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How the Left Became Cheerleaders for US Imperialism
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One of the biggest problems for the left, as it confronts what seems like humanity’s ever-more precarious relationship with the planet – from the climate emergency to a potential nuclear exchange – is that siren voices keeping luring it towards the rocks of political confusion and self-harm.

And one of the loudest sirens on the British left is the environmental activist George Monbiot.

Monbiot has carved out for himself a figurehead role on the mainstream British left because he is the only big-picture thinker allowed a regular platform in the establishment media: in his case, the liberal Guardian newspaper. It is a spot he covets and one that seems to have come with a big price tag: he is allowed to criticize the corporate elite’s capture of British domestic politics – he occasionally concedes that our political life has been stripped of all democratic content – but only, it seems, because he has become ever less willing to extend that same critique to British foreign policy.

As a result, Monbiot holds as a cherished piety what should be two entirely inconsistent positions: that British and Western elites are pillaging the planet for corporate gain, immune to the catastrophe they are wreaking on the environment and oblivious to the lives they are destroying at home and abroad; and that these same elites are fighting good, humanitarian wars to protect the interests of poor and oppressed peoples overseas, from Syria and Libya to Ukraine, peoples who coincidentally just happen to live in areas of geostrategic significance.

Because of the vice-like corporate hold on Britain’s political priorities, Monbiot avers, nothing the corporate media tells us should be believed – except when those priorities relate to protecting peoples facing down ruthless foreign dictators, from Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Then the media should be believed absolutely.

Monbiot’s embrace of the narratives justifying Washington’s “humanitarian” interventions abroad has been incremental. Back in the late 1990s, while generally supporting the aims of NATO’s war on the former Yugoslavia, he called out its bombing of Serbia as a “dirty war”, highlighting the ecological and economic destruction it entailed. He would also sound the alarm – if ambivalently – over the Iraq war in 2003, and later become a leading proponent of jailing former UK prime minister Tony Blair as a war criminal for his involvement.

But as the ripples from the Iraq war spread to other parts of the Middle East and beyond, often in complicated ways, Monbiot took the good will he had earned among the anti-imperialist left and weaponized it to Washington’s advantage.

By 2007, he was swallowing wholesale the evidence-free narrative crafted in Washington and Tel Aviv that Iran was trying to acquire a nuclear bomb and needed to be stopped. In 2011, he was a reluctant supporter of the West’s campaign to violently depose Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, turning the country into a failed state of slave markets.

In 2017, he legitimized President Trump’s grounds for bombing Syria and minimized the significance of those air strikes, which were a gross violation of international law. Washington’s rationalizations for the attack – based on a claim that President Assad had gassed his own people – started to unravel when whistleblowers from the United Nations’ chemical weapons inspections agency, the OPCW, came forward. They revealed that US intimidation of the OPCW had led to the inspectors’ findings being distorted for political reasons: to put Assad in the frame rather than the more likely culprits of jihadists, who hoped a false-flag gas attack would pressure the West into removing the Syrian leader on their behalf.

Monbiot has staunchly refused to address the testimony of these OPCW whistleblowers, while at the same time implicitly maligning them as being responsible for feeding “conspiracy theories”.

In the case of the Ukraine war, Monbiot has insisted on adherence to the NATO narrative, decrying any dissent as “Westplaining”. Throughout this shift ever more firmly into the imperial NATO camp, Monbiot has besmirched prominent anti-war leftists, from the famed linguist Noam Chomsky to the journalist John Pilger, as “genocide deniers and belittlers”.

First shockwaves

If this characterization of his position sounds unfair, watch this short video he recently made for Double Down News. According to Monbiot, the left’s slogan is a simple one: Whatever the situation around the world is, you side against the oppressor, and with the oppressed. That is the fundamental guiding principle of justice, and that is the principle we on the left should stick with, regardless of the identity of the oppressor and the oppressed.”

As an abstract principle, this one is sound enough. But no one characterizing themselves as speaking for the anti-imperialist left should be using a simple rule of thumb to analyze and dictate foreign policy positions in the highly interconnected, complex and duplicitous world we currently inhabit.

