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In the next few days everybody’s expecting an attack on Syria to begin, likely led by Obama. After last week’s devastating chemical weapons attack, many now feel they now have the justification they need to enter the civil war which has now claimed somewhere in the neighbourhood of a hundred thousand lives. So far, both Canada and the UK have bowed out (among many others), and Russia and China are issuing stern warnings, prompting fears that this might kick-off a third World War.

Admittedly, intervention, at this point, is pretty tempting. The Syrian situation has become a bloodbath, and whichever side one wants to blame, there’s pretty universal agreement that it needs to end. The question is: will “intervention” improve the situation? After the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, it’s become hard to take the optimists seriously in these matters – while such an intervention sounds wonderful in theory, it’s never quite so simple in practice.

At times like this, much of the West starts to think of itself as a sort of superhero. Possessing both a “superior” moral philosophy and weapons technology, we imagine ourselves as having a responsibility to help regions who aren’t as “developed”. Unfortunately, in these situations, the lines between hero and villain are never quite as clear as in the cartoons. It wasn’t so long ago that Assad and his torture chambers were a vital part of the “War on Terror”, especially the “rendition” program, which abducted, imprisoned and tortured individuals like Maher Arar. As for the dreaded Al Qaeda, they’ve been fighting Assad’s forces in Syria for quite a while now as a well-acknowledged part of the rebel forces. This pattern of shifting alliances has been a characteristic part of America’s foreign policy blunders since at least the Second World War. From their support for insurgents like Ho Chi Minh in their war with the Japanese to the now-legendary support for the Afghani Mujahadeen, these friends have an uncanny knack of coming back a generation later as enemies.

The Lybian conflict showed how quickly these tables can turn in the post-Arab Spring terrain. No sooner had Gaddafi (himself, armed by the West) fallen than stories started flooding out about the brutality of rebel forces. Worse, the rebels themselves, many with strong Islamic beliefs, began to leaving the country as well, and took with them many of the weapons which the West generously supplied (either to them or Gaddafi). This led to attacks and insurgencies in countries like Nigeria, Mali and Syria, and at least one more intervention (not counting Syria). There’s every reason to expect a very similar result from the fall of Assad, made all the more terrifying by the fact that this might be the first of these conflicts where WMDs are actually present.

As far as who let off the sarin gas cloud on August 22, that’s still not entirely clear. It may well have been Assad, or somebody from his side – so far they’ve shown little regard for mass civilian casualties and a steady appetite for escalation using increasingly powerful military hardware. On the other hand, claims that rebels had managed to get their hands on chemical weapons go back months before the attack, coming both from rebels themselves and others. There were even a few attacks last winter in which rebels allegedly struck with (low-quality) gas. Tying these all together is the obvious question of motive, for which Assad had very little (his side has been doing pretty well with conventional weapons) and the rebels had plenty.

America’s Evidence
Allegations against rebels/Saudis
Discussion

Whoever used these weapons, their introduction only goes to show how desperate the situation has become, and this is something for which Assad can’t escape responsibility. Like Saddam and Gaddafi, I will shed no tears when he meets his inevitable bad end. That doesn’t mean, however, that I support an intervention – just that I have very little time for tyrants of any stripe. There’s a tendency in situations like this to ‘take a side’ and blame the other for every atrocity. The peace movement, in particular, has long been notorious for apologist depiction of leaders like Milosovic and Saddam – a natural reaction to their demonization in propaganda, perhaps, but also a fairly shameful public display. The choice between Obama and Assad, like Bush and Saddam, is a false dichotomy. It makes no more sense than stating that “if you don’t like the Bloods, you must support the Crips” – sometimes “neither” is a very valid option.

In the months leading up to the Iraq War, what little debate there was centered largely around this question. What makes the debate over Syria so fascinating (aside from the fact that it’s actually happening) is that people seem to be catching onto this ploy. Some of the most high-profile cautions have come from figures like Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld, as well as large numbers of America’s soldiers and veterans. After more than a decade of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan, nobody’s eager to get into the same kind of “quagmire” (clusterfuck) again. The exceptions, of course, being Obama and France (oh, the irony).

That so many veteran ‘hawks’ oppose this action highlights the hopeless naivety implicit in the notion of humanitarian bombings. You can’t blow up a social relationship, even with Tomahawks and Predator Drones. No matter how advanced the weapons, things will escalate and Obama will be forced to choose between “boots on the ground” and watching the situation deteriorate from afar, or essentially, the choice between repeating their misadventures in Iraq or Libya. A ground invasion would unseat Assad but as Iraq proved, three weeks of “combat operations” can easily become ten years of bitter occupation. On the other hand, sticking (primarily) to aerial bombardment meant that much of Libya fell into the hands of incredibly brutal rebel factions, and flooded the region with heavy weapons and wandering insurgents. Given Syria’s location and substantial military capability, this is a terrifying possibility. What would happen if Al Quaeda veterans, armed with military-grade chemical weapons capabilities, were let loose in the heart of the Middle East?

