The “Antiwar” Logic of Phyllis Bennis

Eirene and Penthesilea Talk War and Empire

A gentle summer day finds two women sitting near the reflecting pool in the shadow of the Washington monument, bright sunshine striking off the rippling water. One is reading something on her iPad, and to make conversation, the other asks what she is reading.

Eirene: You seem very intent on your read. Must be fascinating. May I ask what it is?

Penthesilea (better known as “Penny”): Another very profound opinion piece by Phyllis Bennis, widely circulated on progressive outlets.

Eirene: I know Bennis’s work. She is a leading figure at the Institute for Policy Studies not far from here, right in the heart of Washington. She writes about war and peace.

Penthesilea: Yes, and she is a beacon for the progressive movement.

Eirene: A beacon and perhaps a mirror as well. What does she say these days?

Penny: In this piece she quite correctly opposes military intervention in Syria. Here, I will read you a key excerpt: “Of course the normal human reaction is ‘we’ve got to do something!’ But however dire the situation facing Syrian civilians, the likelihood that any outside military attacks would actually help the situation is very remote.” She then proceeds to show that military intervention will not work. It won’t work; it’s as simple as that. She is brilliant.

Eirene: The “normal human reaction” is “we’ve got to do something,” says Bennis? I am not so sure. Many “normal” people might say that Syria is none of our business. Or they might say, first do no harm.

But more important, you say Bennis claims that Western military intervention will not work. Not work to do what?

Penny: Good question, but Bennis is far too smart to neglect that point. The goal is all. She says in the very next paragraph that the purpose of military intervention would be to bring “democracy, security and stability” to Syria. But, of course, it won’t work.

Eirene: But what if military intervention would work, would it then be OK? The logic of Bennis implies that U.S. military action would then deserve support.

Penny: What you say is confusing.

Eirene: All right. Let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s drop Bennis through a wormhole in space-time to Pol Pot’s Cambodia, plopping her down as a Pot adviser. Pol Pot is at the moment complaining that his people’s paradise, which will bring people’s “democracy, security and stability,” to Cambodia is in jeopardy. He is quite certain he can remedy this by a military action that would kill off another 100,000 Cambodians. Alarmed, Bennis chimes in, “Do not do that, Comrade Pot. It won’t work.”

Penny: I don’t get the point. Pol Pot is very different from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Pol Pot would have been lying about his aims or at the least deluding himself. So these are very different cases.

Eirene: Perhaps you should think about that.

But let’s turn from that hypothetical for a moment and return to the present. Let’s ask how Bennis would respond if U.S. military action would work, that the U.S. could install a “democratic” regime that would suit the U.S. Like Pol Pot’s plan of action, it is a bloody one; but it would work. Would that make it OK? Usually progressives speak about non-violence, a path of non-violence. Would it be OK to bomb Syria “to save it”?

Penny: Again I find what you say very confusing. It seems wrong to use violence in that way, but I have to admit it follows from the argument that Bennis makes.

But we need a principle of some sort to guide us. Is there no principle on which we can rely?

Eirene: I suggest that the principle is a simple one. An Empire, most especially a global one, seeks worldwide military hegemony and therefore economic hegemony, which alone makes military domination possible. Superiority in arms is, in fact, the official policy of the U.S. Such an Empire is incapable of intervening in a humane or progressive way. It simply is not possible. Why not? The objective of an Empire, above and beyond all else, is to control others. All other goals will be subservient to that one; human rights will be a smoke screen, nothing more. That means that no country will be permitted to take a course not approved by the Empire. An Empire’s very goal is to deny peoples the right to self-determination, to put in place regimes that will obey the dictates of the Empire.

The Empire will seek to rid the world of all regimes opposed to it – no matter their form of government. As an example, the democracies of Mossadegh and Allende had to be overthrown, because they dared defy the U.S. Even a little island like Cuba is under constant political and economic pressure, after the failure of invasion many years ago. To deprive a people or a nation of self-determination is to deny them the most fundamental of freedoms, the right to decide their future for themselves. To accomplish that is a tall order on a global scale, but such is the policy of the U.S. Bennis does not consider this or even mention it. The word Empire never crosses her pen. Her advice is more that of an imperial counselor.

Penny: You make a good point. But is that all there is? Are there other principles that might guide us?

Eirene: Do you know the libertarian argument against intervention?

Penny: Such things are not covered much in The New Yorker or The Nation, which I read faithfully.

Eirene: Well, the libertarian basically takes the stand that violence against another who has not initiated violence is wrong. Similarly a nation may not strike at another except in self-defense. That means no pre-emptive wars, no interventions for “democracy” or “human rights.” Another way to look at it is that the libertarian respects sovereignty. Sovereignty became part of international law to prevent the powerful empires, for example, from preying on the weak. It is crystal clear after the wars of the last decade that the U.S. no longer respects the sovereignty of nations.

Penny: I can relate to the libertarian view. It seems like a powerful principle.

Eirene: Similarly the so-called “paleconservatives,” perhaps better termed genuine conservatives, are well served by their principle that an Empire is not compatible with a Republic, a lesson that the Founders understood from their study of the Classics. Hence, military adventures abroad are to be avoided at all costs. In addition, the idea of a large standing army or military apparatus, which the Founders feared, is essential to an Empire, but a threat to democracy and anathema to the genuine conservative.

I might add to this list the non-philosophical conservative whose principle is simply, “I do not want to pay for all these do-good missions that our elite secular missionaries are bent upon.” Selfishness has its uses and sometimes is the best guide to action.

Penny: Well, I have to go back to work now, but I hope we run into one another again.

Eirene: Likewise. And I will continue to walk. It helps me think.

John V. Walsh, @JohnWal97469920, until recently a Professor of Physiology and Neuroscience at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, has written on issues of peace and health care for several independent media. Read other articles by John V..