How the US intends to keep its group of corporate marauders on top

March 24, 2020

By Stephen Gowans

On March 22, The Wall Street Journal’s Michael R. Gordon reported on how “Marines plan to retool to meet China threat.” What Gordon refers to as China’s “threat”, turns out to be the threat of China being in a position to defend itself. [1] Here are annotated excerpts from Gordon’s article.

[Over the past decades] China and Russia worked on systems to thwart the American military’s ability to assemble forces near their regions. … If war broke out … China could … keep U.S. warplanes at bay.

Russia similarly would use the surface-to-surface missiles, air defenses and antiship missiles deployed in Kaliningrad and on the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea…

The Chinese and Russian advances [in self-defense] led the Pentagon to conclude that the U.S. was entering a new age of great-power conflict [which is to say, an age in which the US would no longer be able to easily dominate China and Russia militarily.]

[In response, the US Secretary of Defense at the time James] Mattis oversaw the development of a new national defense strategy, which asserted that the long-term competition with China and Russia was the Pentagon’s top priorit[y].

[As part of the new military strategy all] branches of the armed forces are honing new fighting concepts and planning to spend billions of dollars on what the Pentagon projects will be an era of intensified competition with China and Russia [aimed, from the US side, at overcoming China’s and Russia’s ability to keep US forces at bay.]

Among an array of new high-tech programs, the Air Force is developing a hypersonic missile that would travel five times the speed of sound…

The Marine Corps is … developing the ability to hop from island to island in the western Pacific to bottle up the Chinese fleet.

Why does Washington feel the need to bottle up China’s fleet and assemble forces on Russia’s perimeter? Perhaps the 2017 US National Security Strategy explains.

Marines

The Strategy defines the world as “an arena of continuous competition” among three great powers: The United States, China, and Russia. China and Russia are designated as ‘revisionist” powers. They are “revisionist” because they seek to “revise” the international order—one in which the United States has political, military, and economic primacy. In this world, China and Russia seek “to shape a world consistent with their…model…to promote their own interests at the expense of…America and our allies,” according to Mattis. [2] At the root of the competition is a battle for economic supremacy. “We must do everything possible,” said Mattis, “to advance an international order that is most conducive to our … prosperity.”

The Strategy’s specific grievances with China pivot on the Communist Party’s challenge to US business interests. China is deemed a threat because it “subsidiz[es] its industries, forc[es] technology transfers, and distort[s] markets,” and resolves to make economies less open to US free enterprise. Free enterprise, the Strategy says, is central to who US citizens are as a people. What this really means is that free enterprise is central to who the owners of free enterprise are as a class.

The Strategy’s principal concern is that China is expanding the reaches of its state-driven economic model and reordering the Asia-Pacific region in its favour at the expense of corporate America.

Additionally, Washington opposes China’s challenge to the Monroe Doctrine, the nineteenth century instrument of US imperialism which effectively declares Latin America a US sphere of influence. China, the Strategy complains, seeks to pull Latin America into its orbit through state-led investments and loans.

US planners define Russia as a great power competitor for many of the same reasons. Russia, the Strategy says, seeks to establish spheres of influence near its borders, contest US geopolitical advantages, and bolster communist Cuba while supporting socialist Venezuela.

The 2018 National Defense Strategy echoes the National Security Strategy’s themes:

The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by … revisionist powers …. [China] continues to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future…[At the same time, Russia] seeks [to] change European and Middle East security and economic structures to its favour … China and Russia are now undermining the international order … by … undercutting its principles and “rules of the road.”

The late John McCain, a principal figure of the US foreign policy establishment, explained what the rules of the road are and where they come from. “We are the chief architect and defender of an international order,” wrote the US senator, “governed by rules derived from our political and economic values.” He added: “We have grown vastly wealthier and more powerful under those rules” of the road. [3]

Failure to meet US defense objectives, the Strategy declares—that is, failure to enforce the US rules of the road—“will result in … reduced access to markets that will contribute to a decline in our prosperity and standard of living.”

The United States, then, is planning for wars, which, if they happen, will be wars of industrial extermination, undertaken for the sole purpose of ensuring its group of corporate marauders stays on top. How many of us want to get dragged into global conflagrations to ensure that US investors continue to receive the lion’s share of the world’s potential profits?

