Syria and the Struggle against the International Despotism of Wall Street

By Stephen Gowans

What's Left

30 April 2017

A day before my book Washington’s Long War on Syria was sent to the press, I read a short essay by a notable Canadian,Norman Bethune. The essay was titled Wounds. Bethune was a skilled and innovative surgeon who was at the forefront of the fight for public health care in Canada.

But he’s mainly known for participating in two wars in the late 1930s: The Spanish Civil War and the Second Sino-Japanese War. In the Second Sino-Japanese War Bethune joined Mao’s forces as a frontline surgeon in the resistance against Japanese efforts to colonize China.

It was in China that Bethune wrote his essay, a meditation on the causes of the war in which he was entangled which produced the wounds he was called upon everyday to operate on.

In an April 27, 2017 Telesur interview, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad argued that US presidents “merely implement” policies formulated by US “financial institutions,” “big arms and oil companies,” as well as “the intelligence agencies” and “the Pentagon.”

As I read Bethune’s essay, it struck me that what he was saying, in very few words, was what I had tried in a whole book to say. So I quickly asked my publisher if he would include a short quote fromWounds as the epigraph of the book. He readily agreed. The epigraph reads:
Are wars of aggression, wars for the conquest of colonies ... just big business? Yes, it would seem so, however much the perpetrators of such national crimes seek to hide their true purpose under banners of high-sounding abstractions and ideals. [1]

The idea that wars of aggression, wars for the conquest of colonies, are motivated by the profit-making interests of big business strike many as facile. But once you strip away the high-sounding abstractions and ideals Washington invokes to justify its wars of aggression, an obvious question remains: If the reasons Washington cites to justify its wars are bogus, what, then, are the real reasons?

In his book Towards a New Cold War: U.S. Foreign Policy from Vietnam to Reagan, Noam Chomsky argues that:
If we hope to understand anything about the foreign policy of any state, it is a good idea to begin by investigating the domestic social structure. Who sets foreign policy? What interests do these people represent? What is the domestic source of their power? It is a reasonable surmise that the policy that evolves will reflect the special interests of those who design it. [2]

In an article published yesterday in The New York Times, reporter Kate Kelly reveals that nearly 300 top executives have visited the White House in the president’s first 100 days, an average of three per day. [3] That offers a clue about who influences the public policy direction of the United States.

Here’s another: After examining over 1,700 policy issues, the political scientistsMartin Gilens and Benjamin Page concluded that
“economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial impacts on government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interests groups have little or no independent influence.” [4]

The shoguns of finance and industry who have enjoyed access to the White House in Trump’s first 100 days include multi-billionaire Stephen Schwarzman, head of the giant equity manager Blackstone Group; near-billionaire Jack Welch, the former chairman and chief executive of General Electric; billionaire Jamie Dimon, head of JPMorgan Chase; multi-millionaire Larry Fink, head of BlackRock, the world’s largest money-management firm; billionaire Eric Schmidt, head of Google’s parent company Alphabet; multimillionaire Andrew Liveris, head of Dow Chemical; Roy Harvey, chief executive of Alcoa. [5] The list goes on.

Not only is the administration lobbied directly by the heads of corporate America, but measures have been taken to systematize their influence. Blackstone’s Schwarzman, writes the New York Times’ Kelly,“recruited a range of business leaders,
economists and policy experts for the president’s strategic and policy forum, which regularly meets at the White House and has emerged as the most elite outside counsel.” [6]

On top of titans of corporate America enjoying unfettered access to the president, Trump has appointed to posts in his administration billionaires and multi-millionaires whose fortunes come from the business world. A number of his top advisers had careers in the pharaonicly wealthy investment bank Goldman Sachs, known on Wall Street as “Government Sachs” for its history of placing top executives in commanding posts in the US state. [7]

Goldman Sachs’ ties to the White House (and to aspiring presidents) date back to the Clintons, if not earlier. As president,Bill Clinton appointed Goldman co-chair Robert Rubin to the post of Treasury Secretary. (The current Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin had a 17-year career with Goldman, rising to the post of the firm’s Chief Information Officer.) Goldman chair and CEO Lloyd Blankfein raised funds for Hillary Clinton’s first presidential bid, and also paid Clinton $675,000 to deliver three speeches at Goldman events after she left the State Department. Blankfein was one of the guests at Clinton’s 64th birthday celebration. (Blankfein’s predecessor as Goldman’s top executive was Henry Paulson, who served as Treasury Secretary in the George W. Bush administration.)

