Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 15, 2016

Stephen Kinzer and Jeffrey Sachs: latest recruits to the Baathist amen corner

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 10:52 pm

Stephen Kinzer

Jeffrey Sachs

It never fails to amaze me how Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin’s admirers on the left continue to see themselves as heroically challenging the status quo as if their “antiwar” position had anything in common with the martyrs who went to prison for genuine anti-imperialist beliefs. In 1918 Eugene V. Debs was convicted under the Sedition Act and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He served three years until Warren Harding commuted his sentence. Three years for making speeches like this that referred to the embattled socialist opponents of WWI:

It is the minorities who have made the history of this world. It is the few who have had the courage to take their places at the front; who have been true enough to themselves to speak the truth that was in them; who have dared oppose the established order of things; who have espoused the cause of the suffering, struggling poor; who have upheld without regard to personal consequences the cause of freedom and righteousness.

Think anybody is going to be thrown in prison for cheering on Putin’s bombing raids on Aleppo? Doesn’t take much courage for that, does it? It is more likely that it will earn you a spot on Democracy Now or Eric Draitser’s radio podcasts.

When I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, one of the first things I learned is that Farrell Dobbs, who I used to see at party HQ at 873 Broadway, had gone to prison for 16 months with other party leaders in 1944 for violations of the Smith Act—in other words writing the same kinds of articles as Eugene V. Debs. Think Mike Whitney or Eric Draitser is going to jail any time soon? In fact, these types of hacks have been busting down an open door for the past three years with their incessant warnings about Barack Obama invading Syria as a beachhead to take on Iran in the opening guns of WWIII. This was not based on any analysis of the objective conditions but a kind of conspiratorial mindset that mixed a crude anti-imperialism with the same kind of rancid Islamophobia Christopher Hitchens made infamous.

As most of you probably realize, there are very few leftists in the USA who have been opposed to Bashar al-Assad. When I am settling my accounts with my Maker a decade or so from now (if I am lucky), I will insist that writing against the Baathist dictatorship was my ticket into commie heaven. For the Baathist left, they can go straight to hell as far as I am concerned.

Over the past couple of days, I have been reminded of how mainstream the Baathist amen corner has become–almost as respectable as the Kiwanis Club. Nominally part of the left, academic mandarins Stephen Kinzer and Jeffrey Sachs have written the kind of putrid articles that appear on a continuous basis nowadays in places like Salon, Huffington Post, Jacobin (in the past), CounterPunch, the Nation, and ZNet.

Turning to Kinzer, you almost wonder if he has plagiarized Mike Whitney with his February 13, 2016 Boston Globe op-ed piece titled “On Syria: Thank you, Russia!”. My goodness, what a brave man writing such dangerous thoughts. I guess he knows that toasting the bombing raids on Aleppo that have turned the city into something looking like Stalingrad circa 1943 over the past month or so is no more subversive than being opposed to the Koch brothers.

Kinzer and Chris Hedges were NY Times reporters in the 1980s when I was involved with El Salvador and Nicaragua solidarity. Somewhere along the line they had a St. Paul on the road to Damascus type conversion except in Kinzer’s case it was not based on the radical Christian and pacifist beliefs that motivated his fellow Timesman. For Kinzer, opposition to US foreign policy was from the standpoint of Mearsheimer and Walt type realism. He wrote a book on Iran that was much more along the lines of Flynt Leverett, a former NSC and CIA operative who decided that it was in America’s interest to orient to Iran. Proletarian internationalism? Don’t make me laugh.

Kinzer is ensconced in the Watson Institute at Brown University—a think-tank obviously having little in common with the Smolny Institute. The Watson Institute is named after Tom Watson. You think maybe Brown University wanted to pay tribute to the populist leader who led poor farmers against Wall Street? Obviously not. It was started by Thomas J. Watson Jr., the former CEO of IBM, a company that in fine realist traditions sold tab machines to the Nazis to help keep track of Jewish concentration camp internees.

In 1983 Kinzer was writing the kind of crappy articles that have been written about Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. One of them was titled “Nicaragua Faces A New Shortage: Toys”. Here’s a country that had been devastated by earthquake and a brutal civil war inflicted on the people by “our son of a bitch” Somoza. So what does Kinzer write about? Literacy programs? Clinics for people who had never been to a doctor in their life? No, it is this:

Parents wait hours in line at Government-run stores for a chance to buy dolls and toy trucks. Meanwhile, in other parts of the city, private vendors peddle water pistols and talking robots at inflated prices.

What bold investigative journalism.

