Over the past five years, I have written 204 articles about Syria in the hopes that I might convince the left to support the Syrian rebels. The Syrian revolution is our generation’s version of the Spanish Civil War. Unlike the 1930s, however, much of the left today is backing the Syrian equivalent of General Francisco Franco’s fascist military in Spain.
Given my commitment to the struggle against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, many of my friends and colleagues wonder why I am supporting the Green Party candidacy of Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka, whose positions on Syria are exactly those I have been writing against for the past five years. The time has come to explain this paradox, but, before doing so, it would be useful to examine closely what Stein and Baraka have said on the Syria issue, if for no other reason than to confront the actual record.
The Left’s Syria Problem
To understand support for Assad on the left, it helps to think diagrammatically, in terms of concentric circles. The innermost circle belongs to people like Professor Tim Anderson, an Australian who is one of Assad’s most hard-core, Western leftist supporters. In circles closer to the middle, you have people like Baraka, Patrick Cockburn, Seymour Hersh, and others who would likely admit that Assad is a neoliberal who has collaborated with the CIA in torturing abductees (the facts are undeniable), but see him as a lesser evil to the “jihadists.” Close to the outer edges, you have someone like Stein, who likely never gave much thought to Syrian realities, but has relied on what she has read from those closer to the middle circles, in places like CounterPunch, Salon, The Nation, the London Review of Books, and ZNet. (If these references to concentric circles reminds you of Dante’s Inferno, I cannot blame you.)
While ignorance is no defense in a court of law, Stein is neither better nor worse than the vast majority of the left, which has made up its mind that the U.S. government is actively seeking regime change in Syria. Like most on the left, Stein sees Syria’s problems largely as an outcome of American intervention on the side of “extremist” groups funded by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Steeped in this belief, Stein issued a foolish statement on November 2, 2015, opposing American ground troops in Syria and accusing President Barack Obama of trying to engineer “regime change” in the country. In her statement, she urged the U.S. government to work with Syria, Russia, and Iran “to restore all of Syria to control by the government rather than Jihadi rebels.”
Unfortunately, Stein seems not to know that the Syrian uprising was sparked by suffering created by the Assad government. Even if Islamist groups have tried to hijack the uprising since then, the genie cannot be stuffed back into the bottle.
Unlike Stein, who superficially parrots the left’s prevailing “anti-intervention” viewpoint, Baraka’s Baathist sympathies are far more pronounced. Indeed, if he were the one running for president, I would not support his candidacy.
Baraka has written eight articles for CounterPunch defending Syria’s Baathist dictatorship. All of them are bad, but the worst was a June 4, 2014 article hailing Assad’s then-recent electoral victory:
Defying threats of violence, tens of thousands of ordinary Syrians went to the polls to cast a vote that was more about Syrian dignity and self-determination than any of the candidates on the ballot. After three years of unimaginable atrocities fomented by a demented and dying U.S. empire, with the assistance of the royalist monarchies of the Middle East and the gangster states of NATO, the Syrian people demonstrated, by their participation, that they had not surrendered their national sovereignty to the geo-strategic interests of the U.S. and its colonial allies in Europe and Israel.
Baraka’s article is a cynical exercise in what Edward Herman and Frank Brodhead have described as a “demonstration election.” In their 1984 book of the same title, Herman and Brodhead detail how rigged elections in Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador were lauded as victories for democracy by a docile mass media, even though they were designed to serve American foreign policy. The fact that opposition parties were banned and their supporters killed was swept under the rug.
If you substitute South Vietnam or El Salvador for Syria, and Moscow for “royal monarchies” and NATO, Baraka’s article represents the kind of press releases issued by the State Department following the election of Nguyen Van Thieu in 1967 or José Napoleón Duarte in 1984. Indeed, I called out Baraka for this very thing, in an article titled “Should the left be buoyed by the Syrian election?”:
Even more to the point, the left is not just interested in elections but the circumstances in which they take place. For example, can an election be held during a civil war and where the only place to vote is under government control? Also, what access to media do potential voters enjoy, among whom there were potential voters for Bashar al-Assad’s opponents?
Why does such a double standard exist? Surely, Baraka would understand the South Vietnamese and El Salvador elections as the shams they were. But when Syria has the same sort of election, he becomes a kind of press officer for dictatorship—a leftist version of Chemical Ali, the buffoon who served as Saddam Hussein’s press secretary.
To put it bluntly, people like Baraka who espouse these views are the contemporary equivalent of journalists who supported the Communist Party during Joseph Stalin’s rule. They employ shoddy logic, are indifferent to the facts, and cynically defend a dictatorship based on geopolitical concerns rather than universal standards of social justice.
Contextualizing the Green Party
Almost eighty years ago, New York Times reporter, Walter Duranty wrote in defense of the 1937 Moscow Trials accusing Nikolai Bukharin and other leading Communists of being fascist spies. Duranty believed that because Stalin was promoting socialism, his crimes should be whitewashed—the ends justified the means, in other words. In the 1930s, Communist Party members in the United States reflected a similar failure of intellect and heart. Thousands of brave men and women faced arrest, beatings, and death as they built the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and fought Jim Crow in the South. At the same time, they peddled copies of the Daily Worker—the U.S. Communist Party’s newspaper—with articles defending Stalin’s crimes.
Should they be judged solely on their sales of the newspaper or should they also be given credit for building trade unions and defending black people from lynching? These are complex questions that a generation of radical historians in the United States have grappled with. Although I come from a Trotskyist background (but no longer identify as one), I am sympathetic to historians who see the Communists dialectically.
