Last week I found out from Robin Yassin-Kassab that the article I had written for the forthcoming issue of Critical Muslim had to be dropped upon the instructions of Hurst Publishers. My article as well as one taking on George Galloway was considered to be an invitation to a libel suit.
British libel law favors the accuser since the burden of proof falls on the author of an article. In other words, Hurst would have had to spend money on a legal defense aimed at showing my article did not defame someone like Yale professor David Bromwich who has developed a second career as a Bashar al-Assad apologist (okay, go ahead and sue me now, motherfuckers.)
I think that Robin was a lot more upset than me. I expect very little from print publishers and generally prefer to write for online publications. In fact, despite my profound admiration for the work that Robin and co-editor Ziauddin Sardar as well as my willingness to write for them in the future, my blog gets far more traffic than the print edition of CM. To this date, the Unrepentant Marxist has gotten 3,595,480 views and averages about 40,000 per month. For some writers, a print publication is proof that you are a real writer—something that amounts in my eyes to the diplomas the Wizard of Oz hands out to Dorothy’s companions. Looking at the op-ed page of the NY Times on most days, I can say that being in print is no guarantee that you have something to say.
In any case, here is the article. You be the judge.
The Betrayal of the Intellectuals on Syria
by Louis Proyect
Now in its bloody third year of warfare against its own population, the Ba‘athist dictatorship in Syria has reached a level of criminality that demands comparison with Franco’s Spain. How and why some of the West’s most prominent intellectuals continue to make excuses for Bashaar al-Assad demands an answer. Here I hope to provide such an answer, as well as to recommend an alternative intellectual and moral approach.
In 1927 Julian Benda wrote Trahison des Clercs, a book best known through its English translation “The Betrayal of the Intellectuals”. Aimed at French and German intellectuals of the 19th and 20th century, Benda—a Jew—sought to answer why so many had succumbed to racism and nationalism. His primary target was Charles Maurras, who despite writing his first scholarly article for a respected philosophy journal at the tender age of 17, ended up as the leading ideologist for Action Française, the magazine of a fascist group of the same name that backed the treasonous Vichy regime.
There are two closely related factors that help to explain how Western intellectuals have taken up the cause of a dictatorship that arguably ranks below Vichy in terms of its indifference to the norms of civilization and human rights. Firstly, there is a tendency to see the Syrian dictatorship through the prism of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was perceived rightly or wrongly as the major benefactor of radical third world regimes. That Putin’s Russia has nothing to do with the Soviet Union and that the Syrian economy had been restructured to conform to IMF guidelines does not discourage some from acting as if nothing has changed. Secondly, there is a strong tendency toward Islamophobia. When ISIS, spurned even by al-Qa’ida, was revealed to have the same relationship to al-Assad as Vichy had to Nazi Germany, the treasonous intellectuals continued to link the rebels with ISIS.
The New York Review of Books
Arguably, the New York Review of Books and its counterpart the London Review of Books have served as latter day equivalents of Action Française, serving propaganda for a vicious dictatorship that has little connection to its self-flattering image as a beacon of human rights.
Even when the title of an NY Review article foreshadows a condemnation of the Ba‘athists, the content remains consistent with the “plague on both your houses” narrative that pervades this intellectual milieu. In a December 5th 2013 article titled “Syria: On the Way to Genocide?”, Charles Glass ends up echoing the talking points of more openly Ba‘athist elements:
The introduction of chemical weapons, which have been alleged to have been used not only by the government but by the rebels as well, was only the most dramatic escalation by combatants who seek nothing short of the annihilation of the other side.
As is so often the case, the use of the passive voice allows the writer to condemn the rebels without any evidence. “Alleged to have been” leads to the obvious question as to who is responsible for the allegation. Was it Vladimir Putin? Assad’s propaganda nun Mother Agnes Mariam? Inquiring minds would like to know.
On August 20th 2012 Glass penned another article for the Review titled “Aleppo: How Syria Is Being Destroyed” that portrayed the rebels as a wanton mob invading the civilized city. He wrote:
While the urban unemployed had good reason to support a revolution that might improve their chances in life, the thousands who had jobs at the beginning of the revolution and lost them when the Free Army burned their workplaces are understandably resentful. There are stories of workers taking up arms to protect their factories and risking their lives to save their employers from kidnappers.