The Baathist amen corner would never understand that Anastasio Somoza was Nicaragua’s Bashar al-Assad. They prefer writing idiotic articles trying to make Assad sound like Daniel Ortega in the 1980s with evil contras trying to ruin his secular, diverse, and tolerant “socialist” society. Somoza’s Nicaragua and Syria were kleptocracies sustained by state terror. In the first instance it was backed by an imperialist power just as it was in the second. If Assad had not relied on Iranian and Russian muscle, his gangster regime would have fallen like a house of cards 3 years ago at least.

Kinzer’s article is a full-throated defense of the Baathist dictatorship that turns the criminal into the victim as Malcolm X used to put it:

Russia, which has suffered repeated terror attacks from Islamic fanatics, is threatened by the chaos and ungoverned space that now defines Syria. So are we. Russia’s policy should be ours: prevent the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s government, craft a new regime that would include Assad or his supporters, and then work for a cease-fire.

One supposes that these “Islamic fanatics” are like those that attacked us on 911, angry because the USA allowed women to walk around in miniskirts and because of Coca-Cola. The left countered these arguments back then, explaining that the attack had more to do with Marines being stationed in Saudi Arabia and Palestinians getting slaughtered by Israelis. But somehow it lost its way. It failed to understand what made the Chechens turn to terror. It never occurred to people like Kinzer that Yeltsin and Putin made war on a country of just a million people that had been driven from their homeland by Stalin during WWII. It does not square with their propaganda agenda.

Like Kinzer, Jeffrey Sachs also had a St. Paul like conversion. After all, he had lot to repent for with his “shock therapy” advice to Russia costing 3.2 million deaths according to Lancet. I am not sure when he got religion but ever since then he became one of these self-satisfied liberals who can be counted on for sage advice on what might make America great again. You know the drill. PBS News Hour talking about the need for eliminating greenhouse gases. Op-Ed articles in the NY Times calling for the prosecution of Wall Street criminals. All very sensible ideas but not exactly ones that will risk getting you put in jail.

His article is titled “Hillary Clinton and the Syrian Bloodbath” and at least has the virtue of calling out an obviously odious figure. What goes wrong, however, is Sachs’s addled history of Syria over the four years that puts all the blame on the USA for the ongoing disaster.

He states that Clinton sabotaged peace talks in 2012 that would have resolved the conflict:

In 2012, Clinton was the obstacle, not the solution, to a ceasefire being negotiated by UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan. It was US intransigence – Clinton’s intransigence – that led to the failure of Annan’s peace efforts in the spring of 2012, a point well known among diplomats. Despite Clinton’s insinuation in the Milwaukee debate, there was (of course) no 2012 ceasefire, only escalating carnage. Clinton bears heavy responsibility for that carnage, which has by now displaced more than 10 million Syrians and left more than 250,000 dead.

Sachs was obviously referring to the spurious revelation made by former president of Finland Martti Ahtisaari in September 2015 that when Russian diplomat Vitaly Churkin proposed a deal three years earlier that would have resulted in Assad stepping down in exchange for peace, Clinton and her allies in Britain and France said no. The only problem is that Churkin was not the ultimate authority on such matters. Much closer to Putin and certainly speaking for him, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated just four months later: “We will not support and cannot support any interference from outside or any imposition of recipes. This also concerns the fate of Bashar al-Assad.”

When the slogan of Assad’s shabiha at the time was “Either Bashar al-Assad or the country burns”, it is quite foolish for Sachs to have considered the possibility of a “Yemen-type solution” in 2012—not that this worked out that great in Yemen.

Seemingly unaware of Obama’s turn toward Iran, Sachs assures his readers that if it was not for Iran, Syria probably would have been left in peace:

As every knowledgeable observer understands, the Syrian War is not mostly about Bashar al-Assad, or even about Syria itself. It is mostly a proxy war, about Iran. And the bloodbath is doubly tragic and misguided for that reason.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the leading Sunni powers in the Middle East, view Iran, the leading Shia power, as a regional rival for power and influence. Right-wing Israelis view Iran as an implacable foe that controls Hezbollah, a Shi’a militant group operating in Lebanon, a border state of Israel. Thus, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel have all clamored to remove Iran’s influence in Syria.

Since Sachs is employed by Columbia University, you would think he’d take advantage of Nexis and other newspaper and magazine archives as I do as a retiree. Plumbing its depths, you will discover that Saudi Arabia and Assad were chumming it up not that long ago.

On March 26, 2009, the NY Times reported in an article titled “With Isolation Over, Syria Is Happy to Talk” that a proxy war was not in the offing:

It is not just a matter of the Obama administration’s new policy of engagement. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France led the way with a visit here last September. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was said to be furious at the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, welcomed him warmly in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, this month. Photographs of the two men smiling and shaking hands have been on the front pages of all the major Arab newspapers, along with frequent headlines about the “Arab reconciliation.”

