Cruelty with a Point: The Continuing US Immiseration of Syria

[We] take our rewards in the goodies of the imperial marketplace and in the false coin of self-righteousness. – William Appleman Williams*

By Stephen Gowans

August 19, 2020

Two US scholars, writing in the unofficial journal of the US State Department, Foreign Affairs, have denounced the cruelty of US intervention in Syria, while passing over its criminal and imperialist nature, and accepting as legitimate assumptions underlying US foreign policy about the fundamental goodness of the United States and the fundamental depravity of its victims.

In The Pointless Cruelty of Trump’s New Syria Sanctions, Joshua Landis, a professor of Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma, and Steven Simon, Senior Director for Middle Eastern and North African Affairs at the White House from 2011 to 2012, denounce the sanctions Washington has inflicted on Syria. However, far from being an anti-imperialist j’accuse, the piece perpetuates myths about the aims of US foreign policy and sanitizes the nature of the US intervention.

washingtons-long-war-on-syriaThe problem with US sanctions, the authors argue, is that they’re pointlessly cruel, which is to say that they are at the same time highly punitive and incapable of achieving the goals they are putatively designed to achieve. Presumably, cruelty, if it worked, would have a point, and would be acceptable; but the current cruelty does not work and therefore is pointless and should be brought to an end, the scholars contend.

What sanctions have failed to achieve, and will continue to fail to achieve, Landis and Simon argue, is the replacement of the current Syrian government with one acceptable to the United States. If the Syrian government has yet to fall, despite the enormous efforts the US government has made to see that it does, more sanctions are not the answer. Landis and Simon write:

“Assad and his supporters won the country’s civil war against considerable odds. They did not crack when rebels massacred their entire national security team early in the war; they did not crack when they lost Palmyra, Idlib, half of Aleppo, the oil fields, the northeast, or the southeast; they brushed off Trump’s 60-second bombing campaign; and they withstood an energetic U.S. effort to equip and train the armed opposition. If nine years of brutal violence … did not defeat Assad and his military, economic embargoes are unlikely to faze him.”

The most conspicuous aspects of the US intervention in Syria are its flagrant illegality and manifest imperialism, yet at no point do the scholars point out that the US occupation of northeastern Syria, the US take-over of Syria’s oil fields, US training and funding of insurgents, US missile strikes on Syria, and the imposition of coercive economic measures, are criminal, murderous, and anti-democratic, though they openly acknowledge that Washington has pursued all of these means to achieve its goal of overthrowing the Syrian government.  It’s as if Landis and Simon set out to write an article about the history of Hiroshima and somehow overlooked the fact that it was the site of the first atomic bombing. Landis and Simon fail to mention the following additional expressions of US imperialism: US complicity in Turkey’s military occupation of northern Syria and US endorsement of the Israeli annexation of the Syrian Golan.

The goal of the US intervention, thoroughly anti-democratic in stamp, is to impose the US will on another people. Landis and Simon fail to question the legitimacy of this goal. Instead, they accept the aim as a desirable part of a larger US project of constructing “an international liberal order premised on the conviction that free trade and a vital middle class [will] produce democratic governance and societal well-being.”  What free trade will produce, pace Landis and Simon, is not democratic governance and societal well-being, but continued poverty for poor countries, and continued affluence for the wealthy. Poor countries are incapable of competing on a global level against rich countries, and can only develop economically by emulating the policies rich countries themselves pursued to become rich: tariff barriers to nurture infant industries, industrial planning, subsidies, state-owned enterprises, and restrictions on foreign investment. [1]

Free trade is central to the story of why the United States has waged a long war on Syria. The Syrian government’s failure to open its economy to US investment and exports on US terms, and insistence on independent economic development—emulating what the rich countries did to become prosperous—is as much a part of the reason Washington has tried to oust the Assad government as is the fact that Damascus has long irritated Washington by acting as a beacon of local independence and national assertiveness in the Arab world.  Assad vowed in 2013 that “Syria will never become a western puppet state” and that his government would do whatever was necessary to “best serve the interests of the Syrians,” not the West.  [2] Promoting the interests of a republic’s citizens is what a president is supposed to do, remarked Robert Mugabe during an address to the United Nations General Assembly, but under a US-superintended liberal order, what presidents are really supposed to do is submit to a global order based on free trade designed to promote the interests of US investors. Syria has been non-compliant with the US-agenda, operating what US government researchers described in a 2005 report as a largely publicly-owned, state-planned economy based on “Soviet models” while supporting Hamas and Hezbollah, [3] enemies of US-attack dog, Israel, the Zionist state in colonized Palestine.