1. Apropos of this are the remarks of China’s foreign minister Wang Yi.

China’s National People’s Congress has never introduced any bill on the internal affairs of the United States. However, the US Congress has reviewed and adopted one bill after another that blatantly interferes in China’s internal affairs. China has never sent its military vessels and aircraft to the neighborhood of the United States to flex muscles, yet the US naval ships and airplanes have been flexing muscles at China’s doorsteps. China has never sanctioned any US businesses. On the contrary, we welcome US businesses to invest in China, and we have provided them with a sound business environment. However, the United States has tried every opportunity and means to suppress Chinese companies. It has introduced unilateral sanctions against Chinese companies by exercising long-arm jurisdiction, and tried to limit China’s development rights. So talking about threat, it is not that China is threatening the US, but the US is threatening China. [Emphasis added.]

2. “Read Jim Mattis’s letter to Trump: Full text,” The New York Times, December 20, 2018.
3. John McCain, “John McCain: Why We Must Support Human Rights,” The New York Times, May 8, 2017.

Promoting Plutocracy: U.S.-Led Regime Change Operations and the Assault on Democracy

January 11, 2015

PROMOTING PLUTOCRACY
By Stephen Gowans

Chapter 1. What the West’s Position on Iran Reveals about its Foreign Policy
Chapter 2. Democracy
Chapter 3. Foreign Policy and Profits
Chapter 4. The State in Capitalist Society
Chapter 5. Concealing the Influence of the Corporate Elite on Foreign Policy
Chapter 6. Syria: Eradicating an Ideological Fixation on Socialism
Chapter 7. Ukraine: Improving the Investment Climate
Chapter 8. Kosovo: Privatizing the Economy
Chapter 9. Afghanistan: Investment Opportunities in Pipelines and Natural Resources
Chapter 10. The Military-Industrial Complex, Foreign Aid and Marionettes
Chapter 11. How Foreign Policy Hurts Workers
o Divide and Rule
o Socializing the Costs, Privatizing the Benefits
o The Assault on Substantive Democracy in Korea
o The Terrorism of the Weak
o Bulking Up the Police State
o Obviating the Terrorism of the Weak
Chapter 12. The West’s Foreign Policy Priorities

Friends of Syria or Friends of Imperialism?

By Stephen Gowans

The Friends of Syria—an 11 country coalition ranged against the Syrian government—favors what it calls a “democratic” transition in Damascus. There are multiple problems with this.

The coalition says that the current president, Bashar al-Assad, must have “no role in Syria.” How odd that an ostensibly democracy-promoting coalition should dictate to Syrians who it is who can’t be president of their country, rather than democratically leaving the question up to Syrians themselves.

Equally strange is that half of the coalition members do not support democracy in their own countries. Five of the 11—nearly one-half—are not, themselves, democracies, but are monarchies and emirates (Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) and one, Egypt, is a military dictatorship.

The formal democracies that make up the coalition’s other half—the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Turkey—are not promoting democratic transitions within the territories of their coalition partners, limiting their intervention to Syria alone.

Yet, while Syria has hardly conformed to the Western model of a multi-party democracy, it is not at all the undemocratic dictatorship it has been made out to be. It is not, for example, a Saudi Arabia. It has a parliament. It is anti-colonial and anti-imperialist. And parts of the state, much to the annoyance of the US State Department, remain committed to socialist goals. Presidential elections are scheduled for 2014. Any Syrian, so long as he or she meets minimal basic criteria, is free to run. If Syrians don’t want Assad, they’ll be free to toss him out then.

On the other hand, coalition member Saudi Arabia is a family business. The Saud family calls the shots. There’s no chance they’ll be tossed out in elections, since they’ll never have any. If Washington were truly interested in cobbling together “Friends of” coalitions to promote democratic transitions in undemocratic countries, it would have long ago put together a Friends of the Saudi People group.

Not that the United States ought to be ranging the globe, foisting its brand of democracy on others. Rather, its selective commitment to democracy promotion (only in countries not under its thumb but not in satellite states), speaks volumes about what US foreign policy is really about—and just how far removed from a meaningful democracy the US version is.

