Monday, 24 April 2017
Against FrontPage's Neocon Interventionism
The word 'FrontPage' is used in the title because praise for Donald Trump's recent military attack on Syria is the editorial position and the consensus view of that website magazine. It also seems to be the case that FrontPage generally has a neoconservative view on military intervention.
For example, FrontPage's editor, David Horowitz, makes something (as Bruce Thorton does later) of Democrat support for Trump's action against Syria. He writes (in his 'A Game Changer for Syria – but also for Trump'):
“Trump’s surgical strike against Syria’s chemical weapons base has also had the effect of moving Trump towards the center of American politics. It has received praise from such unlikely Democrats as Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, vitriolic leaders of the anti-Trump demolition squad.... Even leftwing Congressional Progressive Caucus member Louise Slaughter agreed that Trump’s strike was 'a proportionate response to Assad’s barbaric use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians'.”
Most recently we've also had 'Obama claimed that 'all' Syria's chemical weapons had been eliminated', by Larry Elder (13th of April, 2017). Here one argument seems to be that because Obama lied about Assad's chemical weapons, then Trump's air attack was justified.
Yet despite what FrontPage says about Barack Obama's cowardice, the then president - and various members of the U.S federal government (including John Kerry) - did consider intervening in the Syrian Civil War. All the same, the majority of the U.S. public was against such a thing. One poll (dated April 2013), for example, claimed that that 62% of Americans thought that the "United States has no responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria between government forces and antigovernment groups.”
It's here that it's to cite a helpful distinction between non-interventionism and isolationism. According to Stephen Walt (though I fault some of the reasons he gives for reaching his conclusion), the following distinctions need to be made:
"[T]he overwhelming majority of people who have doubts about the wisdom of deeper involvement in Syria—including yours truly—are not 'isolationist.' They are merely sensible people who recognize that we may not have vital interests there, that deeper involvement may not lead to a better outcome and could make things worse, and who believe that the last thing the United States needs to do is to get dragged into yet another nasty sectarian fight in the Arab/Islamic world."
In conclusion, in this piece, and regardless of the references to FrontPage as a whole, I'll be concentrating on Bruce Thorton's FrontPage article, 'Trump Bombs Syria. Now What?'.
Facts About Assad's Attack
Let's then think about the town which Syria's Bashar Assad attacked. It was the town of Khan Shaykhun in the Idlib Governorate of Syria. The town was under the control of Tahrir al-Sham. Which groups is that? It's an Islamist group which used to be called the al-Nusra Front; which is itself an off-shoot of al-Qaeda. Indeed Tahrir al-Sham is still called Al-Qaeda in Syria by many. That means that Assad attacked an al-Qaeda stronghold. Nonetheless, there were at least 74 people killed and more than 557 injured; at least according to the Idlib health authority. (Is that authority also under al-Nusra/Tahrir al-Sham control?)
Russia has suggested that the warehouse "may have contained a rebel chemical arms stockpile". Assad's regime denied that it carried out a chemical attack.
To slightly change tack for a moment, Obama was indeed a weak and highly suspect President; especially regarding Syria. One way he was suspect was in his support for the so-called Opposition in Syria. That Opposition is primarily Muslim Brotherhood. It also includes the al-Nusra Front (under its new name: Tahrir al-Sham), whose stronghold Assad admitted to bombing on the 3rd of April. Tahrir al-Sham is currently the single-largest anti-Assad group in Syria after ISIL . It has 31,000 fighters. Thus it's no surprise that Democrats (according to David Horowitz and Bruce Thorton) have “praised” Trump's retaliation.
FrontPage's Neocon Interventionism
Throughout his article ('Trump Bombs Syria. Now What?'), Bruce Thorton sounds like he's attacking a regime which has only just attacked the United States itself; or, at the least, attacked a close ally.
Thorton castigates Obama's lack of action on Syria and says that such a position “damages a state’s credibility and prestige, emboldening other aggressors”. One result of this, he thinks, is that it's “been a huge success for Russia, Iran, Hezbollah”. But what about Sunni militants? What about Tahrir al-Sham/al-Nusra Front? In the past FrontPage has frequently told us - and it's been correct to do so - that Obama supports the Sunni militants; especially the many members of the Muslim Brotherhood. So is it that FrontPage deems the Shia Islamic front (Hezbollah, Iran and Syria) more of a threat to the United States and Israel than the Sunni Islamic front (ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Nusra, al-Qaeda, etc.)? I personally think that a victory for Sunni Islam in Syria will be more of a danger than Assad's Syria. Assad has been virtually no threat to the United States - and only a minor threat to Israel - in recent years. Many in the Sunni front, on the other hand, would see the destruction of the United States and Israel as their first priority.
And if the Shia front is more of a threat than the Sunni front, then why not attack Iran rather than Syria? It can of course now be said that Iran hasn't just gassed its own population. True. Though was that the real or absolute reason for Trump's attack on Syria? After all, Thorton seems to think that it's just as much about “credibility and prestige” as it is about punishing the sins of Assad.
In any case, in terms of Realpolitik, it may not be deemed advisable to attack Iran (which is strong), rather than Syria (which is relatively weak at this moment in time).
Of course, if Assad's regime were to be destroyed, and then the Sunni Front took over, FrontPage will attack that regime too. And it will no doubt similarly call for an attack on a new Sunni regime in Syria.
This isn't only about conservatives versus progressives. (Though that's how FrontPage seems to see it.) It's also about conservatives/the Right versus conservatives/the Right.
Bruce Thorton puts the two-part position of “modern progressives” on this. He says that
i) “modern progressive thinking holds that the use of force represents a foreign policy failure...”
ii) And such uses of force “usually makes things worse by entangling the U.S. in escalation and quagmires”.
