Why is the American public so unenthusiastic about bombing Syria? Certainly the case for war is weak and hypocritical both in its pretext and in its imagined goals. But that was no less true of the Iraq War, which was easily foisted upon a credulous public – a “slam dunk,” as CIA director George Tenet put it. This time, despite a weeklong media blitz (administration insiders call it “flooding the zone”), a majority of the American public still oppose bombing Syria. For the most part, it isn't because they are explicitly aware of the weakness of the case for war. They haven't necessarily asked themselves, “Why would Assad use poison gas when he had virtually won the war already?” A week or two ago, when only 12% of Americans supported bombing, most had a very vague idea of anything but the one-line narrative: Bashar al-Assad used poison gas on civilians and needs to be punished. Yet still they opposed it. Why?
One common explanation in the media is that Americans are “war-weary.” In former times, that term meant that people were weary of the danger, privation, and uncertainty that come with war. Most Americans today are (seemingly) quite well-insulated from war's direct consequences; if war-weary, then, it must be for some other reason. It is the people in Syria (and Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan…) who are understandably weary of war. Yet the phrase seems apt for Americans too. What is this weariness that talk of yet another bombing campaign evokes?
Perhaps what we are weary of is the whole concept of war, the mindset of war, and the worldview underlying the waging of war.
We are weary of having our panic buttons pressed. We are weary of being maneuvered into seeing some people as evil Others. We are weary of hating. We are weary of punishing. We are weary of living in a fortress, Fortress America. The narratives that are meant to evoke responses of hatred, punishment, and fortressing are no longer working. The narrative of a global struggle between Communism and Freedom, though it never could bear deep scrutiny, nonetheless was effective in rallying the public to war mentality. The specter of Terrorism was less compelling, not only because it was flimsier in its factual construction, but also because the metanarrative of us-versus-them was becoming obsolete. Symptomatically, the patriotic fervor of the Iraq War era was much shallower, if no less loud, than that of the WWII and Cold War generations, which held a deep and nearly universal conviction of America's legitimacy as a crusader for good.
The end of the Washington Consensus, which accords hegemonic power to the United States, coincides with the end of the dominator mentality more generally. For centuries it has been the goal of Western civilization to make the world ours: to tame the wild, to transcend the limits of nature, to exterminate evil, to control every variable, to civilize the heathen, to eliminate the germs, to become, as Descartes put it, the lords and possessors of nature. From within this program, the power to change the world comes through the harnessing of force, and goodness, order, security, health, and progress come through control. Yet today in every domain, from the geopolitical to the ecological, we are witnessing the failure of control.
We are experiencing today the emergence on a mass scale of ecological consciousness. No longer is the world an arena of struggle from which man emerges triumphant. We now see that the defeat of any species is the defeat of all; that the paving over of one habitat deadens something in all of us. The ecological crisis is teaching us that the good life does not come through winning the war against the Other.
Translating this awareness into geopolitics, we become less prone to believe that the solution to the problem is to overthrow the bad guy. That, or some lesser version of it – to intimidate, warn, punish, deter, draw a “red line,” etc. – is a perception of a world populated by separate and competing Others. And we are weary of that. We are awakening to the reality that “bad guys” are created by their context, and that that context includes ourselves.
Most people will not look into the complexities of Syrian society, colonial history, neoliberal economic policies, or petroleum and natural gas politics to understand the reasons for the violence there, but they intuitively understand that it isn't so simple as another evil bogeyman who must be taken down to keep us safe. The narrative, “Assad is a monster who must be punished, to stop him and deter other potential monsters,” is strangely uncompelling. Why? Is it because Assad has not enacted brutal policies? No, he certainly has. Is it because the public realizes that these are no more brutal than those of many US-supported regimes? No: aside from leftists, the public has no clue. The bad-guy narrative is failing for a much deeper reason, that is untouched by the details of who perpetrated the recent gas attack. It is failing because we are graduating from the worldview that says evil originates in evil people, as our intuitions increasingly encompass the realization of the connectedness of all things.
As we step into the perception of interconnection, we come to know that as we do to other people and the world, so we do to ourselves. We come to know that every person we encounter and every relationship we have mirrors something within. We see the fallacy of judgmentality and blame. We see that violence begets violence, bombing begets blowback, pesticides breed superweeds, antibiotics breed superbugs, prisons breed crime, crackdowns breed radicalism, and, as mounting military suicides show, killing breeds suicide. Killing doesn't come naturally to anyone who sees the world as interconnected.
