As Western bombs fall once again in Iraq, opposition and even coverage more generally seems muted. New Left Project spoke with Richard Seymour, PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and author of The Liberal Defence of Murder (2008) and, most recently, Against Austerity: How we Can Fix the Crisis They Made (2014), about the difficulties of arguing intervention in conditions of crisis and uncertainty.
The US has led another coalition into another conflict in Iraq. My impression is that opposition to the intervention, among the general public and on the left, has been muted—perhaps surprisingly given how the negatively 2003 invasion is now viewed. Polls indicate broad support for the strikes, and even commentators who oppose it seem to do so reluctantly. How do you explain this?
I agree with that. I expect that sentiment is widely shared. The problem is that it doesn’t go beyond sentiment. We all hate ISIS; everybody who is not ISIS has good reason to despise it. But this is not enough; you also need an analysis of what’s going on, what the strikes are supposed to achieve and what the alternative means are.
How to explain support for the strikes? First, this isn’t a big war. It’s a limited mission, and the humanitarian consequences are therefore unlikely to be grave, relatively speaking. Some civilians will be killed, and it could escalate and go wrong in all sorts of ways, but this is looking like a limited intervention. It’s not like 2003. This isn’t to say that it’s a good idea, but it dampens people’s ardour. Another factor is that it’s multilateral. I’m almost certain there will be a UN mandate for this, and even if there isn’t, there will be a fairly coherent legal explanation made for what’s taking place, and I doubt we will see a substantial legal movement against it as there was against Guantanamo, the invasion of Iraq and even, to an extent, the invasion of Afghanistan. More generally, this is not an adventurist project. It’s not one state going off on its own and expecting everybody else to follow suit. It seems rather to be a global mission to stabilise the Middle East state system, an outcome in which a broad swathe of powers—from Russia, the US, France and Britain to Australia, Japan and even the Gulf states, which have been funding ISIS—are interested. None of them want to see Iraq fall apart. Opposition will therefore be muted, which doesn’t hugely trouble me: I don’t think the consequences of the strikes will be terrible, at least in the short-term. But we have to be vigilant, in particular against any tendency to rehabilitate the imperialist ideology of humanitarian intervention on the basis of these strikes. That’s a real danger.
It is always difficult to factor that danger in to one’s assessment of any particular intervention. It seems callous to say, ‘for the sake of maintaining the taboo against intervention, this particular population must left to suffer’. On the other hand, in the long run the taboo is an important one.
One can make a compelling case that it is better to reinforce the taboo because in the long run more lives will be saved. It’s possible. But I don’t think we need to, because while at present the anti-war argument does not resonate with large numbers of people, there is no overwhelming lust for war either. People are frightened by ISIS, they’re appalled by ISIS, partly because ISIS, using the spectacle of staged beheadings, deliberately solicits outrage. But there is not a generalised shift back to a pro-war disposition. So we don’t need to be terribly worried, in this case, at this point in time, that the broader norm against intervention will be undermined.
The only way to deal with the argument about humanitarian intervention is through a very concrete analysis of the situations in question. We can get tangled up in all sorts of first principles. Noam Chomsky likes to cite the Hippocratic Oath, for example, which is fine, but in a dire situation I think people will tend to think, ‘well, we don’t know that an intervention will do more harm than good, and maybe it’s worth the risk’. Some interventions, even when carried out for imperialist reasons, can be comparatively benign in their effects. An example of this was the intervention in Sierra Leone. The US and Britain helped a nasty government win a war against a nasty group of rebels, for their own reasons. But it resulted in an accord, after which the rate of mutilations and the killings fell dramatically. That sort of benign outcome is rare, but it’s in the ability to handle hard cases like this that we find out how robust our arguments are—invoking axioms, like the Hippocratic Oath, don’t necessarily cut it in these cases.