Equally fatal to the idea that the Friends seek democracy in Syria is this: one of its number, Egypt, is ruled by a government installed by the military, after it ousted a democratically-elected government. The charge that Syria’s Assad has to go because he is killing his own people (insurgents) hasn’t stopped the Egyptian military from killing demonstrators who call for the restoration of their elected government. They deserve the appellation “pro-democracy protestors” more than do the Islamist insurgents who used turmoil in Arab countries to inspire a return to jihad against the secular Arab nationalists in Damascus.

And what of the coalition’s formal democracies? All are former colonial powers. They cared not one whit about democracy when they held the greater part of humanity in colonial thrall, including the people who lived in what is modern day Syria. By their actions and duplicity, they’ve revealed themselves to care as little about democracy in the Arab world as they did when four of them (the Turks, Italians, British and French) ruled Arabs by edict from afar.

Six former colonial powers in a coalition with five tyrannies, telling Syrians who they can’t have as president, supporting a group of exiles who wait in the wings for the signal to traipse onto the Syrian stage as Washington’s marionette, is hardly the picture of democracy-promoters. If you believe otherwise, then democracy is nothing but a euphemism for imperialism, an emotionally appealing word tossed around as a cover for the very negation of what the Friends of Syria profess to seek.

Is Canada Imperialist?

By Stephen Gowans

Canadians measure their country against the United States. And the US benchmark defines their aspirations. If only Canada had a military to bestride the globe, moan many Canadians, a foreign policy leadership involved in all significant matters of international affairs, a reputation as a global leader, and an informal empire of countries governed by marionettes answerable to Ottawa. While many Canadians would like to elevate Canada’s role on the world stage to that of an imperial power on par with the United States, some on the left have gone beyond other Canadians’ aspirations. These leftists define Canada as a country with an “imperialist project,” all the better, perhaps, to show that just like their US counterparts, they too have an honest to goodness imperialist beast to slay, right here at home.

Todd Gordon, author of Imperialist Canada, cites numerous examples of retrograde Canadian behaviour on the world stage. These include Canada supporting a coup in Honduras, taking a lead role in promoting market-oriented reforms in Haiti, and military participation in the occupation of Afghanistan. Gordon believes these actions show Canada to be an imperialist country, just like the United States.

But in Gordon’s world, dominating other countries politically, backed up by military might—in other words, having an empire, whether formal or undeclared—is not the essential feature of imperialism. And for a leftist aspiring to wrestle with an imperialist beast at home, it’s a damn good thing. Turns out, Canada doesn’t have one.

So, if Canada is empire-free, how is that it has come to be called imperialist? Gordon says because Ottawa’s foreign policy supports Canadian business interests abroad (it “drains the wealth” of other countries.) Implicit in this view is the idea that any country with foreign investment outflows, and a foreign policy aimed at protecting and promoting them, is imperialist. Which means that counting the countries that aren’t imperialist becomes a task a kindergarten student can handle. One…two…three…four….According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, even developing countries generate massive foreign direct investment outflows, $356.5B in 2011.

By Gordon’s definition, then, imperialism becomes a near universal, applicable to all countries but the poorest. That’s fine, so long as we acknowledge that if almost all countries are imperialist then imperialism doesn’t mean much of anything. When Lenin spoke of the advanced industrial countries carving up the world amongst themselves into mutually exclusive spheres of influence, we knew what he meant. A few rich countries dominated the rest of the world, and had hostile relationships with each other. Lenin’s definition wasn’t a near universal that would allow leftists in practically every capitalist country to claim that their country was also imperialist. If “imperialism” means much the same as “capitalism with foreign investment outflows” we no longer need the term imperialism. And exactly where is Canada’s unique sphere of influence anyway?

