Fool Me Twice: What Bombing Syria Means For Our Democracy

The immortal poet George Walker Bush once told a crowd in Kentucky, “Fool me once, shame on you.”  Then he stood in awkward silence for about ten seconds, trying unsuccessfully to remember the second half of that prescient proverb.  Back then, there was a chance that sounding the alarm on chemical weapons as an excuse to invade a Muslim country and exploit its resources would be a novelty, fooled-us-once type of event.

Already it is hard to remember the evening last spring when Donald Trump and leading media corporations set their animosity aside to celebrate the killing of Syrians with cruise missiles.  Brian Williams gushed to anybody watching MSNBC on the night of April 7, 2017, “We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two US Navy vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean and I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons.”  At the time, we were told our President ordered the clumsy strike on the al-Shayrat airfield to punish the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad for using nerve agents to kill more than seventy civilians in rebel-held territory.  So people died, the public applauded, the news cycle trundled forward, and the Syrian Civil War moved quietly into its seventh year.

Three hundred and sixty-four days later, another chemical attack struck a rebel city in Syria, this time Douma, just outside of the Syrian capital Damascus.  Forty-two people died in pain, with non-governmental rescue organizations confirming that their symptoms were consistent exposure to an organophosphorus compound.  President Trump, who launched the missiles at al-Shayrat while eating what he called “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you have ever seen,” this year decided to forego the formalities altogether and simply announced on Twitter that missiles “will be coming, new, and ‘smart!’”  (He also took the opportunity to call Assad a “Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”).  On Thursday night, backed by the French and British governments, he authorized airstrikes on three tactical sites in Syria.  Thus far, there have been no casualty reports, but given the locations of the targets – including a scientific research facility in the suburb Barzeh – and the 103 cruise missiles launched, it is hard to believe our ally and fellow bomber, British Prime Minister Theresa May, when she claims the coalition did “everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.”

Like Williams, I too am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: “I’ve seen the future, brother, it is murder.”

Already, the bombing evokes a tragic déja vu.  Assad, a blundering fascist, stands accused of a war crime that makes no tactical sense – why he would use internationally condemned weapons in a war he is already overwhelmingly winning has never been explained – while his routine atrocities (the deliberate bombing of civilians which has killed 500,000) merit no response.  Evidence for his government’s culpability is, we are told, conclusive but classified, as it was in 2013, when nerve gas killed 1,400 Syrians, and in 2017 (for more, see Pulitzer Prize winner Seymour Hersh).  Russia promises to respond on its ally’s behalf, leaving us all to wonder whether the world’s two greatest nuclear powers will finally come to exterministic blows – tensions are even higher this time, less than two months after American troops killed as many as 300 Russian mercenaries in Syria.

More notable and more familiar are the glaring holes in the conversation.  Though we have all by now seen the photos of the missiles’ heroic, glowing arc into Damascus, we are completely insulated from the gold at the end of their rainbow: human beings, torn apart by fire and rubble.  Their deaths, of course, will not bring those killed by chemical weapons back to life; nor, if history is any example, will they prevent a chemical weapons attack in the future. This invisible, unknowable, ungrievable casualties would spoil the widespread celebration in American media that always accompanies such bloodsport.  Last year, I wrote a piece about the horror and hypocrisy of America’s policy on Syria – so little has changed, I would only be repeating myself to delve into it here.

There is, though, one notable difference in this year’s attack – the sources of dissent.  In the exhausting treadmill marathon that is Ideology in the Trump Era, we find ourselves in a Bizarro world where traditionally liberal news outlets are, for the most part, pushing for an armed intervention (this week’s New York Times included the op-Eds Trump Needs to Be More Trumpian In Syria,” “Staring Down Syria,” and “A Strike In Syria Restores Our Credibility In The World,” while the Washington Post argues “We Need to go Big in Syria”), yet traditionally far-right sources are actually against the strike.  On Fox News, celebrity anchors Tomi Lahren, Laura Ingraham, and Tucker Carlson, all three of whom usually applaud lethal military action in Muslim countries, begged the President not to bomb Syria, aligning themselves with formerly marginal figures like Richard Spencer, Ann Coulter, and Alex Jones.  This is a far cry from last April, when only 1 of the 47 national editorials about Trump’s missile strike opposed the President’s action.

