I have a lot of political interests, it’s fair to say, but only one obsession: red-baiting, the urge to purge, the great American yen for rooting out heretics and casting them into the wilderness. It’s that obsession that has me inclined to believe that we’re heading for another bout of McCarthyism, related to a coming conflict in Syria – and that it has the chance to rend the American left.
Call my obsession an artifact of family history, both recent and old. My grandfather, an antiwar socialist and college professor at the University of Illinois, was a target of the Broyles Bills, a set of Red Scare-era Illinois state bills designed to cleanse the state government of subversives. All manner of radicals and sympathizers were targeted by the legislation, whether they were actual socialists like my grandfather or merely suspected of Communist sympathies. Much of this legislation was defeated, with liberal Democratic governor Adlai Stevenson vetoing several measures. (Not that he was some sort of virile champion of rights for radicals. Stevenson disputed not the intent of the bills but their scope, arguing that they risked “burning down the barn to kill the rats.”) But as is common to these efforts, the damage was done even without legislative victory. Many of those targeted lost their jobs and saw their careers destroyed. My grandfather enjoyed the protection of tenure, and thus kept his position, but his reputation was in tatters. My father once told me he believed it contributed directly to the alcoholism that took my grandfather to an early grave.
The earliest Broyles Bills predated what we typically think of as the McCarthyist era. And yet now we can look back at them and see them as classically McCarthyist. McCarthyism does not refer merely to governmental attacks on intellectual and political freedom under the banner of anti-communism. It is a set of practices consisting of slandering opponents without fair process and based on thin evidence, ascribing dark motives to others to delegitimize their position, suggesting that those you argue with work under the influence of some shadowy entity, and insisting that your targets are not just wrong, but actively malign – and thus must be excised from the conversation. Sometimes that rejection means having someone arrested. Sometimes it means Congressional hearings and getting people fired. Sometimes it’s just a whisper campaign, a smear offensive, a secret meeting where you’re declared a cancer by your former allies. But the intent is always the same: to silence a type of dissent by insisting that it stems from nefarious motives, and through arguing that anyone voicing it must be shunned.
Anyone who lived in the immediate post-9/11 world is familiar with this type of thing. In the aftermath of the attacks, a culture of paranoid, aggressive patriotism enveloped the country, casting suspicion on anyone who didn’t plant a mini American flag on their lapel or their car. That anyone who didn’t press for all-out war on terrorism – whatever that meant – was guilty of tacit support for Al Qaeda was a given. Muslim Americans, and those who were unlucky enough to look as if they might be Muslim, were subject to constant suspicion and bouts of random violence. When conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan called left-wing writers skeptical of the War on Terror a “fifth column,” he was only expressing something like the conventional wisdom: to be insufficiently devoted to the war was to put yourself necessarily on the side of that war’s target. With McCarthyism, what’s questioned is not only the correctness of your position or the wisdom of your preferences, but your loyalties, your motives, and your character. It’s precisely that feeling of suspicion and exile that I experienced as an antiwar activist in the first half of the 2000s, bringing my family history to life in an intense way. There was no post-9/11 House Un-American Activities Committee, but there was a level of ambient fear that turned ordinary people into informants, a whole society of secret police. As the Georgetown law professor David Cole wrote regarding the re-emergence of McCarthyism in the post-September 11th world, “we have adapted the mistakes of the past, substituting new forms of political repression for old ones.”
The history of attempts to silence dissent through guilt by association, unsubstantiated accusations, and the insistence that some positions are too dangerous to be permissible is long – and bipartisan. Indeed, McCarthy himself was predated by anti-Communist Democrats, and the Truman-era purges of socialists from the Democratic Party in the post-World War II, early Cold War era. Truman Democrats worked tirelessly to expel socialists and communist sympathizers from the party. This was the fate of former FDR Vice President Henry Wallace, guilty of calling for such radical policies as universal healthcare, a de-escalation of the Cold War, and immediate desegregation. And this period itself echoed the prior world war, when progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson had the communist leader Eugene Debs jailed for his public opposition to the horrific, pointless grindhouse that was World War I. Move forward again a half-century and you have the Vietnam War, COINTELPRO, and Hanoi Jane; move further back, and you have the Alien and Sedition Acts. Plus ça change.
