A Belated Response to Glenn Greenwald

I fear that perhaps too much time has passed since Glenn Greenwald catapulted me to my not quite five minutes of fame by responding to a piece I wrote for The Daily Beast contrasting the response of some leftists to the bombing of a hospital by the US Air Force in Afghanistan to the  bombing of hospitals in Syria by their Russian and Baathist counterparts, as well as briefly discussing some of the left’s response to the Syrian revolutionary war in general .  The issues are still relevant, but I, alas, am not.

Unlike Mr Greenwald I don’t have billionaire backers who provide me with  a rather impressive platform from which I can intemperately and rather incoherently reply to [obscure] writers who bring up my name.  Nobody ever brings up my name, not even obscure writers.  Which is why Mr Greenwald’s response to me which was rather unprecedented.  My blog is not called ‘Tumbleweed’ for nothing.

But it deserves a reply nonetheless.

Where to begin?  Okay, the formalities then.  Firstly, Mr Greenwald identifies me as ‘The Daily Beast’s Russia critic’, which is perhaps more of a directly circumstantial description than a general one, but if it is the latter, he once again elevates me to unworthy heights.  This was the first article I have ever written for The Daily Beast and, indeed, the first one in my entire career (if one could term it as such) that dealt directly with Russia.

Secondly, Mr Greenwald mentions the fact that I was educated in Europe, which this time is a curious underestimation – I did not just study in Europe, but was surely born there.  Paisley, to be precise.  It turns out that people with names like Hamad are born in Europe these days.  I bring up this fact for no other reason than it was itself a curious thing for Mr Greenwald to bring up and, furthermore, a bizarre way of wording something completely trivial.

So, now that’s out of the way, let me address the main point of his reply, which is delivered through a list of various crimes and misdeeds of which I haven’t written about.  It’s a rather stunningly asinine point for Mr Greenwald to make, not least because my argument was formed around two points relating to the output of many left organisations and individuals.  The first was proximity, and the second was the manner in which leftists,  which I’ve perhaps wrongly (I know that he initially supported the Crime of Iraq, but we’re all so glad that he finally came down on the right side of history on that one), assumed him to be, relate to the Syrian revolution.  The actual act of ‘condemnation’ in whatever form it might take is irrelevant.

On the proximity point – I only invoked Mr Greenwald’s name precisely because he, to use his words, ‘as a single individual with finite time and energy’, has in the past and currently chosen to write about Syria and, more generally, the Middle East.  While one of the points of my article related to the silence centring round Russian intervention against an active, living revolution, I actually cited Mr Greenwald as someone who had actually referenced the Russian bombing of hospitals in Syria, but only as a means to shout ‘gotcha’ at the United States.

As I wrote quite clearly in my article regarding the US’s own will to condemn Russian attacks on hospitals ‘there is genuine hypocrisy here’, but I was using Greenwald’s attitude as an example of the attitude of a significant amount of lefties to the Syrian revolution – one in which they and their circumstances exist only as a means to often irrationally attack the US.  What can I say?  Mr Greenwald himself has form here.  When he chooses to speak of the Syrian rebels, he, perhaps conjuring the spirit of whatever folly it was that led him to initially cheer the Bush regime’s criminal war in Iraq, speaks of them using these blanket, loaded terms such as ‘jihadists’, ‘proxies’ and even ‘al-Qaeda’.

Indeed, in this article, Mr Greenwald even makes the argument that the US, in its newfound will to bomb Daesh is guilty of ‘switching sides’.  Greenwald writes that the US ‘is starting a new campaign to bomb those fighting against Assad – the very same side the US has been arming over the last two years.’  This is a perfect illustration of what I mean by proximity – here Greenwald is writing about Syria, yet instead of focussing on the genuine US hypocrisy of it suddenly deciding that the Daesh was the main problem, despite Assad being responsible for around 95% of deaths in Syria, while being the number one cause of the refugee crisis via his brutal bombardment of rebel-held areas, Greenwald has to state quite openly that the Syrian rebels, the ones allegedly armed by the US, are actually all Daesh.  To anybody with even a passing knowledge of Syria, not only is this notion an absurdity, but it’s also a, probably witless, repetition of Assad’s propaganda.

