Empathy for empire

Molly Crabapple, a political artist whose artwork I frequently admire and appreciate and some of which decorates my walls, recently admonished what she terms the “Western left” for failing to properly and tangibly support the Syrian revolutionaries fighting their government. She coats this condemnation in deep concern for the Syrian people, but the barely latent thesis shines through: Crabapple is arguing for military intervention.

If it wasn’t clear, Crabapple elucidates when responding to questions about her piece from Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola.

Very often on the left there’s this way where we simplify things, where we’re like, ‘America has fucked up in the Middle East, America murdered hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq.’ And then we look at something like Syria where a nonviolent opposition was met with extreme violence and then after trying to arm themselves they were asking for military aid and we’re like “America’s fucked up in the Middle East, America’s murdered hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq. Let’s not even look at these people. Let’s pretend they don’t even exist.” And I think that there’s a legitimate debate about military aid and intervention.

Author and Western leftist David Mizner responded deftly to the original piece with ’For 3rd Anniversary of War in Syria, Molly Crabapple Turns Into a Liberal Hawk.’ He explains how Crabapple is refuting claims her subjects aren’t making to highlight her own empathy — those she condemns are not cheering the status quo, they are simply trying to prevent further horror.

“For the last decade, the left has struggled against the murderous idiocies of the War on Terror. Guantanamo. Iraq. Weddings drone-bombed in the name of ‘freedom’. When Syrian activists and the Free Syrian Army began asking for weapons and no-fly zones in what actually was a fight for freedom, the Western left mostly looked away,” Crabapple laments.

Some additional context is needed. While the Western left was allegedly looking away, Western governments were getting involved in the Syrian conflict, if quietly.

From August 2013:

So far the UK has sent around £8m of “non-lethal” aid, according to official papers seen by The Independent, comprising five 4×4 vehicles with ballistic protection; 20 sets of body armour; four trucks (three 25 tonne, one 20 tonne); six 4×4 SUVs; five non-armoured pick-ups; one recovery vehicle; four fork-lifts; three advanced “resilience kits” for region hubs, designed to rescue people in emergencies; 130 solar powered batteries; around 400 radios; water purification and rubbish collection kits; laptops; VSATs (small satellite systems for data communications) and printers. In addition, funds have been allocated for civic society projects such as inter-community dialogue and gathering evidence of human rights abuses. The last ‘gift’ to the opposition, announced by William Hague last week, is that £555,000 worth of counter-chemical warfare equipment is on standby.

Also from August 2013:

Rebel groups in Syria’s north say they have received their largest shipment of weapons yet…

From September 2013:

 The CIA has begun delivering weapons to rebels in Syria…

From January 2014:

Light arms supplied by the United States are flowing to ‘moderate’ Syrian rebel factions in the south of the country and U.S. funding for months of further deliveries has been approved by Congress, according U.S. and European security officials.

Syrian rebels have been using Western weapons for months, at the very least.

As for a no-fly zone, Mizner quotes members of the Western left, Vijay Prashad and Gary Younge, who have not “looked away” but who have instead opposed further war.

But perhaps it is Crabapple who has “looked away” from the full effects of Western imperialism. She writes, “The left did not see Syria. We saw Afghanistan and Iraq. The US is broke and disillusioned from two wars based on lies. It understandably doesn’t want to enter a third.”

A third? If only. If we’re distinguishing American wars by national borders, the number is sadly higher. As Crabapple herself notes, we’ve been regularly drone striking several countries in the Middle East, including Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, for years.

The last MENA country to spark this intervention debate on a national scale, and the last country on which the West imposed a no-fly zone, was Libya. Here’s an update on how that country is doing:

The partitioning of Libya is no longer the concern of pessimists alone but a tangible reality. Islamists are imposing their rule by force and the government and parliament are paralyzed. Some talk blatantly about their intention to strip the non-Arab inhabitants of the south of the country of their citizenship. Add to this mess direct Western intervention in Libya’s internal affairs and one can only conclude the partitioning of the country is on the horizon.

To oppose Western intervention in Syria is not a symptom of ‘war fatigue’ — it is to simply be aware of what Western intervention leads to.

I propose listening to members of the Western left who tend to focus specifically on Syria. Here’s Patrick Higgins:

…I have little patience with anybody speaking to me nowadays in the name of the “will of the Syrian people.” How can anybody dare make such a claim? Read a little. Be at least a little honest. How could Syrian opinion about what constitutes the gravest threat and the best way forward not depend at this point on which part of the country he or she resides in? It’s a civil fucking war, with every bit of pain and confusion that entails. My antiwar activity is predicated first and foremost on the idea of self-determination for all peoples. Syrians deserve to have that. Devastatingly, the entire world is working to keep them from achieving it….[The United States] doesn’t wish for the stability of any regime that is not in its financial thrall. And it wishes to weaken Hezbollah and Iran, as everybody knows. Some continue to push the narrative that the United States is baffled over events in Syria without a sound, clear policy. This is nonsense. It has been two and a half years. Do people honestly want to make the claim that it hasn’t come up with anything over all that time? America and the Zionists have been sitting back and enjoying the show, while getting involved directly as little possible.

(Higgins also has a valuable explanation of imperialism in this piece.)

Here’s the writer who goes by ‘Nader’:

I firmly believe that intervention by reactionary forces on the side of the opposition (Saudi Arabia, Qatar) has done great harm to Syria and the Syrian uprising in general, but nevertheless, to state that the onus is entirely on them to end this war is to imply that the regime is somewhat innocent, which I believe is ludicrous.

We should also note that proponents of intervention in Libya and Syria (as with Iraq and Afghanistan) happen to line up with the interests of Western governments, who profit from these wars and expand their hegemony. But in conflicts where the U.S. is guiltier, or where the U.S. has interests at stake, interventionists like Crabapple are rather quiet. Amy Austin Holmes reminds us of ‘The Military Intervention that the World Forgot,’ in Bahrain, where U.S. ally Saudi Arabia demolished protesters — which the U.S. didn’t intervene to stop, for what should be obvious reasons.

I deeply empathize with those killed by and who fight against brutally repressive governments around the world. I am crushed by their deaths, I mourn for their martyrs, I identify with their struggles. It is for that very reason that I think the United States and the rest of the west should not intervene in Syria. There are other ways to help: we can accept refugees in our country, we can stop financing dictators throughout the Middle East, we can stop fighting proxy wars, we can end our long and covert war on Syria-tied Iran, and we can stop selling billions of dollars worth of weapons around the world. But we can’t bomb Syria and say it’s in the name of empathy.

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Empathy for empire

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