As Monbiot knows only too well, we live in a world – one pillaged by a colonial West to generate unprecedented, short-term economic growth for some, and mire others in permanent poverty – where global resources are rapidly being exhausted, beginning the gradual erosion of Western privilege.

We live in a world where intelligence agencies have developed new technologies to spy on populations on an unprecedented scale, to meddle in other states’ politics, and to subject their own populations to ever more sophisticated propaganda narratives to conceal realities that might undermine their credibility or legitimacy.

We live in a world where transnational corporations – dependent for their success on continued resource plunder – effectively own leading politicians, even governments, through political funding, through control of the think-tanks that develop policy proposals, and through their ownership of the mass media. Here is a recent article by Monbiot explaining just that.

We live in a world where those same corporations are deeply entwined with state institutions in the very war and security industries that, first, sustain and rationalize the plunder and then “protect” our borders from any backlash from those whose resources are being plundered.

And we live in a world where the first shockwaves of climate collapse, combined with these resource wars, are fomenting mass migrations – and an ever greater urgency in Western states to turn themselves into fortresses to defend against a feared stampede.

Zealot for war

ORDER IT NOW

Monbiot knows this world only too well because he writes about it in such detail. He has won the hearts of many on the left because he describes so eloquently the capture of domestic politics by a shadowy cabal of Western corporations, politicians and media moguls. But he then concludes that this same psychopathic, planet-destroying cabal can be trusted when it explains – via its reliable mouthpieces in the right-wing press, the BBC and his own Guardian newspaper – what it is doing in Syria, Libya or Ukraine.

And worse, Monbiot lashes out at anyone who dissents, calling them apologists for dictators, or war crimes. And he brings many on the left with him, helping to divide and weaken the anti-war movement.

One might have assumed Monbiot would have entertained a little more doubt in his foreign policy prescriptions over the past decade, if only because they have so squarely chimed with United States and NATO narratives amplified by the establishment media. But not a bit of it. He is a zealot for the West’s wars when they can be presented either as humanitarian or as battling Russian imperialism. (For examples, see here, here and here.)

The problem with Monbiot, as it is with much of the British left, is that he treats the various modern, great-power imperialisms – American, Russian and Chinese – as though they operate in parallel to each other rather than, as they do, constantly intersect and conflict.

To see the world as one in which the US “does imperialism” in Afghanistan and Iraq, while Russia separately “does imperialism” in Syria and Ukraine may be satisfying to anyone with a desperate need to appear even-handed. But it does nothing to advance our understanding of world events.

The interests of great powers inevitably clash. They are fighting over the same finite resources to grow their economies; they are competing over the same key states to turn them into allies; they are waging conflicting narrative battles over the same events. And they are trying – always trying – to diminish or subvert their rivals.

To claim that the war in Ukraine somehow stands outside these great-power intrigues – and that the only justified response is a simple one of cheerleading the oppressed and reviling the oppressor, as Monbiot requires – is beyond preposterous.

Economies decimated

To imagine that the UK and wider West are somehow on Ukraine’s side, are sending untold billions in arms even as recession bites, are opposed even to testing the seriousness of Russian offers of peace talks, and are blocking Russian oil even though the results are decimating European economies – and all because it is the right thing to do, or because Putin is a madman bent on world conquest – is to be entirely detached from joined-up thinking.

It is entirely possible, if we engage our critical faculties, to consider far more complex scenarios for which there are no good guys and no easy solutions.

It might – just might – be that Russia is both sinner in Ukraine and sinned against. Or that Ukrainian civilians are victims both of Russian militarism and of more covert US and NATO intrigues. Or that in a country like Ukraine, where a civil war has been raging for at least eight years between far-right (some of them exterminationist) Ukrainian ultra-nationalists and ethnic Russian communities, we would be better jettisoning our narrative premises of a single “Ukraine” or a single Ukrainian will. This kind of simple-mindedness may be obscuring far more than it illuminates.