This somewhat dizzying shift is significant in a country that has yet to accept the fact that long-standing political divisions have been rendered meaningless by crisis capitalism.  We should note the meaning in the fact that practically every active politician in the Republican Party, from young zealots like Tom Cotton to old-school mavericks like John McCain, has taken the side of the New York Times here, while the only national political figures overtly against an attack on Syria (the Fox News position) are those on the decidedly subversive fringes of both major parties, like libertarian Rand Paul and socialist Bernie Sanders.  How would you have reacted if, during the 2016 election season, someone had predicted that Donald Trump would be president, the New York Times and pro-Hillary wing of the Democratic Party would be justifying a bombing he initiated on Twitter, and Bernie Sanders would be decrying the violence alongside alt-right racists like Richard Spencer?

The new alliances, of course, are alliances of consequences but not necessarily alliances of vision.  President Trump, I presume, wants to bomb Syria primarily because he wants to distract from the news that he may have used election funds to prevent women from revealing how he likes to be spanked by Fortune Magazine during extramarital sex.  The Times wanted him to bomb Syria because it accepts the vision (manufactured in neoconservative think tanks, funded by the arms industry) that death in the flames of American cruise missiles stabilizes the uncivilized world.  Fox News opposes the airstrikes because they have learned to follow the lead of crazed conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for ratings, and they hope to broaden their appeal by spreading his unfounded claim that the chemical attack was a false flag operation by the Deep State to undermine Trump’s real goal of withdrawing from Syria.  Bernie Sanders opposes the airstrikes because they risk entangling the United States in another endless war, and because this act of war was never approved by Congress, a clear violation of the Constitution.

But underneath the disparity of intention, we have a rare opportunity to witness the true fault line in American politics.  Without regard for the dogmas of Republican and Democrat, left and right, liberal and conservative, Americans answer this fundamental question of to kill or not to kill by answering to an even more fundamental question – do we continue doing what we have been doing, or do we do something else?  Here we can find ourselves divided into new camps that carry new connotations – the Included, for whom the prevailing order has worked out just fine, and the Excluded, for whom it has not.

The Included are the people rich enough to win Congressional races, the paying demographic of the New York Times and Washington Post, the well-educated, hard working and well-compensated masses who may vote blue or red depending on zip code and genealogy, but generally agree the worst thing that could have happened in America is a President who may have colluded with Russia.  The Included are comforted by the familiarity – the Russians are supporting a bad guy in the middle east, the President is going to try to eliminate that bad guy, once he is gone the videos of Syrian people strangled by poison will leave my television or Facebook feed, and I can return to my life which consists of questions I know how to answer, problems I know how to solve.

The Excluded are a far larger and more diverse crowd.  For the most part they do not vote, because there is no political party that represents them.  Some will follow a candidate promising change – for that reason, a small number did vote for Donald Trump, although his roots are much stronger in the slightly off-put Included, and a larger number voted for Hillary Clinton, though her roots were strongest among the super-Included; how many might have voted for Bernie Sanders, truly rooted amongst the Excluded, we will never know – but it’s worth remembering that only twice in American history have even 50% of the voting age population cast a ballot.  Some of the Excluded are staring down insurmountable debt because they had the audacity to educate themselves, most are spectacularly isolated from even the possibility of education. The Included describe them only in euphemisms – “urban,” “People Of Color,” “white working-class,” “students,” “inspiring” – which stand for “sad little people who don’t know what’s good for them.”  This condescension comes from the idea that somehow the Included are Included because they did know what was good for them, but Included and Excluded are older divisions than any knowing or not knowing.

Fox News and the alt-right oppose attacking Syria, in this moment, because polls tell them the Excluded oppose attacking Syria, and they desperately want the Excluded to buy their product.  But the Excluded don’t want war with Syria (and, by proxy, with Russia and Iran) for practical reasons, reasons that cynical ploys from corporate-funded, right-wing media will not truly answer.  Our country has been at war, officially, for seventeen years. Our country has been manipulating regimes in Syria for seventy.  Our country launched an airstrike in Syria just last year.  The Excluded did not get any less Excluded in the past seventy years, or the past seventeen years, or the even the past year.  The Excluded might be a bit sharper than former President Bush; they at least seem to remember, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”  It is becoming increasingly hard to pretend that sending Excluded soldiers to murder Excluded people around the world does anything to help the Excluded.