In a Briarpatch Magazine article titled “Canada’s imperialist project” Gordon says that Ottawa’s foreign policy is “increasingly aggressive” but offers no evidence that it’s any more aggressive nowadays than it was a hundred years ago. Canada’s long history of entanglment in other countries’ military aggressions makes Gordon’s examples of Canada’s supposedly new muscular foreign policy—supporting coups in Honduras and Haiti, and a largely symbolic military presence in Afghanistan—seem rather wimpy by comparison. Canada sent troops to Europe in 1914 to participate in a bloodletting that had nothing whatever to do with Canada, intervened militarily in the civil war in Russia to crush the nascent Bolshevik revolution, participated in the UN “police action” in Korea from 1950-53 to prevent the Koreans from uniting under Kim Il Sung, and joined NATO to roll back communism. However, Gordon appears to harbour the delusion that foreign policy in Canada used to be a rather benign affair until the country underwent “significant transformations…over the last 20 years of neo-liberal entrenchment.” This is the myth of the capitalist golden age, within which lurks the deception that it’s not capitalism, but its neo-liberal variety, that is the problem.

Canada has long had enterprises with investments overseas, governments that support them, and a foreign policy subordinate to that of countries that have normally been understood to be imperialist—Great Britain initially and the United States later on. But Canada has never had the clout to dominate other countries politically—not in a world in which the greater power has always been in the hands of truly imperialist countries.

But we don’t have to call Canada what it isn’t to recognize that it doesn’t wear a white hat on the world stage (contrary to what many Canadians believe). Nor do we have to stretch the definition of imperialism on a Procrustean bed to make it fit Canada. Like other capitalist countries, Canada uses what leverage it has to promote the interests of its corporations, bankers and wealthy investors abroad, and this involves the exploitation of people in other countries, some of them the world’s poorest.

Canada may have recognized the coups in Haiti and Honduras, but it didn’t engineer them. (The Marshall Islands recognized the coups, too. Does that make the Marshall Islands imperialist?) Canada participated in the occupation of Afghanistan, but it didn’t initiate it, and nor was its contribution large enough to make a significant difference. The United States led the NATO operations in Yugoslavia and Libya, in which Canada played bit roles. It is unimaginable that Canada would have—could have—led these campaigns. Participate vs. led. Canada participated in WWI, but no one thought its participation made the country imperialist—only part of an imperialist bloc led by Great Britain. Today, Canada is part of a much larger imperialist bloc led by the United States, in which exist separate semi-independent sub-imperialist blocs based on the vestiges of once formal European empires.

Which isn’t to say that Canada wouldn’t have engineered coups d’état, initiated invasions and fought wars for the re-division of the world had it the resources to do so and an empire, formal or otherwise, to defend and enlarge. Capitalist imperialism depends on two conditions. A compulsion to seek profits abroad. The means to dominate. Canada has the first, but not the second. If Gordon would like to call Canada an aspiring imperialist power, I’m happy to agree. But for the moment, the reality is that Ottawa contents itself with the being a second stringer on team USA, called in every once in a while to relieve the first string, and free to do its own thing, so long as it checks with Washington first. Hardly the picture of an imperialist.

If this is Stalinism, count me in

Richard Seymour, the left author and force behind the well-known blog Lenin’s Tomb, has dismissed my critique of his support for Syrian rebels as a pitiable Stalinist diatribe.

Have I any reply? a what’s left reader asked.

My surmise is that Seymour called my critique “Stalinist” because, in his view, his sympathy for Trotskyist politics could only be significant to a Stalinist, and also because it’s Trotskyist second-nature to denounce critiques from the left as “Stalinist’. (Yes, it’s true, too, the same can be said for many self-identified Stalinists, who are just as quick to denounce critiques from the left of their own positions as “Trotskyist.” )

My drawing attention to Seymour’s identification with Trotsky was superfluous (the argument stood on its own.) But it gave Seymour an easy out in name calling and therefore was ill-advised. Still, I’m sure he would have found another label for me— “authoritarian,” or “bankrupt” or “mechanically” anti-imperialist. These are the insults du jour.

So why did I drop the T bomb? Because I think it’s fair to say that Seymour’s analysis owes much to Trotskyist thinking—as it could be said just as fairly that my own owes much to thinking that would not have been out of place in Soviet politics. If that, then, is what “Stalinism” is, then I am guilty as charged and Seymour’s description of my argument as Stalinist is fair and accurate.

