Nick Cohen on the new isolationism

September 8, 2013 at 9:38 pm (apologists and collaborators, democracy, hell, history, Human rights, internationalism, Jim D, Middle East, reactionay "anti-imperialism", Syria)

Above: classic isolationism from Charles Lindbergh in 1941

Nick Cohen (in today’s Observer):
“The type of person who regards any western intervention as always wrong and every dictator as the “demonised” victim of “orientalist” prejudice will be pleased by that result. But I wouldn’t cheer too loudly if I were in their shoes. What the majority of the public believe cannot be translated into any kind of leftwing sentiment. They think, I guess, that Arabs and Muslims are all the same. They all want to kill each other. They are all barbarians. “Why should we try to save them? They will only turn on us if we do.”

We don’t always agree with Cohen, but his column in today’s Observer is right on the money.

Even (perhaps especially) those of us who, on balance, oppose intervention in Syria, need to read this, and reflect…


  1. s4r4hbrown said,

    I’m one of those who opposed it, on balance, not in a StW way, (and not with great certainty) so I agreed with quite a few of Nick Cohen’s points but thought the third paragraph was unfair.

    I was wondering what people thought of Andrew Gilligan’s piece in the Telegraph on a similar topic

    as I found the points about StW having influenced Labour pretty tenuous.

    • Jim Denham said,

      Yes, Sarah, I agree that Cohen’s third para is OTT. But I think he can be forgiven some righteous anger and hyperbole under the circs.

      The Gilligan piece you’ve linked to is interesting and largely accurate. However, I think he exaggerates the direct influence of STWC over Labour MPs. Apart from Corbyn, whose never made any secret of the fact that he’s on the same wavelength as German, Rees & co, I’m not aware of any Labour MP who is really “in” with STWC, or who would have been directly influenced by them. The likes of Abbott and Hain have no coherent ideology, but merely reflect the prevalent mood of isolationism and a certain populist anti-Americanism.

      STW, of course, also reflects this mood, but is motivated by a particular version of “anti imperialism” that means they are increasingly openly pro-Assad.

      • s4r4hbrown said,

        I agree that many statements made in the Gilligan piece are almost certainly accurate – the majority – I mean those about people, their views and ties – but the point about influence on Labour is flagged as the major point and it’s the shakiest.

      • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

        The diaries of Chris Mullin are also rather instructive.

        While some of us remember Mullin from his 70s and early 80s incarnation as Tony Benn’s ever-present amanuensis and the author of A Very British Coup, his diaries as an MP and junior minister show him to have later degenerated into the most supine of Blairites virtually worshipping ‘The Man’.

        But the one issue on which Mullin’s new faith faltered seriously was Iraq where his still visceral anti-Americanism (reinforced by his being married to a Vietnamese woman and having spent significant time there) put him through endless agonies of indecision.

        And for that generation (and was it Coatesy or here that has a picture of an StWC Syria demo clearly showing that many of the participants were of exactly that generation and my own only a decade or two younger one) it is this anti-Americanism and a vague anti-imperialism that is the sole element of their youthful leftism that they still cling to.

  2. Mike Killingworth said,

    The poll finding that even when told that the Foreign Aid budget was only a tenth of what they thought it was, a majority of voters still thought it too big reminds me of a conversation I once had with a fiscal conservative on Vancouver Island.

    I told him that I knew how to get his Provincial and Federal governments to spend every tax dollar twice. “Oh?” he said. “Yes”, I replied, “but I’m not going to tell you – or them.” He looked suitably puzzled. “Because,” I went on, “you’d only want them to spend each dollar three times, and I don’t know that one”. He agreed I had a point.

    He also believed that the rich didn’t pay tax – never had, never would. In other words, however desirable economic egalitarianism might be, it’s no more achievable than getting it not to rain in daylight.

    And the evidence that he’s wrong is… what, precisely?

    The reality is that if we see ourselves as human beings first, and members of a smaller group, be it race, religion or nationality a long way second, then we have swollen heads. The problem with socialism is that its morality has no compassion, and as such is unfit for purpose: as someone once said: “people need educating up to it”.

    The Syrian situation is but one of a myriad examples that that education process has not even begun. I suspect socialists may do better campaigning to replace homo sapiens with robots – should be doable in 30 or 40 years’ time…

    • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      And the late lamented Iain M Banks wrote a long series of SF books which depicted a galactic anarcho-communist utopia only made possible by the development of godlike artificial intelligences.

      Which is a sign of how far we have fallen.

      A century or more ago the equivalents to Banks were utopian fantasies by the likes of Morris and and Wells and Bellamy for whom there was no doubt that humanity was capable of liberating itself.

      Wells wrote a book called Men Like Gods – whereas for a Banks (and several other current left wing SF writers I can name) utopia can now only be created by a literal Deus ex Machina…..

  3. Andrew Coates said,

    Sarah is right: the StWC has very little influence generally. Even the unions that formally support it in reality do little to campaign with it. Its grass-roots backing has withered and withered.

    I did not like Cohen’s piece myself, since it failed to focus on what is the weakest aspect of the StWC ‘anti-imperialist’, case: absence of any concern about democratic movements on the ground.

    Cohen should have answered something more heavyweight.

    This is one effort:

  4. Jim Denham said,

    Andrew: in fairness to Cohen, he has written about support for democratic movement “on the ground” in Syria and, indeed, in Iraq, on several occasions before. You can’t cover everything in every article.