Since Charles Glass is a Middle East analyst for NBC News, it is not surprising that he can allude to ‘stories’ of workers taking up arms against the rebels to protect the bosses. NBC is a subsidiary of General Electric, and naturally its analyst will find arguments for preserving Ba‘athist rule. You can do business with al-Assad, but the plebian rebels might be as difficult to deal with as the Libyan militias.
Glass was in the graduate program of the American University in Beirut, but did not complete his PhD. His best-known work is “Tribes With Flags: A Dangerous Passage Through the Chaos of the Middle East”, a title redolent of Orientalism. In a March 22nd 2011 NY Times column, Thomas Friedman adopted Glass’s thesis to explain why the natives might not be ready for self-rule:
[T]here are two kinds of states in the Middle East: “real countries” with long histories in their territory and strong national identities (Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Iran); and those that might be called “tribes with flags,” or more artificial states with boundaries drawn in sharp straight lines by pens of colonial powers that have trapped inside their borders myriad tribes and sects who not only never volunteered to live together but have never fully melded into a unified family of citizens.
Libya and Syria were unfortunate enough to be the kinds of ‘artificial states’ that were unsuited for democracy.
While Glass could never be considered a world-class intellectual, NY Review regular David Bromwich occupies a rather lofty perch at Yale University, where he is Sterling Professor of English. A Sterling Professorship is the highest academic rank at Yale, awarded to the elite’s elite. It has nothing to do with silver but is named after John William Sterling who graduated in 1864 and founded the white shoe New York law firm Shearman & Sterling. He bequeathed a ten-million-dollar endowment to feather the nest of superstar academics like Bromwich, who combines an academic career with less than stellar analyses of current events.
Bromwich wrote an article for the NY Review on June 20th 2013 titled “Stay out of Syria!” It was a collection of pro-Ba‘athist talking points.
While directed against NY Times editor Bill Keller’s urging that the US conduct an Iraq-style invasion, a position that was likely to offend the sensibilities of the NY Review’s readers and even more likely to never happen, Bromwich slid easily into slander against those who were forced to take up arms against a vicious dictatorship.
Our Sterling Professor takes the word of ‘qualified investigator’ Carla Del Ponte, a UN commissioner who denied the Ba‘athists had deployed sarin: ‘This was used on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities.’ This is the very same Del Ponte investigated for prosecutorial misconduct for her role in the aftermath of the Yugoslavia wars as the Guardian reported on August 18th 2010:
“Some of the witnesses had referred to pressure and intimidation to which they were subjected by investigators for the prosecution,” said a statement from the judge in the Seselj case. “The prosecution allegedly obtained statements illegally, by threatening, intimidating and/or buying [witnesses] off.”
One Serbian witness said he was offered a well-paid job in the US in return for testimony favourable to the prosecution.
Bromwich makes sure to mention the crazed rebel who took a bite out of a dead Syrian soldier’s heart. Among those whose goal it is to make al-Assad seem reasonable by comparison, this singular act of a shell-shocked fighter has taken on iconic proportions. We must conclude that in our Yale professor’s moral calculus, the act of firing rockets originally intended to pulverize battleships or hydroelectric dams into tenement buildings is a normal way of conducting warfare, analogous perhaps to prizefighting.
The NYRB occupies a unique space in American belles lettres. Through its pages academics can address a broad audience about important matters on a weekly basis. It was launched by Robert Silvers and a few close friends during a strike at the New York Times in the winter of 1962-63. Previously Silvers held editorial posts at the Paris Review and Harper’s. As the Vietnam War and student radicalization penetrated American consciousness, the magazine regularly featured Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, and even ran an article by Andrew Kopkind backing Chairman Mao’s dictum that ‘morality, like politics, flows from the barrel of a gun.’ This was accompanied by a do-it-yourself diagram of a Molotov cocktail.
As Silvers and his staff grew older and wealthier, and as the 1960s radicalization faded, the magazine, with American liberalism, shifted toward the center – no longer a sounding board for the McGovern wing of the Democratic Party but just another voice recognizing the inevitability of Clinton-style neoliberalism.
If Silvers ever feels the need to defend himself against charges that the magazine is giving backhanded support to al-Assad, he points to the occasional article decrying rights violations in Syria, such as Annie Sparrow’s February 20th 2014 piece on the polio epidemic she describes as a ‘a consequence of the way that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has chosen to fight the war—a war crime of truly epidemic proportions.’ While nobody would gainsay the need for such articles, they are undermined by mendacious reporting of Glass and Bromwich which almost makes the case for the crimes of ‘truly epidemic proportions’.
