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Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Left Should Not Fall For Neocon Cold War Analogies In Judging Syria: More Must-Read BooMan

Last night BooMan posted Against a World Arrayed for War and this morning a brief supplement Kill the Paradigm which provide what seem to me indispensable insights about the Administration's Syria policy.

Among other things, BooMan is emphasizing that it is profoundly misleading to accept the commonplace over-simplifying assumption that Syria represents a proxy for conflict either with Russia or with Iran for Obama foreign policy. It is important to grasp the extent to which the proxy proposal slots into Cold War obsessed neocon narratives seeking either to cast Islam in the Cold War role of Communism or to cast a resurgent Russia in the Cold War role of the USSR. Such narratives have the intuitive appeal of the familiar, and they are have the added merit of fitting effortlessly into media pieces between commercial breaks in ways that foreground facile but preferred narrative tropes about resolute versus feckless leaders and one-upsmanship and chicken playing out in the latest chapter of The Great Game... but they do not actually connect us meaningfully to the dynamisms or stakes of present and emerging planetary politics (which involve democracy and anti-democracy struggles between the 1 versus the 99 percent, rapidly amplifying environmental crises and resulting stresses, and networked formations of education, mis-information, agitation, marketing, organizing, and surveillance).

BooMan has gone on to point out that Obama's comments on the Sunday shows this morning support his interpretation, but also to remind folks that his present comparative clarity on this is hard won, that like many of us seeking to judge the scrum of events he wasn't quite sure which factual accounts about the use of chemical weapons or the various factions on the ground or the motivations of various officials were the right ones to trust as citizens sought to construct a sense of just what was happening let alone what should be happening from moment to moment.

It really is curious that so many commentators seem to think Obama is emerging out of this ongoing Syria crisis as a weakened figure when he looks to have gotten more or less what he wanted (a recognition that the prohibition against the use of chemical weapons needs to be maintained) in a way that does not require he to do anything unpopular even though it seemed almost inevitable that he would do so (bomb Syrian civilians in our name because Assad had done so). It is especially egregious that the nimble flexibility and open opportunism of our diplomacy is being framed so widely as fecklessness and incompetence when it appears to be comparatively more successful than the alternatives on offer and contrasts so vividly to the catastrophic cowboy buffoonery we presumably learned to reject from the killer clown a decade past.

Needless to say, the Republicans are going to tear their hair out over this -- they were screaming Obama was a tyrant for not letting them vote when they weren't using the upcoming vote as a pretext for screaming Obama was an incompetent and now in their relief at not having to vote ridiculing him as a wimp as they proceed to hold the nation hostage, promising to blow the nation's brains out if the nation doesn't blow its own brains out over Obamacare mostly because, let's face it, the President is black blackety black black. The GOP stoopids always freak out, and since their freakout is not really responding to substantial policy differences and will happen regardless of the vicissitudes it isn't anybody's responsibility to respond to its nonresponsiveness. Ridicule is what the ridiculous deserve and should come to expect.

But it is a bit less clear why the liberal left is having such a hard time judging the administration well in this event. I am sure the larger context of legitimate critique over drone assassinations and the expansion of the Unitary Executive and surveillance in the midst of the Snowden revelations complicate the discursive field in which such judgments have to be made. I have critiques on all those scores myself, of course, but I really do think it is crucial to embed such judgments in the context of available alternatives (if one's distrust of the President really cashes out as a desire for a dis-invention of the Executive Branch as such then you aren't serious however seriously you take these issues, and if one's distrust of the President really cashes out in the improvement of the election prospects of Republicans then you aren't substantively progressive however progressive your intentions) and programs for their immediate and incremental change (recent Congressional push-back against unaccountable NSA spying, against funding Patriot Act provisions that facilitate the burgeoning surveillance state, Administration figures proposing conditions under which the "War on Terror" can be said to end and with it an end to dangerously open ended empowerment of the Executive under the authorization of force, a host of lawsuits over indefinite detention, prisoner abuse, surveillance of civil organizations, civilian casualties of drone attacks brought by the ACLU and other organizations all point the way to ground-level struggles to address these ills in my view -- and of course there are many more, of which shouting "smash the state!" is not one whether your favorite author is Ayn Rand or David Graeber).

It is crucial to grasp that while facile fear-mongering neocon Cold War analogies are an obvious pretext for authoritarian anti-democratization, loose left anti-governmentality is too often a pretext for a no less anti-democratizing self-marginalization as well, amounting whatever its stridency to acquiescence to the status quo. The Syria crisis remains fraught with peril, it is not at all clear what will happen next, it still does not seem that there are many things the US can do that will make things better by our lights except providing humanitarian assistance to the refugees displaced by this conflict and condemning the atrocities committed by most of the relevant parties involves (ourselves included), but our judgments of the Administration's conduct in this affair are muddled by disastrously failed and yet still prevailing Cold War analogies explicitly deployed in the service of reactionary right wing politics, as well as by more broadly libertopian anti-governmental frames across the intellectual spectrum that conduce to the service of reactionary right wing politics as well.


Unknown said...

if one's distrust of the President really cashes out as a desire for a dis-invention of the Executive Branch as such then you aren't serious

The lion's share of the Executive Branch, by budget and manpower, is in the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, whose "services" I do find largely objectionable. Any serious effort to curb their power and stop all these damn wars will involve taking on these institutions at some point.

Abolishing them is impractical and dangerous, but 10% per annum budget cuts for 20 years would be very agreeable.


Dale Carrico said...

Any reader of this blog already knows I agree that such an outcome would be agreeable -- especially so long as one recalls along the glidepath away from militarism that you can stealth a hell of a lot of renewable infrastructure and healthcare through military installations and veterans services in ways the wingnuts can't as easily demagogue before they die off. A Democratic majority the progressivism of the members of which reflected the views of its actual district constituencies would be the best way to push against executive overreach (also ameliorating the conditions of dysfunction structurally amplifying this overreach right now), ending the 2001 authorization that still empowers war on terror abuses, encourage pushback, hearings, defunding, and legislative reform, against civil liberties abuses and the sites out of which they emerge, and so on. Since we are agreed that abolishing them is impractical (what is dangerous since they are indeed impractical is the delusion otherwise which enables apathy at many levels) I have no quarrel with your comment. Obviously fantasies of electing dream-date Presidents who will automagically solve all our problems are quite as nonsensical as contrary state-smashing delusions. What is needed is a whole lot of partisan political organizing and participation -- at the local county city level up through the splashy federal level -- and with strong actually democratic/sustainable policy discourse and activist campaigns pushing from the left of partisanal election and reform politics to keep them honest and give us the ideas that will drive reform toward ever greater sustainable equity-in-diversity.