    I thought the strongest, and most timely, aspect of Cohen’s piece was the way he linked the Westphalian isolationism of STWC and the “anti-war” Labour MP’s, with an essentially right wing agenda:

    “If leftists still imagine that the anti-war sentiment is a blessing, they should notice its links to anti-immigrant sentiment. Just as the worse Assad behaves towards Syrians the less willing the public is to confront him, so the worse the government behaves towards immigrants the more the public likes it. After the coalition sent vans on to the streets telling illegal immigrants to get out, people like me protested that this was the type of stunt you saw in tinpot dictatorships. The pollsters at YouGov found that the voters liked the look of a tinpot country and support for ministers increased.

    “What applies to foreign wars and foreigners in Britain also applies to foreign aid. Middle-class liberals comfort themselves with the illusion that if only they could expose the “lies” of the tabloid press, the masses would embrace enlightened ideas.

    “Last year, the foreign policy think-tank Chatham House put that notion to the test. Its researchers found that the voters overestimated the size of the aid budget by almost tenfold. Chatham House put them right. It told them the truth. No difference did it make. The voters still thought Britain spent too much on aid.”

    Btw: your piece on Tariq Ali is v.good: I may reblog here if that’s OK with you.

    • Andrew Coates said,

      Fine, Jim.

      I do agree that the ‘anti-War’ sentiment in this case is often no such thing, it contains a kind of ‘not in our name’ current of opinion – that is, ‘we’ don’t want to be involved with ‘foreigners’ and their troubles.

      But how you can separate that out from other strands of thinking: a fairly realistic assessment of the chances of helping any form of democracy through military intervention in the present Syria, or, genuine hostility towards military adventures, dislike of the character of those Islamist/jihadist elements involved, or even (who knows) popular anti-imperialism, is not at all obvious.

      I am not as gifted as Cohen into the thoughts and decisions of “the voters”.

      • Jim Denham said,

        I don’t think we have any major disagreement here, Andrew.

    • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      Westphalian isolationism is a great phrase.

      So if the masses are hopeless racists (or better xenophobes) utterly resistant to the truth what can we actually do?

      I quite literally despair and see little or no future for human civilisation (or at least not for any civilisation I could bear to live in) – but thought you were made of sterner stuff….

  5. R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Shuggy – someone who should blog more often – has I think a strong response to Nick here:

    Ten years on with the situation in Syria you shouldn’t ask: what has been learned? Because the melancholy truth is, absolutely nothing. What do Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch, John Pilger and George Galloway have in common? At least two things: all of them identify themselves as being the true standard bearers of the left and none of them are the least bit interested in questions of military capability or strategy. With Pilger and Galloway, their disinterest has its origins in the conviction that it doesn’t matter because it shouldn’t be done under any circumstances. Nick Cohen and David Aaronovitch have no such excuse. Both of them have an obligation to spell out what practical steps they would support that would effect the sort of change they want to see in Syria that would avoid the bloodshed we’ve witnessed in postwar Iraq. I haven’t read what Aarononvitch has to say but I did see this from Nick Cohen. I have to say that I’m more than a little shocked at the ahistorical vitriol on display here; so much so, I don’t care to engage with the detail. Denouncing those who decline to support an ill-defined and inchoate militarily action as morally disgraceful is in itself morally disgraceful. It’s a good line but it isn’t what I really think. I just think it’s stupid.

    Instead, they would do better to try and persuade people why they think Western military intervention would do any good. Waving pictures of dead Syrian babies is all very well but why does anyone think the exemplary displays of military violence being suggested will offer any help to the Syrian people? If you want to make war, do it properly. ‘No boots on the ground’ indeed! You need proper air-cover and the real threat of foot-soldiers. I read somewhere that Iran has 50,000 proxy fighters either in Syria already or ready to go. If you’re prepared to match this with overwhelming force – perhaps a quarter of a million would do – then put it to your legislatures. If not, prepare to repeat the mistakes of Iraq. And spare us your moralising.

    As a usually fervent interventionist this does give me pause.

    The fact is that the left are shamefully and willfully ignorant of military realities – but still ritually shout ‘arm the workers’ without the slightest concept of what that actually means.

    (Something which was not always the case – consider Engels and Trotsky for instance both of whom were passionately interested in questions of strategy, tactics and logistics).

    And as Syria shows putting arms in the hands of people who hate the government and are willing to die fighting it is almost never enough,

    What wins most wars is in military jargon superior c3i – command, control, communications and intelligence.

    Assad like Saddam before him can remain in power despite having the support of only a fraction of the population because he has technologies (which in this sense is as much about c3i ‘software’ as it is hardware) of repression which are simply far more powerful than those of the resistance.

    So it may well take something analogous to the Second Gulf War to remove him and that is precisely what not even the Pentagon and State Department are now willing to contemplate.

    And in the absence of a commitment to send tanks through the streets of Damascus one really does have to doubt the value of what can be achieved.

    But equally its nonsensical to make sweeping statements about supporting the opposition without more than the vaguest idea of who the forces opposing Assad actually are and what they are capable of.

    The grim reality may be that as in the case of Saddam the internal forces opposing Assad may simply be quite incapable of overthrowing him without a level of foreign military intervention which thanks to the incompetence of Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld is now an impossibility.

    Which to my mind does not mean that we shouldn’t bomb the bastards or arm the rebels on general principle – but we should at least be realistic about what this can actually achieve.

  6. Progressive racism « Iain Hall's SANDPIT said,

    […] Nick Cohen on the new isolationism ( […]

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