The Truman era anti-Communist purges would be echoed approvingly in late 2004 by liberal hawk Peter Beinart, writing in (of course) the pages of The New Republic, one of several bastions of Bush-era “progressive” war-mongering and hippie-punching. Beinart called for a purge of the anti-war left in more or less explicit terms, arguing that liberals had to adjust to a new reality of benevolent American force, and to reject anyone who didn’t. (His embrace of the term “re-education” was a particularly nice touch.) Like so many others, Beinart would go on to regret his support for the war in Iraq, and Michael Tomasky would look back on his essay as “divisive, unleaderly, aggressively accusatory, and quite unfair” in 2006. But McCarthyism rarely looks good in the light of history, and does its damage in the present.
As someone who was right about Iraq and the broader question of America’s use of force in the greater Muslim world, I would love to say that I enjoyed our eventual vindication. But despite the endless string of “Why I Got Iraq Wrong” pieces that sprung up like mushrooms in shit in the late 2000s, there was little in the way of broader vindication for antiwar voices. To begin with, the “you were right for the wrong reasons” canard has always been deployed liberally in reconsiderations of American foreign policy. For another thing, the mea culpas have always been decidedly narrow in their focus, referring to the specifics of the Iraq war but not to the brutal treatment antiwar types were subject to in the leadup to that war. The reality of McCarthyism and its regular deployment as a means to bully people into supporting wars, cold or hot, goes largely undiscussed.
I suspect, in fact, that the cycle is starting up again. I suspect that the urge to purge is growing, and that the flashpoint will be Syria. I believe that some sort of American military intervention in Syria is likely coming. And, perhaps worse for those of us on the socialist left, the political battle over this war will not involve conservatives and some liberals fighting against a more-or-less unified radical left. This conflict will, I believe, divide the already-weak left, leaving it in tattered pieces.
The existence of a pro-war left would have seemed unthinkable to many even 5 years ago. The wounds of Iraq and Afghanistan have been so deep, and the utter mess that followed regime change in Libya such a perfect repetition of all the bad ideas and failures of the preceding decade, that it seemed hard to believe that the country as a whole would want to go to war. That arguments for intervention might come from the left, traditionally anti-war, distrustful of the military and the government, and always on alert for the hand of imperialism, would have shocked me not long ago. And yet this is precisely the condition that presents itself today.
Take a typical missive in the stalwart leftist publication Socialist Worker. Stanley Heller, after engaging in the typical angry-old-man-leftist tactic of thumping his anti-Vietnam bona fides, ticks off every cliché imaginable: that to criticize or question the exact makeup of the anti-Assad forces in Syria is to be functionally pro-Assad, that such an attitude can only be the product of naïve West vs. East thinking, that Russia and Iran are the real Big Bads in the world, that skeptics of the Syrian resistance just don’t care enough about the destruction. Heller’s piece is remarkable in that its moral binarism and hysterical discussion of the Real Evil would be stark even in a neocon publication. He speaks of a “Assad-Iran-Russia Triple Alliance,” echoing the “Axis of Evil” named by the George W. Bush administration as the true source of the world’s evil. Heller tars his critics with guilt by association, charging people with “join[ing] the right-wing National Review and liberals like Steven Kinzer in cheering on Assad and Putin’s conquests.” But of course, this criticism cuts both ways, and in his demonization of Iran in particular, Heller joins with the most noxious hawks in American policy today. He even invokes the history of appeasement towards the Third Reich, perhaps the most ridiculous cliché in foreign policy argument today.
The phenomenon I’m describing is less apparent in leftist journals, though, than in the political spaces of social media, which have taken over an outsize portion of the leftist conversation in the past decade. Anyone on the broad left who engages on the question of Syria online can hardly have avoided them: a small army of angry tweeters, Facebookers, and internet commenters who loudly insist that supporting American military intervention in Syria is the only moral path. These voices are aggressive, unrelenting, and fixated on Syria to the exclusion of all else. And they tend to embrace classically McCarthyist behavior, accusing those who disagree with them of being pro-Assad, unconcerned with the suffering of the Syrian people, even agents of the Kremlin. To such people, the Syrian question is the only question, and there is no such thing as a principled opponent of the use of US force to save Syria. They are brutal, to the targets they’ve chosen, as they represent such people as complicit in the Syrian horror.