The editors are reflecting the foreign policy imperatives of the Obama administration, which decided long ago that the preservation of Ba‘athist rule served American interests. Elite opinion is very sensitive to America’s role as hegemon, the first line of defense for liberal civilization. Just as it once decided that this meant holding the line against Communism, it now sees Islamic extremism as the first enemy.
For all the hysteria over looming American intervention in Syria, if it does come it’s more likely to strike jihadist elements of the rebel forces than the dictatorship. On March 13th 2013, the Los Angeles Times reported:
The CIA has stepped up secret contingency planning to protect the United States and its allies as the turmoil expands in Syria, including collecting intelligence on Islamic extremists for the first time for possible lethal drone strikes, according to current and former U.S. officials.
‘Extremists’ might be interpreted to encompass every fighter not conforming to the Obama administration’s definition of “moderate”, almost certainly including those who cry “Allahu Akbar” on destroying a regime helicopter.
The London Review of Books
The London Review of Books came into existence in 1979 under circumstances akin to the magazine that served as its midwife. During a yearlong lockout at the London Times and the Times Literary Supplement put on hold, a TLS editor and others launched the LRB. As they put it jocularly on the LRB website, the magazine “appeared marsupially in the New York Review of Books” until May 1980, when it ‘jumped out of the parental pouch and became a fully independent literary paper’.
Like Robert Silvers, the current editor of the LRB is of advanced years. Born in 1938, Mary-Kay Wilmers started off as a secretary despite having an Oxford degree—a common fate for women in a sexist industry. Wilmers once described herself as ‘being captivated by the left, but not of it’. And compared to the NYRB, the LRB is practically Bolshevist. It caused a major stir by publishing the Walt/Mearsheimer attack on the Israel lobby. Sadly, when it comes to Syria (and Libya), its favoured authors can barely be distinguished from Glass and Bromwich.
Wilmers told the London Times (October 18th 2009): ‘I’m unambiguously hostile to Israel because it’s a mendacious state. They do things that are just so immoral and counterproductive and, as a Jew, especially as a Jew, you can’t justify that.’ Like many on the left who have taken up the Palestinian cause, she cannot make the connection with the war in Syria where al-Assad has killed far more Palestinians than Israel over the past three years.
The LRB published a very lengthy and conspiratorial article by Hugh Roberts on November 27th 2011 asking “Who said Gaddafi had to go?” Roberts argued the dictator had substantial support and would have retained power were it not for NATO intervention. Again, Roberts – Edward Keller Professor of North African and Middle Eastern History at Tufts University – had impressive academic credentials.
Hisham Matar, a Libyan writer whose debut novel “In the Country of Men” was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, wrote the LRB to question how Professor Roberts could be untroubled by Gaddafi’s hanging of student protesters from the gates of their university. Matar was perplexed by Roberts’s focus on Gaddafi’s words rather than his deeds.
With an air of ethnocentric contempt he disregards the will of the Libyan people. Indeed, he even disapproves of calling the deposed leader a dictator, and offers Gaddafi’s comical Green Book the respectability of a serious political theory that, according to Roberts, ‘drew many ordinary Libyans into a sort of participation in public affairs’. Really? What ‘sort of participation’ was possible when every independent agency and organisation was subdued?
The first and last LRB article in solidarity with the Syrian revolution appeared on March 1st 2012, by novelist and aid worker Jonathan Littell. Littell writes about a young man named Abu Bilal with whom he lived for a few days. He followed Bilal around as he filmed funerals, the wounded, and the dead. He concludes:
The Western media rarely use these sources, apparently thinking that in the absence of one of their own reporters, these videos of horror ‘cannot be verified’. But these images, sometimes shaky, taken as close as possible to the atrocities, constitute something precious, and those who film them risk their lives every day. As Abu Slimane, an activist from Baba Amro, told me one night, ‘Our parents were enslaved by fear. We have broken down the wall of fear. Either we conquer, or we die.’
While several other useful articles appeared in 2012, the LRB’s sharp turn against the rebels the following year was signaled by Patrick Cockburn’s June 6th “Is it the end of Sykes-Picot?”, circulated widely on the pro-Ba‘athist left as incontrovertible evidence of the revolution’s failure.