The propaganda used to justify Assad’s barrel bombs and brutal aerial bombardment of rebel-held or rebel-supporting civilian areas, which, like Israeli propaganda that would have us believe that Gaza is one big ‘Hamas command centre’ (not that Hamas are remotely similar to Daesh, but they are ideologically similar to most of the overtly Islamist Syrian rebel forces), attempts to smear the entire rebel forces as being Daesh, all the better to justify exterminating them and those who support them with barrel bombs, napalm, white phosphorous, thermobaric weaponry and of course poison gas (I know many of Greenwald’s readership believe the Ghouta massacre to be a ‘false flag’).

I was glad to read an article Greenwald wrote last month, or at least one paragraph in it, in which he at last mentioned the nuances of the Jaish al-Fatah coalition, despite the entire article being about how the BBC is apparently covering up for Saudi’s alleged support for al-Qaeda in Syria.

But back to the main issue at hand.  Greenwald mentions the fact that I ‘insinuate’ that Noam Chomsky ‘actively supports’ the crimes of the Assad regime and its allies, but I never made such a claim.  There is, however, no doubt that by Mr Chomsky referencing Patrick Cockburn as an opinion-forming expert on Syria is tacitly supporting narratives that justify crimes of the Assad regime.  It’s perfectly true that Mr Chomsky says in the video I quite openly linked to that Russia is supporting ‘a brutal and vicious government’, but in the rest of his rather embarrassingly rambling and at times incoherent reply goes on to reproduce almost every trope used by Russia to justify its support for Assad, including that the entire rebellion against Assad is basically a cross between al-Qaeda and Daesh, citing, guess who, Patrick Cockburn.  In other words, as I said quite clearly in my article, Chomsky belongs firmly in the ‘yes, Assad is evil, but wait until you get a load of the western-backed, Wahhabi, al-Qaeda opposition’ camp.

Patrick Cockburn, for those who don’t know, is not merely an active supporter of the Russian intervention on behalf of Assad, but he’s also in favour of the West actively allying with the Assad regime and its allies in the fight against Daesh, despite knowing very well that the Assad regime’s main battle is not with Daesh, but with Syrian revolutionary forces, all of whom have actively fought against Daesh and been on the receiving end of Daesh’s attacks to a much higher degree than the Assad regime, while Assad targets the rebels more than Daesh.  Indeed, as we witnessed in Azaz, the Assad regime has practically served as Daesh’s air force as it attack the Syrian rebels (a tactic which has been taken up by Cockburn’s comrades in the Russian air force)

Mr Cockburn is not opposed to ‘Western imperialism’ at all, he simply wants it to realign itself to support the same regime that Mr Chomsky describes as ‘brutal and vicious’.  This is who Chomsky describes as the foremost expert on Syria.

To cite Patrick Cockburn as an ‘expert’ on Syria that anybody, let alone a leftist, could utilise to form your entire opinion of the many dynamics of the Syrian revolution, is like saying you’d cite Benny Morris as an ‘expert’ on Palestine.  Cockburn regurgitates regime propaganda on an impressively consistent basis concerning almost every aspect of the war.  As one can see from his testimony to the British parliament or his numerous articles and essays, he’s at least quite open in his support for the Assad regime and his belief that western imperialism should align itself with it and its allies.

Following the Paris attacks, far from condemning the French revenge bombings of ar-Raqqa, which will merely punish the civilians of the city while further entrenching Daesh, Mr Cockburn in article for the right-wing rag the Evening Standard (owned by right-wing Putin supporting billionaire Evgeny Lebedev) called for a grand alliance between the West and Russia, as well as the already US-armed ultra-sectarian, head-chopping, Sunni-lynching Iraqi militias, the mass murderous, ethnic cleansing Assad regime and their main sponsors the Iranian regime.  Far from being opposed to US imperialism, Cockburn wants to turn the ‘war on terror’ into a terrifyingly expanded truly global effort, the first victims of which would be those Syrians opposed to the Baathist rump state,  whom he smears in true Rumsfeldian obscurantist style as being ‘al-Qaeda type rebels’.