“Over 20-plus years,” observed The New York Times, “Goldman provided the Clintons with some of their most influential advisors, millions of dollars in campaign contributions and speaking fees, and financial support to the family foundation’s charitable programs.” [8]

Obama’s administration was no less in thrall to Wall Street. Seventeen members of the previous president’s administration were members of the Council on Foreign Relations, Wall Street’s foreign policy think tank. Council members included national security advisors James Jones Jr., Thomas Donilon, and Susan Rice, Defense SecretariesRobert Gates, Chuck Hagel and Ashton Carter, and CIA director David Petraeus.

Council members also include most of the captains of finance and industry who have paraded through Trump’s White House since the beginning of the year. The think tank is the chief interlock between Wall Street and US administrations, bringing together giants of US finance, banking and industry with scholars, military officers and ambitious politicians to address questions of US foreign policy. As of 2016 over 70 council members held key cabinet positions and were usually members of the Council before they were appointed or elected to these posts, including 10 National Security Advisers, 9 US Ambassadors to the United Nations, 8 Secretaries of State, 8 Secretaries of Defense, 8 CIA Directors, 4 Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, 3 World Bank Presidents and 2 Presidents of the United States.

Given that Wall Street’s tentacles reach everywhere in Washington it is hardly surprising that successive US administrations have been hostile to the Syrian government. Since 1963, Syria has been ruled by the very antithesis of the world-leading financiers and industrialists who rule in Washington; Syria has been governed in contrast by people who call themselves and are called in Washington socialists.

Norman Bethune
For over half a century, Syria has been governed by the Baath Arab Socialist Party, which is guided by the party’s motto of unity (of the Arab world), freedom (from Western domination), and socialism (in contrast to Washington’s preferred paradigm of free enterprise, free markets and free trade.) The party presided over the drafting of Syria’s constitutions, which mandate government ownership of the commanding heights of the economy and a significant role for government in the guidance of the economy, i.e., socialism.

Ba’ath Arab Socialists have been seen in Washington as “Arab communists” [9] and the state they lead as “socialist Syria.” [10]
Indeed, Washington and Wall Street have longed complained about Damascus’s refusal to fully integrate into a US-led global neo-liberal economic order, and about the “ideologues” in the Syrian government who refuse to disavow their commitment to socialism.

The Wall Street Journal-Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom is replete with grievances about the Syrian government’s economic policies, from its subsidies to local businesses, tariff barriers, state-owned enterprises, and restrictions on foreign investment. These policies are designed to overcome the injuries of under-development visited about the Arab world by colonialism, but severely limit US investment and trade opportunities, and are therefore anathema in free enterprise, profit-hungry, Washington.

That the US government is—as two German philosophers once described the governments of business-driven societies—a committee for managing the common affairs of the country’s business owners, is not lost on the current Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. In an April 27, 2017 interview with Telesur, Assad described US foreign policy as being set by US “financial institutions” and “the big arms and oil companies” as well as “the intelligence agencies” and “the Pentagon.”

The American President merely implements these policies, and the evidence is that when Trump tried to move on a different track, during and after his election campaign, he couldn’t. He came under a ferocious attack. As we have seen in the past few weeks, he changed his rhetoric completely and subjected himself to the terms of the deep American state, or the deep American regime...[The president] ultimately does what these institutions dictate to him. This is not new. This has been ongoing American policy for decades. [11]

Bethune denounced as an enemy of the human race the very same class which rules in Washington. In his view, in its hunt for profits, this class starts the wars which create the wounds which he was, and all frontline surgeons are, called upon to heal. What do the members of this class, these enemies of humanity, look like, he wondered.