And chosen targets they have. Few have been the subject of more brutal smears than American journalists Max Blumenthal and Rania Khalek. Blumenthal and Khalek, known for their advocacy journalism on behalf of the Palestinian people, have become objects of fixation among those who aggressively advocate for more American arms in Syria. Their tweets, even those unrelated to the topic of Syria, are frequently flooded with responses attacking them as allies of Assad. Because their work typically concerns the greater Middle East, they are particularly vulnerable to these types of smear campaigns, given that they must find paying work in that fairly narrow niche. Because they reside on the left-wing fringe of “responsible” political debate, the professional worlds they operate in are necessarily small. Blumenthal and Khalek are, in a sense, political orphans: left-wing, disdainful of Democrats, not associated with deep-pocketed publications, and fiercely independent. They are thus vulnerable, and precisely the kind of voices we should be protecting, if we want to preserve an adversarial, questioning, critical press.
Khalek, in particular, has been the subject of a vicious and unrelenting smear campaign, constantly disparaged as an Assad apologist despite publicly criticizing the conduct of Assad (whom she calls a “mass murdering criminal“) and his armies on many occasions. Partly this fixation stems from the cloud of misogyny that is the constant environment in which women journalists are forced to work. But Khalek has long attracted a strange, negative obsession from a lot of people who you might imagine would be her allies. In their case against her, Khalek’s critics have made double standards an art form. Khalek has attracted considerable attention for initially agreeing to attend a conference sponsored by the Syrian government. This has been represented as an utterly disqualifying decision on her part, and akin to direct complicity with the Syrian regime. What goes unsaid in these attacks is that Khalek was to be joined by journalists and academics from a variety of perfectly mainstream places, that journalists routinely attend events sponsored by organizations and governments that they do not in any way condone. But that’s the reality of innuendo as a means of political attack: what matters is not what you can prove but what you can suggest. All you have to do is chum the waters and leave the imagination to run wild. After all, who cares about proof when the stakes are this high?
The attacks on Khalek’s initial decision to attend the conference look particularly ridiculous when compared to the world of foreign policy analysis and reporting writ large. It’s a banal fact of our political system that bad actors pour money into the coffers of supposedly independent political organizations and ostensibly independent journalists. The brutal regime in Qatar pours millions into the coffers of the Brookings Institution; the regressive, autocratic UAE gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Center for American Progress. Saudi money is ubiquitous in our policy apparatus, its origins in a brutal theocracy of little concern to those who take it. Few remark on the cozy relationship between journalists and think tanks and the greatest force for injustice since the fall of the Third Reich, the United States government. Yet Khalek’s initial intent to attend a conference and report on it, alongside journalists and academics from a wide variety of establishment institutions, is uniquely disqualifying. Supporters of military adventurism in Syria will dismiss all of these comparisons, insisting that Assad’s malign influence is different than that of all other bad regimes. It’s the nature of McCarthyism to insist that the current Big Bad is the greatest evil the world has ever known, and that any consideration of other bad actors is merely a distraction.
Perhaps Khalek and Blumenthal really are Assadists in disguise. Perhaps they really are Russian agents. Perhaps their opposition to another American intervention in the Middle East stems from love for a dictator. Perhaps. What concerns me is not the character of any individual skeptics but the methodology through which we establish our opinions about that character. And what is clear is that no one has bothered to actually ask the targets of this witch hunt what they believe. No one has seen fit to establish a standard of fair evidence. No one has pursued these questions in the spirit of basic fairness. And so even if everyone targeted by these smears was in fact guilty, I’d oppose the inquisition.
If you’d like to see an inquisitor in action, you might look to Evan Sandlin. Sandlin, a graduate student in political science, recently exemplified the tendencies of left-wing McCarthyism in a piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books. His attack on supposedly pro-Assad leftists ticks all the boxes: it equates skepticism towards war on a dictator with support for that dictator, it engages in deliberately vague language and arguments through innuendo, and studiously avoids quoting the people it accuses.
