Armchair Isolationists? Nonsense!
September 13, 2013
Steve Weissman / Reader Supported News
Commentary: "Even when he ran for president in 2004 against George W. Bush and the neocons, I had to hold my nose to vote for John Kerry. I still do when I hear his self-righteous defense of a not-so-limited military strike on Syria, his know-it-all arrogance, and the hypocritical ease with which he bends the truth, especially when he tries to hide the growing strength in Syria of the radical jihadis with ties to al-Qaeda."
(September 9, 2013) -- Even when he ran for president in 2004 against George W. Bush and the neocons, I had to hold my nose to vote for John Kerry. I still do when I hear his self-righteous defense of a not-so-limited military strike on Syria, his know-it-all arrogance, and the hypocritical ease with which he bends the truth, especially when he tries to hide the growing strength in Syria of the radical jihadis with ties to al-Qaeda.
But I won't waste your time attacking yesterday's man. Rather I want to clear the air about the millions of us whom he dismisses as "armchair isolationists."
Speaking for myself, I'm about as far from an isolationist as anyone could be, and so are most of my friends on both sides of the Atlantic, many of whom go back to our struggle against America's war in Vietnam. We did sit-in a lot, but never in armchairs, and we thought for a time that John Kerry was one of us.
Where many of us who still lean to the anti-interventionist left differ with Kerry and Obama is over the kind of internationalism the United States and the world need to pursue.
Our differences range from how best to preserve the planet to how to shape a global economy that serves ordinary people and not just corporate tax cheats. But nowhere do our differences loom larger than on how to defend human rights and an imperfect international rule of law.
Kerry and Obama -- and now Hillary Clinton -- talk glowingly about America and the world's responsibility to defend international norms against chemical warfare, not at all an inconsequential concern, though they choose to ignore it when it serves their purpose.
We, on the other hand, find it vastly more important to defend "the most fundamental international rule of all," as Yale Law School professors Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro recently described it. This is the absolute prohibition against the United States or any other nation taking military action other than in self-defense, in defense of an ally under attack, or with the consent of the United Nations Security Council.
Even with the UN's newly enunciated "responsibility to protect" citizens oppressed by their own government, as millions of Syrians certainly are at the hands of Bashar al-Assad with or without poison gas, enforcement still requires the consent of the Security Council.
What, then, do we do when we cannot get the Security Council to agree? The answer is obvious, which is why Team Obama refuses to discuss it. We must disentangle our understandable moral outrage against the loathsome Assad from the strategic foreign policy choices Obama -- and Dick Cheney before him -- have made.
What moral imperative is there in choosing to support the medieval Saudi monarchy and its allies against Shia Muslims, whether in Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, or Iran?
Drop this insane and immoral political alignment and its built-in insistence on regime change in Syria, and even John Kerry could work out a Security Council agreement with Russia and China.
Only an internationally enforced political agreement can protect the Christians and Alawite Shia in Syria, cool down the rabid jihadis that the Saudis and Qataris have been backing with Obama's covert help, and keep heavy weapons and chemical stockpiles from falling into ever more dangerous hands.
Perhaps Assad will stay. Perhaps he will go. But, however much we might like to see him face justice at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, that is much less important than whether we can stop the Sunni war against the Shia before it drags us into a truly dangerous war of choice with Iran.
If Americans are tired of fighting imperial wars in the Middle East, the criminal path that Obama and Kerry are taking could well push our country beyond the breaking point.
One further thought: The United Nations system and the international rule of law have many faults, which we should begin to repair. But the system, which Americans took the lead in creating, works much better than the international chaos that came before, and will serve everyone's interest better than competing "coalitions of the willing" going to war to pursue their own policy goals.
This is where internationalists of the left differ with many on the right like Senator Rand Paul and Representative Justin Amash. Their thinking does resemble the old American isolationism from before World War II. But, for now, we need to ally with them to defeat Obama's request for a not-so-limited use of American force in Syria.
Once we turn American foreign policy around, we can try to convince them that the world needs reasonable laws and not some Ayn Randian free-for-all.
A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, "Big Money: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How To Break Their Hold."
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