Humanitarian Crises: The Common Thread Between Leftist Anti-Interventionism and Right-Wing Nationalism

When Donald Trump, following a phone call with Turkish dictator Erdogan, abruptly announced the rapid withdrawal of US troops from Syria, he earned condemnation from Republicans but found support among some of his loudest critics in the anti-interventionist Left. The unabashed Trump critic and California Congressman Ted Lieu got on board. So did my Congressman, and Silicon Valley’s own Ro Khanna.

It is certainly fine to want US troops to come home, be out of harms way unless necessary. My own political consciousness rose from opposition to George W. Bush’s ill-advised war in Iraq and a Democratic presidential campaign that rose to prominence by denouncing it. But I also believe that as the one indispensable nation on this earth, we have a responsibility to respond to humanitarian crises, militarily if necessary. I was an early proponent of US interventionism in Syria.

And so I get good people disagreeing over foreign policy, over troop deployments, and over what US objectives and strategy beyond our borders should be.

However, the arguments one makes to back one’s position are important, and the argument for troop withdrawals from the Left are increasingly taking an irresponsible, anti-interventionist track that lacks moral distinction from the far Right’s xenophobic nationalism.

Allow me to demonstrate with one of my tweets from yesterday:

In addition to seeing American interventionism as no different from imperialist quests of former European and Asian powers, anti-interventionism on the Left is dedicated to the following principles.

  1. America needs to stop worrying about foreigners and start taking care of our own citizens instead (a sentiment expressly stated by Ro Khanna).

  2. Foreign countries and regions need to solve their own problems, and America should stay out of it.

  3. The only good use of American armed forces is to protect Americans, whether to respond to an armed attack or to protect people at home.

None of these actually stand scrutiny, of course, but more importantly, none of these principles hold true for anti-interventionists when it comes to countries which happen not to be situated in the Middle East. We all know that if we simply spend less money in military deployments, that money will no more magically turn into domestic spending than any money “saved” by Trump’s trade deals will automatically turn into wall funding.

These especially fall apart when the same people make arguments in favor of an welcoming immigration policy, one I agree with. In that case, a set of principles almost polar opposite to the above seem to take over:

  1. As the richest nation on earth, America has a responsibility to welcome foreigners. It says so on the Statue of Liberty!

  2. People are fleeing a humanitarian crisis, and it is inhumane to refuse to help them.

  3. There’s no way the military should bed deployed to the US border.

My loyalty as a progressive belongs to this set of principles, and if I am to be morally consistent, against the anti-interventionist principles. I believe that Syrian children who are gassed by Assad and Putin are just as precious as Central American children whose families are seeking asylum. I believe that America has a duty to protect both. I believe that Middle Eastern families under siege by ISIS, Russia and their own government deserve the same compassion and defense as Central American families being driven out of their homes and their countries by armed gangs and corrupt governments incapable of defending them. I believe that the US armed forces are an extension of American compassion - or that they should be a force for such good.

If we believe in human rights, we can neither seal off our own borders to migration nor ignore the cries of those a half a world away. If we believe America has to take a stand against humanitarian crises and for its victims, that voice cannot go silent just because the victims are not at our doorstep. If we believe that human dignity is universal, we cannot be outraged when a child dies in the custody of our government but ignore the gassing of hundreds of children by foreign powers.

If we fail to adopt the same standards, we will deserve the criticism that we do not truly believe in the universality of human rights and human dignity. Look at the set of interventionist principles above, again. Are these not almost the verbatim principles the Right uses against migration, if we simply replace Syria and Afghanistan with Mexico and Central America - that we should let foreigners deal with their own problems, that it’s not our job to worry about them but only about Americans in America, and that the military should keep it that way (by sealing off the border, for example)?

Here’s another of my demonstrative tweets on the subject.

From a historical perspective, it is not a surprise that Republicans were the original anti-interventionists. America was entered into both World Wars by Democratic presidents. The United Nations was established under the leadership of an American Democrat, the first system of global trade regulations body, GATT, was formed under the leadership of the same Democrat, and GATT’s successor organization, the WTO, organized under another Democrat, Bill Clinton. So while the Democratic party has had a history of protesting unjust wars like those in Vietnam and Iraq, that opposition has rarely been justified under an umbrella worldview of anti-interventionism.

So, once again, I am happy to have a debate on US troop deployments, its costs, and its effectiveness in any given case (and it seems to me that those would be much more effective arguments for those seeking a withdrawal from Syria). But let us not, as progressives, adopt the same set of principles as anti-interventionism that the Right levies for Amerocentric white nationalism.

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