Pointing this out does not make one a Putin apologist. It simply recognizes the lessons of history: that world events are rarely explicable through one narrative alone; that states have different, conflicting interests and that understanding the nature of those conflicts is the key to resolving them; and that what great powers say they are doing isn’t necessarily what they are actually doing.

And further, that elites – whether Russian, Ukrainian, European or American – usually have their own class-serving set of interests that have little to do with the ordinary populations they supposedly represent.

In such circumstances, Monbiot’s dictum that we must “side against the oppressor, and with the oppressed” starts to sound like nothing more than unhelpful sloganeering. It makes a complex situation that needs complex thinking and sophisticated problem-solving harder to understand and all but impossible to resolve.

Throw nuclear weapons into the mix, and Monbiot the environmentalist is playing games not only with the lives of Ukrainians, but the destruction of conditions for most life on Earth.

Covert meddling

Western solipsism of the kind indulged by Monbiot ignores Russian concerns or, worse, subsumes them into a fanciful narrative that a Russian army that is struggling to subjugate Ukraine (assuming that is actually what it is trying to do) intends next to rampage across the rest of Europe.

In truth, Russia has good reasons not only to take an especial interest in what happens in neighboring Ukraine, but to see events there as posing a potential existential threat to it.

Historically, the lands that today we call Ukraine have been the gateway through which invading armies have attacked Russia. Long efforts by Washington, through NATO, to recruit Ukraine into its military fold were never likely to be viewed dispassionately in Moscow.

That was all the more so because Washington has been exploiting Russian vulnerabilities – economic and military – since the collapse of its empire, the Soviet Union, in 1991. The US has done so both by converting former Soviet states into a massively enlarged, unified bloc of NATO members on Russia’s doorstep and by brashly excluding Russia from European security arrangements.

The US moves looked overtly aggressive to Moscow, whether that was the way they were intended or not.

ORDER IT NOW

But Russia had good grounds to interpret these actions as hostile: because Washington has been not-so-covertly meddling in Ukraine over the past decade. That included its concealed role in fomenting protests in 2014 that overthrew an elected government in Kyiv sympathetic to Moscow, and its clandestine military role afterwards, in training the Ukrainian army under President Obama and arming it under President Trump, that readied Ukraine for a coming war with Moscow that Washington appeared to be doing everything in its power to make happen.

Then there was the problem of the Crimean Peninsula, hosting Moscow’s only warm-water naval port and viewed as critically important to Russia’s defenses. It had been Russian territory until the 1950s when the then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gifted it to Ukraine, at a time when national borders had been made largely redundant within the Soviet empire. The gift was supposed to symbolize the unbreakable bond between Russia and Ukraine. Khrushchev presumably never imagined that Ukraine might one day seek to become a forward base for a NATO openly hostile to Russia.

And of course, Ukraine is not simply a gateway for invaders. It is also Russia’s natural corridor into Europe. It is through Ukraine that Moscow has traditionally exported goods and its energy resources to the rest of Europe. Russia’s opening of the Nord Stream gas pipelines direct to Germany through the Baltic Sea, circumventing Ukraine, was a clear signal that Moscow saw a Kyiv under Washington’s spell as a threat to its vital energy interests.

Notably, those same Nord Stream pipelines were blown up last month after a long series of threats from Washington officials, from President Biden down, that the US would find a way to end Russian gas supplies to Germany.

Russia has been excluded by Germany, Sweden and Denmark – all US allies – from participation in the investigation into those explosions on its energy infrastructure. Even more suspiciously, Sweden is citing “national security” – code for avoiding embarrassing a key ally? – as grounds for refusing to publish findings from the investigations.

Lethal power

So where does all this leave Monbiot’s rule: “Whatever the situation around the world is, you side against the oppressor, and with the oppressed”?

Not only does his axiom fail to acknowledge the complex nature of global conflicts, especially between great powers, in which defining who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed may be no simple matter, but, worse, it disfigures our understanding of international power politics.

Russia and China may be great powers, but they are not – at least, not yet – close to being equal to the US super-power.

Neither can match the many hundreds of US military bases around the world – more than 800 of them. The US outspends both of its rivals many times over on its annual military budget. That means Washington can project lethal power around the globe on a scale unmatched by either Russia or China. The only deterrence either has against the military might of the US is a last-resort nuclear arsenal.

