Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 17, 2015

Patrick L. Smith: the latest inductee into the Baathist hall of shame

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 6:37 pm

Patrick L. Smith

In 2014 I submitted an article titled “Treason of the Intellectuals” to Critical Muslim, a journal co-edited by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Ziauddin Sardar. It was rejected because of Britain’s strict libel laws. You can read it here, however: https://louisproyect.org/2014/06/04/i-run-afoul-of-stringent-british-libel-laws/. It examined how a number of high-profile scholars and journalists including David Bromwich and Seymour Hersh have lent themselves to the Baathist cause. After reading Patrick L. Smith’s article in Salon.com titled “Putin might be right on Syria: The actual strategy behind his Middle East push — and why the New York Times keeps obscuring it”, I decided that an addendum was necessary. Smith is both a veteran journalist and a scholar, having written for the International Herald Tribune and served as a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong. Yale University published his latest book “Time No Longer: After the American Century” so the fellow is no slouch.

I have learned, however, that such recognition is no guarantee against being a bullshit artist. In an interview given to Smith on Salon.com, Perry Anderson—one of the most celebrated Marxist authors of the past half-century—told Smith that “Stalin remained a communist who firmly believed that the ultimate mission of the world’s working class was to overthrow capitalism, everywhere.” I guess in his dotage Anderson has forgotten everything he ever wrote about Trotsky. No wonder Smith, who is a Putinite sufficient enough to embarrass Mike Whitney, would find Anderson’s “Marxism” to his tastes.

In another Salon.com interview that has the same character as Charlie Rose interviewing Bill Gates or Stephen Spielberg, Smith sat down with Stephen F. Cohen. You can imagine the tough questions he posed to the professor emeritus whose decline has been as steep as Anderson’s.

Smith grills the professor emeritus like Mike Wallace turning the heat up on a corporate polluter, right? Er, not exactly:

Smith: The Ukraine crisis in historical perspective. Very dangerous ground. You know this better than anyone, I’d’ve thought.

Cohen: Our position is that nobody is entitled to a sphere of influence in the 21st century. Russia wants a sphere of influence in the sense that it doesn’t want American military bases in Ukraine or in the Baltics or in Georgia.

I suppose in a realpolitik sense, Cohen is completely right. If the USA can have a base in Guantanamo, why can’t Russia protect its own interests in Ukraine and Syria? That’s the way it goes. If the USA can pulverize Allende’s Chile using its military as its hit man, why can’t Putin use his air force to make sure that his naval base in Tartus is defended? All’s fair in love in war (but maybe not in socialism.)

Turning now to Smith’s latest dreck, it is the sort of article that should be studied in journalism school for those with their heart set on writing for Newsweek or Time—in other words, the kind of places where people like Smith, Robert Parry and other converts to the Kremlin’s foreign policy have worked for decades. Written as a critique of the NY Times, Smith adopts many of its own dodgy techniques but on behalf of its nemesis Vladimir Putin. Since so much of the left is fixated on putting a plus where Thomas Friedman or Nicholas Kristof put a minus, it makes perfect sense that Smith would take a whack at the NY Times. My advice to aspiring journalists is to keep an independent class perspective no matter how difficult that is in such trying times.

Contrary to the NY Times, Smith feels that “Very simply, we have one secular nation [Russia] helping to defend what remains of another [Syria], by invitation, against a radical Islamist insurgency that, were it to succeed, would condemn those Syrians who cannot escape to a tyranny of disorder rooted in sectarian religious animosities.” Breathtaking, simply breathtaking.

Is Smith aware that the Russian Orthodoxy has blessed this intervention?

Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 1.56.15 PM

Furthermore, a state has obligations beyond being “secular”. Leaving aside the question of how secular Syria was, it was a family dynasty that ruled through terror. Bashar al-Assad’s father came to power in a coup, after all. After he died, his son was offered in 2000 to the Syrian people through an uncontested referendum in which you could vote either yes or no. The Baathist election officials reported 99.7% of voters voted for him, with a turnout of 94.6%. Can you fucking imagine that? Salon.com, which runs articles 35 times a year screaming about election irregularities in the South (which it should) now features one that winks at this kind of demonstration “election”. Joan Walsh should be ashamed of herself.

