Saturday, September 27, 2014

Once more unto humanitarian intervention.

Hit the streets?  Did they really say 'hit the streets'?

For the time being, at any rate, Stop the War’s exhortation - though impossible to fault as a desideratum - is unlikely to be met with much vim.  

We face an absurd situation.  A war that is already, on its face, a sort of defeat.  Liberal and left intelligentsia once more carolling support for ‘humanitarian intervention’.  From the political class, the feast of reason and the flow of the soul, as always.  

And the anti-imperialist camp, if such a thing exists, divided over issues of principle.  Such as?  Well, don’t you think this nastiness could have been avoided had imperialism not weakened Assad in the first place?  This is a claim which, though it has a reassuring tincture of knowing realpolitik, is babyishly oblivious of the salient role of imperialism in shoring up the dictatorship these few years.  It is also exactly the claim that Peter Hain makes this morning in support of war, in which he invites Obama, Putin and Assad to form an alliance of convenience.  Far from ideal, then, as an anti-imperialist slogan.  What else?  Well, isn’t it about time - isn’t it always time? - to arm the rebels?  The bearers of this slogan are a living illustration of an old axiom about the proximity of liberalism and ultra-leftism, for they are ultimately as dependent upon the happenstance benign behaviour of imperialist states as those who call for direct military intervention.  And then, what else?  A solidarity campaign.  Fundraising, petitions, protests outside Downing Street, a workers’ convoy of aid to the Kurds.  If the Iraqi left is non-existent, its working class weak, let the imperishable British left substitute for it.  And behold the mortal dread, the fear of the risen proletariat, in the looks of ISIS.  

Look, I may sound frankly tired and cadaverously grim about the prospects, but don’t let that fool you: I very well am both tired and grim.  Actually, things are much, much better than this time thirteen years ago when, in a world of - give or take - twelve billion seeing eyes, some antiwarriors earnestly cuckooed that ‘an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind’.  Thank god we don’t have to listen to those fucking hippies any more.  Any old way, this is merely to gently advert to the divisions on the Left opened by the Arab Spring and its sequels, divisions accelerated by the Left’s wider crisis and fragmentation since the credit crunch, and divisions which I do not scruple in this case to piss upon from aloft.

Beyond the weakness of the Left, which has not inhibited mass movements from erupting over Gaza, the several reasons for the likely weakness of any antiwar response to this venture include the fact that this is a war of extraordinarily limited deployment from the point of view of the United States and its allies.  The call for ‘boots on the ground’ now issuing from Blair and the more psychopathic elements of the military (a distinction which I merely underline), is unlikely to be heeded.  Bombing from the air presents no danger to British and American soldiers, aerial assault being a typical case of ‘risk transfer’ war in which the probability of death is transferred to civilians in ‘enemy’ territory, and thus rendered almost invisible.  

Moreover, it is part of a reassuringly multilateral response to ISIS, with the US, Russia, the EU, Australia, Canada and Japan - in a word, the imperialist states - roughly acting in concord for the moment.  No adventurist stunt, this action is offered as a broad-based defence of the regional state system.  Nor is it an action taken in isolation from a wider strategic repertoire, centrally including the arming of Iraqi Kurds who had until lately depended upon military aid from Iran.

There is, as mentioned, the susceptibility to ‘humanitarian intervention' to consider.  As we have seen, this is an old impulse, as old as colonialism; and it is one that has always resonated powerfully in parts of the Left.  Now, it is without question that success for ISIS heralds the triumph of the most reactionary and sectarian tendencies in the region, which entails possible death for anyone identified as a Shi’ite or a Kurd in an area likely to be dominated by ISIS.  Any country that ISIS extends its reach into is in trouble.  This is a fact, and everyone can see it.  Additionally, to a lay person the situation seems rather urgent.  The most precious currency in the humanitarian purse is that of urgency - no one has time to think, to learn, to critique.  People are dying this immediate second.  We cannot stand by.  We must do something.  This immediate second.

It would be tone dumb, as well as in factual error, to counter this by saying that military action is illegal.  No such axiom will do.  The answer to the ridiculously simple slogans of humanitarian intervention cannot be shibboleths of our own.  One could always spend hours detailing the ways in which the supposed rescuers have been implicated in barbarism of a greater magnitude than ISIS, but - as opposed to the immutable evil of the Islamic State - American brutality is always somehow judged aberrant, a lapse, and always in the past.  This might be Iraq, but it isn’t Iraq.  It is also the case that ‘we’ shall do nothing, that any sense ‘we’ have of doing something by virtue of the bombs hitting the streets of Mosul is purely vicarious.  It’s like saying ‘we won’ when your Manchester Bulldogs or your City Wanderers or whatever the fucking hell they’re called win a football match.  But then a vicarious sense of being and doing has always been at the heart of imperialist ideology: it is its peculiar charm. If people believe that a bombing campaign is a good answer to ISIS’s IRL trolling, it is above all because there is precious little known about ISIS or the wider geopolitics.  And the best answer to facile moralism is the concrete analysis of concrete situations - which, however, I do not pause to offer here.

In the longer run, at any rate, this war will lose support.  Obama has been knocked off his strategic course.  He had hitherto succeeded in extending the subtle net of US power through a range of secret programmes operating under the rubric of ‘counterterrorism’, from drone strikes and special forces incursions to an assassination programme so discourteous as to include juveniles in its list of targets.  Who needs a spectacle war, an expensive ground battle in a delimited territory for regime change and state-building, when it is possible to change the calculus of social and national struggles through the secretive and potentially limitless deployment of long-distance firepower?  Yes, yes, Libya - but the administration hardly dashed enthusiastically into that one.

The bombing is to that extent a win for ISIS, not because “that’s what they want” (as if everyone didn’t already know that), but because it’s what Obama doesn’t want.  Withal, it a) signals that the Iraqi security forces trained under Petraeus cannot retake the territory, b) proves that the Iraqi government cannot reorient itself to absorb Sunni grievances (Maliki's resignation will probably make no difference), and c) bolsters the fragile alliance between ISIS and Sunni Arab allies if the major forces fighting them are the Kurdish forces who have committed their own ethnic cleansing raids and whose land grabs will be hard to reverse (there is another incipient state), and the sectarian death squads affiliated to the Iraqi government.

It seems vaguely impossible that ISIS can succeed, and establish a permanent new state.  It, likewise doesn’t seem probable that they will be decisively defeated, by military means at least.  The prospect which the British government is shamelessly vaunting, that they can defeat ISIS in three years, is about as believable as any other ‘cakewalk’ scenario.  So the most likely future is a prolonged, interstitial state in which the phrase 'the Iraqi government’ is more of an aspiration than a reality, and not necessarily an aspiration shared by all ‘boots on the ground’.  Civil war, then, in both Iraq and Syria, for the foreseeable future.

As usual, I have no solutions.