The following article below was originally published as a Facebook Note, but I’ve been asked not to link back, nor to include the author’s name:
October 12, 2012
There were two discernible moments in last night’s Vice Presidential debate that I thought were the most telling and most important moments we’ve seen in the two confrontations between the Obama-Biden and Romney-Ryan tickets. It wasn’t Congressman Ryan’s brilliant swipe at Vice President Biden’s long history of gaffes. It wasn’t Biden’s blistering attack on Romney’s 47% comment or his rock-solid defense of the Administration’s tax plan, in which he pointed out that 97% of small business owners don’t make more than $250,000 per year. These were all interesting moments, although by my own standards of debate – cultivated from four years of competing in high school and three years of coaching in college – Biden won the arguments.
But the moment I’m referring to was more important than all of that. I get that this election is about jobs and the economy in the minds of voters so I don’t use ‘important’ to mean ‘election-altering’. I mean that for progressive-minded people, organizers, and activists in this country, these two moments told us a lot more about the country we live in and the policies we organize against than anything said on the campaign trail.
The two moments I’m referring to were the Libyan embassy question at the beginning of the debate and the Syria question near the end.
First on Libya: Ryan targeted the Obama Administration for not labeling the embassy attack as “terrorism” earlier and not being prepared. Biden countered by saying that Ryan’s budget had cut security funding for embassies by millions of dollars and short-changed the staff there. Romney and Ryan clearly want to win this election, so why do they – let alone the supposedly “free” and “investigative” press – not point out the obvious: NATO, under the direction of the Obama administration, funded, armed, and brought to power the same Libyan ‘rebels’ that attacked the US embassy in Benghazi on September 11th.
We can quibble as to whether or not the attackers were literally “the same rebels,” but NATO commanders and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all admitted that a large section of the rebels that they supported in Libya last year were members of al-Qaeda or other Islamist extremists. When NATO was criminally murdering Libyans through their bombing campaigns, they didn’t distinguish between “good rebels” and “bad rebels.” They armed the rebellion by any means necessary – the rebellion that systematically lynched black African migrants; the rebellion that attacked hospitals and schools for children with Down-syndrome; the rebellion that, with NATO’s air strikes, killed more civilians than Libya’s national army; the rebellion that sodomized and murdered Colonel Muammar Qaddafi without trial; and ultimately the rebellion that was directed on the ground by al-Qaeda and Islamist militants.
Qaddafi was a bulwark against radical Islamists, much like Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Al-Qaeda committed terrorist attacks against Libyan targets and Qaddafi showed no tolerance for their indiscriminate violence, so much so that he opportunistically joined the war on terror in 2005. Just as it doesn’t matter in Syria today, though, Washington’s short-term interests in acquiring oil overrode any possible problem they had with materially supporting the same people that attacked the US on 9/11. The Obama administration knew it and they did it anyway.
So fast-forward to 9/11 in 2012. Al-Qaeda attacks the US embassy in Libya right after receiving aid from the US and NATO in 2011. With the amount of support they received, there is a good chance that the same weapons used to breach the embassy were provided by the US, much like how many of the same arms given to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan by the US in the 1980s are now used by the Afghani resistance against US troops today.
Why doesn’t Romney or Ryan bring this up? Why don’t they hammer Obama and Biden on the biggest hole of all in the White House’s sketchy narrative on the embassy attack? Even in catering to the racist and Islamophobic base of the Republican Party, why don’t they point out that the Obama administration, in this case, literally armed al-Qaeda and Islamist extremists?
The answer is because they don’t fundamentally disagree on what happened in Libya. Republican or Democrat, neither one of them has an interest in laying the real question before the American people: Why did we bomb the hell out of Libya and arm our so-called enemy against a government that didn’t threaten the United States? Outside of the Ron Paul clique, nary a critical word was thrown at the President for the crimes his administration committed against the Libyan people.
The two parties can posture all they want over tax policies or Medicare reform, but let’s make one thing clear: When the rubber hits the road and we’re talking about dropping bombs on civilian targets that suck the oxygen out of a mother’s lungs before her and her child are charred by the flames; when we’re talking about black African migrants who are strung up on light poles and disemboweled because of the color of their skin; when we’re talking about a school, where children with Down-syndrome go to learn and are cared for every day, being obliterated by firebombs; when we’re talking about real people dying – who you and I will probably never meet – the two candidates are one and the same.