From the birth of the US empire as 13 British colonies in a stolen land to the present day, the foundation of the empire’s foreign policy—guiding its continental expansion, and then its extra-continental enlargement through formal and informal colonialism—has been to crush any force of local independence and national assertiveness that stands in the way of US economic interests.  Washington must replace the Syrian government with one that accepts the international liberal order, an order which various figures in the US foreign policy establishment have described as: created by US officials with US interests in mind and US prosperity (though unmentioned, specifically that of corporate America) as its goal.

The late John McCain wrote that “We are the chief architect and defender of an international order governed by rules derived from our political and economic values. We have grown vastly wealthier and more powerful under those rules.” [4] Barak Obama described the US-superintended international order as one upon which US prosperity depends. [5] The recently deceased Brent Scowcroft, a US national security power broker,  “for decades mentored generations of national security professionals … in a realist brand of foreign policy that championed a U.S.-led international order … and looked on revolutionary change with suspicion.” [6] Revolutionary change, it should be noted, often involves transferring ownership of economies from foreign investors to local governments or local business people, an act inimical to US investor interests.

If we’re to be honest, the prosperity of investors and high-level executives of major corporations is the principal aim of the liberal (note, not liberal democratic, but liberal sans democratic) international order which Landis and Simon cite as the desired end of US policy. The prosperity of US citizens en masse—Main Street not Wall Street—is not the primum mobile of US foreign policy. Neither is building democratic governance and middle-class societies abroad an authentic goal, however much this deceit figures in the rhetorical flourishes of various US experts in casuistry, Landis and Simon included.

One need only look at Latin America, a region on which Uncle Sam has long imposed his will. The outcome of the United States’ smothering influence after hundreds of years is that Latin America remains poor, despite its being forced, often at the point of a US gun, to accept US economic prescriptions based on free trade, a regime William Appleman Williams once described as a piratical “We need, you give.” [7] Those prescriptions, while dishonestly presented as the key to a future Latin American prosperity, have left the region stagnating in poverty. Meanwhile, the United States has prospered.

Landis and Simon have constructed their argument within a framework of assumptions that accepts without question that the United States wants to “make a positive contribution to regional development” and create “freedom and advancement” in Syria (presumably just as it promised but failed to do in its Latin American backyard.) Clearly, the United States has delivered neither freedom nor advancement to either Syrians or Latin Americans. Instead, in Syria, US policies have led to the strangulation of the Syrian economy, immiseration of the Syrian people, and creation of public health and refugee crises.

To explain the contradiction of an allegedly benevolent US foreign policy producing obviously malevolent results (the foreign policy equivalent of the theodicy problem—How can an omnipotent God be benevolent if he allows misery and cruelty to flourish?), Landis and Simon point, not to the obvious answer that US foreign policy is not benevolent, but to US-produced malignancies as the unintended consequences of policy missteps by the US foreign policy establishment. US intentions are good, they contend, but US officials have blundered; they’ve drawn from the wrong policy set. Economic warfare ought never to have been pursued against Syria, they argue, because “there is little evidence that economic sanctions ever achieve their objectives. Even the best designed sanctions can be self-defeating, strengthening the regimes they were designed to hurt and punishing the societies they were supposed to protect.”

What Landis and Simon don’t accept, despite the evidence staring them in the face, is that sanctions were never intended to protect foreign populations. Instead, they were deployed to do precisely what they almost invariably do—immiserate.  If the stated aim of policy x is to produce y but almost always produces z, at what point do you accept that z is the real aim and that y is a misdirection?

