The Strange Sympathy of the Far Left for Putin

Aleksey Nikolskyi/Sputnik via AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting meeting with representatives of international sports organizations taking part in the International Sports Forum on October 11, 2016. 

Jeremy Corbyn, the grim, controversial, and recently re-elected leader of Britain's Labour Party, rejects the idea of protesting outside Russia's embassy in London against that country's brutal bombing of Syria. “The focus on Russian atrocities or Syrian army atrocities,” said a Corbyn aide this week, distracts attention from “very large scale civilian casualties as a result of the U.S.-led coalition bombing.”

In case this is a bit obtuse, let's go over to Britain's Stop the War coalition, which Corbyn chaired before he was elected Labour leader. In a radio interview, current vice-chairman Chris Nineham said that protesting Russian atrocities would increase “hysteria and jingoism.” The way to end the Syria conflict, he said, was to “oppose the West.”

In another words, when we say we're against war, we don't mean Vladimir Putin's war. We mean war waged by Western imperialists.

To fill in some dots: The idea of protesting outside Russian embassies, not just in London but around the world, reportedly came from Labour MP Ann Clwyd. It's true that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson endorsed the proposal. But ignoring Russian war crimes because Johnson opposes them is a bit like ignoring Donald Trump's misogyny because some Republicans also object to it.

As for the equation of Russian and coalition actions, The Guardian did a fact-check with the monitoring group Airwars. The civilian death rate from Russian attacks, said the group's director, “probably outpaces the coalition by a rate of eight to one.” The coalition tries to limit civilian deaths; the Russians deliberately target civilians, he said.

Predictably, lots of people in the riven Labour Party are outraged by Corbyn's stance. It's only the latest instance of Corbyn's fossilized and one-dimensional anti-imperialism being an embarrassment for the left. In the United States, Putin's most prominent fan is the embarrassment of the right.

Still, Corbyn has his American counterparts—starting with Green Party candidate Jill Stein. Until a few days ago, Stein had a statement on her website saying that the United States should end any military role in Syria, impose an arms embargo, and work “with Syria, Russia, and Iran to restore all of Syria to control by the government.” The “anti-war” candidate's stance, in other words, was to let the war crimes continue until the Assad regime and its patrons massacre their way to victory.

As far as I know, it was journalist Patrick Strickland who first noticed and tweeted Stein's position. A brief social-media squall ensued. The statement vanished; a sentence appeared saying it hadn't reflected Stein's views; and a new, trimmed down one was posted, opposing “U.S. meddling in the Middle East.”

Stein, to her credit, seems to have realized that it didn't look good to talk about working with Putin and Syrian President Bashar Assad while non-stop, deliberate aerial targeting of civilians in the rebel-held sector of Aleppo grinds on. But color me extremely skeptical about the previous statement not expressing her views. For one thing, the new one still keeps its criticism focused only on America. For another, the first statement fits her website's report on what she said last December in Moscow, at a foreign policy forum convened by RT, the Russian government's television propaganda arm. There she called for “principled collaboration” with Russia in Syria. And she proudly quoted Putin as telling her and other foreign politicians at the conference that he agreed with them “on many issues.”

Another of the politicians at the Moscow conference was Ken Livingstone, the close Corbyn associate who would be suspended from the British Labour Party a few months later for anti-Semitic comments, including his claim that when Hitler came to power, he supported Zionism.

And one more guest of RT at that gathering was Max Blumenthal, the American journalist. Last week Blumenthal published an article about the White Helmets, the volunteer civil defense group in Syria whose members rescue victims from ruins after regime bombings. The White Helmets were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Jo Cox, the British MP who was assassinated last June (and whose husband blasted Corbyn's stance this week as “disgraceful”). In Blumenthal's portrayal the group is the tool of nefarious American designs to overthrow the Assad regime.

In the past, Blumenthal devoted himself to coverage of Israel that treated “Zionism ... as the near-ultimate evil,” as Paul Scham, himself a much more sympathetic critic of Israeli policy, wrote in his review of Blumenthal's Goliath. But Blumenthal's concern for Arab lives and rights seems to vanish once he locates the Assad regime as an opponent of American hegemony.

The fact is that President Barack Obama is worthy of serious criticism for his policy in Syria—not because his administration has done too much, but because it has done too little to stop crimes against humanity. I say this with caution: I can't claim to know what a good policy in Syria would have been, or would be now. Some of the advocates of much greater U.S. military involvement, it seems to me, err on the side of regarding America as militarily omnipotent, and the president as politically omnipotent. The first supposition was disproved by George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. And in a democracy, one price of fighting an unnecessary war is weakening or erasing political support for military action when, in our tragic world, it is morally necessary. Yet depending for so long on diplomacy alone has given Putin and Assad a free hand. And a likely result of restoring all Syria to regime control would be a bloodbath against his opponents.

Putin's far-left cheering squad, it seems, is still living sometime in the Cold War, dividing the world into Western imperialists and their opponents, and placing Moscow on the side of the opponents. This is a grotesquely simple moral universe. Strangely, it also combines living a few decades in the past with a lack of historical perspective. Russia's imperialist goal of extending its power into what were once Ottoman lands began before 1917, carried on in Soviet days with an ideological overlay, and continues today. To preserve its foothold in Syria, Russia is prepared to destroy whatever is left of that country.

One more speaker at that Moscow conference last December was retired general Michael Flynn, who became a campaign surrogate for Donald Trump. This points to the final, immense irony: The far-left apologists share the stage with Trump and his fellow admirers of Putin's authoritarian regime. The extremes meet—useful idiots all.

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