But it cuts both ways. One implication of the need for concrete analysis of concrete situations is that, if you’re in favour of lobbing bombs at a country, you have to incline towards knowing something about it. What’s happening with ISIS is that people are leading with sentiment, with their hatred of ISIS and fear for the people who fall within ISIS’s reach—not just ethnic minorities who are being killed, but also anyone unfortunate enough to end up being ruled by them (if you think Saudi Arabia’s bad, with its regular amputations and beheadings, ISIS could be a hell of a lot worse). This sentiment is entirely justified, but it is too rarely accompanied by a sustainable analysis of the situation.
One of the worse analyses I’ve seen was by Peter Hain, advocating for limited intervention. He argues that not all interventions are bad, citing those in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, and urges us to recognise Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as a potential ally rather than supporting Syrian opposition forces. First, this rests on an utterly fictitious account of what has happened in Syria. The US has not been heavily involved there, and to the extent that it has, it’s been trying and largely failing to cohere pro-American forces in the Syrian opposition. So this line that the US has been trying to undermine Assad, but ought to recognise that he’s really a potential ally, is incorrect. Second, ISIS and the dictatorships it is trying to topple depend upon each other. Were it not for the sectarian forces in Syria terrifying large sectors of the population, Assad’s base would have likely crumbled a long time ago. Likewise, were it not for the strengthening of these regimes, for example Russia’s arming Assad, ISIS would not have the gained the traction that it has.
This is very clear in Iraq, where the regime of Nouri al-Maliki used the state apparatuses bequeathed to it by the US government (which, after the 2003 invasion, tore apart the Ba’athist state and constructed a new patrimonial state from scratch) to pursue sectarian strategies that have turned a majority of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs against the government and forged an unlikely collusion between Ba’athists, Arab nationalists and jihadi groups.
Once you view it that way, getting into the specifics, you realise that bombing ISIS positions is not going to resolve the deeper problems, and may exacerbate them. There is an underlying political struggle here, and if the struggle against ISIS is going to be waged on the one hand by sectarian Shi’ite death squads trained by the US government under General David Petraeus and on the other by Kurdish forces who have perpetrated ethnic cleansing and land grabs in their project to establish a Kurdish state, it is unlikely that ISIS will lose support. Many people don’t sufficiently appreciate how fragile the alliance sustaining ISIS is. I don’t think the Ba’athist and secular Arab nationalist forces want an Islamic state. They want to depose Maliki, and they want to take down the government. So this seems to be a war that will likely fail even on its own terms.
Long-term, the State of Iraq is probably finished. If ISIS wins, an Islamic state will be established dividing what is now Iraq into a Kurdish north, an ISIS-ruled state in the centre and a southern Shi’ite entity. Or ISIS will be defeated by the Kurdish forces (the government’s forces seem unable to) who will establish an independent state, in which case Iraq and Syria will lose substantial territory and Turkey will have serious problems. The state system the intervention is trying to preserve, in other words, is probably dead anyway. What I’m trying to get at is, the specifics matter. Once you appreciate them, bombing starts to look like an implausible attempt to fix a complex political problem with a technological military solution.
One problem here is that an anti-war movement can only respond to crises. It can’t organise preemptive protests in advance of a crisis about what’s happening to the state system in the Middle East (for example). We can only really have protests, or even just pay attention, when it’s too late: when we’ve reached the point where the options are limited to ‘should we or should we not militarily intervene?’.
I agree. On the one hand, the anti-war movement can only respond to emergencies and with a defensive position (‘a war will make things worse’). That’s fine. But, and we saw this after 9/11, the response is always, what would you do, then? And it’s a serious question. But we aren’t security experts, we don’t control state apparatuses, and if we did we wouldn’t be in the crisis situation in the first place.
Another issue is that it takes time to develop an argument, to construct answers to these problems. And time is often what you don’t have. A really pernicious feature of the way we talk about war and humanitarian intervention is the discourse of urgency: People are dying now, right this very second, and you’re going off to read some books? Thanks for that. But you can be swept into a lot of stupidity on the basis of urgency, and practically every time people have been marshalled into supporting a war on the basis that We Have Do Something Now it turns out, within a few months if not sooner, that things were not exactly as we’d been told. The Iraq war was an exception in that the lies were so egregious that people sensed something was wrong very early on, but it isn’t usually that obvious that early.