Take, for example, Sandlin’s attacks on Tariq Ali, a far left voice who has been consistent in his opposition to Western intervention against Assad. Sandlin hammers him with full force, calling him a conspiracy theorist who accepts Russian propaganda on Syria – propaganda which, to be clear, legitimately is pro-Assad. Would it surprise you to learn, having read Sandlin’s piece, that this supposedly pro-Assad intellectual signed a public letter calling for Assad to abdicate his position and leave Syria? That Ali has said “The fact is that the overwhelming majority of people in Syria want the Assad family out – and that is the key thing that we have to understand and he [Assad] should understand”? That is a very funny way for him to be pro-Assad! This tactic of Sandlin’s dogs his whole essay; he finds every incriminating quote he can that seems to indicate support for Assad, but studiously fails to note the many times his chosen targets have denounced or repudiated him. This is intellectually dishonest to the core, to the point that I’d hope the LA Review would publish a correction, but I’m not holding my breath.
In fact, in an email to me after I challenged him, Sandlin confessed that “Some of these people, like Kinzer or La Riva, openly support Assad. Others, like Ali, Prashad, or Khalek don’t support Assad.” That seems like an important admission! Almost important enough to make it into his original essay. Funny that it got left out. Does this all mean that I agree with everything Sandlin’s targets have written or said about the conflict? Of course not. But that’s the thing about fairness and integrity: it applies even to those with whom you sometimes disagree.
Sandlin takes time to quote polls showing considerable Syrian support for Assad’s ouster –considerable, here, meaning 50%, by his own admission. In doing so, he at least makes some attempt to ascertain public opinion in Syria beyond the common assertion that “you should speak to real Syrians” – real Syrians being those who agree with whomever is making this argument. Whenever people go the “members of X country want” route, I’m reminded of Pauline Kael supposedly saying that she was shocked that Richard Nixon won because no one she knew voted for him. A common failing in American analysis of internal conflict in foreign countries is the tendency to see those that are most likely to talk to Western journalists as necessarily representative of public sentiment writ large. Every time unrest comes to Iran, journalists claim that every Iranian they talk to opposes the government, not seeming to understand that the older, more religious, more conservative portions of Iran’s population are not in the habit of talking to Western journalists. So with Sandlin: he just knows what real Syrians really want. Sandlin takes time to accuse his targets of orientalism, but sees no problem in making broad statements about attitudes on the Syrian street. The fact is that there is no more such a thing as “what Syrians want” than there is such a thing as “what Americans want”; all countries are a chaos of opinions. American force merely decides for all of them what the future will be.
Are there in fact pro-Assad leftists? Sure. The world of political opinion is broad; you can find people who support any particular lunatic position you can imagine. Just like there were legitimately pro-Al Qaeda, pro-Saddam leftists on the absolute fringe of political opinion and sanity. Did this make our prior decade-and-a-half of foreign policy a wise course of action? Of course not. What matters is not the existence of a pro-Assad left but the influence of the pro-Assad left. I would personally assign the power of that group at exactly zero. The power of the pro-war contingent in American politics, now – the hawks, the profiteers, the politicians desperate to find some more people to kill – well, it would be hard to overstate their influence. They are in every corner of contemporary political life. They haunt our democracy like poltergeists. And unlike the pro-Assad leftists, they have power, power to actually push our country towards yet another war. Sandlin engages in reckless guilt by association, yet seems unperturbed by the fact that, in attacking the motives of skeptics, he finds common cause with the most noxious warmongers of our time. Sandlin confesses to opposing American escalation in a brief, limp aside. But what cause does he think he’s supporting when he smears those skeptical of our involvement in this conflict? How could anyone who studies political science fail to understand the basic inequalities in power between those he attacks and those whose dirty work he’s doing?