Afghanistan was a failed state and Iraq had been under blockade for a decade and at war for a decade before that – as brutal and large as their armies were, they weren’t a lot more sophisticated than some drug cartels. Syria has a relatively modern air force, navy and extensive air-defence system (including, allegedly, a “worrying” number of MANPADS). America’s forces are tired and stretched. Actual intelligence is sorely lacking. This will not be an “easy” war, and if they think it’s hard to avoid civilians with airstrikes in the Afghan/Pakistan borderlands, just wait till they get to Damascus.

Barack: do yourself a favour and don’t. Just don’t. Find another way. You’re already sitting at your lowest approval ratings ever and this ain’t gonna bring them back up. It didn’t work for George W. and it won’t work for you. If you go to Syria, you will burn what little is left of your empire’s credibility and unleash destructive forces in ways we can’t possibly predict. The War on Terror is a failure, let it go before you start WW3.

Almost a year ago, I wrote a rather nasty article about today’s socialist parties. At times, I looked back with a little regret. I’ve got friends in the NDP, and like most, the party tends to fall into the “best of a bad bunch” category. The trends I described, however, were real, and have reached disgusting new depths. And so, it is with a heavy heart that I must again lambaste their leaders, a group who might as well now be known as the ‘far right of the left wing’.

The story of the French “Left” and the Algerian war for independence is something of a historical black eye, to the point where Socialist President Guy Mollet’s visit to Algiers in 1956 is still known as “la journee des tomates” for the hail of rotten fruit he had to endure. Despite some misgivings, French control of Algeria was seen as a necessary precondition of any “socialism” there, and so Mollet (with communist support) opted for a troop surge and widespread use of torture. In the end, this exceptionally brutal war cost them not only control of Algeria (and soon, many others), but also their government (the “Fourth Republic”) itself. There were, of course, a few dissenters – names you might know like John-Paul Sartre, Guy DeBoard and, of course, French anarchists of the time such as Daniel Guerin. For the most part, though, the self-interest of leftist parliamentarians kept them from any Support for this appalling war wasn’t just a betrayal of their “principles” or a horrible strategic choices, it put them squarely “on the wrong side of history”, and both the French left and Algerian population suffered dearly.

Of course, they talk of Algeria, but moderately. In order not to lose face the press growls a little. But it is understood that there shall be no agitation. . . The effect on the working-class — and this is, perhaps, the aim of this policy — is to demobilise it completely. Nothing like the Marseilles dockers strikes or the demonstrations for the release of Henri Martin have developed. The workers are disgusted with the Algerian war but they have been left without guidance or direction. The [Communist Party] is reaping what it has sown — when it needs the masses it no longer finds then) . . . Meanwhile 500,000 young men waste their time, if not their health or their lives in Algeria, the economy stagnates and workers goon short time. And this is the result of this Ballet of the Left, with one partner waltzing smartly off to the right in order to avoid the embrace of the other . . .
– John Paul Sartre (from “Is This The Time“, a critique of Socialist and Stalinist Imperialism)

One might think today’s French socialists would be a little hesitant to try such a thing. Alas, they’re not.

Faced with sagging approval ratings and a lacklustre term so far, France’s new “Socialist” president, Francios Hollande, did something any (dis)respectable politician would do. He started a war. Launching air-strikes and a ground invasion of Mali at the invitation of a government openly run by generals, his government is now doing battle with one of only fifteen countries listed lower than Afghanistan on the UN Human Development Index.

Can we stop calling them “freedom fries” now?

The French socialists, of course, are not alone on the left in their support for this war. Canada’s (still ostensibly socialist) NDP recently sided with Harper on support for the French war effort through, which now apparently includes special forces. This has allowed Harper to talk of a “broad national consensus”, which he states will be necessary if we’re to expand our involvement. This is exactly why I warned about Thomas Mulcair last year. Unlike his predecessor Jack Layton, who routinely questioned Canadian involvement in Afghanistan, Mulcair is using the party’s newly found clout as Official Opposition to welcome the war, thus avoiding any unpleasant parliamentary criticism.

If there’s one conclusion which can be reached from the examples above, it’s that opposition to this kind of militarism tends to fade as these parties get closer to power. It’s a lesson we’ve learned too many times from parties of all colours, only to continue hoping that next time, things will be different. These are necessary sacrifices, we’re told, if the party is to survive and thrive. What few stop to ask is: what good is a party that can’t or won’t stand by their principles if ever they should actually find themselves in a position to make the changes they talk about?