As for replying to the points Seymour raises in his new article I can only say this: He appears to have set for himself a test of his forensic skills. Can he persuade others to accept an absurdly indefensible—almost fantastical—position? Judging by what his readers have written on his blog, his forensic skills have proven to be not quite up to the task of lugging the dead weight of an indefensible position up the hill of reason and good sense.

As some of his own readers have pointed out, a revolution must be judged, not by its imperfectly understood origins or aims, but by its destination and outcomes. It is clear to anyone whose mind is not addled by disdain for revolutionary governments that fail to live up to the Trotskyist ideal, or hope that the latest uprising is a signal for the outbreak of socialist revolution on a world scale, that the overthrow of the Asad government, should it come, will not usher in a popular, democratic regime, pregnant with the possibilities of socialist revolution, but a subaltern US client state and the elimination of what elements of socialism remain in the Syrian economy.

The predictable apology of a Ba’thist? Hardly. I am not a Ba’thist, and nor would I belong to the Ba’th party were I Syrian. My politics incline more to the left than the Ba’th could comfortably accommodate. But I am sympathetic to the aims of the Syrian state, and have found much in its record to be admired, namely, its non-sectarian aspirations, anti-Zionism, support for Palestinian liberation, anti-imperialism and amelioration of the material circumstances of a once oppressed agrarian population. On balance, the Syrian state has been far more progressive than regressive, and has done far more that is worthy of praise than condemnation.

The same, however, cannot be said for the significant part of the forces that oppose Damascus and seek to bring the Asad government down. There is no question that the rebels (or “terrorists” as they would be called were Asad on Washington’s side) will, if they prevail, clear the way for the Syrian National Council to supply the key personnel to a successor government. And nor is there any question that the successor government, should it be formed, will immediately sever connections with Iran and Hezbollah—disrupting the so-called “axis of resistance”—and steer the ship of state on a course set in Washington. There is no ambiguity about this, because the SNC has already said that this is what it will do. [1]

It shouldn’t take a mind of especial perspicacity, then, to see that rebels and terrorists who are backed politically, diplomatically, materially and militarily by the United States, its western allies, and its subalterns in the Gulf, will not usher in a genuine popular, democratic government in Syria anymore than Solidarity ushered socialism into Poland, the latter being a misplaced hope of politically naive leftists of an earlier decade. The destination and outcome of that uprising was accurately foreseen by people with a firmer grasp on reality—the ones denounced at the time as pitiable Stalinists.

1. Jay Solomon and Nour Malas, “Syria would cut Iran military tie, opposition head says”, The Wall Street Journal, December 2, 2011

Dissembling Concern Over Violence, UN General Assembly Takes a Side in Syria’s Civil War

Professing grave concern over Syria’s escalating violence, the United Nations General Assembly on Friday demanded that “all in Syria immediately and visibly commit to ending violence.”

This would be all to the good except that the General Assembly’s idea of what constitutes “all in Syria” and what it means by “ending violence” amounts to one side in the civil war (the Republic) laying down its arms unilaterally, while President Assad steps down and cedes his authority to an interim government approved by the “international community,” which is to say, the very same countries that are furnishing the rebels with arms, logistical support, diplomatic assistance, territory from which to launch attacks, salaries for fighters, lucre to induce government officials to defect, and propaganda.

The resolution is hardly a plea for peace. It’s a demand that the Republic capitulate. Significantly, the resolution’s sponsor, Saudi Arabia, is the rebels’ main arms supplier. No wonder the Bolivian representative to the UN was moved to declare that the aim of the text is not to assist the Syrian population, but to ‘defeat Damascus’.” “Anybody who doesn’t believe that needs only read it,” he said.

Indeed, the text is perfectly clear: peace means regime change and regime change means peace.

“Rapid progress on a political transition,” the General Assembly said is “the best opportunity” to resolve the conflict peacefully. That is: peace equals Assad stepping down. Or, peace, yes, but on the rebels’, which is to say, the United States’, terms. And UN General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon, echoing US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, has underscored the equating of peace with Assad’s departure, defining “political transition” as a necessary condition of peace.