On a related side note, there’s no better an example of this propaganda in brutal action when it’s used by the Russian Federation to attack Syrian rebel forces.  Russia claims that its intervention on behalf of Assad is against Daesh, but it has overwhelmingly attacked the anti-Assad and anti-Daesh Syrian rebel forces, coordinating with ground offensives involving the regime, Iran and Hezbollah.  Oddly enough, this is something that Mr Greenwald, who I’m sure in no way supports Russia’s intervention, has rather bafflingly denied on Twitter – claiming, rather extraordinarily, that the alleged bombing of a Russian airliner flying from Egypt by Daesh is proof that glorious Mother Russia really is targeting Daesh and fighting the good fight against terror.

Despite the incontrovertible evidence that Russia has overwhelmingly not targeted Daesh, Greenwald’s claim has rather embarrassingly been refuted by none other than Daesh themselves.  In the most recent edition of their English language magazine ‘Dabiq’, Daesh state that Russia is mostly striking ‘the Sahwah (sic) allies of America’, with ‘Sahwah’ here being a derogatory reference to the anti-Daesh anti-Assad rebel forces (Harakat al-Sahwa was the Iraqi Awakening Movement that defeated Daesh in its ‘al-Qaeda in Iraq’ days).

None of my criticisms had anything to do with Mr Greenwald’s will to highlight the crimes of the US, its allies and the West in general, we can already see that when he chooses to speak of the Syrian revolution, he mostly does so in precisely the manner I addressed in the initial Beast article:

“The brutal array of crimes committed by the Assad regime, Iran and Russia against the Syrian people are swept aside in some imagined geopolitical game that leftists think is unfolding. The Assad regime is brutal, they often concede, but its opponents are worse.”

The entire point of my article was that one cannot just merely condemn injustices  (which I agree is only of trivial importance), but rather write about and organise against them.  This ought to apply just as much to those injustices committed by the West, which,  as anybody who reviews my modest output, some of which Mr Greenwald so kindly links to in his rebuttal, would know I have certainly done, as well as the Assad regime, Russia, China or any other force perceived to be outside of the Western zone of influence.  The argument that one focusses only on Western crimes because of logistics (i.e. I can have some influence on my own government) is completely undermined when one in the process of practicing this feels the need to actively dismiss those struggling against non-Western oppressors or in some sense converge with them.

One can oppose US intervention in Syria without supporting the idea that all the rebels are Daesh or bloodthirsty jihadists akin to Daesh.  One can oppose US intervention in Syria without the despicable innuendos and cheap appeals to Islamophobia and ‘war on terror’ logic when it comes to the Syrian rebels.  One can quite simply oppose US or Western intervention in Syria without crossing over into reproducing the narratives or propaganda points of the regime.

If people click on the link to my articles for Al-Araby Al-Jadeed contained in Greenwald’s reply to me, you’ll find an array of articles condemning what Mr Greenwald thinks are logistically and ideologically worthy instances of outrage. You’ll find numerous articles attacking the regime of the Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in Egypt, as well as the Western world’s support for him (or its lack of support for citizens who languish in Egyptian dungeons).  You’ll find my condemnation of Saudi’s brutal intervention in Yemen, or my article on the US’s role in not only allowing Daesh to have a presence in Iraq, through the Iraqi crime, but also the key part it played in keeping these forces alive by sponsoring the brutally sectarian Maliki regime in Iraq.

I’ve written about these subjects extensively, so, while I hardly consider  myself to be in any sense an important writer, I am living proof that one can without the resources provided by billionaire backers walk and chew gum at the same time – one can quite legitimately support the opposition to Al-Sisi in Egypt, while also supporting the opposition to Assad.  One can simultaneously write about the US aid that underwrites Egypt’s brutal Praetorian military state, while also condemning Iran’s massive intervention on behalf of the Assad regime.