A politician is a politician is a politician, I suppose. And they wonder why people are so cynical…

This kind of thing almost never goes unnoticed. “Left” or “right”, everybody loves to hate hypocrites. Anybody who was previously irked by the moralistic tone is going to seize the opportunity to single it out, as will anybody who previously agreed. Both the National Post and Socialist Worker seem to be taking particular delight on in the domestic politics behind this war. Beyond the sectarian warfare, though, is the effect on those who aren’t hardened warriors in those battles. For most, the entire affair is just one more reason to avoid politics altogether. If this was only a problem for “politicians” I wouldn’t have much problem with it, but as these parties bring a lot of radical imagery into their marketing campaigns, they tend to cast a lot of suspicion on grassroots organizers as well. This is what Sartre means when he talks about completely demobilizing the working class.

Politics needs to be more than a fashion statement on behalf of groups vying for power. If the ideas put forward by parties are no less superficial than the colours and mascots of football teams, then why bother ‘getting off the couch’ at all? Many people, if not most, already feel this way about “politics” in general, and that’s a big part of the reason Canadians and Americans are so famously disinterested. At what point do we stop shaming people for being “apathetic” and “ignorant”, and admit that their feelings aren’t exactly baseless.

In the face of the biggest upsurge of “leftist” beliefs since the 1960s, the “parliamentary left” is instead taking a hard turn right. While this gives me a lot of hope for the future of social movements, it doesn’t exactly encourage me to vote. Attempting to get ahead in a battle of ideas by becoming more like those you oppose may win a few supporters in the short run, but over the longer term it starts to resemble surrender. I must admit, this leaves me confused – why join a socialist party if you honestly don’t think “the masses” have any appetite for socialist ideals?

It’s hard to know how “the masses” would react if confronted with a clear, honest and concise explanation of “socialism”. It’s been so long since anybody’s had the guts to say such a thing publicly that it’s hard to guess. One poll last year found “socialism” with triple the approval rating of Congress. Another poll in 2010 found that 42% of Americans thought the phrase “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” was taken from the Bill of Rights or other founding documents. Keep in mind, that’s America. We may never know how such an election would go, since these positions just aren’t being articulated by anybody who might conceivably win an election. Then again, given the history of states which actually attempted “socialism”, that might be just as well. Either way, I’m not holding out a lot of hope for parliamentary activism.

Last weekend on the streets of Toronto I saw what might be the largest demonstration I’ve attended since Quebec City in 2001, and it was only one of a great many in the few weeks alone. With or without politicians, the revolution is going ahead. The incredible and unprecedented wave of demonstrations which has swept the globe over the last few years has been almost entirely disconnected from traditional parties, and it’s not hard to see why. Just as Obama crushed our hopes that Democrats might be less interested in dropping bombs on Muslims, Hollande and Mulcair are showing that “socialist” politicians can be just as big a disappointment. Thankfully, as Bookchin reminds us, there’s a lot more to politics than statecraft.

In times of great civil discontent, where economies stagnate and leaders are loathed, there is a grand tradition in American politics: start a war. Instantly, such actions polarize the public and kick-start production, and may well gain access to valuable foreign resources. The Bushes did it, Clinton did it, and now it looks like Obama may do it.

Seriously?

Again?

It’s hard to believe this is happening. It’s hard to believe it’s even threatening to happen. After the global embarrassment that was the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan and Iraq, the constant undeclared war in Pakistan or the emerging ugly details of NATO’s effect on Libya, one would think they wouldn’t be eager to do this again. Recent wars taxed coalition forces well beyond what they’d thought possible, and it’s hard to imagine where either the funding or the soldiers for such a war would come from. They’ve also failed to stop the spread of “Islamic terrorism” or perform any effective “nation building”. Worst of all, they’re once-again relying on the spectre of “WMDs” to drive the nation into war, even after the three letters came to symbolize everything wrong with George W Bush’s presidency.

Do I want to see Iran building nuclear reactors? No. There’s obvious military applications to all “peacetime” nuclear equipment – a predictable result of their military origin. Like too many other technologies, this is a humbling reminder that sometimes ploughshares can be beaten back into swords. That being said, I’ve seen nothing so far to indicate that Iranian reactors are a specific threat other than the sabre-rattling of the Iranian government, and know enough about nuclear technology to understand that any workable array of warheads is still years off. In any case, it’s very likely that these weapons, should they ever be build, would be used primarily as a deterrent, since there’s little doubt it would be scoured off the map by American and Isreali nukes should Iranian leaders be stupid enough to launch the few they have.