Overwhelming US military supremacy means that, unlike China or Russia, Washington does not need to win over allies with carrots. It can simply threaten, bully or bludgeon – directly or through proxies – any state that refuses to submit to its dictates. That way, it has gained control over most of the planet’s key resources, especially over its fossil fuels.

Similarly, the US enjoys the manifold benefits of having the world’s principal reserve currency, pegging prices – most importantly energy prices – to the dollar. That does not just help reduce the costs of international trade for the US and allow it to borrow money cheaply. It also makes other states and their currencies dependent on the stability of the dollar, as the UK has just found out when the value of the pound plunged against the dollar, threatening to decimate the business sector.

But there are other advantages for the US in dominating global trade and currency markets. Washington is well positioned to impose economic sanctions to isolate and immiserate states that oppose it, as it is doing to Afghanistan and Iran. And its control of the world’s main financial institutions, such as the IMF and World Bank, means they act as little more than enforcers of Washington foreign policy priorities before agreeing to lend money.

Shadow cast

Both militarily and economically, the United States molds the world we live in. For those in the West, its grip on our material wellbeing and on our ideological horizons is almost complete. But the American shadow extends much further. All states, including Russia and China, operate within the framework of power relations, global institutions, state interests, and access to resources shaped by the US.

What distinguishes the status of Russia and China as great powers from the status of the US as a solitary super-power is the fact that their role on the international stage is necessarily more reactive and defensive. Neither can afford to antagonize the American behemoth unnecessarily. They must protect their interests, rather than project them as Washington does.

That means neither is likely to start invading neighbors that wish to ally with the US unless they feel existentially important state interests are being threatened by such an alliance. That is why Western narratives claiming to explain Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have to take as their starting points two improbable assumptions: that President Putin is solely responsible for launching the Ukraine war, over the heads of the Russian military; and that Putin himself is mad, evil or a megalomaniac.

To make such a case – the premise of all Western coverage of events in Ukraine – is already to concede that the only rational explanation for Russia invading Ukraine would be its perception that vital Russian interests were at stake – interests so vital that Moscow was prepared to defend them even if it meant incurring the wrath of the mighty American empire.

Instead, Monbiot and much of the left are throwing in their hand with the racist prescriptions of the apologists of US empire: that Washington’s great-power rivals act in ways decried by the US solely because they are irrational and evil.

This is a power-politics analysis of the playground. And yet it passes for neutral reporting and informed commentary in all establishment Western media. Catastrophically, Monbiot has played a crucial part in seeding these destructive ideas – ones that can only lead to intensified conflict and undermine peacemaking – into the anti-war movement.

(Republished from Jonathan Cook by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, NATO, Russia, The Left 
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  1. Mr. Cook does a fine job of showingGeorge Monbiot as a card-carrying warmonger.
    There is one part of his essay with which I disagree.

    And one of the loudest sirens on the British left is the environmental activist George Monbiot.

    The man may be plenty loud with his environmental pretenses, but in my opinion he’s a fraud in that area as well. From a Guardian article of his I’m not going to link:

    “Nuclear power currently appears to be the most cost-effective of the low-carbon technologies”.

    This will come as a surprise to many greens.

    Monbiot simply ignores all the factors against nuclear power. In the first place, nuclear power has never been cheap, and is currently the most expensive of all electricity sources. He ignores the reactor disasters in Ukraine and Japan. Finally, the current Ukraine war demonstrates that reactors have become allowable targets by the Western Corporate Media.

    No, Monbiot’s environmental credentials are not legitimate.

  2. The connections between the American and British Establishments are becoming more apparent. It sounds like Mr. Monbiot would fit Left in at NPR, Democracy Now, and other safe spaces in the USA.

    Does he identify as a Progressive, too?