To invest oneself in left-on-left combat against antiwar voices is to devote your energies to fighting the powerless to the benefit of the powerful. I don’t think anyone should hold their fire against targets they see as being worthy of legitimate criticism. But it’s incumbent on everyone to assess the relative power of their targets and their unlikely bedfellows, to remain cognizant of who has influence and who doesn’t. The apparatus of warmaking, in the contemporary United States, has a habit of becoming its own reason for conflict. Anyone who identifies on the broad left should remember that, even when they feel compelled by conscience to criticize those opposed to military action.
What is the case against American intervention in Syria, anyway? It’s simple: several decades of American history demonstrate that the country’s military cannot secure the peace in foreign conflicts, and that its efforts to do so collapse into chaos and sectarian bloodshed. You’ll note that this argument requires no particular point of view on anti-imperialism, which is useful given that discussions of anti-imperialism and Syria have collapsed into a black hole of portentous meaninglessness that only the contemporary radical left could create.
Since the fighting in Syria is so horrific, and the Assad regime so ugly, it’s natural for people to cast about for something that might come along and end the misery. But what’s strange is the assumption, after all the lessons of post-World War II American history, that this something might be the United States military. Arguments about a potential American peace-keeping force (whether of the boots-on-the-ground or “smart bomb” variety) seem to assume that the question is whether the United States military will prevent chaos and bloodshed, not if it can. But we have every reason to doubt that our military has the capacity to ensure that, were we able to expel Assad without an even longer horror show of a war – which I find far from clear – the end of the Assad regime would lead to a peaceful outcome. It might surprise you to learn that a force built to inflict death and destruction has a hard time with creating peace. We had 150,000 troops in Iraq, and one of their explicit missions was to preserve the peace. Yet Iraqis died by the hundreds of thousands nonetheless. If our intervention is restricted to air power, the most relevant recent example is our Libya misadventure, which resulted in widespread chaos, terrible oppression of minority groups like sub-Saharan Africans, and a foothold for ISIS. Where does this faith come from that peace and order can grow from American force?
Meanwhile, the fixation on a no-fly zone – a solution typically presented as the middle-of-the-road, third way, sensible center option of some Beltway moderate’s wet dreams – is a distraction. To hear many tell it, establishing a no-fly zone is as simple as installing a new radio in your car. But in fact doing so entails a massive, massively expensive effort. Contrary to what many believe, it would be impossible to enforce a no-fly zone without a substantial military presence in the country. The necessity of boots on the ground for a viable “humanitarian corridor” has been admitted by General Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, and in a leaked email, Hillary Clinton. The notion of a purely air campaign that does not involve an American troop presence is a political fiction, a dodge that permits us to fantasize about conflict without risk. No such possibility exists. The question is whether we are willing to enter into a full-scale war in Syria. After years of lies about smart bombs and humanitarian warfare, you’d think the left would be past falling for these illusions.
There is no doubt that a large portion of the Syrian public rejects Assad, who share my own conviction that Assad must go. But we must take care to reflect on a rational reason for a sizable portion of Syria’s population to support him, the legitimate fear of reprisal violence against Syria’s Christians, Alawites, and government loyalists. This is a truism of “humanitarian” intervention: when great powers choose winners, they also choose losers. Look, for example, at Kosovo, endorsed so often as a good war that it has become a cliché. After Western powers saved the day, violence against the losers of this engagement was rampant. Kosovo was, in effect, ethnically cleansed of its Serbian population. The categories of victim and aggressor are neither simple nor static. There is little doubt that the Assad regime has cynically used concerns about reprisal violence against Syrian Alawites and Christians to defend his refusal to step down; there is also little doubt that fears of such reprisal violence are entirely warranted. There are no clean hands in war. I do not see evidence to suggest that the end of Assad means the end of bloodshed.
Nor do I believe that a war against Assad would stay a war against Assad. Arguments for US intervention don’t merely overestimate our power to end bloodshed. They overestimate the benevolence of the people who would run the war effort. The American defense establishment is fixated on Iran to the point of absolute obsession. To read conservative hawks – who remain, despite the broader problems in the conservative movement today, deeply influential in the realm of foreign policy – is to be privy to a bizarre worldview in which all of the world’s bad actions lead inevitably back to Tehran. It’s hard to name an American foreign policy entanglement that is not routinely invoked in arguments for our belligerent policy towards Iran. Israel must be granted billions in weapons and aid to help serve its role as a bulwark against Iran. Saudi Arabia’s myriad sins must be forgiven so that it can serve as a Sunni counterbalance to Shia Iran. Lebanon is secretly controlled by the Iranian government, Iraq’s continuing failure to achieve long-term stability is the fault of Iranian agents, Afghanistan is falling into Tehran’s clutches…. These are the relentless narratives that are found throughout America’s Very Serious foreign policy analysis.