The clash between the Included and the Excluded was once called Class Struggle by those on the left, though today’s left (dominated by the academic Included) would dismiss such a model as outdated and class reductionist.  But the class struggle of the twenty-first century is not manifested in some orthodox doctrine of bourgeois-proletariat relations, of industrialism or postmodern theory or even any classical definition of progressive or reactionary.  It is instead a globalized, all-consuming duality, a society less equal than any in human history spiraling towards a social, ecological, and spiritual catastrophe of inconceivable scope.

In this class struggle, solidarity between the Included, though hidden, is a constant.  Though the scrupulous in the ruling classes feign shock at the current President, they are certainly grateful for the stock market boom his deregulations and austerity politics have ushered in.  (In that spirit, black comedian Dave Chappelle recently reminded the average white Trump voter: “You dumb motherfuckers! You are poor. He’s fighting for me!”)  Our solidarity is international – the Included in America would be terrified if we suggested a humanitarian bombing of the Included in Israel after Israeli soldiers shot 223 unarmed Palestinian protesters on Friday, just a week after shooting nearly 800.  It even extends to the Included in Syria, the Assad government – this January, our government quietly supported Assad and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Erdogan, as the two fascists tore apart the socialist Kurdish Republic in eastern Syria, the only site of secular, feminist democracy in the modern Middle East.

And for the Included, death in Syria will be a good thing, just like death in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Libya and the Congo, in Iran and North Korea.  War means markets grow. If we do topple the Assad regime, perhaps there will soon be a McDonald’s in Syria like the ones that sprouted in Iraq after Hussein.  If we don’t, at least we sold a few missiles (the Friday night bombings alone likely netted between $30 million and $100 million for those invested in the arms industry).

For the Excluded, war is bad.  Money spent on missiles will not be spent on public services.  Spillover military technology will be used to police poor communities, to pipeline young people from the racialized ghettos of the country into a prison system that forces them into unpaid labor.  And those of the Excluded whose deaths are most profitable, war means constant terror of death from above, ferried down gravity’s rainbow by the explosives of Humanitarian Intervention. But the Excluded have no solidarity, they have no cruise missiles, they have no mass media (except for the occasional panderings of one wing or another), they have no President.

It is time for a universal politics of the Excluded.  We, the left, must take advantage of the divisions within the Republican and Democratic Parties that the Trump and Sanders campaigns laid bare and welcome the fact that a growing portion of our country is looking for a new political force – one that is anti-elite, anti-globalization, and, most critically, anti-war.  We must accept the lesson of Naomi Klein – No Is Not Enough – and propose an alternative to survival by bigotry, survival by selfishness, survival by mass murder.  We must recognize that every minute we stall, more blood pools on our hands. We must not be seduced for even one minute by the establishment’s myth of a just war, of necessary collateral damage, of humanitarian intervention.

Ninety-nine years ago today, Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was carted into the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary for trying to “cause and incite insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny and refusal of duty in the military,” and “obstruct the recruiting and enlistment service of the United States.”  His crime was a speech against the decadence of the First World War in Canton, Ohio the previous year. At that time, the antiwar movement, explicitly socialist, and with broad support in every sector of the Excluded, seemed like an existentialist threat to the capitalist murder machine.  I reprint the offending paragraph here with the hope that my country will see such a movement again soon.


Every solitary one of these aristocratic conspirators and would-be murderers claims to be an arch-patriot; every one of them claims that the war is being waged to make the world safe for democracy.  What humbug! What rot! What false pretense.

These autocrats, these tyrants, these red-handed robbers and murderers, the “patriots,” while the men who stand face to face with them, speak the truth, and fight for their exploited victims – they are the disloyalists and traitors.  If this be true, I want to take my place side by side with the traitors in this fight…

The master class has always declared the wars, the subject class has always fought the battles.  The master class has all to gain and nothing to lose, the subject class has nothing to gain and all to lose – especially their lives.


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