    • Replies: @Sorel McRae
  3. @Greta Handel

    I generally don’t have much good to say about Democracy Now! but Amy Goodman has conducted at least two well-worth-listening-to, Ukraine-related interviews: one with historian Alfred McCoy and another with Jeffrey Sachs, each receiving more than a million views. Ron Unz included them (and a lot more) in https://www.unz.com/runz/world-war-iii-and-world-war-ii/.

    It seems most of the pressure against reckless/evil U.S. interventionism is coming from the right these days but I for one would welcome any leftists that still have or may reclaim some anti-imperialist, anti-war integrity. Can anyone think of any other examples (besides Tulsi Gabbard)? Certainly none in Congress that I know of and not many “conservatives” either. (Only one Republican consistently votes against aid to Israel: the very honorable Thomas Massey of Kentucky!)

    • Thanks: Greta Handel
    • Replies: @acementhead
  4. Mr. Monbiot is a Jew, no? If so, it helps explain his hawkish neocon views. But no mention of this.

  5. @Sorel McRae

    Tulsi Gabbard does not have any “anti-war” integrity. She is a war monger. She has been voluntarily in the US military, twice.

    • Replies: @Sorel McRae
  6. @acementhead

    Thank you for your observation. I’m a bit surprised you didn’t also offer a swipe at Jeffrey Sachs. (He’s certainly been involved in some nefarious projects in the past!) You also let Thomas Massey slide.

    But most of all–instead even–I would welcome any more positive (in terms of both integrity and effectiveness) examples of anti-war leaders. The field is pretty thin, as far as I can see. Cheer me up!

    • Replies: @acementhead
  7. How the Left Became Cheerleaders for US Imperialism

    And over a century ago:

    • Replies: @Anonymous
  8. @Sorel McRae

    Sorry I missed that you had advanced Jeffrey Sachs and Thomas Massey as anti war leaders. In any event I was totally ignorant of Thomas Massey and had little knowledge of Sachs. Sorry.

    I would like to be able to cheer you up, but sorry I’ve got nothing. I doubt that many are as despondent about the world situation as I am. As I’ve said many(or at least a few) times in the past that one of my many major personality defects is my pathological aversion to being lied-to. It doesn’t need to be personally directed at me. In NZ we have had incessant official lies, unopposed, for the last 2.75 years. And the sheep are still lapping(yeah I know that sheep don’t lap) it up.

    Thanks for your polite response.

    PS On proof reading I notice that I have to many “sorry”s. Too lazy to rewrite.

    • Replies: @Sorel McRae
  9. Anymike says:

    Tucker Carlson delivered an angry rant the other day. A rightfully angry rant directed at U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. What he said was, there is a time when outliers like her have their place and their function in our system. Their place right now is to question the march toward war, or at least the effort through our funding and donations of materiel to keep the war going.

    The forces that opposed the Vietnam war and every other military adventures since then are curiously asleep right now, in fact, are cheerleading a border war half a world away, Some might think, these forces might represent a sleeping giant. Don’t count on it. This time, the sleeping giant is not going to wake. Not in time. The Ukraine war will have to end just like every war has to end, and it will be over before these people realize, no, it’s not a remake of old 1980s military comedy Stripes.

    Appropriately, the feature alludes to Washington’s reach, Appropriately, because it is not our reach but the reach of a governing class which is pursuing aims which have nothing to do with us, the people who actually live here. The interest of the people who live here is a settlement. The interest of the governing class is to make rank, whether military rank or civilian rank, rank.

    Worst of all, the same policies that the governing class thinks will advance its interest is hollowing out America. Should we care if America is strong enough to support the schemes of the governing class? Well, we should care if America is strong enough. But not for their sake, For ours. Every year, we get weaker and more debilitated. With exceptions, of course, the condition of the people who live is not very good. You only need to walk up and down the street to see it.

    • Replies: @Kratoklastes
  10. @acementhead

    Sometimes a critic of the war, even or even especially a hypocritic (is that a word? should be!), can be useful to cite, as in, “See, even your own guy says it’s wrong/reckless/etc.” There are few saints in this world. I’m certainly not one.

