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Judis and Longing for Left Interventionism

June 24, 2013

My opposition to intervention, both pragmatically and ideologically, aren’t rooted in anything that could be called left-wing thought. Nevertheless, I found this column by John Judis assailing others on the left for opposing intervention in Syria – and U.S. intervention generally – rather odd. I agree with Judis insofar as yes, Syria is something different than say, invading Grenada, but that doesn’t get us very far:

I think this position is wrong.  By identifying Obama’s impulse in Syria with Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada or Bush’s invasion of Iraq, the left rules out any possibility of a benign intervention for humanitarian or for worthy geopolitical ends. I also think this position is contrary to the traditional stance of the American and European lefts toward foreign civil wars or wars of independence. That, of course, doesn’t show the position is wrong; but it does suggest that these leftists are betraying their own, and my, historical ideals.

First off, since when does being a leftist require a belief in war on the merits humanitarian intervention or “worthy geopolitical ends?” I’m not saying these concepts are inherently antithetical to leftism. But humanitarian intervention’s early articulations did not begin as products of what we would accurately call the “left” at the time. We can make a relatively convincing case for the seeds of humanitarian intervention emerging in the 19th century, especially with regard to defending innocents (usually Christians) against a barbarous empire (usually the Ottomans), which isn’t to say that humanitarian intervention is damned by these origins, but that the expansion of perceived rights and duties towards other human beings in humanitarian intervention was, like many political ideas at the time, relatively circumscribed. In any case, at the point where these antecedents to humanitarian interventionism came from everyone from British liberals to Russian tsars, it’s hard to say this was some obviously and inherently leftist tradition.

Many of the liberals and supporters of these sorts of intervention at the time were proponents of empire, so drawing some kind of distinction between an intervention being humanitarian and imperialist, in basically the one time period where the term “liberal imperialist” had legible historical meaning, seems kind of odd. The French Revolutionary Wars, it shouldn’t need saying, were not premised on humanitarian “stop the killing” grounds (and you don’t have to be Maistre or Secher to find it odd to use the French Revolutionary left as some kind of standard-bearers for mass atrocities prevention). Support for revolution certainly used massacres in many cases to justify itself, but to conflate these with modern humanitarian intervention would be seriously misleading. Of course this whole thing is a rather odd exercise since the “left” includes a large number of divergent ideas, especially in the area of foreign policy where history inherently taints ideals with the necessities of circumstance, even after an era (I would wait longer than the French Revolution) when we could really say an American left became a political entity we could easily identify with today.

Humanitarian intervention is not the same thing as leftist support for the revolutions in France or Russia or the Republic in the Spanish Civil War. Supporting revolution against reactionary elements or putting down the fascists in Spain was not premised on stopping the slaughter, or about deferring to democracy. Left justifications for support of revolution during these time periods ranged from anti-clericalism to anti-capitalism, not on considerations of humanitarianism or the verdict of masses per se. Very often this led to some regrettable decisions by some leftists on which foreign interventions, revolutions, and ideologies they supported, which you still see some of those who don’t just oppose intervention but cling to the Assad clique and its Ba’athist origin myths as the last defender of hopes for a secular, inclusive Syria against reactionary Sunni clericalism. Given the number of leftist splits on foreign policy, and how many leftists those splits left on rather unpleasant sides of issues, I’m not sure what worth there is on speaking for the “left” generally.

Regardless, on to the present dilemmas:

The Obama administration is not using a supposed threat to American interests to intervene unilaterally and impose its will on a country that is relatively at peace, nor is it intervening (as it did in Guatemala or Vietnam) to back an unpopular regime against a rebellion. American intervention in Syria most closely resembles intervention in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The U.S. is acting with other countries, and it is not trying to impose its own rule or to prop up a client regime.