Proximity is the key.  The point behind Mr Greenwald’s fascinating list of arbitrary misdeeds and crimes that I have not covered in any of my writings would only really apply if I was, in terms of such output,  proximate to the circumstances in which such crimes and misdeeds takes place, as he is with his consistent coverage of the Middle East, as well as his numerous references to Syria. If, for example, to use one of the examples on his list, I had chosen to write an article about demonstrations in Peru without mentioning the police brutality against the demonstrators-or, even worse, as Mr Greenwald has done with Syrian revolutionaries, smear the demonstrators as all being Daesh or al-Qaeda all the better to dismiss or tacitly justify the police brutality against them-or at least delegitimise their struggle, I would be fair game for criticism.

The attempts by Greenwald to link me to some alleged campaign of McCarthyism are simply just not true.  In usual circumstances, I’d dismiss this as cynical hyperbole,  but here I have some understanding with him.

I understand that he has been on the receiving end of genuine attacks by the US government and its mouthpieces due to his work in facilitating the revelations of Edward Snowden relating to mass government surveillance.   But I’m not part of this and, as an opponent of any state having such capacities, such motivations are completely alien to me.

My motives are precisely what I said in the article – to advocate a consistent form of internationalism.  More pertinently, to advocate for leftists and progressives to support the living revolution in Syria or at least attempt to look at the forces fighting the Assad regime with some nuance – to understand the dynamics of the situation in a manner free from the layers of propaganda and ill-will that cloud this situation.  To advocate in whatever small way I can for the plight of people who are on the receiving end of an Iranian-backed, Russian-supplemented hyper-sectarian fascistic entity that is genocidal and exterminationist in its intent and practice.

I see my endeavour to advocate support for the Syrian revolution as continuous with my support for other regional and global liberation struggles, whether it’s the Palestinian cause, the cause of revolutionaries in Bahrain, South Asian workers in Qatar, those attempting to bring Narendra Modi to justice for his direct role in the Gujarat massacre, etc. etc.

I fear, however, the differences between someone like Greenwald and I on Syria are too fundamental for us ever to see eye to eye.  I used to be an avid reader of his work, especially his excellent polemics against ‘new atheist’ Islamophobic ideologues like Sam Harris, as well as his output on the various crimes – particularly the CIA drone programme – of multiple US governments relating to the ‘war on terror’.  But that was another life.  As with much of the left, I have found myself drifting further away not from leftist principles, but the idea that I ever had shared principles with these forces and individuals.  But this article was not just about Glenn Greenwald, who is by no means the worst offender – you have alleged ‘leftists’ making arguments in favour of Assad’s barrel bombs and so-called ‘anti-war’ groups veritably no-platforming Syrians who oppose Assad.

In the age of the Arab spring and in the immediate context of the revolutionary war in Syria, it has become clear that among those of us who identify as left there is a clear split between those of us who are committed to supporting forces fighting against oppression and those who are wedded to a particularly conservative view of the world that neither wants nor countenances nuance when it comes to liberation struggles in which the main oppressor is not the US or perceived to be in the same ‘camp’ as the US.  I don’t care how much these people claim to support causes I also support – the convergence is superficial.  One can’t selectively support liberation based on a criteria of how much a particular struggle is perceived to conform to a set worldview.  This for me is the epitome of conservatism.


11 thoughts on “A Belated Response to Glenn Greenwald

  1. I have been following your writing, and have written similarly, although less analytically, and less systematically. I support the goal of consistent internationalism, I.e.an anti-oppression and pro-revolutionary international movement of solidarity action. Like what motivated the rank-and-file International Brigade volunteers, and unlike what motivated support for the Warsaw Pact suppression of the Prague Spring, or the Jaruzelski coup. I see a tragic loss of opportunity to support and affect a spontaneous popular uprising, that could have really shaken the foundations of imperialist domination of the Middle East. I fear that the Palestine struggle has been set back for another generation, despite the dreams of the BDS “strategists”. Just wondering: Have you encountered any of my writing on Syria, Egypt, or Palestine?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Excellent! I share both your internationalism and your contempt for that part of the left that as you say, “selectively supports liberation based on a criteria of how much a particular struggle is perceived to conform to a set worldview. This for me is the epitome of conservatism.”

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This entire article reminds me that Arthur Koestler was making this same point to leftists (about opposition to Stalinism), and this has been very clearly described by Toni Judt in his 1998 book “Reappraisals.”