Do they wear on their foreheads a sign so that they may be told, shunned and condemned as criminals? No. On the contrary. They are the respectable ones. They are honoured. They call themselves, and are called, gentlemen. ...They are the pillars of the state, of the church, of society. They support private and public charity out of the excess of their wealth. They endow institutions. In their private lives they are kind and considerate. .... But there is one sign by which these gentlemen can be told. Threaten a reduction [in their profits] and the beast in them awakes with a snarl. They become ruthless as savages, brutal as madmen, remorseless as executioners. [12]

Muamar Gaddafi was inspired by the same Baath Arab Socialist goals of unity, freedom and socialism that guide the Syrian state. A year after he was violently removed from power by Islamists backed by NATO (Canadian fighter pilots quipped that they were al-Qaeda’s air force), The Wall Street Journal revealed that Western oil companies had agitated for Gaddafi’s removal because he was driving hard bargains and insisting that Libyans benefit from their own oil resources. [13] Gaddafi had effectively threatened a reduction in the oil companies’ profits, awakening the beast in the respectable burghers and pillars of US society.

Bethune ended his essay with this:
“Such an organization of human society as permits [these enemies of humanity] to exist must be abolished.” [14]
The overarching theme of my book follows along the very same lines: Washington’s long war on Syria can only be understood within the context of the organization of human society—one in which economic power, driven by profit-hunger, is coterminous with political power—as permits these enemies of humanity to exist.

A final thought. Many in the West have taken a stand against the Syrian government, arguing that it is not democratic, nor engaged in a fight for democracy. They also argue that amid the alliance of business-driven US foreign policy, the Arab monarchs who funnel support to the al-Qaeda and ISIS insurgents, and the US-backed guerrillas who are enmeshed with, cooperate on the battlefield with, and exchange weapons with, the former, that there can be found a pro-democratic element.

The problem is that no one has ever been able to adduce the slightest evidence that such an element exists, and nor are the proponents of this view bold enough to assert that this hypothetical element plays anywhere near a consequential role in the conflict.

A more sophisticated view holds that there exists in Syria an indigenous Islamist movement which—though rejecting democracy as a man-made ideology and seeking rule by the Quran (Islam’s holy book) and Sunna (the record of the Islamic prophet Mohammad’s thought and actions)—is fundamentally democratic insofar as it represents the aspirations of the majority.

This view, however, suffers from two fatal defects: (1) There is no evidence that a majority of Syrians hold Islamist aspirations; and (2) a significant part of the Islamist opposition to the secular Syrian government is of foreign origin.
Even if a genuinely democratic opposition element did exist, it does not follow that support for the Syrian government in its efforts to assert its sovereignty against neo-colonial efforts to negate it, is undemocratic. On the contrary:

If we are seriously concerned with the question of democracy [we should be concerned about] the democratization of international relations. If a country or a group of countries declare and decide that they have the right to provoke a war...without the authorization of the Security Council, they are developing a theory in which the West has the right to exercise despotism over the rest of humanity.

It is open despotism; the United States and the West declare openly that they have the right to intervene in every corner of the world. That is despotism. [Washington] already said at the start of the century that Assad should be toppled. They said that they should carry out a change of regime in Syria because Assad is against Israel, against the West, etc. That is despotism, and those [who] struggle against such despots are the real defenders of democracy. [15]

Notes
1. Norman Bethune, “Wounds,” in Roderick Stewart,The Mind of Norman Bethune, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2002, pp. 183-186.
2. http://www.kropfpolisci.com/foreign.policy.chomsky2
3. Kate Kelly, “Persuasive business leaders parade through White House,” The New York Times, April 29, 2017
4. Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics, Fall, 2014
5. Kelly
6. Kelly
7. Julie Creswell and Ben White, “The Guys from ‘Government Sachs’,” The New York Times, October 19, 2008
8. Nicholas Confessore and Susanne Craig, “2008 crisis deepened the ties between Clintons and Goldman Sachs,” The New York Times, September 24, 2016
9. Robert Baer, Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude, Three Rivers Press, 2003, p. 123
10. Baer, p. 193
11. President al-Assad to Telesur: Stopping outside support to terrorists and reconciliation among Syrians are means to restore security to Syria,” SANA, April 27, 2017,http://sana.sy/en/?p=105108
12. Bethune
13. Benoit Faucon, “For big oil, the Libya opening that wasn’t”, The Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2012
14. Bethune
15. Attributed to Domenico Losurdo. I cannot find the original source, and therefore cannot vouchsafe that Losurdo is the author. All the same, the words are worthy of repeating, whether they are those of Losurdo or not.
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