For Smith, the Baathist selling point is that its bureaucracy exists:

The Assad government is a sovereign entity. Damascus has the beleaguered bones of a national administration, all the things one does not readily think of as wars unfold: a transport ministry, an education ministry, embassies around the world, a seat at the U.N. In these things are the makings of postwar Syria—which, by definition, means Syria after the threat of Islamic terror is eliminated.

So amusing to see such naked worship of the accomplished fact. The same litmus test could have been applied to Pinochet’s Chile or Suharto’s Indonesia.

Like so many on the left, using the term charitably, Smith views Obama as being just as intransigent as George W. Bush, maybe more so:

We can demonize Putin, Russia, Iran, Assad or anyone else we like. We lose in the end, because we destroy our capacity to see and think clearly. What we are doing in Syria today is Exhibit A.

Russia and its leader as Beelzebub is an old story. Obama, after his fashion, has simply bought into it. This is now irreducibly so, and the implications refract all over the place: Ukraine and the prospects for a negotiated settlement, Washington’s long-running effort to disrupt Europe’s extensive and complex interdependence with Russia. The unfolding events in the Middle East weigh heavily against any constructive turn in American policy on such questions.

If you read between the lines of this sort of inside-the-beltway prose, you understand what both Smith and Stephen F. Cohen yearn for, namely a kind of understanding between major powers over how to divide up the world into spheres of influence after the fashion of Yalta and Potsdam. If you are unlucky enough to be born a Sunni in Syria or a Ukrainian but outside of Donetsk or Luhansk, tough luck. That’s the way the cookie crumbles. Learn to live with it unless you want to get blasted to hell like the Chechens.

Showing that he is up to speed on the amen corner, Smith refers his readers to Thomas Harrington, the Trinity professor who blames Syria’s current woes on a 1996 article written by neocons. I have already dealt with Harrington’s nonsense here: https://louisproyect.org/2015/10/13/an-exchange-with-a-member-of-the-baathist-amen-corner/

He also cites Gary Leupp, another professor who writes for CounterPunch (and in the process throws scholarly standards out the window). Apparently Leupp believes that “the bulk of the peaceful protesters in the Syrian Arab Spring want nothing to do with the U.S.-supported armed opposition but are instead receptive to calls from Damascus, Moscow and Tehran for dialogue towards a power-sharing arrangement.” Looking for a citation on that? Don’t hold your breath. Leupp just made it up. After all, the ends justify the means. If you are writing propaganda to keep a blood-soaked dictatorship in power, why not assert that “the bulk of the peaceful protestors” are receptive to calls from Damascus, Moscow and Tehran. Frankly, I haven’t read such brazen bullshit outside of Rupert Murdoch’s NY Post editorial page.

But nothing tops this: “Thank you, professor. Now we know why the flow of refugees runs toward secular, democratic Europe and not areas of the nation Assad has lost to rebel militias.” Maybe that’s because Assad’s air force has the most puzzling tendency to drop bombs on the homes of people living in such areas. If you want background on that, have a look at Picasso’s “Guernica”.

8 Comments »

  1. > Looking for a citation on that? Don’t hold your breath. Leupp just made it up

    Indeed, the reverse is the case.

    Very interesting. The Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCC) have traditionally been opposed to any sort of paramilitary action.

    http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/2539/syrian-local-coordinating-committees-on-taking-up-

    Now after Russia’s intervention it has decided that a line has been crossed.

    “The LCC calls upon all revolutionary forces and factions to unite by any means and respond to the Russian aggression.”

    Comment by Lev Lafayette — October 17, 2015 @ 8:52 pm

  2. Lou, if we take the Spanish Civil War analogy all those intellectuals are supporting the Stalinists but you’re supporting the conservative Republican groups (and maybe if we pretend that a monarchist group broke with Franco on the side of the Republicans because of Al Nusra). If we’re going to “break with both sides” why just side with the CNT?

