05.11.14 Don’t carry Assad’s water

An old friend of mine (call him “Joe”) withholds a small part of his federal income taxes every year to protest various US policies and writes an annual letter to the IRS detailing the reasons. This year, his top policy objection was Obama’s promised cruise-missile attack on Syria as punishment for Bashar al-Assad’s alleged chemical-weapons use last year. Joe points to an excellent article by Seymour Hersh in the London Review of Books that sows considerable doubt about Assad’s responsibility for the particular use of sarin gas. With W and the neocons’ manipulation of evidence to justify the unjustifiable in Iraq, I’m with Joe and Hersh at this point: very willing to disbelieve US intelligence and the politicians who decide how to make use of it.

I have trouble with Joe’s selection of this case, though. First, he’s going after a policy that was stopped in its tracks by public opposition in the US and UK. The US attack on Syria never happened, so why waste ink on it as a lead instance of US wrongdoing?

Second, Joe is willing to admit that “Assad may have used chemical weapons in the past” but elsewhere declares that Assad “was not violating international law.” Well, I guess the meaning of “was” is the bone of contention here. For Joe, the fact (which is in dispute) that Assad didn’t use chemical weapons on one occasion absolves Assad of guilt for use on other occasions. In considering Assad’s guilt or innocence under international law, Joe also blithely ignores Assad’s use of mass starvation and cluster munitions against civilians, which are in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Ok. I get the very narrow argument Joe is making. US bluster and threats of violence were uncalled for in response to a single crime that there is reasonable doubt about. Never mind the rest of the crime spree.

Now, Joe and I have a very deep philosophical disagreement. He is almost a pure pacifist, which I’m not. I believe as much in the duty to shoot an individual who is about to kill 100 as I do in an international duty to protect: the responsibility of bystander nations to stop atrocities that (1) they know about and (2) have the means to stop. Though I find US foreign policy to be replete with imperialist aggression and violence against the innocent, this does not, in principle, change my view that the US must sometimes use force to stop evil, as we did in the Balkans (some years too late) and didn’t do in Rwanda. Yes, I distrust US motives and policymakers. No, I do not believe the US can never do good by opposing evil.

Readers of this blog may recall that I ended up opposing US intervention in Syria last year because of a third principle of justified intervention: near certainty that the good to be achieved through such an intervention will outweigh the harm caused. I didn’t believe then and don’t believe now that Obama and those in his administration who supported a war policy had thought for a moment past the initial strikes they planned. They were not bothering to weigh ends, means, and consequences. I ended up believing that this poorly thought-out policy would likely result in a much larger scale of death and suffering than it could possibly prevent. (This mirrors, in part, my well-borne-out opposition to the neocons’ Iraq war: their ideology had so blinded them to the need for advance planning and consideration of consequences that, even if one believed Hussein had WMD [and I admit I allowed myself to be duped in 2003], there was just no possibility that W & Co. could be trusted to conduct a rational and balanced policy around it that would minimize death and suffering.)

Back to Joe. It disturbs me when thinkers and leaders on the left, in their eagerness to oppose the US or imperialism, choose to let other evildoers off the hook — even climb into bed with them. Joe denies that he is aligning himself with Assad by declaring the latter innocent under international law. It sure smells like alignment to me. I find this somewhat analogous to Hugo Chavez, who — in justifiably fearing US aggression against his desire to redress social and economic ills in Venezuela — found the need to make friends with North Korea’s Kims, Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, Putin, and (of course) Assad. Sure, Joe: go after the US, but do you need to carry Assad’s water to do so?

I admire Joe’s withholding of tax payments out of principle. (I don’t make that same decision, because by paying my taxes, I feel better equipped to fight against the Kochs and others who oppose all public expenditures.) There are many things I regret seeing my money go for: US subsidies to industries that drive up food prices or worsen global warming; horrific amounts of spending on unnecessary weapons systems; the money put into the NSA and others who threaten civil liberties; elimination of estate taxes on the mega weathy. Why choose as your #1 target a policy that never was implemented (and which hardly any money was spent on) and make pals with a horrific mass murderer in the process?

PS. “Joe” is a real person, but his views are more nuanced than I present them here. Consider this fiction in order to make a point.

©2014 Keith Berner

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