Importantly, the United States—whose efforts to eliminate Syria’s Arab nationalist government antedate the Arab Spring—opposes Assad, not because he is a “dictator” or “kills his own people” as the propaganda has it, but because his government has long charted a course on foreign and economic policy independent of Washington. Assad’s crime, in the view of Washington, is to have tried to privilege the Syrian population over the interests, both immediate and distal, of US banks and corporations.

Significantly, the resolution ignores the political and constitutional concessions the Syrian government has already made in what has turned out to be a fruitless attempt to engineer a peaceful settlement with an opposition that is hostile to peace. With Libya as a model for how a opposition with the backing of only part of the population need not negotiate with the government it opposes if it can enlist the support of the United States and Europe, the Syrian rebels have never had an incentive to sit down with Damascus and work out a modus vivendi. On the contrary, all the incentives are on the side of an intransigent commitment to violent overthrow of the government. The overthrow comes about as a result of the support in arms and political and propaganda backing the United States and its allies provide, and therefore is effectively authored in Washington, but attributed, for political and propaganda purposes, to the rebels’ own efforts. Having the US State Department, CIA and Pentagon on your side can more than adequately make up for the deficiency of failing to win the support of significant parts of the population.

The General Assembly’s text demands that “the first step in ending the violence must be made by the Syrian authorities,” who are called upon to withdraw their troops. It is highly unlikely that a US ally would ever be called upon to withdraw its troops in the face of an armed insurrection. This is a standard reserved exclusively for communist, socialist, and economic nationalist governments—those whose commitment to self-directed, independent development runs counter to the unrestrained profit-making of US banks and corporations. No international body has ever seriously demanded that Saudi Arabia refrain from violence in putting down rebellions in its eastern provinces, or that Bahrain—home to the US Fifth Fleet—cease its use of violence to extinguish its own, local, eruption of the Arab Spring (a military action against civilians ably assisted by Saudi tanks.) Asking Damascus to unilaterally lay down its arms is a demand for capitulation, disguised as a desire for peace.

Parenthetically, the uprisings in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are regularly depicted in the Western media as “Shia” and backed by Shia Iran and therefore sectarian, not as popular democratic movements against tyrannical monarchies. By contrast, the Syrian uprising, though having a strong sectarian content and being principally Sunni and supported by the Sunni monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar and the Sunni-dominated government of Turkey, is depicted as a democratic uprising against dictatorship, not sectarian.

The United States and Israel, in backing the General Assembly resolution, denounced Syria’s use of “heavy weapons, armour and the air forces against populated areas”—though Washington’s concern for using overwhelming military force against populated areas stops at Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Populated areas of Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon have felt the heavy hand of Israeli heavy weapons, armour and air force. And Turkey’s rulers—who allow their territory to be used by the rebels as a launching pad for attacks on Syria—continue to kill their own people in their longstanding war against Kurd nationalists.

Ban Ki-moon warned the Syrian government that its actions “might constitute crimes against humanity or war crimes, which must be investigated and the perpetrators held to account,” words he never uttered in connection with Nato’s assault on Libya nor Saudi Arabia’s and Bahrain’s use of violence to quell uprisings in their countries. Nor have his predecessors uttered similar words in connection with the United States’ and Israel’s frequent and undoubted crimes against humanity and war crimes. Moreover, Ban hasn’t warned Syria’s rebels that they too will be held to account for their crimes. (The Libyan rebels haven’t been.)

Thirteen countries opposed the resolution, almost all of them committed to independent self-directed development outside the domination of the United States. These include Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.

Against this axis of independence are the sponsors and chief backers of the resolution: the US-vassal Sunni petro-tyrannies—champions of a Sunni rebel movement that’s supposed to be (improbably) galvanized by democratic, not sectarian, ambitions—while the United States, its Nato allies, and Israel—authors of the gravest humanitarian tragedies of recent times, hypocritically profess concern over escalating violence in Syria. The resolution can hardly be seen as a genuine expression of humanitarian concern. It’s a demand for the Republic’s, which is to say, the non-sectarian Arab nationalists’, capitulation, disguised as a plea for peace, and a blatant taking of the imperialist side in a civil war.