This is why it is important that we have an infrastructure like the Stop the War Coalition. I don’t agree with everything Stop the War says, but we do need people who are constantly analysing these things, preparing opinion, and ready to respond. The importance of this can be seen whenever Israel attacks Gaza: on that issue we have a shared analysis which is widely disseminated, so there tends to be a rapid activist response. Part of the problem is that there are huge divisions on the left: we don’t have a shared analysis of what’s taking place in Syria, and there are a lot of people on the left who are basically soft on the Assad regime and on Russian imperialism. Stop the War itself interprets Ukraine, Syria and so on solely in terms of US imperialism, and thus fails to provide a serious analysis.
Two common forms of anti-war advocacy seem to be in tension with this concrete, case-by-case approach. The first interprets everything through the lens of imperialism and believes that once it has demonstrated a particular intervention to have been driven by imperialist concerns, the case has been made. The second argues in the framework of international law. Both ways of thinking deal in absolutes, and are not easy to adapt to particular cases.
That’s not how international law works. On whose account is international law absolute? There is no ultimate authority. In domestic courts there is a spurious determinacy brought to legal interpretation, when a judge backed up by the armed force of the state says ‘this is the final determination that’s going to apply’. In other words, force decides. In the international system force decides again—the force of whoever happens to be hegemonic at a given point, which for most of the twentieth century meant the United States.
I think people, with both these forms of law, tend to underestimate the legal virtuosity of their opponents. The Bush administration’s legal advisers knew what they were talking about. And while one can disagree with their legal interpretations, it is not in the nature of law to enable us to decisively prove them wrong. Law is inherently indeterminate and open to interpretation.
As for the other form of advocacy you mention, I would just say that if we have an analysis of ‘imperialism’ as a system of global confrontation between powerful states over markets and energy and political power and so on, rather than merely as a form of nasty behaviour, then we can show that Russia backing the Assad regime is imperialist, the US intervening in Libya is imperialist, and so on. And that’s an important and useful starting point for discussion. Opposition to imperialism is a good default position: we want to end that system. But I think it’s also sensible to hold open the possibility, even just for the sake of argument, of an exertion of imperialism that one shouldn’t outright oppose. Even if in practice you rarely come across an instance where that is the case, it forces you to work out the criteria by which you evaluate interventions. I think one should evaluate on the basis of likely prospects and outcomes, both in the short and the long term.
One should also bear in mind that, most of the time, it makes little difference what the left does. That means we need to think strategically. In a situation like this, it is strategically inept to kick into hyper-mobilisation and try to get everyone on the streets, because it isn’t going to happen. In a situation like this, with ISIS, the job of the left is critique: to concretely analyse and explain what’s happening. If this war drags on, it will become more and more unpopular, calls will increase for ground troops on the one side and withdrawal on the other, and when that polarisation takes place we can start to have an impact. Our job now is to prepare ourselves and the public for such an eventuality.
I agree with your account of how international law operates in fact: it should be understood as a sphere of contestation rather than a set of clear rules. But if you want to frame your arguments in terms of international law, i.e. if you want to engage on that terrain, then you have to formulate them in terms of universally applied rules. That’s why it can be difficult to reconcile with very specific case-by-case geopolitical analysis, and why it can sound so odd to hear antiwar types sounding like Kissingers and Brzezinskis with their geopolitical explanations of why sometimes we have to work with distasteful regimes, and so on.
There is a tension, but the bigger problem is starting from international law. It can be tempting to view law as a way to restrain power. I’ve nothing against people working on that terrain, provided they recognise the nature of that terrain. It’s interesting that when liberals like Philippe Sands, who are very helpful in articulating case law and legal precedent and so on, come to argue with their neoconservative opposites, they become completely unconvincing: they’re reduced to bald assertions and circular reasoning, and underestimate the coherence and strength of their opponents’ arguments.
What does the law consist of? It is congealed violence; it’s a violent system. In the domestic sphere this is obvious. In the international sphere, people on the left tend to think, ‘the US is breaking the law, so perhaps we can take strategic control of the tools of international law to restrain its worst abuses’. But if we see that the US is acting in a legal way—not in the sense that we would agree with the administration’s legal interpretation but in the sense that it carefully frames everything it does in a legal format, as do all states, because all states are legal institutions—it becomes a lot less plausible to think that we can use the law in this way.