The Sykes-Picot reference is key since it places Cockburn’s analysis within the framework of International Relations, an academic discipline concerned with statecraft, war, and diplomacy. The actual people on the ground fighting against dictatorship are placed in the background, if seen at all.
From that point on, LRB articles proved increasingly hostile to the revolution, even viewing the bloodstained Ba‘athist tyranny as a lesser evil.
Tariq Ali wrote against intervention in Syria on August 28, 2013, prompted by Obama’s “red line” rhetoric, an empty threat given the discussions underway with Iran. Ali made points that had been made repeatedly by Russian and Iranian state TV outlets:
The Obama administration and its camp followers would like us to believe that Assad permitted UN chemical weapons inspectors into Syria, and then marked their arrival by launching a chemical assault against women and children, about fifteen kilometres away from the hotel where the inspectors were lodged. It simply does not make sense. Who carried out this atrocity?
One wonders if Ali has ever visited the website of Brown Moses, the British blogger who proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that the sarin-laden rockets originated from regime bases. At very least one would expect an intellectual on the editorial board of Verso (Ali) to consider arguments – facts, indeed – contrary to his own.
The Obama administration had already entered into negotiations with Iran and was about to break with Saudi Arabia on its support for the rebels—as provisional as it was. Assad was willing to use sarin because he knew a thaw was in the works between America and Iran, and that there was little reason to worry about intervention. His foot-dragging on the elimination of chemical stocks is evidence of how comfortable he feels on this score.
Tariq Ali’s LRB blog piece was a prelude to Seymour Hersh’s “Whose Sarin?”, which made news everywhere. Although Hersh is much more of a journalist than an academic or intellectual, the imprimatur of the LRB gave this questionable attempt at investigative reporting more traction than it deserved. It was originally submitted to the New Yorker magazine, where Hersh is a regular contributor. When the editors found it unworthy of publication, Hersh shopped it to the LRB.
Considering Hersh’s storied reputation as the man who broke the My Lai massacre story in 1969, it’s a sorry sign of the general approach to Syria that his standards are abandoned in this case. He relies heavily on unnamed sources in the intelligence community who assure him that the rebels were not only capable of producing sarin but had actually used it. It was up to Eliot Higgins, the Brown Moses blogger, to set Hersh straight in a December 9th 2013 Foreign Policy article. Citing weapons expert Dan Kaszeta, Higgins points out that the amount of sarin required to devastate East Ghouta demands a much larger production infrastructure than the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult needed to produce several liters for its 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway. Since far more gas was used in the Syrian massacre, it would have required a factory and dozens of trained workers—a ludicrous scenario considering the chaos in Syria. On the other hand, you could apply Occam’s razor and realize that the simplest explanation is correct, namely that Assad had the means and the motivation to break the back of stubborn resistance in the poor suburbs of Damascus.
Oddly enough a 2009 article by Hersh in the New Yorker (one the editors found acceptable) foreshadowed the rapprochement between Washington and its erstwhile adversaries:
Assad’s goal in seeking to engage with America and Israel is clearly more far-reaching than merely to regain the Golan Heights. His ultimate aim appears to be to persuade Obama to abandon the Bush Administration’s strategy of aligning America with the so-called “moderate” Arab Sunni states—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan—in a coördinated front against Shiite Iran, Shiite Hezbollah, and Hamas.
Obama’s recent willingness to tilt toward Iran is one more illustration of Kissinger’s observation that America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.
A professional philosopher, author of such thorny texts as “Hegel and the Infinite: Religion, Politics, and Dialectic”, and lauded by Verso publicists as the Elvis of Marxism, few would question Žižek’s clout as both a major ivory tower figure and a public intellectual. There are few men who can switch from Lacan to “The Matrix” with such ease. Perhaps an inflated sense of his own prowess is the only explanation for Žižek’s shameful musings on Syria.
On September 6th 2013, as solidarity with the Ba‘athist dictatorship was reaching fever-pitch in the foolish expectation that Obama would launch an Iraq-style invasion, the philosopher penned “Syria is a Pseudo-Struggle” for the Guardian. The outlet made perfect sense since this supposedly liberal newspaper features Jonathan Steele and Seumas Milne, ideologues whose opinions on Syria are scarcely distinguishable from Russian and Iranian media. Along with Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn at the Independent, the voices of British liberalism have acquitted themselves poorly.