Richard Seymour: Hallucinating revolutions, pacifying resistance

While it may stir hopes that a popular rebellion is sweeping away oppression, the Syrian revolt, whatever its origins and proclamations, is hardly that. Its likely destination is a new US client regime in Damascus; its probable outcome the dismantling of what’s left of Syrian socialism, anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism. Would that it were all that romantic leftists fervently wish it to be, but a sober look at the rebellion, and recent history, strongly points in another direction.

Following blogger and author Richard Seymour, the views of many leftist who side with the rebels can be summarized as follows:

• All genuine popular liberation movements should be supported.
• The Syrian revolt is a genuine popular liberation movement.
• Western countries are intervening to tilt the balance in favour of an outcome they want.
• There is no sign they can achieve this.

Since few would disagree with the first point, we can move quickly to the second. Is the Syrian revolt “genuine” and is it “popular”?

If by genuine we mean the revolt is intended to advance popular interests, and that it doesn’t represent the pursuit of narrow interests under the guise of achieving popular goals, then the answer must surely be that the rebel movement’s genuineness depends on what section of it we’re talking about.

It’s clear that the aim of exiles in key leadership positions within the Syrian National Council is to turn Syria into a US client regime. The Muslim Brotherhood’s interests are undoubtedly sectarian, as are those of al Qaeda, a recent addition to the rebellion. Unless we pretend these groups are not part of the rebel movement, it cannot be said to be genuine in all its parts. To be sure, some parts of it are, but other parts—and very important ones—aren’t.

Is the rebel movement “popular”?

We don’t know exactly how much support the rebels have, or how much the government has. But we do know that each side appears to be able to count on the backing of significant parts of the Syrian population—the rebels on Sunnis (though less so the Sunni merchant class); the government on religious minorities. If the rebels represent a popular movement, then, inasmuch as the definition of “popular” depends on having the support of a significant part of the population, the forces arrayed against the rebellion are popular as well.

But should a rebel movement be supported simply because it’s popular? By definition, fascist regimes are based on mass support (without it, they’re merely authoritarian.) Most Democratic Party voters—as well as Republican Party ones—are part of the 99 percent. Both parties are popularly supported. Does that mean leftists ought to support them too? The Nazis too had a vaguely progressive section—that part on which the “socialist” in National Socialist German Workers’ Party turned. But its presence didn’t make the Nazis a popular movement for socialism or any less of a tool of capitalist-imperialist interests.

The counter argument here is that none of these popularly supported parties of the right are “genuinely” popular. (While popularly supported, they don’t advance popular goals.) But that gets us back to the question of whether the Syrian rebel movement is homogenous, united in aiming to oust the Assad government for a common purpose. Clearly, it is not.

On the other hand, we might say that the Syrian state isn’t popular, in the sense of its being said to represent narrow class interests, while the rebel movement seeks to overthrow those interests, and therefore is popular by definition. But there’s no evidence that any significant part of the Syrian rebellion is inspired by class interests, except perhaps key parts of the SNC, whose class interests align with those of the banks, corporations and wealthy investors who dominate the US state, media and economy. At best, parts of the rebel movement seek a liberal democracy, which would rapidly dismantle the remaining socialist elements of the Syrian economy. To be sure, Syria has never been socialist in the manner Trotsky’s followers favour—and a number of leftists on the side of the rebels, including Seymour, who Wikipedia notes is a member of the Socialist Workers Party— are devotees of the Russian revolutionary. But a liberal democracy would be even further from their ideal.

Seymour’s third point is that Western countries are intervening to tilt the balance in favour of an outcome they want. Since there’s no secret about this, we can move to point 4.

The fourth point is that there is no sign the West can hijack the rebel movement. There is an obvious objection to this: Were there a good chance Western governments couldn’t tip the outcome in their favour, they would be energetically opposing the rebellion, not ardently supporting it. Seymour’s point may be based, apart from wishful thinking, on the reality that there are large parts of the rebel movement that Washington does not trust, and therefore is reluctant to assist. The CIA’s role—at least that which is admitted to—has been to funnel Saudi- and Qatari-provided arms to the groups Washington wants to come out on top, and away from those it wants to keep from power. But therein lies the reason the United States will assuredly hijack the rebel movement. It will channel military, diplomatic, political, and ideological support to those parts of it that can be trusted to cater to US interests, and this overwhelming support will allow pro-imperialist elements, in time, to dominate the rebellion, if they don’t already. To think otherwise, is to ignore what happens time and again.