Isn’t that deeply unsettling? I have conversations with Obama supporters to whom I bring this up and they dismiss it out of fear that it might play into Romney being elected. They then proceed to lecture me on how there are differences between the candidate’s domestic policies. And then for the closer, they turn these concerns on their head and ask me why I care so much about foreign policy when there are people hurting in this country.
I just grow weary of it, folks. I get that Romney’s policies on a lot of economic and social issues are more reactionary than Obama’s – although I would follow it up by saying, “Not by much. They’re both reactionaries.” What I don’t get is the national chauvinism that pervades the lesser-of-two-evils progressive community that writes off foreign policy as if it’s some separate sphere to evaluate candidates.
The mother charred by fire from NATO’s death machines in Libya doesn’t care that Obama’s tax policy only affects 3% of small businesses. Frankly, she doesn’t even care that Romney’s policy will raise taxes on workers in this country. She was living a normal life with her family, raising her children, working a productive job, and putting food on the table in one form of another until her country was invaded. Violence was committed against her, and it was done in the name of the United States – violence, for no honest reason; violence, for no positive outcome; violence, completely divorced from any semblance of justice; violence, that even the most opportunistic and hateful critics of the President in this country cannot condemn, especially at the Vice Presidential debate.
For the hanged black migrant, for the dead Libyan infant, for the wounded Syrian bus driver, and for any oppressed person around the world, this election is literally meaningless and tonight’s debate proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Now someone’s ready to protest, “But we’re not Libyans. We’re not Syrians. We’re Americans who live in this country and have to deal with the consequences of this election.” Yes we are. And if those consequences guide progressives to vote to defeat Romney – however they think they can best do that in their respective states – they should absolutely do so.
But I want people to understand that there is only one way to vote for the President and not have Libyan and Syrian blood on your hands: Resistance. Whether Obama or Romney win on the evening on November 6th, progressives must issue a declaration of independence, not just from both parties but from the entire system of imperialism. We have to commit to organizing our communities, our workplaces, our classrooms, and our places of worship to resist the attacks that come down on us and on oppressed people around the world. We have to build a new movement – not an anti-war movement like we saw under Bush, but an anti-imperialist movement that recognizes that the crimes perpetrated on the Libyans are made possible by the crimes committed against workers and oppressed people in this country, and vice versa.
That’s all anti-imperialism is. It takes the anti-war movement and joins it with the battle against budget cuts, the fight against bosses on the shop floor, the struggle to keep collective bargaining rights, the campaigns for affordable public education, and the continued war against racism, national oppression, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and every other phobia that oppresses people here and around the world. It recognizes that the struggle of Libyan freedom fighters against NATO and the Islamist rebels is intertwined with the struggles that we wage here in the US against anti-union laws, foreclosures, budget cuts, racist violence, and attacks on women’s rights.
Imperialism is a system that oppresses people domestically to commit untold horrors against entire nations internationally. And it’s a system we have to fight and dismantle if we’re serious about wanting freedom in our lifetime.
Clearly it won’t happen through the ballot box. The Vice Presidential debate showed us that. If we hope to achieve that freedom, we have to fight for it in the streets.
Lincoln, Assad & the Vice Presidential Debate
Now onto Syria: The second moment that stood out to me in last night’s Vice Presidential debate was downright awkward and embarrassing for Ryan. Trying desperately to distinguish the Romney campaign’s position on Syria from Obama’s position, he fumbled around and could not answer the moderator’s question, which was, “What would you do differently?” About all he could muster was the flaccid jab at the Obama administration for calling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “a reformer.”
Except Obama never said that, and neither did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for that matter. Clinton made a statement in March 2011 that “many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer,” but her agenda was the same as Romney and Ryan’s from the beginning: Use the civil unrest, which later became a civil war, to topple the Syrian government at any cost.