And Turkey was even more accommodating. On July 24, 2009 the Times reported in an article titled “Syrians’ New Ardor for a Turkey Looking Eastward” that the countries were as close as peas in a pod:

Well-heeled Syrians had already been coming to this ancient industrial city, drawn here by Louis Vuitton purses and storefront signs in Arabic. But local shop owners say Israel’s deadly raid on a Turkish-led flotilla to Gaza in May has solidified an already blossoming friendship between Syria and Turkey, the new hero of the Muslim world.

“People in Syria love Turkey because the country supports the Arab world, and they are fellow Muslims,” Zakria Shavek, 37, a driver for a Syrian transport company based in Gaziantep, said as he deposited a family of newly arrived shoppers from Aleppo, which competes with Damascus for the title of Syria’s largest city and is about a two-hour drive from here. “Our enemy in the world is Israel, so we also like Turkey because our enemy’s enemy is our friend.”

Just three months later, things were going even better according to another NYT article:

Ten Turkish ministers, including those from the foreign affairs, defense, interior, economy, energy and agriculture departments, met with their Syrian counterparts.

The parties worked on almost 40 protocols and agreements to be put into action plans within 10 days, Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, said, according to the Anatolian Agency, a semiofficial news service.

The defense ministries agreed to draft at least three projects by the end of October, and energy officials agreed to complete the natural gas project connecting an Arab pipeline with a Turkish pipeline in the next 18 months, the Anatolian Agency reported.

“From now on, Turkey will continue walking on the same road” as Syria, “sharing a common fate, history and future,” Mr. Davutoglu said at a joint news conference. “We are going to walk hand by hand and work altogether to revive our region as a center of civilization.”

Of course all this fell apart when Assad decided that preserving his dynasty meant more than fostering capitalist relations with Saudi Arabia and Turkey. When his military began slaughtering tens of thousands of Sunnis, the Saudis and Turks began funding and arming militias seeking Assad’s overthrow. As might be expected with the reactionary character of these governments, the support came with strings attached. Groups tended to receive bigger handouts if they made political Islamic a centerpiece of the resistance.

The power of these reactionary states has been magnified by the collapse of the left internationally, something that is most keenly felt in the Middle East. We are dealing with a situation today when the revolutionary left in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere is tiny and isolated. But I’ll be damned if I stop trying to connect with them and join the Baathist amen corner. One FSA fighter still committed to the original aims of the revolution is worth more to me than 10,000 Stephen Kinzers or Jeffrey Sachses.


  1. Great and much-needed piece. It’s very much worth noting Sachs’s first claim to fame: designing and helping to impose “shock therapy”austerity programs on Russia and Eastern Europe whose pace and scope led to early deaths for millions deprived overnight of food, healthcare and housing.
    So it’s no surprise to see his latest wretched crimes.

    Comment by Andrew Pollack — February 15, 2016 @ 11:29 pm

  2. Sachs, like Krugman and Stiglitz, is not particularly politically acute. And after what he has done it terms of shock therapy around the world, he ought to just jump off the George Washington Bridge as penance. It is remarkable how so much of our liberal left is mesmerized by these people. As if somehow they would ever give real leftists the time of day. Maybe Sachs is hoping to become an economic adviser in a ruined Syria. He can add to the catastrophic misery Syrians are suffering under Assad.

    Comment by michael yates — February 15, 2016 @ 11:54 pm

  3. Kinzer also wrote a book, “A Thousand Hills”, in 2008 which even stodgy “Foreign Affairs” called a worshipful tribute to Rwanda dictator Kagame

    Comment by stanthestruggle — February 16, 2016 @ 12:27 am

  4. I have lived quite near Brown for my entire life. The Watson Institute is a bastion of neoliberal orthodoxy and, along with the Brown School of Government, has functioned as the finishing school of the Democratic Party for some time, including as alumni JFK Jr., Lincoln Chafee, and David Cicilline. As for Jeffrey Sachs, Verso published one of their quite excellent Counterblast titles devoted to him several years ago and made quite clear that he has never changed his stripes from the neoliberal that defenestrated the post-Communist Russian state in the 1990s. His work in Africa is neo-colonial missionary work of the most utterly disgusting sort. The question for me is why these neolibs are all of the sudden on the “Left”, because if that is the Left, I want nothing to do with it.

    Comment by Andrew Stewart — February 17, 2016 @ 2:20 am

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