The point of immiserating a people—what makes the cruelty rational, rather than pointless—is to weaken local forces of independence and national assertiveness to the point that they’re no longer capable of challenging US power. A further objective is to make an example of such forces so that other countries never emulate them, seeing subordination to the US will as preferable to being sanctioned (and in some cases bombed) back into the stone age. For the United States, the fewer independently-minded rich countries to compete against, the better. Washington doesn’t want Syria or Iran following a development model that will monopolize profit-making opportunities, exclude US investors and exports, and set the two countries on a path to becoming future Chinas (though on a much smaller scale.) The US grievance against China is that it used its opening to US economic penetration to acquire the capital and know-how necessary to build, under a regime of dirigisme and industrial planning, home-grown enterprises which now compete against—and sometimes out-compete—US enterprises for the same profit-making opportunities. Washington is dead-set against allowing Syria and Iran do the same.

In her study of the Vietnam wars, Marilyn B. Young wrote that by the early 1950s, the US foreign policy establishment “had accepted a set of axioms … as unquestionable as Euclid’s.” The first axiom, she wrote, could be summarized as follows:

“The intentions of the United States are always good. It is possible that in pursuit of good ends, mistakes will be made. But the basic goodness of US intentions cannot ever be questioned. The intentions of the enemies of the United States are bad. It is possible that in the pursuit of bad ends, good things will seem to happen. But the basic badness of enemy intentions cannot ever by questioned.” [8]

The axiom reverberates throughout the Landis and Simon piece; indeed, it is the glue that holds it together. Not only are US intentions in Syria good, but the basic badness of the Syrian government (demonized accordingly as a regime) cannot be questioned. This leads Landis and Simon to argue that sanctions should be abandoned because “Assad doesn’t care if more of his people starve.”

We have no evidence of whether Assad cares or doesn’t care about whether Syrians starve, except this: By failing to bow to US aggression, he allows US sanctions policy to continue, and therefore condemns Syrians to starvation as victims of US policy. This is tantamount to saying that FDR didn’t care about whether US conscripts died in a terrible war, citing his failure to bow to Japanese aggression as evidence. According to the axioms of US foreign policy, standing up to foreign aggression is heroic when it’s done by US leaders, but sinister when done by foreign leaders in response to US aggression.

While we don’t have evidence of indifference to the suffering of Syrians on the part of Assad, we do have evidence of US indifference to the fate of Syrians. It is after all, Washington, not Assad, that pulled the trigger on the starvation policy. Blaming sanctions-related Syrian deaths on Assad is equal in principle to attributing WWII US military casualties in the Pacific to Roosevelt.

We have further evidence of Washington’s indifference to the misery of foreign populations. Washington cared not one whit that it killed over half a million Iraqi children under the age of five through sanctions-related disease and malnutrition. When this figure was cited by a UN agency in 1995, and accepted by the US government as valid—and moreover, defended as ‘worth it’—sanctions continued for another eight years, and the US-produced Golgotha grew ever larger. No tears were shed by US leaders.

What’s more, the US government doesn’t care if Iranians starve.  The “Iranian leadership,” warned US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, “has to make a decision that they want their people to eat.” [9] Unless Tehran accepts US demands—a long list that amounts to Iran surrendering the right to make consequential decisions independent of US oversight—Pompeo is prepared to see this grim outcome brought to fruition.

But in the morally astigmatic view of Landis and Simon, it is Assad, Saddam, and the Ayatollah who starve their people by refusing to submit to a US-superintended international liberal order of free trade, and not the United States, which punishes states that are refractory to this demand by strangling their economies and starving their populations.  Domenico Losurdo cited Frantz Fanon. “When a colonial and imperialist power is forced to give independence to a people, this imperialist power says: you want independence? Then take it and die of hunger.” Losurdo continued: “Because the imperialists continue to have economic power, they can condemn a people to hunger, by means of blockades, embargoes, or underdevelopment.” [10]

For all its failings, the Landis and Simon article reveals the depravity of the US intervention in all its repugnant detail. The scholars acknowledge that:

a) Washington is pursuing a “scorched-earth policy” whose aim is “to gain enough leverage to reconstitute the Syrian government along the lines that the United States imposed on Japan after World War II.”

b) To that end, the US is “systematically bankrupting the Syrian government.”

c) “To increase pressure” on Syria, Washington has “endorsed Israeli strikes against Syrian territory and Turkish expropriation of Syrian energy resources. It has also closed the main highway to Baghdad to choke off trade.”