All things considered, Biden knocked it out of the ballpark in terms of honesty. He noted that the US hasn’t worked through the UN on the question of Syria, having never endorsed or accepted Kofi Annan’s peace plan, and began aiding the so-called “rebels” directly in the early stages of the civil war. He candidly admitted that the US was completely aligned with the oppressive Turkish government and the reactionary Saudi and Qatari monarchies, all of whom are funneling arms – most likely provided by the United States – to the Syrian “rebels.” About the only thing he left out in his effort to bolster the Obama administration’s “Tough on Assad” credentials was the White House’s announcement last week to put troops on the Jordanian border with Syria.
For their part, neither candidate endorsed a US military operation in Syria under the current conditions. I take this to mean that both tickets understand how unpopular the idea of another war is with voters, which by extension means that the Syrian government has at least until December to put down the rebellion before the threat of a Libya-style NATO intervention comes back on the table. This is the good news.
The bad news is that both candidates agreed to a disturbing caveat, stated not-so-eloquently by Ryan: “Well, we agree with the same red line, actually, they do on chemical weapons, but not putting American troops in, other than to secure those chemical weapons.” If there’s one thing that the past two Presidents have taught this generation about justifications for this type of preemptive war, it is that a targeted government doesn’t have to have actual weapons (Iraq) or plan to use them on the population (Libya) to still launch full-scale military operations. What Biden and Ryan – and ultimately Obama and Romney – are really saying is that they won’t exercise military force until after November 6th.
Realize too that when Ryan said, “[our strategy with Syria] means like embargoes and sanctions and overflights, those are things that don’t put American troops on the ground,” he is talking directly about the type of intervention that NATO launched in Libya. Save for some military advisors, US troops were not “on the ground” in Libya in the same way they are today in Afghanistan. It’s horrifying, of course, that drone and aerial warfare allows the US to victimize thousands of people without having to weigh the consequences of physical risk. There are no longer any counter-weights or human cost calculations that go into setting up no-fly zones, which Ryan calls “overflights.”
Between Libya and Syria – and Afghanistan and Iraq, despite how Biden may have postured to pretend like he didn’t vote to put the same two wars “on credit cards,” like Ryan did – we have to admit that we don’t have a choice in the US Presidential elections. If you even have a semblance of sympathy for the women, men, and children who will bear the full brunt of war in these countries, then you have to admit that there’s nothing democratic about the choice that voters will make on November 6th. The candidates are in full agreement that the United States should continue to build its empire, declare war on smaller nations for their resources, and do so in the most brutal and efficient manner possible. This is one area – probably the most major area, if we are honest with ourselves as human beings – where there is literally no difference between a second-term President Obama and a President Romney.
Immediately after the debate, CNN aired the second trailer for the new Steven Spielberg film, Lincoln, which has Daniel Day-Lewis portraying the Great Emancipator himself, President Abraham Lincoln. The juxtaposition of both candidates’ characterization of Assad “turning guns on his own people” coupled with this exciting movie trailer hit me pretty hard. Most Americans in 2012 revere Lincoln as a national hero, and the film’s Thanksgiving release date all but guarantees it will be the movie event of 2012.
But why is that? Most people in the 21st century view the American Civil War as a totally just war and condemn slavery as an institution – though it should be noted that a disturbing number of reactionary Republican lawmakers are beginning to come out as slavery apologists – but it wasn’t always seen that way. Neither was Lincoln enshrined as “the Great Emancipator” by mainstream American canon until relatively recently (read: the last forty years).
For a large portion of the country, Lincoln was remembered as a brutal tyrant who “turned guns on his own people” and grossly violated their constitutional rights. He was remembered as a radical who forcibly expropriated the “property” of the rich – namely slaves – and waged a brutal civil war on the American people. His unwillingness to compromise on the issue was not touted as a virtue as it is today; rather it was seen as the stubbornness of a dictator whose decisions cost hundreds of thousands of Americans their lives. He was seen as divisive, conniving, and wicked by a large section of the country.
Most Americans probably do not think of it this way, but a great number of atrocities were committed during the Civil War, and by no means were they limited to the racists in the Confederacy. Thousands of people – many of whom never owned slaves – were put into prison camps, forced to work without pay, starved, took ill, and died. For the first two years of the war, the Union Army, under the direction of the scoundral George McClellan, refused to liberate slaves in the South, leaving them under the bondage of the white slaveowners. Not least of these victims were the freed slaves, who received second-class treatment when they were allowed to join the Union Army and received unequal compensation.