Iran has indeed been deeply involved in the Syrian conflict, deploying scores of troops to the region to support the Assad regime. Those actions, like many undertaken by the mullahs, are deplorable. (I will spare you the history lesson about America’s involvement in civil wars in its own geographical region.) But right or wrong, Iran has been involved in Syria up to its elbows. Any American leftist who advocates intervention in Syria must be prepared for that conflict to become the spark that finally lights the fuse of our long-simmering tensions with Iran. Look to a National Post essay from 2012 by Michael Ross for a straightforward assumption that our concerns about Syria are really an artifact of our obsession with Iran. In the very first sentence, Ross writes that our fundamental goal is “ensuring that the situation in Syria doesn’t devolve into a scenario where Iran emerges as the regional winner in a post-Assad end-game.” The academic and media personality Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, president of the International American Council on the Middle East and North Africa, expressed similar attitudes in the Huffington Post in 2014, arguing that America’s tacit acceptance of Iranian support for the Assad regime constitues a policy of “appeasement.”
Our foreign policy apparatus will not suddenly forget its obsession with Iran once bombs start falling. The thing about deploying this vast military apparatus of ours is that once it gets going, it’s out of the control of those who favor “humanitarian” intervention and becomes its own unreliable beast. You go to war with the warmongers you have, not the warmongers you wish you had.
Of course, if we’re talking about the risk of a conflict in Syria spilling out into a broader war, we should be talking about Russia. Russia and Vladimir Putin are particular fixations of the pro-war left. Leftists who favor war in Syria constantly insist that Russia, too, is an imperial power, and that Soviet-era left-wing sympathies with the current Russian state are misplaced and destructive. And you know what? They’re absolutely right about that. Vladimir Putin is not a good guy; the Russian military and espionage services are not forces for good; Russian antagonism to American interests do not make Russian actions moral. All of that is true. It is also profoundly, perfectly irrelevant to the question of whether we should risk a war with Putin’s military. What is relevant is that Russia controls the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. Make no mistake: a no-fly zone means shooting down Russian planes, precisely the kind of direct combat that we have been lucky enough to avoid. It is an absolute miracle of history that the USSR and USA never engaged in large-scale armed conflict in the 20th century, a trick of chance and the fear of mutually-assured destruction. That so-called leftists are now asking us to roll the dice and see if Putin would stand down in the face of one of his jets getting shot down – an act that would surely undermine his political position at home – is ludicrous. I hear a lot of people claiming that, once the shooting started, Putin would back down. To which I ask, are you willing to risk nuclear war on that hunch? Preventing a nuclear conflict is, without exaggeration, the single most important political commitment currently facing humankind. Don’t be fooled by decades of relative quiet in US-Russian relations: the two countries easily possess enough warheads to render both countries utterly ruined. You’ll forgive me if I see any meaningful risk of such a conflict as too high.
And for what? For the chance that the American military will effectively serve as a revolutionary humanitarian power, when it has failed in that regard again and again? I don’t understand why this point remains so hard for people to grasp, after the prior few decades: the United States army is not a revolutionary force. It does not rescue the beleaguered people of the world. It does not swoop in to save the day like a real-world superhero. In his brief period of sanity, inspired by the humiliation of Iraq, Beinart put it succinctly, writing that “we lack the wisdom and the virtue to remake the world through preventive war,” that “the United States cannot be a benign power and a messianic one at the same time.” It is that impulse – the messianic impulse, the urge to see the American military as the avenging angel that will save Syria from its unspeakable misery – that has overtaken too many on the radical left. And it is an impulse that leads nowhere but disaster. We must have the clarity to see that, even when we are gripped by our detest for Assad.