For me, the value of the law is that it enables a critique of a state in terms that it itself has accepted as legitimate, and which carry powerful moral weight with a broad public. For instance, when Amnesty International accuses Israel of war crimes, that accusation is a powerful weapon for persuading and mobilising people. As you say, the law can be made to say whatever one wants it to say. What’s important are politically authoritative interpretations of the law, which is why the statements of Amnesty and the like can be so influential.
I agree. On the level of propaganda, of popularising arguments, an allegation of war crimes by a group like Amnesty is indeed a powerful weapon. But nevertheless, basing your case on the law can lead you into serious difficulties to do with the relationship between the law and the normative conflict you’re trying to wage. Let’s say you argue that under international law regime change is illegal, this intervention is aimed at regime change and therefore it should be opposed. Even if it could be conclusively proven that regime change is illegal, how do you respond to the inevitable retort, ‘so no matter how a terrible a regime is, no matter how bad a situation is, no matter how many people are being murdered, you think that because it’s illegal to do anything about it we shouldn’t do anything about it?’? People are not that wedded to international law. Generally speaking people think that the world should be made predictable in some ways, which is how the law works as a dominant ideology. But there are plenty of times when the law is not the most relevant factor for people, and when they might think that it should be broken.
If the current intervention expands to Syria and becomes messy and protracted, how will public opinion develop? And should the anti-war case be made in terms of the broader regional stakes, or focus specifically on Syria and Iraq?
I expect a turn against the war in public opinion, but I don’t expect it to translate into massive street protests. For the latter you need an impetus and psychic fuel which doesn’t exist. Most opposition will likely be expressed as a growing sense of resignation: ‘we shouldn’t be there, it isn’t working’, ‘we shouldn’t waste our time with these people, they’re not even grateful’, etc. But I think it will be mainly passive, as happened with Afghanistan once the initial protests ran out of steam.
We can’t avoid looking at the situation in regional terms. In terms of political argument, it makes sense to focus on the US-UK record in Iraq, which does not paint either power in a good light. But a serious discussion has to talk about the Arab Spring, the dictatorships and the crumbling states system, which will fall. Those who are trying to conserve it are pissing in the wind. We have to also talk about the fact that ISIS in a way represents a dark side of the Arab Spring. The people involved are largely young, educated and disproportionately middle class, and are looking for some way to fight the government. These are just the people that the State Department, not totally inaccurately, sees as being the vanguard of the Arab Spring. On Twitter, they come across like New York hipsters who happen to have become ultra-sectarian jihadis. The cuddly side of this movement was Wael Ghonim and the Google liberals against Mubarak, allied with the small Egyptian left and to an extent, initially, the Muslim Brotherhood. Now we’re seeing the other side: a much smaller movement, but nonetheless part of the same long-term socio-demographic tendency. We need to address these long term tendencies, and we need to be unsentimental about it.
It is difficult, on the left, to resist the desire to be like a football fan and pick a side to cheer on. In this case, the behaviour of the Assad apologists is disgusting but also futile, while most of those cheering on the Syrian opposition are led by a laudable pro-revolutionary sentiment but seem to me to be ignoring the fact that revolution is not the dominant tendency in Syria now: civil war, fuelled by sectarianism, is. And since we have no power in this situation, the least we can do is develop a sober and rigorous analysis. Cheerleading is useless.
Final point. Wars are preceded by years of ideological work, to develop the ideas, the thematics, the campaigning ideologies that are then put to work, either to sell them or oppose them. Political battles can be settled within a week; ideological battles are glacial, but they really matter for the long term position of forces. So when we argue about this, we have to realise that we’re not just talking about what we can do in the here and now. We are not International Brigades, and we are not arms dealers, after all. Rather we’re trying to develop a set of rigorous and defensible positions that will provide the basis for effective action in the future.
Jamie Stern-Weiner co-edits New Left Project.