Directed against (non-existent) military intervention, Žižek’s article is laced with slander against the Syrian people. For so many of the “anti-war” intellectuals and journalists, it seems mandatory to brandish the dove in one hand while plunging a dagger into the back of the rebels with the other. Like Ali and Hersh, he is agnostic on the source of the sarin attack, referring to Bashar al-Assad as ‘(allegedly) using poisonous gas against the population of his own state’.
He continues: ‘It seems that whatever remained of the democratic-secular resistance is now more or less drowned in the mess of fundamentalist Islamist groups supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, with a strong presence of al-Qa’ida in the shadows… there are no clear political stakes, no signs of a broad emancipatory-democratic coalition, just a complex network of religious and ethnic alliances overdetermined by the influence of superpowers on the other.’
Žižek holds up the “good” Arabs in Egypt who constitute ‘a strong radical-emancipatory opposition’ to oppose the “bad” ones: ‘As we used to say almost half a century ago, one doesn’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows in Syria: towards Afghanistan.’
Context is entirely missing from Žižek’s calculation. In Egypt, there has been relative freedom for “civil society”— tenuous but real openings both before and after Tahrir Square. In such an environment, it was possible for ‘radical-emancipatory’ voices to be heard. In Syria such voices are certainly present (if only the media would hear), but snipers aimed their rifles at the heads of peaceful protesters from day one, and the struggle became militarized by necessity. Additionally, the sectarian nature and strategy of Ba‘athist rule meant that the opposition would be susceptible to its own forms of sectarianism. The blame for this should be put at Assad’s feet, not at those desperately trying to overthrow his tyranny.
Joseph Daher, a member of the Syrian Revolutionary Left Current and far more qualified to speak about his own country than Žižek with all his laurels, responded on the Syria Freedom Forever blog (18/10/2013), specifically on the supposed Talibanization of Syria:
Beginning of October and in September, different FSA brigades voted to expell ISIS from the city of Homs and Idlib. Joint Command of the “Free Syrian Army and the forces of revolutionary movement” issued a statement few weeks ago asking all foreign fighters in Syria to leave (pro-regime and Al-Qa’ida sisters), and promises to work on the revolution’s values of “freedom, dignity and social justice” and to “retain the independent Syrian decision” from foreign states.
It should be noted that anti-revolution intellectuals have said little about the opposition’s struggle with ISIS (which intensified in early 2014), no doubt because it challenges their reductionist analysis in which such “radical-emancipatory” voices as the Local Coordination Committees are ignored. It is also a function of the profound Islamophobia of an intellectual constellation which recycles the rhetoric of Christopher Hitchens, but on behalf of Syria, Iran, and the Kremlin instead of the Bush White House.
Robert Dreyfuss and the Nation Magazine
While journalist Robert Dreyfuss and the Nation don’t occupy the Olympian heights of a Slavoj Žižek, they certainly reach many in the academy who consider the magazine a reliable liberal alternative to the mass media.
The Nation has usually been content to editorialize about American intervention in Syria, using the Iraq war as an example of what could go wrong. There is also regular commentary on the humanitarian disaster, for which they do blame the dictatorship. All this is par for the liberal course.
But most of the heavy lifting has been left to Dreyfuss, author of “Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam”. Dreyfuss sees the CIA and Mossad’s fingerprints on every Islamism.
The worst of many dreadful Dreyfuss columns is “The United States Must Abandon All Support for the Syrian Rebellion” (06/09/2012). Like Žižek’s piece, it recites the alleged crimes and misdemeanors of a rebellion that never lived up the magazine’s expectations.
Dreyfuss poses a rhetorical question:
More and more, the Syrian rebellion is being reinforced by a flow of militants from Sunni Iraq, including its most radical Islamist elements who, in 2006–07, led the Al Qa’ida–type Islamic Emirate of Iraq. Does the United States really want to get embroiled in a region-wide Sunni-Shiite war?
Such an odd question to pose. It makes one wonder if Dreyfuss is a careful reader of the NY Times, a newspaper that despite other faults can be relied upon to convey elite opinion. On October 13th 2013, when the Nation, the LRB, et al were most alarmed about a Bush-style “regime change” adventure in Syria, the Times reported on the aversion to that scenario in the White House. The entire article is a challenge to Dreyfuss’s analysis, especially this:
Denis R. McDonough, the deputy national security adviser and one of the biggest skeptics about American intervention in Syria, was promoted to White House chief of staff. Mr. McDonough had clashed frequently with his colleagues on Syria policy, including with Samantha Power, a White House official who had long championed the idea that nations have a moral obligation to intervene to prevent genocide.