From that perspective, bombing rarely makes sense. I'm not saying there is never a time to fight; just that we are reenacting a tired old habit of fighting reflexively, even in situations where fighting is inappropriate (which is most situations). There are other ways of solving problems.
Lest I be accused of being impractical, let me offer a modest suggestion to bring peace to Syria. Instead of bombs, what if we sent five thousand brave volunteers (perhaps soldiers – they are supposed to be brave) to Syria, wearing special uniforms, unarmed except with video cameras, as “witnesses for peace”? Or perhaps five thousand emissaries from world peace religions, or just ordinary citizens, young people maybe. The message would be along the lines of, “Syria is at the brink of peace, and we the world will help by bearing witness to the restraint, forgiveness, and negotiation that must happen for peace to break out.” I don't know about you, but I always find it easier to do the right thing when I know someone is watching.
OK, so maybe this proposal isn't so modest: actually it would be such a radical departure from today's entrenched militarism as to require nothing short of a political miracle. Its potency would come from the shocking reversal of course it implies as well as from its practical effects on the ground. Since it would be idle fantasy to hope that our leaders spontaneously undergo the requisite change of heart, let me make a second proposal as a way to change the climate of elite decision-making and strengthen the emerging field of peace, a proposal you and I can implement right now at the grass roots. It is inspired by the love messages that spread virally between Israel and Iran a few years ago. “Iranians: we love you.” “Israelis: We love you.” “Israeli friends, we don't want war. Love and Peace,” all accompanied by photographs of the well-wishers. While no one can prove that these messages influenced the calculations of the policy-makers, we must acknowledge the fact that no war occurred.
Here is my message: “One earth, one people. Syrians we love you. No bombs.” My inner cynic felt awkward taking this photograph. Its voice told me, “This kind of mushy sentimentalism is a distraction from practical political action to pressure the authorities. You are being foolish,” it said, “standing there with a sign.” The cynic might also say it is hypocritical to wish them peace while my own government and the global economic and geopolitical system relentlessly sow discord. Shouldn't I be doing something about that?
What the cynic doesn't understand is that building a field of love does do something about that. It makes it much more difficult to whip up war hysteria in the public.
It might even make it more difficult for the political elites to whip up war hysteria in themselves. We must be careful not to demonize them, as so many left-wing critics tend to do. By making him into a nearly incomprehensibly hypocritical, wicked, and ignorant Other, they do the same to Obama as his administration does to Assad. But he like any of us is called by the consciousness of interconnectedness. There is a deep part of him that doesn't want to drop the bombs either, that is repelled and anguished by the very idea of it. Appeals like this one by Dieter Duhm appeal to this higher aspect of the man. However, locked tightly within a logic, a narrative, and a system that silences that humaneness, he can only act from it with the help of a strong surrounding field. That is what we must build. The cynic's tactic of “pressuring the authorities” does not do that, but only strengthens the field of othering. We must raise up a mighty field of love. One earth, one people.
In the transition from the mentality of the evil Other to the mentality of interconnectedness, we all face, from time to time, moments of doubtful hesitation: “Is it OK to trust? Is it OK to relax control? What if the Other doesn't respond in kind? What if he just takes advantage of our 'weakness' (our trust)?” For warring factions with, in some cases, generations-long grudges, to take that step requires huge courage. For our own leaders it takes a bit of courage as well. What if they are called soft? What if Assad truly is a monster and he takes our declining to bomb him as license to commit horrors? What if he doesn't want peace but only, like a James Bond villain, to dominate and destroy? What will happen to the United States if we can't build a gas pipeline through Syria controlled by U.S. interests?
If I listen to my heart, will I be OK?
What makes it easier to trust is when I catch a glimpse of the humanity of the other – when I see that this person is another self; in some sense, another me. The Internet makes it possible like never before to bypass the propaganda and see people in faraway lands as human. Elaborate though our denial mechanisms may be, it is becoming harder and harder to escape the truth that bombing victims are real people and not collateral damage.
Beyond that, what is really bringing us together is the ecological crisis, which is making it impossible to pretend any longer that we are not all in this together. Facing the loss of all that is beautiful and alive on Earth, we are growing impatient – or might I say weary – of the petty contentions, the “American interests,” the race to see who will be the top rat on a sinking ship.
Here we are, all together on a planet where the ecological basis of life is unraveling. And we are still bombing each other? That is insane. It is time to grow up.
Image by FreedomHouse, courtesy of Creative Commons license.