Sunday, 25 October 2015

Why do Left-Wingers Criticise the USA?

Prominent left-wingers who criticise US foreign policy are often met with accusations that they are cosying up with dictators. Seumus Milne, Labour's communications director, author and a former Guardian Comment editor, is a case in point. 

Milne, for his part, is far from the Putin apologist the papers make out. The following, written by Milne at the Guardian in March 2015 on media hysteria about Putin, is characteristic: "Putin’s authoritarian conservatism may offer little for Russia’s future, but this anti-Russian incitement is dangerous folly. There certainly has been military expansionism. But it has overwhelmingly come from Nato, not Moscow. For 20 years, despite the commitments at the end of the cold war, Nato has marched relentlessly eastwards, taking in first former east European Warsaw Pact states, then republics of the former Soviet Union itself." The argument in no way endorses Putin's actions in Ukraine, it simply places the burden of responsibility for conflict-escalation on the US. 

The argument rests on a quite simple  premise, which is that the USA is the preeminent capitalist world power, and as such will go to great lengths to reproduce that power, often with disastrous results. The incentive the US has to buttress its global power is a major, though not the only, cause of global conflict. The expansion of US influence and power makes things worse, not better. Yet when this position is voiced by anyone of prominence, they are subjected to hysterical criticism for being "soft on tyrants."

Whilst implying that leftists have a simplistic, moralising worldview, the originators of these accusations reduce all criticism of the US to totalitarian pandering. Criticism of US imperialism is not incompatible with support for real democracy; indeed, given the USA's often violent role in the world, anti-imperialism is the only consistent, democratic way to approach US foreign policy.

This critique of the United States' role as global financial and military gendarme in a system that works overwhelmingly to its own benefit does not preclude criticism of other powers. Indeed, it implies similar criticism: the US has competitors, subordinate players in a US-led tune. A global system, based on US hegemony, requires the consent of other regimes, some more ardent than others. The US has won its global hegemony; inevitably other powers, fundamentally no different to the US, would like to command part of that power themselves.

Why, then, do so many left-wing writers choose to focus their fire on the US? Is it mere prejudice, a bias built into a certain kind of Guardian-contributing psychology? Predictably, no. 

The reasons left-wing writers focus their fire on the US are twofold. Firstly, in their critique of global capitalism, US imperial power plays a central, even over-determining role in world affairs for left-wingers. You may disagree with the premise of the argument, but it is theoretically coherent. Secondly, and more practically, left-wing writers are hopelessly outnumbered. They have limited space and few friendly outlets. Sometimes there simply isn't space, time or audience attention to burn on prefacing every criticism you make of the US with a balancing argument against Russia. 

This is in no way to condone the views of those who do simply and blindly support Putin in Ukraine or in fact to recommend Putinism as a moral superior of the US (see how boring that was?). But it is to point to a double-standard. When US conservatives and geopolitical "realists" defend America as the bastion of the free world, they are practically never required to qualify their arguments. Imagine David Horowitz prefacing one of his attacks on Islam with an apology for US intervention, which undoubtedly fuels violence and chaos, or a rebuke for decades of US support for the most entrenched and theologically extreme regime in the world, Suadi Arabia. The reality is that many American conservatives base their supposed "realism" in an absolute conviction about American exceptionalism.

This not only displays a total inability to self-analyse, it also leads to dangerous conclusions in practice. Take Thomas L.Friedman, world renowned New York Times Op-Ed writer and bleeding-heart imperialist. Obviously he's vehemently anti-Putin and thinks Russia has absolutely no place in Syria. "Putin's up a tree," he sagely concludes. "Putin stupidly went into Syria looking for a cheap sugar high to show his people that Russia is still a world power." It's as if to say, hey, only the US can bomb the Middle East on whatever flimsy pretext it likes. 

I am not saying that Putin's aims in Syria are any nobler or indeed more helpful than those of the US in Iraq. But I am saying they are morally equivalent. What Russia is doing in Syria is behaving - knuckle headed or otherwise - like a world power. This ultimately is what US commentators don't like. For them only the US has the right to intervene militarily whenever it likes in world affairs.

Friedman ends up posing a false dilemma: the US must either continue providing military training to a weak democratic opposition or invade. The power of "warped ideals" makes ISIS stronger than democracy. Once again, a hard-headed realist argument is based on a most idealist premise: jihadists just have warped ideas. The question he dodges is, however, why do such ideals exert such pull? The answer is glaringly obvious: decades of youth alienation and unemployment, a direct result of US imperial intervention and regional kowtowing to imperial demands. Even Tony Blair has today acknowledged the effect the invasion of Iraq had on the formation of ISIS. Friedman, however, cannot admit this. So he ends up advocating a strategy he knows is failing because the US is not ready to go all out and invade.

The obvious weaknesses of the argument are basically never countered because any criticism implies the necessary alternative - peaceful withdrawal of the US and the winding down of its hegemony. Writers like Friedman are never asked to account for their pro-US bias.

It falls to the few left voices in the media to attack these hypocrisies, to articulate a cogent critique of US imperialism, and to balance that view with similar arguments against other world powers. All in 800 words. Small wonder, then, that with so much imperialist apologetics already available, they choose to focus what slings they have on the US.

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