There is every reason here to discourage the spread of all nuclear technology. “Peacetime” reactors have already kick-started the weapons programs in India, Pakistan and China (thanks largely to Canadian firms). This would leave no market for “legitimate” purchases of uranium and no convenient cover for enrichment activities. Beyond that, the single best way to discourage weapons programs would be to dismantle our own. If America and Isreal want a nuclear-free Middle East, they could make it happen far more easily than any others. Sadly, the disarmament of their many nuclear weapons is off the table, as is any serious critique of the nuclear industry as a whole.

Iran’s allies have not been silent, especially Russia. Putin is now threatening the largest nuclear build-up since the cold war, and given that there’s a Russian military base in Iran, they’ve been none-too-pleased with talk of more war in the region. Active Russian involvement could turn such a conflict into WWIII, and there’s no telling where that could end. Putin, of course, has his own massive unpopularity (and upcoming elections) to deal with, and a war would serve him just as well as the others.

The winners here will not be the people or America, Iran, Russia, Israel or any others, but the leaders, of all stand to gain tremendously from the increase in nationalism and jingoism it would create. All have been threatened in the past year by massive popular protests, and all are ruled by militaristic zealots of one form or another. States are fundamentally violent institutions, and have no qualms about mass-murder when deemed “necessary”. No matter what cost a war would exact from “their” people, they may well feel war is in their own best interest.

What can we do? First, we can accept that the “Peace Movement” against Bush was largely a failure. There were demonstrations constantly for years, with some of the largest numbers since Vietnam and was profoundly nonviolent, but the effect on policy was almost unnoticeable. Eventually Bush was driven from power, but Obama is proving to be no more peaceful. If they attempt to go to war again, it won’t be enough to stand, chant and sing in the streets. If a popular movement is going to effectively resist this war, it’s going to have to physically interfere with the functioning of these war machines. Modern militaries are incredibly destructive forces, but they rely on modern economies to supply them with weapons, equipment and personnel. A general strike, a tax revolt or any serious challenge to the authority of the American government would give them far more to worry about than military adventurism in oil-rich foreign nations. Unfortunately, even this possibility means the same leaders have every reason to brutally repress any and all dissent “at home”, as has always been the way in these conflicts.

A century ago, the world was in a very similar state. The industrial revolution had transformed the globe and “robber barons” were conquering entire regions. A tide of popular unrest, particularly around work, had been growing for decades and unions like the IWW were starting to have very serious effect. Then, like now, governments pursued a strategy of military build-up as a result. In response to militarization in the build-up to the war, there were serious plans afoot for a general strike and other measures which would have forced peace on the warring governments. When the war began, many sided with the government (especially manufacturing unions) and countless others were arrested, deported or killed, a process which only accelerated after the war (particularly for anarchists). It’s impossible to know how many millions of lives would have been saved if popular movements had acted differently, or which of the century’s most brutal tyrants might never have emerged.

Given the political tensions, the mounting debts, the crumbling alliances and the worsening resource crisis, we have all the ingredients for a very serious war. What does that tell us about those in power? That mass-murder is seen as an acceptable form of political gamesmanship and economic stimulus? That oil is becoming so scarce that world powers are willing to take incredible risks to control the supply? Does it simply state that the lives of those involved are so cheap that they aren’t worth consideration? Or just that they’re willing to utterly destroy any territory they can’t personally control? This ugly background paints all of our local struggles in a very different light – we aren’t just fighting for ourselves. This has never just been about Canadians or Americans and it isn’t just our personal interests at stake here. If we claim to care about peace or freedom, we cannot stand by and watch this happen. We, the people of nations who’d wage war from afar, are the only ones in a position to do something about it. That gives us a responsibility, will we act on it?

One of the facts that you don’t hear so often about the War in Afghanistan is the role that drugs played. Prior to the war, Taliban theocrats had actually banned the drug because it was “un-islamic” (or to drive up demand, depending on who you ask). But after the invasion, Afghanistan had many record-setting years in a row.

Currently Afghanistan supplies 90% of the world’s opium, and more hash than any other country. While opium exports dropped in 2009 (just like every other commodity exported worldwide that year), the problem is still enormous. Despite record drug seizures, the us forces estimate they’re only getting about 2%, and are beginning to see violent reprisals.

The question of military involvement is also being raised in more serious ways. British military police are now investigating claims that British troops have been using military aircraft to ship the drug out of the country.

This is not to say there’s a massive conspiracy at work. But there doesn’t have to be. Heroin serves many basic capitalist goals – requiring people to work many hours for overpriced, addictive narcotics. Bankers and generals don’t have to tell people to grow opium or traffic heroin because they know they will. They simply need to create an environment (like a war) that makes it possible. Like dead civillians, crippled infrastructure and massive public debt, this heroin explosion is a direct result of the choice to go to war in Afghanistan.

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