This is not an easy task I have undertaken: to commit to a review of an essay by a thinker of that caliber and a writer in whose shadow a battalion of puny bloggers like I could hide unnoticed. The essay A Plague: Contesting Syria, in Context by AJA doesn't require my superlatives indeed. It is lucid, it rolls all the points up to their logical conclusion and (I suggest) parts of it could be taught in many a creative writing course. Still, there were a few disturbing points in it, and this is why I just have to. That besides being Jewish, which means an obligatory "yes, but..." to anything at all.
But at least, it is easy for me to deal with the "topsy turvy" part of that task. It is just that I have decided to start with the end of the article. It could have been a good final paragraph of this post, but knowing how the blog posts are read usually, well, you know... Thus, when AJA says as a conclusion to the essay "...U.S. is to find its way, finally, into the twenty-first century, and out of and beyond empire.", I do have a strong feeling of foreboding reading this. It is not the first time I hear the sentiment from American friends, and it is not the first time I sound off on the subject, but let's be clear: the imperial business is not exactly like being an employee in a benevolent corporation, with full pension plan, golden parachute and lifetime health insurance. In most cases in history when you stop being an empire, you become a province at best - or disappear at worst. Province in the meaning of "a principal administrative division of a country or empire", in other words not fully in the sense of "eat or be eaten", rather "rule or be ruled" More on the subject later.
The first part of the essay, titled "Context" is dedicated to two main subjects: the somewhat overbearing lobbying by the American so called "hawks" for increased spending on military high-tech. The second subject is the peculiar predilection of most US administrations since WW II to support and nurture some of the worst dictatorships in existence. I want to say outright that I have no coherent defense (only an explanation, but it will be a trivial one) for the second subject.
The first issue, that of the generals and the hawks, has at least two aspects, only one of which - the underhanded way of the lobby to prove the necessity for additional expenditures - was of interest to AJA. This aspect, true as it is in AJA's delivery, isn't surprising of course. A technical remark: when quoting the numbers for various Soviet military toys of the period in question, one can never be sure about these numbers, even in retrospect. But in general(no pun intended): what general worth his/her stars will behave differently? Isn't it a part of military culture to cry for more money and for reinforcements? Isn't this behavior historically justified by tightfisted civilian attitude toward all things military?
The second aspect, the one avoided by AJA, has to deal with the other side of the Iron Curtain. In other words, with us, chickens, who were watching the Cold War* from a gray discomfort of our lives under the mummified carcass of communist ideology. The adventures of American military abroad and the "arms race", so much decried and maligned by Western "peaceniks"**, so vehemently protested in antiwar demos in the countries of the "socialist" camp, have been our only hope for the eventual escape from under that carcass. And I shall never get tired of repeating the words of gratitude millions of people incarcerated behind the Iron Curtain owe to the warriors of the Cold War, known and unknown, the American and other soldiers who died in the wars all over the world, including the so controversial Vietnam war. They didn't die for nothing.
And if on the way to freedom of these millions more money than strictly necessary was spent - I couldn't care less, to be frank.
As for the Iraq war: yours truly was against it at the time for a simple enough reason: people who commanded the invasion, which was truly a work of inspiration and meticulous planning as far as military part of it was concerned, didn't have a smidgen of an idea what to do with the hot potato, which was post-war Iraq. Still don't, which sad fact costs so many lives and will continue to do so for a long time.
(*) I am painfully aware of the tendency of the younger generation to dismiss the Cold War as a figment of military-industrial complex imagination, artificially created and kept alive for the sake of increased investment into the said complex. For us, though, the Cold War was something entirely different.
(**) Good part of these inspired and financed by the Soviets, as we know today.
And thus we come to the center of the essay: the situation in Syria and the "whispering of shoulder sprites" - the ostensibly anti-war left, "slack and malign anti-imperial apologists for authoritarianism and illiberalism" and the militant "superpower imperialists". To start with, let's dispense with the identification of the sprites. I must say that AJA, in my opinion, is mistaken in equaling the sprites that were active during the Cold War with those he criticizes today. At least when blaming the right wing "superpower imperialists" in calling for US intervention in Syria. The polls clearly show that overwhelming majority of Americans are against a strike in Syria, at least a strike as response for the Syrian use of chemical weapons(*) against the rebels. Of all my friends on the Watcher Council, all staunch Republicans, some of Tea Party and some of libertarian bend (or both), not a single one supported such strike, in fact all were against it. The fact that a puny minority of Republicans are the very few who clamor for American intervention doesn't change the evidence: both left and right wings of American political spectrum don't want to see any kind of American involvement in Syria (and, probably, anywhere else outside of US).