These criteria might distinguish Syria from Grenada or Vietnam but they does not make it unmistakably leftist or humanitarian in nature. Multilateralism has never been some kind of established criteria for left-wing intervention, for a long time, and quite arguably still, multilateralism has meant acceding to the interests of the reigning coalition of powers or power, which usually possesses in concert or by unipolar strength, some form of hegemony over the rest of the world. For much of the 19th century, multilateral interventions were inherently imperialist based on upholding the principles of counterrevolution, either against French aggression or revolutionary upheaval. Given that the U.S. is still a hegemonic power, simply acting in concert with other countries does not disqualify an intervention from serving hegemonic interests. Simply avoiding imposing direct rule, or even supporting the interests an embattled regime, does not disqualify an intervention from being humanitarian, or save it from furthering hegemonic interests.

In theory you could have some form of Syrian intervention that did not favor hegemonic interests, but it seems rather implausible given that advocates of Syrian intervention have cited everything from the need to contain Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles to checking the influence of Iran to preventing the rise of jihadists that a self-interested intervention is pretty implausible. Additionally, it is entirely possible that the U.S. would overthrow the government of Syria, and, given that array of national interests, would choose to cultivate a type of client regime. We can quibble about the definition of a client regime, or imposition of U.S. will, and so on, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t seem like leftists are concerned about what John Judis wants for Syria, but what an administration that has put itself at odds with a great deal of the self-labeled left through its actions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya is likely to do given the state of politics. Saying Syria resembles Yugoslavia may legitimately be insufficient even if you are a leftist who approved of those wars, because Syria is much closer to many American factions’ conceptions of the national interest, whether be it because of Middle Eastern regional security provision, Iranian influence, or jihadist safe havens.

But then Judis, at the end, subtly seems to reverse some prior positions:

I remain perplexed about what the United States can do to help the Syrian rebels. I am not a military expert, and I don’t know what is involved in setting up a no-fly zone. I think that whatever we do, we have to do with other countries. And I believe that we have to avoid any commitment to policing a post-Assad Syria. These are reservations that the Obama administration seems to share. But I have no doubt that we should try to do something to rid the world of the Assad regime. And I say that as a card-carrying member of the American left.

Judis seems to revert to what is actually the classic form of leftist intervention advocacy – as aimed first and foremost about national liberation against reactionary regimes. Yet the commitment to avoid policing is directly at odds with humanitarian logic. Committing, to some degree, to policing a post-conflict area is likely to prove critical to any humanitarian aims in post-Assad Syria. This leads to some uncomfortable conclusions, which O’Hanlon and Doran follow through on in their proposal here, but it’s not unfamiliar. U.S. supported peacekeeping was what happened after the Yugoslav wars, Somalia, and the Multinational Force in Lebanon. If our goal is primarily to change the regime and to divest ourselves responsibility for the humanitarian consequences of the next phase, then yes, this is much more like the longest tradition of leftist intervention advocacy. To be clear, I do not support the U.S. intervention in the Syrian Civil War for either objective, however, if the goal is humanitarian intervention, it is difficult to justify that aim without taking some degree of responsibility for the peace afterwards.

There is more to humanitarianism than deciding to smash the ancien regime. If the U.S. left seems especially uncomfortable with intervention in the latter half of the 20th century and early part of the 21st compared to the early 20th century, perhaps it is because those U.S. leftists who have railed against hegemony have found their country the increasing and then uncontested hegemon. The requirements of humanitarian intervention, especially as justified by the Responsibility to Protect, a general left-wing desire to restrain the imperial impulses available to a still preponderant U.S. hegemon, and the question of at what point you ought to just “smash the fascist!” When you put a revolutionary theory of intervention in the hands of the prime international power charged with stewardship of the international old order, and combine that with the considerations of a later-emerging and historically distinct strand of humanitarian thought, it should not be any surprise that there are numerous ideological rifts within a left that appears to encompass here everything between mainstream American liberals and the radical foreign supporters of communist, Trotskyist, and anarchist movements who fought for the Republic in Spain. Given that Judis’s own advocacy alternates between humanitarian and revolutionary imperatives, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the ideological left as a whole cannot come to consensus on Syria. Expecting a massive and fractious political tradition to come to consensus on an issue such Syria might be expecting a bit much.

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