Indeed, Lincoln’s policies and military draft program were so divisive that they led to massive riots in the North that left hundreds dead, most of whom were black residents targeted by racist pogroms. The media was not silent on these matters either. The Chicago Times in 1863 was topped with the headline, “DICTATOR PROCLAIMED, for the Proclamation can never be carried out except under the iron rule of the worst kind of despotism.”
But here’s the simple and undeniable truth: Lincoln was a hero, the Union was on the right side of history, and the American Civil War was not just justifiable, but necessary and honorable. As Americans in 2012, most of us wouldn’t think twice about making that judgment because we instinctively understand that slavery was a wicked instrument of oppression and the Confederacy was an evil empire seeking its preservation and expansion. All of Lincoln and the Union Army’s actions that were viewed as tyrannical by some people in 1860 are worthy of praise in 2012 because we understand what the conflict meant to oppressed people; so worthy of praise that a legendary director and actor are teaming up for a film honoring President Lincoln.
This should all sound familiar in the context of Syria: Here we have a leader, a President no less, waging a civil war to hold the country together. Opposite him and the Syrian Army is an unholy alliance of neo-liberals seeking to sell Syria’s resources and labor to the West at a profit, militants of al-Qaeda, and other radical Islamists. Assad fights for secular government against theocratic tyranny; he fights for a self-determined Syria against a puppet regime that will prostitute the Syrian people to Western corporations; he fights for an independent country in a region occupied and dominated by the United States and Israel; and now he fights for the self-determination of the Kurdish people in the northern part of Syria.
That last point is particularly salient in the comparison with Lincoln. The Syrian government has by no means consistently stood for Kurdish self-determination or nationhood, and Kurds have in the past faced oppression in Syria. Similarly, the United States government was the chief perpetrator in the crime of slavery against the black Africans kidnapped from their homes to work under the whip in North America. However, just as Lincoln realized that the question of winning the American Civil War was inseparable from the question of emancipation, Assad realizes that winning the Syrian Civil War is impossible without Kurdish independence. And just as the Union Army could not have won the war without the emancipated and slaves liberating themselves, Assad will have the Kurds to thank if he succeeds in putting down the rebellion.
When the Vice Presidents talked last night about the possibility of intervening in Syria, it made me think of the Trent Affair during the Civil War. Oligarchs in France and Britain considered intervening on behalf of the Confederacy. Though the countries were officially neutral, they engaged the Confederacy on possibly intervening on their behalf in the American Civil War and were only dissuaded by the Union victory at Antietam.
As an American, would you have tolerated British or French intervention in the American Civil War, especially on behalf of the Confederacy? I wouldn’t have. Most of us would like to say we would have supported President Lincoln, but I think all of us could agree that foreign intervention would have been wrong.
President Assad will be remembered by Syrians much in the same way President Lincoln is by Americans. Both leaders are fighting a civil war to hold their country together in the face of threats of foreign intervention – in Assad’s case, this is a more likely and greater threat than it was for the Union – and basic questions of freedom and oppression are at stake in the war’s outcome. From every indicator, a majority of the Syrian people supports the government, and it’s only a small band of traitors calling for military intervention.
As progressives, I don’t think it’s sufficient to just call for “Hands Off Syria.” That’s a start, of course, but in 21st century hindsight, “Hands Off America” would have fallen drastically short in 1862. Anti-imperialism means doing what we can to stop the government we live under from violently attacking another nation, but it is also a call to support those forces who are on the right side of history; those forces who find themselves struggling for independence and liberation; those forces who are most threatened by the kind of slaughter we witnessed in Libya last year. And those forces are President Assad and the Syrian people.
When people go to watch Spielberg’s film in November, voters will have already elected a new President. Last night’s debate showed us that the election won’t determine what happens in Syria because both sides are in agreement. Two factors can turn the tide, though: The first is an overwhelming victory for the Syrian people against the terrorist rebellion. And though I pray that happens, we need to begin exercising the second factor: American resistance to war with Syria.