This is the perpetual fuel of McCarthyism: the inability of anyone to reveal their true motives, and the accordingly limitless capacity to impute malign motivations onto them.
But, then, I can’t really prove that I detest Assad, can I? You only have my word to go on when I say that I think he’s a monster and that I wish I saw a way that his reign could end which would not lead to chaos, civil war, and reprisal violence. Just like there was no way for me to prove that my opposition to our last Iraq invasion was not motivated by some secret love for Saddam Hussein. This is the perpetual fuel of McCarthyism: the inability of anyone to reveal their true motives, and the accordingly limitless capacity to impute malign motivations onto them. Skeptics of the potential for deliverance through American force are pro-Assad because their critics have imagined them to be pro-Assad. Innuendo is enough. Assumptions of bad faith are enough. You must vigorously denounce Assad, constantly, or be considered his supporter – and even then, you can’t escape the shadow suspicion.
The need to constantly denounce Assad when discussing a potential Syrian intervention is the type of reflexive deference to political demand on which McCarthyism is made. Yes, I think Assad is a war criminal, one I’d love to see sitting in the Hague. But the constant calls to establish one’s purity on this question echo the ugliest history of loyalty oaths and purity tests, a history that I’m sorry to say has dogged the radical left throughout history. These days, when I see some soi-disant radical demanding people denounce the Assad regime, I get the distinct feeling of being asked for my papers. Do not ask me to take your loyalty oaths and do not ask me to submit to your ideological interrogations. If you tell me I’m either with you or against you, then I’ll be against you, every time. It’s a rule that’s never let me down.
I know a fair number of people, smart people, who believe that a new era of emboldened left-wing victory is coming to American politics. I find this notion pleasant. I also find it a fantasy. The common argument that the indisputably impressive gains of the Bernie Sanders campaign – the fundraising, the organization, the genuinely unprecedented enthusiasm among the youth – will lead to left-wing movement from the Democrats seems unfounded to me. On the contrary, I suspect that the next several years will see a ruthless consolidation of power by the corporate centrists who are so deeply embedded in the party’s leadership structure. I suspect we are looking at more years in the wilderness.
And if America jumps into the conflict in Syria with both feet, I fear a truly brutal series of ideological battles, amplifying the ongoing arguments and splitting apart the already-fragile coalition of the left. I have been shocked and disgusted to see people I admire and respect engaging in smear campaigns about Syria, and I suspect that, if a Hillary Clinton administration follows the course it seems likely to and drags us deeper into Syria, I’ll lose more friends. At least with Iraq the left was unified; an intra-left war would be a special kind of nightmare. But you have to have principles, and rejection of McCarthyism, redbaiting, and smear campaigns is maybe my first principle, and I am willing to lose as many allies as it takes to preserve that commitment.
Predictions are hard, especially about the future. It may very well be that the United States sees no percentage in wading into Syria and thus leaves it alone. Indeed, the most convincing arguments I hear from those who doubt we will escalate our interventions correctly point out that the American military isn’t ever deployed out of genuine humanitarian impulse, and that the powers that be will decline to get deeper involved because there is little self-interest in it for Americans. Perhaps we’ll even see a genuinely left-wing alternative come to pass: our government ceases its schizophrenic Syria policy and pulls out of the conflict entirely, we let vast numbers of refugees into our country, we even cease our support for terrible regimes and their bad behavior like the Saudis and their hideous war in Yemen. Personally, I’ll stay on guard and hope. The past years have made it hard for me to hope for sanity. For now, battles within the left over the correct stance on Syria are a minor skirmish in a small slice of the political spectrum. But things can change.
Assad is a special kind of monster; Syria is a special kind of hell. I hope the regime of Assad falls. I hope the people of Syria are finally allowed to emerge from this horrific, bloody, unthinkable civil war. But hope is not the basis for action. And a century of American foreign policy, as well as an adult conception of the reality of a broken world, should tell us to distrust our instincts even when we are most moved by humanitarian concern. Especially then, because it’s then when we are least likely to have clarity, most likely to be blinded by horror and grief. Those emotions can make commissars out of all us, can turn a commie into Joe McCarthy. It’s happened before, and if we aren’t careful, it will happen again.