Ms. Power came to believe that America’s offers of support to the rebels were empty.
“Denis, if you had met the rebels as frequently as I have, you would be as passionate as I am,” Ms. Power told Mr. McDonough at one meeting, according to two people who attended.
“Samantha, we’ll just have to agree to disagree,” Mr. McDonough responded crisply.
While researching this article, I made a startling discovery – thanks to Wikipedia, the people’s research tool par excellence. It turns out that Dreyfuss was once a member of Lyndon Larouche’s organization, a movement as close to classical fascism as any ever seen in the US. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dreyfuss served as director of Middle East Intelligence for “Executive Intelligence Review”, a LaRoucheite journal. Lyndon Larouche commissioned him to write his first book, “Hostage to Khomeini”.
Is there any consistency between the Dreyfuss of today and that of 35 years ago? I would argue that there is. The Larouche movement is characterised by conspiracy theories, all directed toward convincing the gullible that nefarious forces are out to sap the vigor of American civilization. Numerous articles in “Executive Intelligence Review” promote the idea that Muslim extremists are (always) witting or unwitting tools of the West. On January 18th 2002 the magazine claimed that the Mossad created Hamas, a conspiracy theory developed originally by Dreyfuss. It dovetails neatly with all the false flag narratives about the Syrian rebels gassing their own.
In “Devil’s Game”, Dreyfuss laid out a perspective that later became widespread when a section of the left took to demonizing Arab and Muslim fighters as pawns of imperialism:
In the early 1980s Israel supported the Islamists on several fronts. It was, of course, supporting the Gaza and West Bank Islamists that, in 1987, would found Hamas. It was, with Jordan, backing the Muslim Brotherhood war against Syria. In Afghanistan, Israel quietly supported the jihad against the USSR, backing the Muslim Brotherhood-linked fundamentalists who led the mujahideen. And Israel backed Iran, the militant heart of the Islamist movement, during its long war with Iraq.
In the intellectual universe Dreyfuss inhabits, there is no greater insult than to be a CIA or Mossad asset. Anti-revolution leftists oscillate between this sort of (never evidenced) smear against the Syrian rebels, and viewing them as inimical to “American interests”. Whatever this lacks in intellectual coherence they seek to compensate for through repetition and vehemence.
After surveying the rubbish-strewn landscape of Ba‘athist apologetics, it’s a relief to discover that at least one highly qualified academic has bucked the trend. In 1968 Michael Neumann was a senior at Columbia University and deeply involved in the antiwar movement. Like the best of that generation, he never gave up his principles as he pursued his career. He is a full professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, where he started his career in 1975. Despite specializing in ethics, Neumann’s sense of right and wrong flows much more from his antiwar activism than from Plato.
There needs to be a clear distinction between the pseudo-politics of bearing witness, of “supporting” something and “taking a stand”, and the politics of trying to have some effect, however tiny, on the world. This distinction has largely been lost.
I’ve come to feel that serious politics focuses on facts, not theories. No theory is needed, only the facts and some mom-and-pop ethical principles that people can only pretend to reject. And serious politics needs to be brutally realistic and brutally mindful of priorities. Suppose, for example, freedom and democracy really do conflict with helping the poor? Too many leftists won’t even accept the reality of the dilemma, let alone say that helping the poor is more important. I have no time for such people.
Neumann is a long-standing critic of Israel. He is a supporter of the BDS movement, wrote a book, “The Case Against Israel”, and after the bloody 2008-2009 IDF assault on Gaza, asked the Israeli government to remove his grandmother’s name from the Vad Yashem holocaust memorial.
Many pro-Palestinian activists, however, willingly echoed Ba‘athist narratives on Syria. Among them is Jonathan Cook, who has written three books on the Palestinian struggle, and who endorsed Seymour Hersh’s sarin conspiracy. Cook’s moral and intellectual lapses likely stem from the false premise that Israel regards the Syrian regime as a mortal enemy, and from the fact that a Palestinian splinter group in Syria—the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command— serves the Assad regime. What was Neumann’s take on this?
I feel these people are deeply misguided, unforgivably so, but their position is at least entirely understandable.