    In Koestler’s day the idea was that opposition to Stalinism (e.g., 1953 East German revolt, 1956 Hungarian Revolt) did not have to equate to favoring US imperialism, or being fascist.

    Here-comes-the-tumbleweed’s version of this idea is that opposition to al-Assad’s brutal oppression, which is massively supported by Russian and Iranian imperialism (their foreign interventions in Syria), does not have to equate to favoring US and Western imperialism in the Levant. Basically, here-comes-the-tumbleweed is scolding leftists, who would sacrifice a people struggling for liberation from oppression, as being today’s Stalinists, “conservatives” as he justifiably calls them.

    The fundamental duality here is that between those who favor “order” in societies (the Stalinists) versus those who accept some sloppiness and even political chaos because they believe “freedom” (personal and political) is more important for the overall well-being of the society. Raymond Aron wrote on this duality, and he and it are also described by Toni Judt.

    Today’s Stalinists are obsessed to oppose “US imperialism” even at the cost of maintaining brutal and oppressive regimes that are deemed to be “anti US-imperialist,” and even to the point of supporting imperialism by powers designated as anti US-imperialist. Reductio ad absurdum. “Fanaticism consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Couldn’t agree more, Manuel, and thanks for that excellent comment. Stalinism and its living legacies for me are at the very core of the conservative left, as is, more generally, anachronistic forms of ‘socialism’ that are essentially now vessels of conservatism as opposed to entities that want to radically change the world. Unfortunately, these conservative ideologies find currency among the broad left, as we see with the Corbyn leadership in the UK Labour Party, which both reflects and to some extent determines at least when it comes to phenomenon like the Arab spring this truly toxic conservative strain.

      Of course much of the left can’t even support living revolutions and have more in common in terms of their core beliefs with a certain component of the conservative, isolationist right.


  4. Keep up the good work, Sam. These folks seem quite simply anti-USG rather than the leftists or anti-imperialists they claim to be. (Or, in Greenwald’s case, a strong critic of the US government and its allies, rather than a leftist with a comprehensive worldview.) It’s not very hard to be anti-American after all; it takes more work and thought to advocate a consistent anti-imperialist position. Nuance and the finer points you raise are unfortunately lost on most Greenwald fans, who prefer platitudes and more easily recognizable ideas.

    What I find almost funny about the situation is how comically parochial the anti-American worldview is. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to aggressive pro-US imperialists. They think it’s somehow ‘leftist’ just to oppose and denounce USG policies and actions — and the more you denounce, the more ‘leftist’ you are. And really, that’s all Greenwald ever does these days, and that’s apparently all his readers expect of him. As you point out, actual leftists/internationalists have interests that go far beyond this narrow agenda.

    The neo-Stalinists are somewhat different. Not only are they anti-USG, but many want to actively back brutal regimes like Assad’s or Putin’s just to ‘counter’ US hegemony — or, that’s what they have in mind anyway. They relish the prospect of some strongman sticking it to the West…and somehow these Iranian, Chinese and Russian counter-hegemonic blocs will eventually culminate in Socialism.

    What’s troubling is how these two groups often coincide: the well-meaning but naive ‘Greenwald left’ are taken in by much neo-Stalinist propaganda. Outright Stalinist groups like ANSWER coalition pitch their message in a way calculated to appeal as much of the broader US left as possible. Publicly, they focus on racism in the US, US war crimes, etc. while glossing over their own ideas for the re-establishment of Soviet-style Communism. Some of this rot infects the more mainstream US left at times, in places like the Nation, Alternet and Salon.

    And as you point, much of Assad’s propaganda has been reflexively embraced by Greenwald himself, just as Chomsky has accepted Cockburn’s pro-Assad analysis, despite his other statements that Assad was a brutal dictator.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Can I say this article was really amazing and comprehensive. A real breath of fresh air. Finally someone is calling out Greenwald’s BS on Syria. I have never heard of you before this but I will follow you on Twitter and read some more of your work. A principled anti-imperialist. Well Done!

    Liked by 1 person

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