… the Syrian War and the Meaning of Empire
by Andrew Stewart
CounterPunch (September 12 2016)
There seems to be a series of debates going on in activist circles these days that are inter-connected, the continued plight of Alison Weir and her abysmal treatment by various NGOs and the issue of who to stand in solidarity with in regards to Syria. Both are informed essentially by one foundational theoretical point, the argument over the role of the neocons in Washington and the Project for a New American Century (“PNAC”), with a significant group of people seeing everything going on in the region rooted in the PNAC policy suggestions that led us down the road to the war on Iraq and continued the brutalization of the Palestinians under George W Bush.
I think that, when we get right down to it, the ideas about PNAC are symptomatic of a kind of racism that needs to be squashed and by this I do not mean racism against white people, usually bandied about in the canard of anti-Semitism. No, what I refer to is a fundamental and irreconcilable delusion about America that only Dr Gerald Horne and a few other scholars like Constance and Ned Sublette have dared challenge.
What defines the debate around Syria right now is whether or not the opposition to Assad, which has been linked to various American NGOs, is a proxy for the United States and whether the events in Syria were part of a typical imperial espionage effort to destabilize the country in the name of American interests. The evidence for this position is very clear, the PNAC agenda included the ouster of the Baath government. However, many argue that the PNAC agenda has ceased to define American policies in the region since Obama took office and such arguments are a mechanical imposition of the opposition to the war on Iraq’s logic onto a conflict that is fundamentally different. Perhaps it bears mentioning that a certain familiarity occurs to me when comparing the debate of support to the Syrian opposition with that of whether the Kosovo Liberation Army was a legitimate opponent of Milosevic.
To my mind, this claim about PNAC is the most mistaken diagnosis of power relations in regards to the Pentagon I have come across in a long time. What we are dealing with is a chicken-and-egg scenario, a question of whether PNAC controlled the Pentagon or whether the Pentagon created PNAC.
To better understand this, we need to go back a century to the start of World War One, the event that caused the entire set of dominoes that have led us here. The question then becomes why did that war happen?
In this regard, the record is monumentally clear. After the unification of Germany and the creation of the first modern welfare state under Bismarck, the German government began to strengthen diplomatic relations with the Ottoman Empire, including in regards to energy markets. The two governments began to formulate a Berlin to Baghdad railway that would have transported oil between those two cities. This was simply unacceptable to the interconnected financial and energy corporations based in London and on Wall Street. This point is key to understand, finance and oil companies are in reality one large conglomeration and have been at least since the transition from coal to oil in the nineteenth century, if not earlier. One needs only look to the convoluted and intertwined family trees of John D Rockefeller, J P Morgan, and Nelson W Aldrich to see how deeply this goes.
It is key to understand these points because it informs the exact reason why the American government first allowed funding of the British and French war efforts before sending troops “over there”. Reams and reams of copy exist now that have obscured this understanding and instead lay the cause of the war on everything from the death of an obscure Austrian princeling to the capitulation of the Second International to colonialism in the Balkans to infinity and beyond. All these events were symptomatic of this fear of the Berlin-Baghdad railway within the oil-finance industrial complex.
The oil-finance industrial complex has had designs on the historic Levant and those same energy markets now for a century. It is a long term goal of the people who own and run America. As such, we need to understand that PNAC was a public relations campaign for this industrial complex that articulated the desires of Wall Street. To suggest that PNAC dictates policy to the Pentagon and not the other way around is based in the delusion that America is a functional parliamentary democracy and not an imperial project whose consolidation dates back to the Civil War. Neocons and neoliberals are press agents disguised as parliamentarians who do the bidding of Wall Street. It perhaps is worth mentioning here also the exact meaning of those words. The neo- prefix does not mean ‘new’ as it does in the word ‘neo-Nazi’. Instead, it designates that politician in question has embraced neoclassical economics, a set of policies and theories that redistributes the wealth of the public sector and 99% of humanity into the coffers of one percent that control the finance capital sector by inverting Keynesian economics. Indeed, while the differences between necons and neoliberals on domestic American social policies were quite profound (abortion, sexual orientation, Affirmative Action), their policies in international colonial policies were identical. In this sense we should identify various implementations of neoliberal policies by foreign politicians as acts of soft-power imperialism driven by Wall Street.
In this sense, Wall Street does want to see the ouster of the Assad government because it would benefit their profits. It is a basic fact that Bashar al-Assad, just like Slobodan Milosevic, is not a saint. For all the copy that can be generated about how the war on Yugoslavia was an imperial conquest (true fact), Milosevic was a former financial official who had enacted austerity programs to appease the WTO/World Bank cartel (also true fact), a point brought home by this fantastic lecture by Michael Parenti from 1999. After the collapse of the USSR, Yugoslavia ceased to be a useful buffer between Nato and the Warsaw Pact and the financial parasites moved in for the kill. They were able to get their man Slobo into power but at a certain point he threw up his hands and said “nope, that’s my limit, not going further”. And at that point it was bombs away. This is roughly akin to the way the US has treated Assad since he took power, he did the West’s dirty work in terms of torture and neoliberal policy implementations up to a certain point and then said “enough!”, at which point our man in Damascus became our enemy.
