As half a million souls have evaporated into smoke, largely at the hands of the Assad regime, Max Blumenthal instructs his readers to be suspicious of the organizations dedicated to putting a lid on the suffering.
He performs this by making a few salient points about the problematic nature of NGOization, funding channels and influence of big powers which tend to haunt aid organizations everywhere, particularly those operating in desperate situations. He goes on to point out that those organizations are toeing the line of Washington’s foreign policy elites who are calling for an NFZ in order to overthrow the regime. Of course, one needn’t wonder if maybe, just maybe, the countless barrel bombs, cluster bombs, chlorine bombs, thermite bombs and bunker busters may have anything to do with compelling one to calling for an NFZ.
I don’t have to rehearse the criticism made but you can read Scott Lucas’ forceful rebuttal to his piece here and others’ here.
What I’m interested in what went on in his head before he sharpened his pencils. What is the purpose of transforming aid organizations during the time of war and genocide into objects of scrutiny and suspicion? Who does that serve?
The task is made difficult once one recalls that Blumenthal, after all, used to be one of us—that is, on the side of Syria’s democrats and revolutionaries. In 2012, he resigned from al-Akhbar over what he called the “newspaper leadership’s pro-Assad tendency”, pointing out that:
“Yet the mere existence of Western meddling does not automatically make Assad a subaltern anti-imperial hero at the helm of a “frontline resisting state,” as Ghorayeb has sought to paint him. Nor does it offer any legitimate grounds for nickel-and-diming civilian casualty counts, blaming the victims of his regime, or hyping the Muslim Threat Factor to delegitimize the internal opposition . . . Besides exploiting the Palestinian cause, the Assad apologists have eagerly played the Al Qaeda card to stoke fears of an Islamic takeover of Syria . . .In joining the Assad regime’s campaign to delegitimize the Syrian opposition by casting it as a bunch of irrational jihadis (ironically, they seem to have little problem with Hezbollah’s core Islamist values), Assad’s apologists have unwittingly adopted the “war on terror” lexicon introduced by George W. Bush, Ariel Sharon, and the neocon cabal after 9-11. Not only have they invoked the scary specter of The Terrorists (gasp!) to justify morally indefensible acts of violent repression . . . “
What bothers Blumenthal today isn’t the somewhat common silence or apologia for Assad and Putin in alt-journalism and left-wing circles, nor is it the ongoing intervention of Russia, Iran and sectarian militias on behalf of a brutal regime. What bothers him is a hypothetical regime change operation undertaken by the United States. These are classic, even caricatural, tropes that he railed against not too long ago.
Enquiring minds wish to know: how can someone who has stood on the side of justice consistently suddenly barbarize themselves this quickly?
“The great Indian disaster of 1947 has barely entered the public consciousness. Distance, and a sense of helplessness, presumably account nowadays for this seeming indifference, just as they account for the relative calm that greets the news from Nigeria. What can one do about it, and who cares about dead African babies anyway? Certainly not the New Left: its leaders have not uttered a sound on the subject. But then there is no political mileage to be got out of a conflict which opposes Africans (with some foreign backing) to each other. As for morality, we all know by now what the Realpolitiker of the New Left (not to mention the Old Right) think of such sickly bourgeois sentiments.”—George Lichtheim
If it has been said that the institution of slavery is war and can only be defeated by war, the same can be said about the Assad regime. No serious observer thinks that Assad will cede an inch of power to the opposition without military defeat or threat. The regime has made up its mind about a Final Solution a long time ago. “Assad or we burn the country” as a pro-regime graffiti encapsulates the logic.
Blumenthal is forcefully aware of all of this. In fact, he’s written about it and has likely concluded that the war of extermination will continue unabated unless there’s some limited form of foreign intervention.
But he’s grown torn between maintaining an internationalist commitment to Syrian democrats and the fear of being in the bad company of neocons. It’s clear that Blumenthal simply sees no other way—or lacks the confidence to do so—to appear to be in such bad company without compromising himself morally.
Knowing this, he inserts his head and hands into the pillory. Thinking to himself that only by earning the scorn of neoconseratives—whom he could represent as the spear of the backlash—can he turn himself into a victim deserving commiseration and, in his mind, self-exoneration from the guilt of silence. And here’s something he could really believe in. But what he doesn’t know is that in the process he has doubly compromised himself by turning the figure of the neocon into a straw man that can be hung over the head of the defenceless and their advocates in the West.
Hence why I don’t think what he wrote is journalism. It’s an exercise in a sort of secularized Catholic penance for the white man’s burden. In other words, he has contrived an all-too solipsistic performance of self-flaeggelation that has effectively shut Syrians’ voices out, hence why he didn’t interview a single Syrian for his piece. The issue isn’t what Syrians think, the issue is that John McCain happens to agree with some of their demands.
Blumenthal wants to have it both ways. He, and his contemporaries, think they can sustain a politics of Realpolitik while avoiding the impression that they are callous. He wants to maintain the commitment of refusing a compromise with U.S. imperialism in a world far from ideal (such virtue! such courage!) while avoiding an uneasy conscience. Why call for some form of limited intervention when it can fail and perhaps haunt your career forever? After all, it’s only dead Syrians.
“I was right to be wrong, while you and your kind were wrong to be right”—Pierre Coutrade
But he sees a bigger payoff with what he’s written. He’s banking on the likelihood that sooner or later the United States and its European allies will intervene to put a halt to the carnage that is tearing not just the Middle-East apart, but at the very fabric of European democracy. In other words, he wants the United States to intervene.
That is the only way he can be redeemed for what he wrote. And when that happens, he’d like to be there to tell us that despite his Machiavellian cynicism that was fiercely criticized, he was right all along. He has crucified himself on the cross, and like the Christ’s body, he carries within him the prospect of redemption. In his mind, he may be wrong but he’s wrong for the right reasons.
It is worth noting that Christopher Hitchens took such a gamble too when he decided to support the invasion of Iraq—betraying his own principles and friends in the process. Like Hitchens, he carries a violently contemptuous attitude towards his former comrades whom he derides for their naïveté, principle and “idealism.” Despite adopting the symbols of liberation and inverting the signs, Hitchens after all still considered himself a leftist, even a Marxist, as late as 2010. Because isn’t that an effective prophylactic against an uneasy conscience?
By attacking the only groups and individuals who are committed to the protection of civilians in Syria, Blumenthal has found a target to sublimate and project what he called his “anguish” at the carnival of apologia and conspicuous silence from those on the Left After all, we—those who stress political and arms support for Syria’s democrats—have been fighting a lost battle for the hearts and minds of progressives in the West. Not knowing how to help without committing the Great Apostasy of demanding that the liberal democracies pull their weight around Syria’s democrats, Blumenthal has come to be tired of the despair and discomfort of calling for help from the imperium—who wouldn’t? What he wants instead is to make sense of it all. He wants to give his life and its place in History meaning.
That’s why he thinks it’s 2003. Those were simpler times, when the world was divided between the Good and the Neocon. When opposing your government’s war assured you immunity from moral conundrums. And if you buy the thesis that history does indeed repeat itself, you can avoid ruminating on the constantly terrifying novelty of the present.
Shorn of all substance, all that remains is the affect and optics of interrogating imperialism. But if you look past the optics, you realize that the ontology at play remains deeply entrenched in a colonial unconscious. “We are the prime movers of History” is a fairly therapeutic thought amidst the chaos.