This was my main point regarding the "Contest" part of the essay. The minor ones that deserve to be mentioned, are:
- US indeed shouldn't be alone in the world's involvement with Syria's (and other hot points of the planet) affairs. Of course, when one is saying "shouldn't", the frequently mistranslated and misunderstood “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” comes to mind immediately, but this may take us too far away into the realm of "what if".
- On the other hand, even a mention of that travesty called UN as a possible source of hope for the future is bad form, in my (granted, acerbic) opinion. One shouldn't resort to it, even for the sake of wishful thinking.
- As for the tendentious reporting of the Syria's strife - I can only offer as counter-argument the work done by Terry Glavin, such as this article (but there is much more he has written on the subject, if one really cares to look it up).
- So the only bitter alternative for now remains: the world will continue to do nothing in face of multiple ongoing atrocities. Understood and accepted, if not agreed.
- "It is folly to pretend the United States can manage the volatile historic, which is not to say necessarily beneficial, upheaval sweeping the Arab and Muslim worlds in the Levant and North Africa." True, US cannot and shouldn't. And "who will then?" remains a whispered question.
And whether AJA agrees with this or not, the words of Anne Applebaum are a fitting epitaph to the saga:
Two decades ago as well as today, the source of the problem is the same: The president of the United States wishes to represent things — justice, fairness, international norms — that he cannot, or will not, or doesn’t know how to defend in practice. In the future, it would be far more just, and far less cruel, for the president, and the rest of us, simply to say nothing at all.(*) I can't avoid mentioning again that the whole business of "punishing" the Syria's leaders for use of chemical weaponry was a great red herring, created by the POTUS - deliberately or accidentally is another matter. Suffice to say that the herring worked exceedingly well, turning the discussion from the 120,000 or more Syrian citizen killed to the relatively puny and artificial issue of chemical warfare. And even the much trumpeted clean-up of Syria's chemical arsenal may very well appear to be a big lie.
Imperial America and its alternative
Back to my feeling of foreboding. I do hear from an increasing number of Americans that, as a whole, the nation got tired of policing the world and that this is quite the time to get up, get home and focus on own business, instead of sending the sons and daughters in the harm's way whenever this or another strongman starts killing off his people or his neighbors. As AJA himself says, in his earlier work:
Such, however, is part of the historic pattern in the decline of empires. Yet this is the imperative that serves as the basis for misconceiving and rejecting the Obama international vision. It offers a choice not between a weak America and a strong America willing and able to meet genuine security threats. It presents a choice between an imperial America, however internally democratic, attuned to the brute expression and imposition of its will across all reaches, and a strong America integrated, reasonably and with proper regard to its interests, within a slow-developing international order.In the imaginary future world, organized by John Lennon, I would easily agree with this plan - what could be better, after all? Tend your own garden and smile at the sun (or rain, for that matter). That real world, which has known the rise and fall of many an empire, works differently, however. And the leader of a carnivores' pack is rarely sent off with a golden watch and a retirement party.
Sorry, while I can somehow grok and even come to terms with "a strong America integrated, reasonably and with proper regard to its interests", I can't accept with a straight face the "slow-developing international order". Of all the mirages this one is the most deceptive and I can't participate in a self-deception on this scale.
I am not suggesting something as immediate or as rude as a foreign invasion, not at all. But a gradual erosion of influence will be followed by a gradual take-over of the commercial and military space and, sure as death and taxes, by the gradual cutting of energy sources. I guess I don't have to draw a map - it is already happening, albeit slowly so far. In short, there is no need for a bang where a whimper will do.
And it is up to Americans, whether to submit to the slow and (so far) painless process of decline, only to find themselves sometime in the future as a significant agricultural producer with a few decaying but still popular universities, where the new superpower's children still want to go for their B.Phs. (to be complemented by M.Ph. and D.Ph. at home, of course). Or, all things considered...
P.S. Ring ring... ring ring...
Update: And here, already, a response from AJA, very much worth reading.