It’s quite simple, though someone like Cook won’t admit even to himself some parts of what he knows. The Palestinians are screwed on the ground; they can’t fight Israel. Israel has absolutely no incentive to make peace and is now so powerful that it is virtually immune from international pressure. Until very recently the best hope for the Palestinians was that Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, could make things uncomfortable enough for the Israelis that peace had at least a slight chance. So naturally Cook et al. hang on to that hope.
This might be quite a dilemma – can you support a monster like Assad even to help the Palestinians? – except that the hope is dead as a doornail. Even if Assad escapes with his skin, he will be no use to anyone, and Hezbollah is only going to get weaker as its lifeline degenerates. If Cook and others faced this, they wouldn’t disgrace themselves through their sneaking support for the ‘admittedly brutal’ Syrian regime.
My final question to Michael Neumann was how he had arrived at his views on Syria. Like me, Neumann was regular contributor to Counterpunch, the website run by Alexander Cockburn whose publishing arm midwifed “The Case against Israel”. While Counterpunch could never be mistaken for the NYRBooks, it does publish some writers who would not be out of place there. Neumann answered:
First of all, there are three basically pro-Assad strains in Counterpunch. The first, as I suggested, is Cook’s. The second involves a bunch of “old Syria hands”: Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn and Patrick Seale. These old farts loved their days in Damascus (and Beirut) and won’t let go. The realities are best captured by this unforgettable piece: A Eulogy for the Damascus Bourgeoisies. I’ll assume these superannuated journalists are of no great interest to either of us. Their views don’t have much to do with the general Counterpunch outlook.
Yes, you could say I went through an evolution, starting quite a few years ago. I suppose two factors were the main cause of my change.
For one thing, I came to believe, like much of the world, that the US was weak. Like much of the world, I believe it lost, hands down, in Vietnam and Iraq, and will certainly lose in Afghanistan. I’m prepared to argue that these were military defeats. This of course doesn’t square with Counterpunch’s incurably American idea of American power, and consequently of American menace.
Second, I came to be associated through personal connections with a Syrian/Lebanese/Egyptian milieu. Since the Western left, properly speaking, hasn’t achieved anything in living memory, I came to find this milieu and of course the world it derived from a lot more interesting than the left. The Middle Eastern people also seemed much closer to reality, and that reality despite everything holds out a tiny bit of hope. Politically, the record suggests that the West is simply a lost cause.
The result is a real difference in outlook between me and most Counterpunch types, not to mention the bright lights of the Review of Books world. Most of these people have no idea what’s happening in Syria because they’re not interested: they’re only interested in each other and their sins-of-the-West obsessions. The very idea that there should be some genuine happenings in Syria is for them a non-starter, because, far more than the colonialists before them, they see Middle Eastern people as incapable of agency: these “Arabs” are just pawns in the terribly important games of America and an imaginary “anti-imperialist” block.
I support the Syrian revolution because I’ve actually tried to learn something about it, in detail. I have the luxury of having been able to spend maybe four hours a day looking at a wide range of sources from inside (or just outside) Syria, for about three years. On my blog I refute some of the sillier things people say about events.
Here are a few things I know that most Counterpunch people don’t.
The Syrian uprising is the most thoroughly popular revolution we’ve seen in ages, perhaps since 1789. It has not “fragmented” into hundreds or thousands of groups; it was never a united movement and it never had a vanguard. It is to a large extent poor, young, rural and socially conservative. The fight is not a proxy war because no one is obeying any external actors, whose support is piddling. As for the notion that the US supports the revolution, or has some oily agenda that would involve supporting it, that’s ossified thinking when the US is awash in oil.
Then there’s the fear that the revolution will bring radical Islamists to power. That’s nonsense: once Assad falls, everyone will be united against the extreme Islamists: the Saudis, Qatar, the Russians, the Iranians and Iraq, the Israelis, the West, the Kurds, and Turkey, not to mention secular Syrians. The extremists, whose hard core is indeed largely foreign, will lack both the supplies and the support to survive. The many teenage Syrians who joined up solely to fight the regime will deplete their own units.