A brief example. In the summer of 1982 the Marxian economist Paul Sweezy hailed the rise of Poland’s Solidarity trade union movement as “heartening proof of the ability of the working class….to lead humanity into a socialist future.” [1] Maybe when you’ve lived on a starvation diet for years a discarded four-day old hamburger plucked from a McDonald’s dumpster starts to look like a steak dinner. Solidarity too was termed a genuine popular liberation movement, but it, like so many others so characterized, led, not forward, but backward. We know now that Solidarity’s high-profile supporters—The Wall Street Journal, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan—had a better idea of what Solidarity was all about than Sweezy did—to say nothing of much of the anti-Communist left. Those who didn’t have their heads stuck in a utopian cloud saw clearly enough that Solidarity would not lead to “genuine” socialism, but to the breakdown of the Polish state, chaos in the Warsaw Pact, and a step along the road to rolling back Communism; which is what happened, and the decades since have been marked by the deepest reaction. Henry Kissinger recently concluded correctly that the Syrian rebellion “will have to be judged by its destination, not its origin; its outcome, not its proclamations.” Judging Solidarity by its destination and outcomes, we can hardly be optimistic about the Syrian rebellion, nor parts of the left grasping its probable destination.

The reply to this might be, “Well, at least we should support the genuinely popular elements of the rebel movement.” Seymour wants us to do this by seeing to it that arms flow freely to the rebels, as Gilbert Achcar (another follower of Trotsky’s thought), wanted to do with the Libyan rebels. This naively ignores who’s providing the arms, who they’re provided to, and what’s likely to be expected of the recipients in return. The main weapons suppliers, the Saudi and Qatari tyrannies—and who could ask for more convincing supporters of a genuine popular liberation movement?—are not channelling arms to genuine popular liberation groups. Instead, it seems very likely that military support is being heaped upon those sections of the rebellion that are amenable to a post-conflict working arrangement with US-allies Turkey, Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council and to settling in comfortably to a subordinate role to Washington. The idea behind arms flowing freely to “genuinely popular” liberation forces is that Washington backs leftists while the Saudi and Qatari tyrannies arm democrats. The naivety is breathtaking—on par with Sweezy’s embracing Solidarity as heartening proof of an imminent socialist future.

There’s more than a soupcon of absurdity in any discussion among Western leftists of “supporting” the Syrian rebels, since support amounts to nothing more than a rhetorical endorsement without any practical, real-word, consequences. It’s not as if an International Brigade is being assembled (backed by what? Saudi and Qatari money) that fervent anti-Assad leftists of the West can join to show real, meaningful support. Except weren’t the last International Brigades fighting against rebels? And come to think of it, aren’t the Saudis and Qataris backing an international volunteer brigade…of jihadis? If supporting Syria’s rebels meant anything at all, Western leftists would be making their way to Turkish border towns to offer their services to the Free Syrian Army, or the local CIA outfit attached to it. Perhaps a collection can be taken up to raise airfare for Seymour to travel to the nearest FSA recruiting center to put real meat behind his support for Syria’s “genuine popular liberation” movement.

Despite its surface appearance of empty clap-trap, Seymour’s position does have a practical, real-world aim—to neutralize opposition in the West to Western intervention on the side of the rebels by the people who are most likely to mount it—the Western left. Once you accept the argument that the rebels are a genuinely popular liberation movement and that massive outside intervention by imperialist powers won’t tilt the outcome of the rebellion in their favour, then all that’s left to do—as a way of showing solidarity with the rebels—is to raise not a single objection to their receiving aid from your own government. Which means that Seymour, who fancies himself a champion of popular causes against powerful conservative forces, may, on the contrary, be a pacifier of dissent against the most reactionary force around—US-led imperialism.

1. Paul M. Sweezy, “Response to The Line of March Symposium,” Line of March, #12, September/October 1982, 119-122.