After East Ghouta 2: Nowhere To Be Found

The President’s surprising announcement on August 31, that, in a kind of anti-maneuver maneuver, he would defer an attack on Syrian regime targets and involve Congress and by extension the American people in his decision-making, had already re-framed the policy question in a larger, more tenuous context. In that announcement he specifically and seemingly somewhat blithely denied that a day, a week, or a month would have any impact on the military operations that he was endorsing yet in the same breath undermining, but he was not merely declaring the matter of no particular urgency: He was elevating the crisis and its stakes, as less immediate, but more significant.

The broadening of the time frame has since allowed for a simultaneous deepening and widening of focus taking in multiple objects, each one further susceptible to and seemingly endlessly worthy of independent consideration: The question, we should now be able to see, is not just of “intervening” in a foreign civil war or of punishing and materially constraining a particular rogue regime. It is also a question of American regional and global objectives, interests, and alliances. It is also a question of the enforcement of a general prohibition against annihilation of civilians, of people as simply people, by state power. It is also a question of American and international “credibility” in regard to other threats or potential threats around the world. It is also a question of prospects for a weakened American presidency, against the rise of an American neo-isolationist political coalition. It is also a question of the advisability, or even the possibility, of a democratic security policy. All of these matters and still others will be affected by American action versus inaction (or authorization versus non-authorization) in relation to Syria and to what Syria represents, and this range of concerns in turn describes a single complex system, or the global order itself. What makes the Syria Crisis a crisis at all is that it is a crisis of that system, not merely, to risk stating the obvious, a crisis in or regarding Syria, nor even merely at the next higher level of abstraction a crisis of American or international policy toward the Assad regime.

For the President (or at least so he says) and for many others, not least for Syrian rebels whom in a different era Americans might have quickly recognized as “freedom fighters” in our own image, it is clear that America should act. Thus the poignancy of the comment tweeted immediately following the President’s announcement, by Middle East journalist and long-time supporter of the rebellion Hassan Hassan: “We cannot be disappointed with Obama’s decision [to go to Congress]. A beautiful ideal for which Syrians started their revolution in the first place.” Yet for the majority, if the polls are to be trusted, the only action acceptable is no action, and the Syrian revolution commands no evident sympathy. Among the blogging class, a motion to abandon the Syrian revolution fully seems to be gathering support.1 Our refusal to act at all and our inability to recognize our own ideal and origins in others are connected. The latter has many causes or explanations, but the results are the same: It is far from clear at this moment that America is prepared to act in Syria or perhaps at all; or that America is prepared to act effectively; or that Americans believe that action is or should be their responsibility; or that Americans believe that action will likely be worthwhile; or that Americans believe that such responsibility is worth having at all, for anyone’s purposes; or, if the responsibility might be worth having, that it remains in fact sustainable.

To treat this primary question of positive self-definition versus passive self-annihilation as inconsequential, as is typical of anti-Americanists, is already to take the side of re-definition: to set becoming-inconsequential, or unexceptional, as the new ideal. The mass murder of civilians in war, the conversion of citizens into eradicable vermin, ought to refer us to events at the inception of the American-centric international order as we know it, its immediate predicate in a shared experience of total war and of victory both in and against it, and an older predicate in the longer movements of history. Yet, utterly typically for this conjuncture, the connections are rarely made except remotely, in seemingly unheard, all but unregistered remarks like the President’s from the East Room. No longer recalling where we came from – or willing to recall – we can have no idea where we are or might be going: Willing nothing, we are nowhere to be found.


  1. See, for example, “The Price of Proxies,” by Marc Lynch, 13 September 2013; or closing comments in “What Krauthammer Reveals,” by Andrew Sullivan, same date: “Just stop arming the Syrian rebels and don’t turn down Putin’s offer to take responsibility for all of it.” []

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  1. Ironically, Romney might have given them more of a hearing, sneering about neocons has a bitter taste now doesn’t it.

    • History does not reveal its alternatives, don miguel. One of these days, though, I’ll have to check exactly how I’ve discussed the neocons. Probably have come close to sneering at them or certain opinions and attitudes, but I’ve also criticized those who too easily dismiss their reasoning or treat them as uniformly unworthy of being heard at all. Someone who didn’t know me well, and just skimmed my pieces on neo-imperialism or my Iraq pieces, might think I was one. But I’m not sure what the label means, whether it stands for a theory, or an approach to theory, or a clique or “groupuscule” or a possibly never really existent cabal or what.

  2. No, you haven’t, neocons as I recall, were cut out of most of the brilliant moves that the Realists made in the 80s, the Iraq Card, relying on the Sauds to pick the mujahadeen factions, smart moves like that, that had us holding Saddam’s bloody hand during Fallujah, they had on balance a more nuanced view of Latinl America as well,

  3. Sorry Halabja, it was the partisans of the insurgents in the latter instance, insisted we had used chemical weapons, like the promoters of the Jenin massacre.

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  1. […] within the American system, and therefore within the global security system, has been unveiled. The President’s surprising anti-maneuver maneuver of August 31 said that our doing what we “should” was not beyond him, but that it or […]

  2. […] the more abstract cause of war against Assad – the “should” that the President recognized a year ago when arguing for air strikes after the mass atrocity in East Ghouta, but that Americans and the […]

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TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

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