All the same, countries full of young, unemployed people without a future are hotbeds for revolt in all of history, all the more so when they’re largely urbanized and not among the most desperately poor of the world. The response to this, triggered by rising food prices and the increasing weakness of the local dictators, has been a (proto-)revolutionary process – not a social revolution in economic relations, but a political process of rising consciousness and opposition to the corrupt and ineffective regimes of the region. The removal of these regimes is the absolute prerequisite for any genuinely revolutionary movement, needless to say.

It should be taken and supported as such, without any illusions about working class revolutionary politics and without the absurd theatre of ‘position taking’ every time foreign powers intervene for or against it. Ultimately, the present conflicts have nothing to do with ‘anti-imperialism’, chemical weapons, or any of these moral tales any more than the European conflicts of 1848 did. Our attitude should be that of 1848 as well: no foreign interventions, no ‘upholding’ or moralism, no overblown expectations. There may still be disagreement as to the means and the right groups to support, as is to be expected when the left is weak and has to substitute empty endorsements for action. But let’s not make this into a moral allegory. That we can oppose the tyrants, oppose the empire, and oppose the weapons of mass destruction they equally peddle in is clear enough, but it is a starting point, not a conclusion. It does not thereby prove the opposition to be the vehicle for socialist emancipation. It can’t be otherwise: there is presently no basis for such a politics. The rebellions of 1848 were all politically justified to the last, but none of them was justified by the historical conditions, and none of them could or did lead to a socialist politics. The same is true for the present 1848, the 1848 of the MENA region. I hope that the current conflicts end better than 1848 did, with its subsequent Bonapartism, though Egypt seems to suggest otherwise. Cynicism is never useful. But only by being honest about the real nature of conditions, precisely as empires and dictators can never be, can the left go beyond the moral tales of chemicals and revolutionaries.

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