This brings me to the question of the Green Party, which also deserves to be understood dialectically, even though its contributions to political struggles in the United States is far more modest.
To start with, it is necessary to understand that, unlike many other leftist groups in the United States today, the Greens do not have a magazine or newspaper that propagates a party line on Syria. The party maintains a website with only a single article on Syria, suggesting it does not prioritize the issue. A search of the LexisNexis newspaper database also shows that, from January 1, 2012 until now, 219 articles mention “Jill Stein” and the “Green Party,” but only one of these discusses Syria.
For better or worse, the Green Party’s program on Syria is not that different from the Bernie Sanders campaign or the Jeremy Corbyn wing of the Labour Party in Britain. Virtually all leaders of these movements share an “anti-intervention” outlook formed by the experience of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. For some who support the Syrian revolution, Hillary Clinton is a noble foil to these figures, having defended the idea of a no-fly zone and spoken about the need to put pressure on Assad to step down.
But, focusing on these policy positions ignores certain flaws in Clinton’s record that should worry any supporter of democracy and human rights in Muslim countries. As a U.S. senator, Clinton voted for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that led to the deaths of more than a million people. As secretary of state under President Obama, Clinton authorized 99% of all Predator drone attacks that were submitted for her approval. This is not the kind of candidate worth supporting, even if she is not as bad as the Republican nominee, Donald Trump.
Why the Greens over the Reds and Blues
The real imperative for supporting the Greens is based on a long, historic need for an alternative to the two-party system.
For the better part of a century, efforts have been made to launch a party to the left of the Democrats that is accountable to workers, the poor, and small farmers. But, every time a promising party of this kind has developed momentum, it has either been coopted or forced out of existence.
These parties have not been formed, in full perfection, like Athena out of Zeus’s forehead. They have been flawed in the same way the Green Party is flawed, reflecting the inadequacies of nearly all nascent mass movements.
The Populists, for example, were formed in 1892 to fight against business monopolies and defend the interests of workers and small farmers. In a time of deep racism, they advocated for alliances between poor whites and blacks. In the hopes of increasing their influence, they backed Democratic presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, in 1896. Indeed, a member of the Populist Party, Thomas E. Watson, served as Bryan’s vice-presidential running mate.
As a standard bearer of the Democratic Party, William Jennings Bryan was arguably the most leftwing candidate in the party’s history before Franklin D. Roosevelt and in many ways even more willing than Roosevelt was to take on big business. As an anti-imperialist who opposed the Spanish-American War and fought against corporate monopolies, Bryan seemed like a natural ally of the Populist Party. But, in 1896, the Democratic Party, especially in the South, was the party of Jim Crow, lynching, and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). For his part, even though Bryan was personally opposed to the KKK, he never openly expressed his position. So, when the Populists decided to back Bryan, they tacitly accepted this state of affairs.
Fast forward to 1948, when a new third party called the Progressives emerged. Just as the Populists had been the left alternative to the Democrats and Republicans in the early twentieth century, anger over the Cold War, anti-Communism, and big business’s escalating attacks on the trade union movement created the conditions for a new anti-corporatist party. 1948 was an election year and the Progressives endorsed Henry Wallace, a former member of Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet, for president. When he toured the South during his campaign, Wallace vowed not to address segregated audiences or stay in segregated hotels. He was so upfront about his belief in racial equality that a riot nearly broke out at his first campaign event in North Carolina. A Wallace supporter named James D. Harris was stabbed twice in the arm and six times in the back by a racist protestor.
But, Henry Wallace also had Stalinist leanings. An October 14, 2013 New Yorker article profile of Wallace described his seemingly uncritical support for Soviet Russia:
Wallace was hardly the only politician of the period to form an unduly rosy picture of Stalin’s regime, but he went further than most. In May, 1944, he embarked on a good-will mission to Soviet Asia and China, and during a tour of Siberia he fell for an elaborate Potemkin-village presentation. In his 1946 travelogue, “Soviet Asia Mission,” he wrote admiringly of Red Army choruses, needlepoint artwork, and enlightened farming methods. “The larch were just putting out their first leaves, and Nikishov gamboled about, enjoying the wonderful air immensely,” Wallace wrote. He was referring to General Ivan Nikishov, the master of the Kolyma Gulag system. In China, Wallace showed himself more alert to the shortcomings of Chiang Kai-shek. (He did not favor the Communists, though, as he was later accused of doing.) A diplomatic amateur, he was too easily impressed by whichever host responded to his interests or appreciated his gifts, which included a shipment of fifty baby chicks and a glow-in-the-dark portrait of Stalin executed in radioactive paint.
Like Wallace, Jill Stein has a reputation for being a tool of the Kremlin. For example, Stein is on record as stating “we helped foment a coup against a democratically-elected government” in the Ukraine, totally dismissing the possibility that corruption, police brutality, and Russian domination were responsible for Euromaidan. Indeed, it is the same problem she has with the Syrian revolution, viewing it as little more than a Western plot against a legitimate government.
When it came to opposing dictatorship, Wallace was obviously a failure. But, I would have supported his candidacy, as well as Bryan’s. I would have been outspoken about the things I disagreed with, but would have kept my eyes on the prize, namely, creating a viable political party founded on social equality, environmental justice, and peace.
I doubt that the Populists, the Progressives, or the Greens could ever embody this ideal perfectly or consistently, but they are important to constructing a party that can in the future.