    Comment by cartoondiablo — October 18, 2015 @ 6:45 pm

  3. It is better to avoid analogies with Spain since there was a powerful left movement there which is completely lacking in Syria except for the CP that is pro-Assad. In terms of “conservative Republican groups”, I don’t think this sounds very much like that:

    http://harpers.org/archive/2012/08/welcome-to-free-syria/
    All around Taftanaz, amid the destruction, rebel councils like this were meeting—twenty-seven in all, and each of them had elected a delegate to sit on the citywide council. They were a sign of a deeper transformation that the revolution had wrought in Syria: Bashar al-Assad once subdued small towns like these with an impressive apparatus of secret police, party hacks, and yes-men; now such control was impossible without an occupation. The Syrian army, however, lacked the numbers to control the hinterlands—it entered, fought, and moved on to the next target. There could be no return to the status quo, it seemed, even if the way forward was unclear.

    In the neighboring town of Binnish, I visited the farmers’ council, a body of about a thousand members that set grain prices and adjudicated land disputes. Its leader, an old man I’ll call Abdul Hakim, explained to me that before the revolution, farmers were forced to sell grain to the government at a price that barely covered the cost of production. Following the uprising, the farmers tried to sell directly to the town at almost double the former rates. But locals balked and complained to the citywide council, which then mandated a return to the old prices—which has the farmers disgruntled, but Hakim acknowledged that in this revolution, “we have to give to each as he needs.”

    Comment by louisproyect — October 18, 2015 @ 7:23 pm

  4. NBC News admits that the so-called Free Syrian Army is a myth.
    http://www.frontpagemag.com/point/203725/nbc-news-admits-free-syrian-army-myth-daniel-greenfield

    You have some explaining to do, Proyect. You should crawl at the feet of the Syrian people and beg their forgiveness for misleading people about the nature of the struggle they are involved in. You have championed a counter revolution as a revolution and in the process given succour to the most barbaric and bestial forces the world has seen since the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.

    Shame on you.

    Comment by John Wight — October 19, 2015 @ 10:05 am

  5. The fact that a conservative magazine, no lover of Assad or Russia or Iran, carries this story illustrates the extent to which even reactionaries have come round to admitting what you continue to refuse to.

    The DIA classified document, released a few months back, makes it clear that as early as 2012 the Syrian opposition was dominated by Salafists and religious extremists, supported and funded from within Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and Turkey.

    These are the forces you have lined up with.

    Comment by John Wight — October 19, 2015 @ 10:21 am

  6. First it was the West Point anti-terrorism center, now it is David Horowitz’s Front Page you want us to believe. If you want to get information on the FSA, it is best to consult Vice–a news outlet that is on the left and quite respected.

    https://news.vice.com/video/the-battle-for-syrias-south-full-length

    Comment by louisproyect — October 19, 2015 @ 1:32 pm

  7. In a sense you’re both right.

    The FSA are secular democrats. The various Islamicist factions that are part of the SRCC opposition umbrella (Islamic Front, al-Sham) are not. Outside the SRCC, the Kurds are, and Daesh are obviously not. Within the Assad regime, the government officially is, kinda-sorta, but Hezbollah are not.

    Thus one ends up with a strange set of preferences. From my own perspective it’s Kurds (1), FSA (2), Assad (3), Rebel Islamicists and Hezbollah (4), Daesh (5)

    Comment by Lev Lafayette — October 20, 2015 @ 12:40 am

  8. @Lou, that article overplays what the LCCs (which is what the “tansiqiyyats” refers to) actually do, yes they still exist and have one seat on the FSA exile government, but they’re far from being “miniparliaments,” they’re local media centers basically used to report casualties. The only place with actual local parliaments (really assemblies which are both delegated and elected) is Rojava.

    “We are also discussing theses issues—there is no ready-made formula to apply. Talking with numbers can help. Qamişlo has 6 different districts. Each district has 18 communes, and each commune is made up of 300 people.

    Now each commune has 2 elected co-presidents. And each commune has different committees. The 2 elected co-presidents from each commune come together to make up the people’s council of that district.

    Then each of these 6 district people’s councils elects 2 co-presidents. So from Qamişlo’s 6 districts, 12 people make up the citywide people’s council of Qamişlo. But 12 people alone can’t make up the council—it’s supposed to have 200. So in addition to these 12 people, the others are directly elected. Even if you’re not on a committee or weren’t elected in the commune, you can put their name out and potentially be elected.”

    http://www.biehlonbookchin.com/rojavas-communes-and-councils/

    Comment by cartoondiablo — October 20, 2015 @ 9:21 pm


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