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Book Review

Michael Karadjis

Andy Heintz, Dissidents of the International Left: New Internationalist Publications, (Oxford, University Press, 2019)

In this volume of interviews with an extraordinary range of people identifying with the political left or progressive social movements, Andy Heintz starts out seeking to answer a number of questions which are key to reconstructing a viable and relevant left today.

For example, he asks whether there can be such a thing as “humanitarian intervention”, which, given the nature of power in today’s world, would involve countries such as the United States or powerful European states, if it “could prevent genocide, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity.” While rejecting the hypocrisy with which many western leaders might answer in the affirmative, laced with “selective amnesia, self-righteousness and double standards,” Heintz is equally concerned by the way in which the western “Manichean left” simply inverts “unthinking American exceptionalism” by rationalising or dismissing crimes against humanity carried out by regimes perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be opponents of US power.

While ranging from the simply narrow to the genocide-denying in its application, this mainstream left opposition to any use of imperial power, regardless of context, starts from valid premises: such power is almost always used for malevolent purposes, and therefore, will not have humanitarian motives when occasionally carrying out selective humanitarian interventions. But the importance of this question is not simply a matter of opposing inherited left dogma. Rather, it goes to the heart of what internationalism means to the left – as Heintz states, “at the end of the day, there is only one world.”

Inside the US, the police have a history of racist violence, which the Black Lives Matter movement has brought to light, but this will not stop people facing violence from calling the police, given no alternatives. So why can’t people in other countries do the same, when alternatives are lacking?

Noam Chomsky’s long record opposing the US war machine may be a good place to start. Confronted with the question of what the West should do about genocidal actions elsewhere in the world – as raised by Samantha Power in her book about genocide – Chomsky notes the hypocrisy of many making these arguments. He points out that while some focus on the crimes of “enemies” – crimes he does not deny – they ignore similar crimes for which “we” (western governments) are responsible, and hence are more easily able to do something about simply by ending financial and military support to such regimes. He gives the example of massive US support to Suharto’s 35-year Indonesian military dictatorship and its genocidal war in East Timor.

Yet while that is an important part of the answer, it also skirts the question. Commenting on Chomsky’s view, American writer Bill Weinberg notes that “the insight behind this critique is that … there is no such things as humanitarian intervention,” as there are no such pure motives in statecraft; that any US intervention, regardless of propaganda or self-deception, will be “about protecting US strategic interests.”

While agreeing with Chomsky on this, Weinberg stresses the problem with making it all about US motives. When a people are under attack, their villages burnt down, when forced to flee from their homes, Weinberg suggests “I don’t think they have to be immediately concerned about the motives of those who are coming to help them.” For example, US hypocrisy was highlighted when, in 1999, it was bombing Serbia to supposedly protect the Kosovar Albanians, while supporting Turkey’s atrocities against its Kurdish population with American arms; but as Weinberg notes “if your village has been burnt down and you have been forced into a refugee camp across the border, what difference does it make to you that there are Kurds in Turkey that are in a similar situation?”

In other words, how can we oppose western double standards while supporting the right of people being terrorised to get help from whoever is willing to give it with whatever motives?

Even then, Weinberg does not specifically support actual intervention. In the Kosovo case, he sees the main betrayal – by both western leaders and dominant sections of the old left – was ignoring the decade of civil struggle in Kosovo. Once this betrayal resulted in the move from peaceful to armed resistance, the consequent war, including US-NATO intervention, are all painted as part of the resultant catastrophe.

Catastrophe it was – and one could well argue that the nature of this NATO intervention led to greater catastrophe for the Kosovars themselves – yet this does not resolve the question of whether or not any kind of western intervention is ever justified when there are no better options available to a people suffering crimes against humanity; for example, if Kosovo had been done differently.

In similar vein, Stephen Zunes notes that there are many empirical studies demonstrating the success of non-violent social movements, which he has written extensively on. On the question of whether an international intervention is ever justified, he claims it may be in “extreme circumstances” such as Rwanda in 1994, whereas on Kosovo he thinks “smarter diplomacy and preventative measures” would have worked better; leaving the obvious question of, “what if they didn’t”? And on Libya, he notes that “NATO went well beyond its mandate to protect civilians through enforcing a no-fly zone to effectively becoming the air force for rebel armies overthrowing the government.” Again, raising the question of, what if they had simply stuck to the mandate?

To these questions, American author Stephen Shalom notes that there was in fact US intervention in Syria, but its primary intervention (before the onset of its war against ISIS in 2014) was “to make sure the rebels didn’t get the one weapon they needed in their uprising against Assad: anti-aircraft weaponry.” This means the left could have simply demanded the ending of this actual US intervention to effectively aid the uprising. Yet while this is valid, we are no closer to knowing whether any kind of limited ‘humanitarian intervention’, such as a no-fly-zone to prevent regime bombing civilian populations, could be justified.