(d) Washington has hired “a U.S. firm to manage the oil fields”  (that are now under an illegal US military occupation. Not only is Turkey freebooting in Syria; so too is the United States.)

e) Washington has designed its sanctions “to make reconstruction impossible. The sanctions target the construction, electricity, and oil sectors, which are essential to getting Syria back on its feet.”

f) The United States has added humanitarian exemptions to its sanctions, but the exemptions are “deliberately vague” to produce “overcompliance”—a phenomenon in which nongovernmental organizations decline to provide humanitarian aid out of fear that they will become inadvertently entangled in complex legal issues and will themselves to be subjected to US sanctions.

g) “Blocked from reconstructing their country and seeking external assistance, Syrians face mass starvation or another mass exodus.”

It is important to emphasize that the opposition of Landis and Simon to US intervention in Syria is predicated, not on the intervention’s  imperialist and criminal character, but on its cruelty. This suggests a parallel with the opposition that arose in the West to the rape of the Congo by Belgium’s King Leopold.  There were two classes of critics: those who opposed Leopold’s imperialism (mainly ignored) and those who viewed the intervention as legitimate but objected to the cruelty of Leopold’s methods (frequently lionized.) The latter believed that Africans were inferior to Europeans and should submit to European rule, but felt that European rule ought to be more humane. Their attitude to Africans paralleled that of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; dogs and cats were clearly inferior creatures, which must be kept in servile relations to their masters, but they were to be treated humanely. So too Africans.

Another parallel exists between those who criticize US military interventions on the grounds that they are unjust and imperialist, and those whose concern is limited to whether the interventions conform to conventions related to the just conduct of war. The following oppositions are equivalent in principle: to Leopold’s intervention in the Congo because it was cruel (not imperialist); to the wars on Iraq, because they violated the principle of jus in bello (not because they transgressed the principle of jus ad bellum); to the US intervention in Syria, because its methods are cruel (not owing to the repugnance of Washington seeking to replace the Syrian government with another acceptable to the United States and US investor interests.)

Landis and Simon believe that Syrians ought to submit to US rule, but that US rulers ought to avoid pointless cruelty in bringing Syrians under their boot. In their Foreign Affairs article they have set out to portray the US war on Syria as a masterpiece of incompetence and pointless cruelty which dishonors the basic goodness of US goals. In reality, US intervention in Syria has been a masterpiece of cruelty with a point—an enterprise redolent with the stench of criminality and imperialism, aimed at imposing the US will on a foreign population for the benefit of corporate America.

That Landis and Simon should have a favorable attitude to a US-led liberal international order based on free trade is no mystery. They are a fellow and research analyst respectively at The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a think tank funded by some of corporate America’s largest foundations: among others, The Charles Koch Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and billionaire investor George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. Foreign Affairs, the journal in which the scholars’ article appears, is owned by The Council on Foreign Relations, an organization Laurence H. Shoup has described in books by the same names as Wall Street’s Think Tank and an Imperial Brain Trust.

*  William Appleman Williams, America Confronts a Revolutionary World, 1776-1976, William Morrow & Company, 1976, p. 183.

1) Erik S. Reinert, How Rich Countries Got Rich, Why Poor Countries Stay Poor, Public Affairs, 2007.

2) Syrian Arab National News Agency, August 27, 2013.

3) Alfred B. Prados and Jeremy M. Sharp, “Syria: Political Conditions and Relations with the United States After the Iraq War,” Congressional Research Service, February 28, 2005.

4) John McCain, “John McCain: Why We Must Support Human Rights,” The New York Times, May 8, 2017.

5)  Letter of outgoing US President Barack Obama to incoming President Donald Trump.

6) Warren P. Strobel, “Brent Scowcroft, a U.S. National Security Power Broker, Dies at 95,” The Wall Street Journal, August 7, 2020.

7) William Appleman Williams, “Confessions of an Intransigent Revisionist,” in ed. Henry W. Berger, The William Appleman Williams Reader, Ivan R. Dee, 1992, p. 343.

8) Marilyn B. Young, The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990. Harper Perennial.1991. p.27.

9) Mike Pompeo, November 7, 2018, quoted in ”Iran letter to the UNSG and UNSC on Pompeo provocative statement,” Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran, November 30, 2018.

10) Domenico Losurdo, “The New Colonial Counter-Revolution,” Revista Opera, October 20, 2017.