We can say that i) is indeed an example of “progressive thinking”. Though what about ii)? Patriotic isolationists and non-interventionists aren't against the “use of force” in principle – it depends on why, and where, force is being used.
One can believe that it's okay to go to war and even to intervene in foreign countries and yet, at the same time, believe that Syria is not a good place to do these things. Yes, “American prestige is undoubtedly important”; though that doesn't automatically come by virtue of any intervention in any country. It all depends.
Why Did Trump Attack Syria?
Bruce Thorton admits that Trump's attack had little or nothing to do with the immorality of chemical attacks. Thorton gives us his reasons why. He writes:
“... in the 60’s Nasser attacked Yemenis with chemical weapons, in the 70s Cuban mercenaries used them against Angolans, and in the 80s Iraq inflicted 50,000 casualties on Iran with chemical weapons during the Iraq-Iran war. No one seemed to think a military response was necessary to deter further such heinous act and to uphold 'international norms'.”
Thus the attack was also about “prestige”.
Indeed Thorton himself puts this position when he asks the following questions:
“We all deplore the killing of “beautiful babies,” as Trump said, but children across the globe are being killed every day. Half a million people, thousands of them children, have died in the Syrian conflict so far. Why is it that 23 children being killed by sarin gas is beyond the pale and requires us to act, but thousands more being obliterated by bombs or riddled by AK-47s or tortured to death by Assad’s goons aren’t? Heart-rending optics shouldn’t be the arbiter of our interventions.”
The problem is that Thorton chose the “thousands of children” who've been killed in Syria. He wasn't referring to the many other wars which plague the world at this moment in time. Thus what about the thousands of civilians who've died in the Sudan, Congo, Yemen, Libya, Nigeria, etc.?
In any case, in Thorton's eyes, the “best way to deter such behavior is to completely destroy the capacity to indulge it”. In other words, interventionism must achieve something big. And in order to do that, there'll inevitably be many civilian causalities. However, in the long term (so the argument must go) it'll save lives and protect the West. Yet it's precisely because such actions cause so many civilian causalities that no regime has done such a thing in recent years. And it seems possible (or even likely) that Trump won't do so either.
Let Tony Blair Define 'Neocon'
In all the above it doesn't actually say what the word 'neocon' means. Indeed
some people will take issue with my use of the term. Perhaps it won't help matters using Tony Blair (the former British Prime Minister) as a very good example of a neocon interventionist. Nonetheless, in terms of interventionism (if not everything else), Blair was, and still is, the perfect neocon. And that alone should tell us why neoconservatism ain't really conservatism.
FrontPage can hardly have too many problems with what Blair says. After all, much of what Blair argues (in his autobiography A Journey) has been replicated in FrontPage.
In any case, Blair first questions the word “neoconservatism”. He then fully endorses the concept (or doctrine) neoconservatism.
Blair has a problem with the word 'neoconservatism' because he can't see how neoconservatism is deemed to be conservative in any respect. Nonetheless, Blair does tell us what others mean by the term. This: “It means the imposition of democracy and freedom...” To many, I suspect, the idea of the imposition of democracy and freedom almost amounts to a contradiction in terms. Indeed it's similar to Rousseau's notorious mantra: “You shall be forced to be free.” Apart from that, in order for democracy and freedom to germinate, they have to be placed in the right political, social and moral environment. If that's not the case, democracy and freedom will simply wilt and die.
Blair goes into greater detail about the seemingly nonsensical nature of the word 'neoconservatism'. He writes:
“It [his position on foreign policy] also utterly confused left and right until we ended up in the bizarre position where being in favour of the enforcement of liberal democracy was 'neoconservative' view, and non-interference in another nation's affairs was 'progressive'.”
In other words, the interference in other nations' affairs is progressive; whereas non-interventionism is, in fact, a conservative position (at least according to Blair himself). What's more,
“what [neoconservatism] actually was, on analysis, was a view that evolution was impossible, that the region [the Middle East and elsewhere] needed a fundamental reordering.”
Neoconservatism is actually revolutionary in nature; at least when applied to foreign countries. In terms of recent history, we can see that Blair completely endorsed the position articulated above.
Tony Blair also argues for a “new geopolitical framework”. And that means “nation-building”. Moreover, it
“requires a myriad of interventions deep into the affairs of other nations. It requires above all a willingness to see the battle as existential and to see it through, to take the time, to spend the treasure, to shed the blood....”
Yes, Blair is in favour of “myriad [ ] interventions deep into the affairs of other nations”. That would require a Western state to be permanently on a war footing. It would also require the lives of very many Western soldiers. We must, in other words, be prepared to “shed the blood”.
Historically, Blair dates the rebirth of neoconservatism to “George Bush's State of the Union address in January 2002”. It was then that George W. Bush made his “famous... 'axis of evil' remark, linking Iran, Iraq, Syria and North Korea”. Interestingly enough, that axis remains the same today (minus Iraq); with an added emphasis on Syria.
In a speech given in 1999 to Congress, Blair also said the following:
“I had enunciated the new doctrine of a 'responsibility to protect', i.e. that a government could not be free to grossly to oppress and brutalise its citizens.”
Clearly this applies to the purported chemical attack on the Syrian people by Assad's regime. Though, it must be stated, it could in principle be applied to literally dozens of other regimes throughout the world.
No government or military can live up to this doctrine. There are far too many “oppressed and brutalised” groups. Thus, as with Trump's attack on Syria, neocons (as well as others) simply end up arbitrarily choosing the peoples they want to protect and then forget about the rest.
This is at the heart of the neocon problem: too many interventions and too little moral and political consistency.