As for the rest, yes, of course, many of the revolutionaries don’t hold Counterpunch values. But if we learned anything from Marx it would be that ultimate objectives aren’t even on the agenda until the historical conditions are in place. In Syria as in many other Middle Eastern countries, secularist regimes have brought nothing but bloody disaster, so that progress can come only via Islamist regimes. This is far preferable to Assad. It doesn’t matter what Assad may have done or supported or represented in the past. For one thing, as I said earlier, he’s finished. For another, the idea that we have a dilemma between ruthless realism and starry-eyed idealism is absurd. Whatever Castro may think, Assad isn’t Castro and he isn’t Father Stalin. He’s a rather typical spoilt Middle Eastern male who’s been crossed, and turned into a full-out monster. He has no cause and advances no cause. If you’re going to back a regime that sodomizes with broken bottles, castrates children and inserts rats in women’s vaginas, maybe you should ask yourself what you’re hoping will be achieved. The left doesn’t ask that because it’s become a stranger to the very idea of achievement. All it wants is to have, in newspeak, its “narratives” confirmed, and it confirms them by making stuff up. That’s why I prefer reading and writing for Middle Eastern people, or at least in what I conceive to be their interests.
Noam Chomsky addressed the question of intellectual responsibility in the NYRB in 1967, when the magazine was far less reflective of the inside-the-beltway consensus. His starting-point was an article on the same question by Dwight Macdonald in the 1957 “Politics” magazine. Macdonald had left the American Troskyist movement over what he perceived as its Stalinist-type authoritarianism. According to Wikipedia, he ‘denounced Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union for first urging the Poles to rebel in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and then halting the Red Army outside of the borders of Warsaw as the German Army crushed the Poles, liquidating its leadership.’ Considering the resemblance of places like Yarmouk and Homs to the Warsaw Ghetto, one imagines that if Macdonald were alive today, he too would be speaking out.
Macdonald certainly would have agreed with Chomsky’s dismissal of the claim that the Syrian revolution was a plot hatched in Langley, Virginia. In an interview conducted by Mohammad al-Attar on July 13th 2013, Chomsky succinctly described how Assad forced the revolution into taking up arms:
I don’t think the Syrians made a choice. It happened in the wake of the regime’s repressive response. Syrians could either have surrendered or taken up arms. To blame them is akin to saying that the Vietnamese made a mistake responding by force when their US-backed government started committing massacres. Sure, the Vietnamese made a choice to arm themselves, but the alternative was to accept still more massacres. It’s not a serious critique.
The comparison with Vietnam is key. For a left that lives in the past, when the Soviet Union defended countries struggling against imperialism, even if as fecklessly as Stalin, the support of Putin’s Kremlin for the Ba‘athist slaughter somehow becomes warranted. This willful neglect of historical change would be like someone supporting Bush’s war on Iraq because he was a member of Abraham Lincoln’s party.
It’s a tragedy for the left intelligentsia that so many who came of age in the 1960s, like Tariq Ali, cannot understand how much the Vietnamese peasant and his Syrian brothers and sisters today have in common. Like the Vietnamese struggling to break the chains of colonial rule, the Syrians are trying to remove a dictatorship as accommodating to imperial designs as the one in Saigon. How gladly the Ba‘athists suppressed Palestinians in Lebanon and tortured rendered suspects for the CIA.
In the 1960s the left was vigilant to tell the truth about American foreign policy. In many ways, the responsibility of intellectuals today is exactly the same as it was back then, but is made more difficult by the tendency of some to automatically put a minus where Samantha Powers or Nicholas Kristof puts a plus. Our obligation is to tell the truth independently of the geopolitical chess game. When a section of the left opts for blind loyalty to Syria, Russia and Iran (as the “silent majority” fell in step behind Nixon), it forfeits its right to speak in the name of social justice. If you apply the guidelines Chomsky made in the 1967 article to today’s world, you will be able to distinguish the truth from the lie.
IT IS THE RESPONSIBILITY of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies. This, at least, may seem enough of a truism to pass over without comment. Not so, however. For the modern intellectual, it is not at all obvious. Thus we have Martin Heidegger writing, in a pro-Hitler declaration of 1933, that ‘truth is the revelation of that which makes a people certain, clear, and strong in its action and knowledge’. Americans tend to be more forthright. When Arthur Schlesinger was asked by The New York Times in November 1965, to explain the contradiction between his published account of the Bay of Pigs incident and the story he had given the press at the time of the attack, he simply remarked that he had lied; and a few days later, he went on to compliment the Times for also having suppressed information on the planned invasion, in “the national interest”.
When so many leftist intellectuals today have decided to act on behalf of what they so wrongly perceive to be “the national interests” of Syria, up to the point of circulating lies after the fashion of Arthur Schlesinger, we have our work cut out for us. It is in our interest and that of the Syrian people not to shirk that duty.