The Washington Post has posted a graphic that allows readers to track how members of Congress are likely to vote on authorising military action against Syria, following claims that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its citizens.
In a sign of the changing times, of those representatives listed as opposed to military action, or leaning in that direction, the great majority come from the Republican Party. Just ten years ago that party marched in virtual lockstep off to a war against Iraq on the basis of jingoism and lies, and excoriated any opponents as anti-patriotic traitors. What explains the change?
In some cases, it is a case of the knee-jerk, reflexive opposition to anything the President does. This is, after all, the Congress which has dedicated itself to taking Obama down, irrespective of the consequences for the country, even when it involves them opposing tax cuts or the foreign policy decisions they signed off on. This is the Congress populated by a bunch of self-described “fiscal conservatives” who have monkeyed around spending over $50 million on futile efforts to repeal Obamacare, the legislation which over time will benefit a great many Americans even if it falls dramatically short when it comes to putting the welfare of our citizens before the profiteering of the medical and insurance industries.
But their vituperative hatred of the President can’t fully explain their opposition. Another factor, tied to the first, is the ascendancy of the Tea Party, which contains a strong libertarian strain, and more than its share of economic fundamentalists. There is overlap, but one distinction would be that many of the former are in principle opposed to overseas interventions, and many of the latter have no interest in humanitarianism, or in spending money on the well-being of people beyond our borders.
Perennial presidential candidate Ron Paul drew a strong following for his anti-war rhetoric, although my sense is that few of his followers shared his moral aversion to war, but instead simply didn’t see the sense in embroiling the U.S. in costly conflicts abroad. His son, and likely 2016 presidential candidate, Rand Paul, is carrying the tattered remains of the sceptics’ cause on the right, and is joined by others from the fundamentalist wing of the party—Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, etc. They reason that the U.S. has no direct interest in intervening in Syria, and that the government should not be spending money on non-defence military efforts.
If the GOP’s volte-face is disconcerting, so too is the backing of so many Democratic members of Congress for the President’s ill-defined and misconceived intervention. Some of them are likely equally reactive...supporting their party’s President rather than rocking the boat might explain Nancy Pelosi’s support. Others are neoconservatives of conviction, like Dianne Feinstein. Still others seem to actually believe that a brief bombing campaign or even some undefined method of regime change will constitute a successful humanitarian intervention. And some have undoubtedly grown comfortable supporting Obama’s continuation of Bush’s terrorism, which has so far given them cover from the right at the polls.
There are painfully few high-profile progressives speaking out and offering an anti-war perspective, and that is dangerous, not just for the party’s good and that of the country, but for those people who stand to feel the consequences of U.S. foreign policy debates in the years to come.
The likes of Rand Paul claim to hold some sort of moral high-ground in opposing military intervention or the assassination of U.S. citizens. But Paul is a bad joke, and his claim to morality is a hollow one when his positions come in for closer scrutiny. In the first place, his views make him something of an isolationist, largely opposed to foreign aid, international institutions and laws, and humanitarian efforts. Moreover, Paul ended his filibuster of the CIA director abruptly when he was assured that the administration would only murder foreigners.
He is one of a new breed of isolationists, who don’t want boots on the ground overseas, or elaborate entanglements, but is perfectly okay with using missiles and bombs to carry out extrajudicial killings abroad. He is unmoved by the plight of people elsewhere, and joins his fundamentalist colleagues in assailing the United Nations as a broken organisation.
Therein lies the danger of progressives abandoning the anti-war ground to the right. Warmongers from both parties have long criticised opponents of war as “isolationist”. That is true after a fashion of the reborn political right, whose representatives evince a genuine coldness towards the suffering of others (whether the people who are murdered by the military policies they support or the people who are ground down by their economic fundamentalism), and believe that the U.S. should steer clear of moral and legal commitments engendered by membership in international organisations.
But on the left the criticism of U.S. intervention has generally been of those interventions’ colonial style, impure motivations, or lack of concern for those on the receiving end of what tends to be a very blunt and generally ineffective instrument.
Yesterday, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee surveyed its members about intervention in Syria, and some 57,000 replied, not just offering a ‘yea’ or ‘nay’, but answering a series of further questions and offering comments. The results suggest that while 73% oppose military action in Syria and 81% believe that a short bombing campaign would draw the U.S. deeper into conflict, only 11% believe the U.S. should remain on the sidelines.
According to the survey, “38% say we need a diplomatic strategy involving the UN and other nations [and Russia made noises in this direction this morning, albeit perhaps cynically]. 19% say pursue war crime charges in The Hague. 19% favour aid”.
It will be easy for those on the Right and for confirmed cynics to mock a commitment to diplomacy (for which they have considerable contempt) and the international institutions which they believe to be hopelessly ineffective. But they are one of the foremost reasons why such institutions often seem inadequate to the task. Often, such institutions falter because they are so shamelessly underfunded, abused, and undermined by the big powers (the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France). If those powers committed themselves to making institutions work, and brought good-will and dedication instead of cynicism and manipulation to the floor of the UN and similar bodies, there is at least a chance that we could see some breakthroughs.
But if right-wing opposition to humanitarian interventions is allowed to set the pace, such institutions and legal frameworks—which if well-designed/implemented/executed could make a real difference—will continue to be undermined. Because of the jingoistic and violent characteristics of its exeptionalist creed, U.S. foreign policy will retain some of its nastiest elements—detention, murders, drone strikes, torture by some other name—but will be stripped of its more affirmative and humanitarian elements (which these days admittedly seem to serve as pretext rather than basis for policymaking).
The left is sadly bereft of standard-bearers who are willing to argue that war and killing are generally ineffective and damaging ways of making peace, or that intervention should be legal and responsible. As a result, the de-facto “anti-war” position in the U.S. is in danger of getting hijacked by a group of small-minded people who are not really opposed to violence, but who simply want the U.S. to rely on secretive and less far-reaching methods of destabilisation. We need progressives who are opposed to intervention in Syria to explain that they are neither isolationists nor numb to the plight of Syrian citizens, but rather believe that there are alternatives to war and that military force, if contemplated as a last resort, must be applied in a way that is likely to do more good than harm, rather than as a supplement for a President’s ego or a relief for the itch in the neocons’ trigger-finger.
I hope that representatives from the political right and left in the U.S. join together to defeat the President's request for authorisation. But it matters on which grounds this particular intervention is debated and rejected. There is, in other words, a moral case for not attacking Syria which needs to be stated forcefully and clearly.