    How about another: Alexander Mercouris of theduran.com. I really respected his analysis and he also has Aaron Maté on from time to time. Then I saw an episode with a NY Senate candidate affiliated with the Lyndon LaRouche cult. (You may have seen clips of anti-war hecklers berating AOC and Ilhan Omar recently–those were her staffers.) I doubt you had LaRouchies in NZ but they were fairly aggressive, kooky (and occasionally violent) in the US a few decades back and left a fairly bad odor. I suppose their picking up the anti-war issue was purely opportunistic but, there it was, like a $20 bill laying on the pavement. If Mercouris had a problem with them, he didn’t say, even as he acknowledged the candidate’s affiliation.

    I had posted the clips of the heckling earlier and, after I found out, felt obliged to disclose it. Nevertheless, I added, if you don’t like LaRouchies, that’s just another (if relatively trivial) reason to oppose the war in Ukraine: deny cultists an otherwise legitimate issue! (I will still follow Mercouris but with BS detectors on high alert.)

    It’s hard to keep your hands clean in effective activism. And so, verily I say unto you, acementhead, if you really want to oppose the war: put a clothespin on your nose, snap on a pair of rubber gloves, say of what is that it is and of what is not that it is not, and don’t expect everyone in your foxhole to be a hero! (Was that a white pill?)

  11. @Anymike

    Tucker Carlson delivered an angry rant the other day.

    All other things being equal, Carlson would be on the other side of the argument if there was a Republican in the White House. (I’m fully aware that he criticised the Trump administration for its assassination of Soleimani)

  12. Another mainstream narrative that Monbiot wholeheartedly buys into and sells is the narrative over “covid”. Which should come as no surprise, as the fake “left” were are are the biggest pedlars of that particular narrative, and continue to be so in spite of all the factual evidence highlighting how far removed from reality that narrative always was.

    Monbiot is about as anti establishment as a member of the Royal family. He’s a hypocritical establishment and corporate shill who hasn’t been worth listening to for about 20 years. He trades in the false binaries, identity politics and cognitive dissonance that make up the mindset of the modern “left”, who love to proclaim their “leftist” virtues and credentials whilst sneering at the working class, ironically enough. They shouldn’t even be refered to as leftists.

  13. Anonymous[258] • Disclaimer says:
    @Reg Cæsar

    Stop posting pictures.

  14. tumi says:

    Silence of the media, of Labor (UK) and Germany /US on the policies and remarks made by the minister contrast sharply with the stance on Iran .

    “The home secretary, Suella Braverman, has accused police of failing in their duty and demanded an intensified crackdown on Just Stop Oil activists disrupting the M25 motorway…..

    But we have also seen the police appear to lose confidence in themselves – in yourselves. In your authority, in your power. An institutional reluctance. This must change. Criminal damage, obstructing the highway, public nuisance – none of it should be humoured. It is not a human right to vandalise a work of art. It is not a civil liberty to stop ambulances getting to the sick and injured.”https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/nov/09/suella-braverman-urges-police-to-get-tougher-on-just-stop-oil-activists

    But they never failed to valorize Iranian protesters nor failed to demonize Iranian regime.

  15. Decoy says:

    Most wars entered into by the United States have been based on a false premise. Our involvement in the current Ukraine war is supposedly due to our intent to “save democracy in Ukraine” . Of all the false premises for our many wars, saving democracy in Ukraine sets a new record in lying. Ukraine is a totalitarian state and was even before the war started. We have hitched our wagon to a totalitarian state, a corrupt government, and a state that was dead broke even before the war started. It certainly would be interesting to find out the results of a fair polling of Ukrainian citizens as to their opinion of whether or not the war should continue or the Donbass should be ceded to Russia. Same for their opinion of Zelensky. Unfortunately we will never know the answer.

  16. The left was never against imperialism. What changed is that the left gained control in the US, and that’s all it’s about. Don’t give us this revisionism about the bleeding heart leftists of yesteryear when these are the people who on every possible occasion justified communist aggression across the world.

    • Replies: @Shaqfu
  17. Shaqfu says:
    @Paulbanian

    I came to the comments to find this comment. I was shocked by the headline when I read the word “became”. My recollection is also that the left has always been imperialistic.

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