Even returning to a seemingly unambiguous anti-interventionist like Chomsky, we get confusion; after skirting the question of what US policy should have been towards Syria in general, he stresses “the US should do whatever is possible to protect the Kurds instead of keeping to past policies of regular betrayal.” Given that large-scale US military intervention in Syria over the last five years has been overwhelmingly in support of the Kurdish-led forces, this appears to be a statement in support of US armed intervention in certain circumstances, but why it is justified in support of some peoples but not others remains unexplained.

Regardless of this question of concern to western leftists, Weinberg’s point that we need to place ourselves in the position of those facing repression was well-taken by Heintz, who claims that this had an impact on his direction, as he made greater efforts to interview activists from around the world.

Thus the book shifts away from these western-centric debates he began with. The range of activists from Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America interviewed is impressive, as is the range of issues raised, this being a major strength of the book.

Arguably, this leads to the loss of any clear thematic thread. In each region and country, activists highlighted what was important to them. For example, for activists in Nigeria, the threat of the brutal ‘Islamist’ terrorist Boko Haram, looms large; in India, the rise of the right-wing Hindu-chauvinist BJP regime of Narendra Modi and the accompanying increase in social violence is a major issue; in Burma, the war crimes committed by the military against the Rohingya; for women’s activists in many countries, the rise of religious extremism and its misogynistic messages.

This apparent abandonment of a thematic thread is not necessarily a bad thing, especially given the nature of the project. Rather, what it highlights is the fact that the world is bigger than the arguments among western-based leftists about whether any kind of western intervention into these issues outside the West can ever be justified.

This is not to suggest that this western discussion is unimportant; and given the actual record of western intervention, to even present the dilemma as one of western intervention to protect human rights, versus non-intervention against human rights violations – as one interviewee problematically did – would involve believing a narrative that has little basis.

There is no such dichotomy in the book; many interviews from majority-world describe their own struggles against western imperialism. Mahmood Mamdani, a professor at Columbia university of Ugandan origin, describes the ongoing impact of colonial divide and rule across Africa; Fatou Sow, Senegalese director of the International Solidarity network of Women Living Under Muslim Laws, is concerned with the rise of religious fundamentalism in her country, but equally concerned with western farm subsidies and unfair world trade devastating local farmers; Afghan women’s activist Malalai Joya trenchantly fights both the Taliban, other fundamentalist warlords and the US occupation.

But what does one say to Nyuon Susan Sebit, of the National Alliance of Women Lawyers in South Sudan, when, writing about large-scale violence against women and children in her country’s civil war, says “it’s high time for the international community to support peace in South Sudan” by, among other things, “put(ting) pressure on the warring parties”? Because, without peace and security, there can be no development of any kind. Do we patronisingly remind her that the “international community” have a long record of crimes and therefore have no right to pressure some South Sudanese warlords? Or take the life and death situation she describes seriously?

And here is the book’s strength – making us look at the myriad of problems being confronted by leftists and social movements around the world, often posing difficult questions.

Perhaps Syrian writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh, who was jailed in the Assad regime’s dungeons for 16 years, puts this point most clearly, quoting his abducted wife, Samira al Khalil, from East Ghouta after Bashar Assad’s chemical massacre of 1500 civilians in 2013: “The world is one small village, is not this what you always say? Why are you leaving the population of one neighbourhood of this village massacred, sieged and starved?”

Yet in the same interview, Saleh strongly criticises the actual record of American intervention in eastern Syria; he has no illusions. Yet the question remains about what should be done in such a situation; and it poses the question for the global left: are we internationalist, or nationalist-isolationist? How is it possible that many leftists who would ask the same question about Gaza – why it is being left “massacred, sieged and starved” – react with derision to Khalil asking the same about Ghouta?

Yearning for a new global movement against the deteriorating world system, Saleh stresses that “global responsibility is the political and ethical basis for a different world. There is no us and them. We are all them. We are all responsible.” While space has only permitted this review to scratch the surface of the myriad issues covered, this book is an excellent place to begin to gain a broad view of the world as it is from below, essential if Saleh’s call is to begin seeing its day.

Michael Karadjis teaches at Western Sydney University. He blogs about Syria at Syrian Revolution Commentary and Analysis. He has been involved in many solidarity campaigns, including Syria Solidarity Australia, the Palestinian Human Rights Campaign, and Agent Orange Justice. He has conducted research for Oxfam Hong Kong, the Asia Development Bank and other funding bodies in projects related to trade liberalization, poverty, health, gender, ethnicity and development in Vietnam and southeast Asia.