And in this sense also the Israel lobby is another public relations firm not for the Jewish State but for the oil-finance industrial complex. The Zionist movement was a small, sectarian effort lacking any internal coherency or unity until the British enlisted them as a proxy of colonial efforts in Palestine on behalf of the oil-finance industrial complex after World War One. It was only with backing from finance and the oil companies that Zionism was able to gain any footing in Palestine, their efforts had been futile and scattershot in the approximately two decades prior to the outbreak of the First World War. The suggestion that Zionism has somehow hijacked American imperial policy is ridiculous.
The joke that Israel is the fifty-first state carries in it a kernel of truth, the fact that American federal policies are not overridden by state policies, it is the other way around. Now, has Israel gotten a bit pushier than preferred over the past quarter century? Yes, there is no doubt about that, the Likud party has become so obnoxious that they border on megalomaniacal. But the events leading up to the end of Operation Protective Edge in 2014 are instructive here. After worldwide condemnation for the slaughter, culminating in Ban Ki Moon and other American puppets speaking out, President Obama called Bibi Netanyahu and told him it was time to stop and the slaughter ended immediately. That is significant because it tells us who controls what in the US-Israel relationship. The Israel Lobby is an American public relations firm that uses blackmail to hinder debate within the halls of power. But Obama stopped Protective Edge, meaning he controls Netanyahu.
The idea that Zionism controls America is based in a romantic narrative of governance that is racist. The unstated thesis of the entire argument is “Once upon a time America was a benign, good place and then Zionism hijacked our foreign policy, taking us down a path we would otherwise not have walked”.
But that is pure white supremacist fantasy, a Disney vision of history. Gerald Horne makes clear in his The Counterrevolution of 1776 (2016) that America was not a step forward for human decency, instead it was a militant rebellion against the advances of abolition that were taking power in the British Parliament. The commodities targeted by “taxation without representation” were slave-produced ones. The Founders were creating a garrison state to preserve chattel slavery and its political economy. Abraham Lincoln used his American Indian policies to field train the vanguard of American imperial policy that would be implemented in Latin America and the Pacific over the next fifty years. To suggest that Zionism has hijacked American policy is to fundamentally deny that America has been an empire since 1865, something that Gore Vidal spent his entire life disproving through his excellent and quite humorous series of historical novels, Narratives of Empire. In reality, Zionism learned a few things from American imperial policy and implemented mirrors of these policies on the Palestinians. Those who doubt this would do well to engage in an Edward Said-styled literary comparison of any history of the Nakba and Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970).
I think part of this issue also stems from the fact that some activists still cannot get over the fact that we never had a functional democracy. They yearn for their idealized American democracy while refusing to acknowledge that, if black and brown voices did not matter in 1776, that means the entire edifice of electoral politics and American parliamentarism is a clever and well-funded farce, defined as an ideological state apparatus by the French philosopher and quasi-Maoist Louis Althusser. This apparatus is quite powerful and underwrote why many activists jumped on the Shachtmanite Chairman Bernie Sanders bandwagon in the last eighteen months.
For those of you who have lives, Max Shachtman was the Trotskyist who went in the opposite direction of people like Ernest Mandel or Tariq Ali. While Mandel and others like him said that one should try to reform the Communist bloc, Shachtman said that the Soviet Union was beyond hope, a total failure that was irredeemable. From here he encouraged his disciples Irving Howe, Bayard Rustin, and Michael Harrington to take the skeleton of the old Norman Thomas Socialist Party and create the Democratic Socialists of America, a left caucus of the Democrats that was intended to push the party of American labor to the left and a European-styled model of social democracy while promoting a Cold War liberal foreign policy that was by 1968 to the right of both Noam Chomsky and Walter Cronkite regarding Vietnam. Perhaps it bears mentioning that, even though Harry Clark cites Harrington’s formulation of the word “neoconservative”, we should lay a good deal of blame at Harrington’s feet for promulgating hasbara in the 1970s and 1980s about how Israel’s Labour Party was a model for the Democrats to emulate despite the fact the highest level of illegal settlement expansion took place under Labour governments.
We should also seriously interrogate the notion of politicians and look to Marx himself for inspiration when dealing with Assad and Putin. He knew exactly what Abraham Lincoln was and was not as a white former railroad lawyer and son-in-law of a slave-owning family. Yet his journalism for Horace Greeley and letters to the president would make you think that the Great Emancipator was a premonition of Lenin. That is not because he was blind to Lincoln’s many massive flaws. Instead it was because he saw the Union Army as an engine of historical progress despite the flaws. Does Vladimir Putin have similar flaws? Yes, many, but his challenge to Nato and the imperial project is objectively a progressive goal and effort despite the flawed engine that delivers it. For those who would rebut me with accounts of Putin’s crimes, which I do not doubt, just take a look at the depravity of Sherman’s march to the sea, a massive moving line of marauders who killed quite a few black and wh ite men and raped quite a few black and white women. Yet Marx called their actions “matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world”. This is the difference between English empirical thinking and German dialectical thinking. In the former, the morality of the individual actors is key. In the latter, the outcome of the actions in history, despite the individual actors and their flaws, is all that matters.
The way to control American policy is through direct action politics, or, to quote Howard Zinn, “What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change”. Electoral politics is able to be used as a tool to further radicalize voters into militant activists. The delusion otherwise dismisses the fact that abolitionists ended slavery and not legislators, who were forced by abolitionists to pass laws.
Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence. His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.