The election of Donald Trump has created a new sport: catch the President lying. To try to cover up one of his lies: that he drew more people to his inauguration than Obama, his press secretary, Sean Spicer, argued that there were “alternative facts” to explain the clear photograhic evidence that there was far fewer people for Trump than Obama. Much mocking and hilarity ensued on CNN.
Most of the Democratic establishment and the academic liberal left in the United States piled on. Forgotten of course was a long standing critique of the mainstream media (anyone remember Manufacturing Consent?) that demonstrated, in precise analytical and empirical detail, how the media works with “official sources” to construct ideological narratives and present them as established, unquestioned fact. My point is not that Spicer was correct in the particular case: there are no grounds for doubting there were more people at Obama’s inauguration than Trump’s. The issues is rather that the chest thumping about how sacred the media is to a democracy forgets that a now silenced critical tradition once exposed the way in which the corporate-owned media were impediments to democracy.
There was also once a mass anti-imperialist, anti-war movement in the United States. That too has disappeared in favour of right-wing conservative isolationism on the one hand and moralistic liberal interventionism on the other. The former are at least consistent with their principles; the later live in a land of their own illusions; a liberal fantasy realm of alternative facts supporting policies that have failed and are causing far more damage to Arab and African lives than Trump’s stupidity around his inauguration has.
For three months the Democratic party and its fellow-travellers have been madly leaping on any bandwagon banging an anti-Trump line. He is anti-woman and anti-immigrant and anti-worker; he colluded with Russia, he stole the election, he lies, lies, lies. And then: redemption:
A reading from the Gospel of Nikki Haley: Blessed are the Tomhawk missile launchers, for they shall inhabit the kingdom of human rights.
For weeks we have been hearing of the need for an independent investigation of the links between the Trump camp and Russia. The principle at work: interested parties cannot conduct impartial investigations. Therefore, impartial investigators are needed for politically contentious problems.
That applies to Washington, when Democratic interests are at stake. In Syria, new rules, as Bill Maher would say. In Syria, the conclusion that Assad ordered the strike and that the Russian counter-narrative is false is asserted as necessarily true with no evidence cited. A typical example was Neil MacFarquhar, writing in the New York Times: “Even as the US condemned Assad for gassing his own citizens and held Russia partly responsible … the Kremlin kept denying that Syria had any such capability.” (Reprinted in The Toronto Star, Sunday, April 9th, p. A2). Or consider the open revisionism of this explanation of the origins of ISIS by another New York Times writer, Thomas Friedman: “ISIS was the deformed creature created by the pincer movement — Russia, Iran, Assad, and Hezbollah in Syria on one flank and pro-Iranian Syria militias on the other.” Friedman’s position is truly astounding alternative fact in contradiction to known reality: ISIS is the direct product of collapse of al Qaeda in Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq was organized to fight the American invasion and its leader was radicalised in an American prison camp.
A Chomskean critique might point out the way in which these accounts always position the American narrative as authoritative, without ever explicitly saying so, and opposed positions always as self-interested responses, without ever explicitly saying so. MacFarquhar’s article, for example, implies that the Russians have raisons d’etat that explain their support for Assad, while the Americans, ever righteous, have none. A serious critique might go on to suggest that the present American government has an enormous interest in play: deflecting congressional attention away from alleged connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. It might further contend that a government that is complicit in the starvation of Yemeni children is probably not losing sleep about Syrian children (especially since it is trying to ban any Syrians from entering the United States). It might even go so far as to point out eerie similarities between the Russian claim that Assad’s jets inadvertently caused the chemical leak by bombing a weapons dump controlled by rebels, and the United States’ allied Iraqi government’s explanation that the US planes that caused mass civilian deaths in Mosul had hit an ISIS truck bomb.
Those are the sort of questions that a “free press” which provides vital services to democracy might ask and the sorts of counter-arguments they might bring to bear on complex, politically charged incidents. That would indeed be useful and democratic, but there was little in evidence, only the by now typical boasting, breast-beating, and bleating of the sheep following the trajectory of US missiles. All of a sudden, politicians who lose no sleep over the piles of bodies that lay at their doorstep are moved for “moral” reasons to kill yet more people. Right.
I am not making moralistic arguments to counter moralistic arguments with which I disagree. I wish there were amongst politicians principled stances against chemical weapons, and every other kind of weapon; a principled stance in favour of treating human beings as intrinsically valuable and not just tools of geo-political strategy; a principled stance in favour of politics as real problem solving in the shared life-interest and not the private advantage of one ruling group over and against others, with everyone else treated as collateral damage.
I take my stand against the Trump response on the basis of a simple demonstrable truth: killing, whether justified or not, does not bring the unjustly killed back to life. Taking that truth as my foundation, I next ask: But is there evidence to support the claim that sometimes violence is necessary to counter worse violence. The answer is: yes, of course, in some cases such evidence is exists. So the final question is: is it justified in this case?
A genuinely popular-democratic resistance to Assad and ISIS would surely be justified in an armed struggle to free Syria of both. Trump will prove no friend to a genuine popular democratic resistance. His interests are not their interests. His interests are in isolating Iran and distracting people from the congressional hearings at home. To reiterate: he is enabling the starvation of Yemeni children, and no one who does that is really moved by feelings for the lives of children.
But let us not count children’s tears but stay within the circle of evidence. Assume that Trump really was motivated by love for the Syrians he does not want in his country. Is his response likely to succeed in ending the civil war? Let us examine the demonstrated results of US intervention in the Middle East since 2001. Afghanistan: on-going civil war. Iraq: on-going civil war. Yemen: on-going civil war. Libya: on-going civil war. In the face of this evidence the only conclusion consistent with the facts is that deeper US involvement in Syria will only exacerbate and not solve the on going civil war there.
The war in Syria will end through politics or not at all. A negotiated political solution cannot happen until the many sides to the conflict: ISIS, al Qaeda, the Syrian government, the Kurds, the array of secular rebel forces feel weak enough to have to make compromises and a deal. So long as each has its enablers: the Saudis, the Americans, and the Russians, none will feel weak enough to have to concede. And the war will go on. And people will keep dying, whether of sarin, or bullets, or bombs.