To be “liberal” is to be “open to new ideas” and “favourable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms.”

Given the above definition, can a true liberal be a promoter or defender of that most ancient flaw of humanity–war? Is such a thing as a “liberal hawk” logical or possible?

One of the oldest ideas in all of human civilization is the idea of war (and all kinds of violent oppression) as a way of resolving conflicts, during which, practically speaking, there is no way to be respectful of human rights and freedoms. History proves that “war crimes” and the killing of innocent people are inevitable in any war. Though war is often justified in terms of protecting “freedom” and human rights– “humanitarian intervention” is the euphemism– the means of war are inherently inhumane and stand opposed to many kinds of religious values, including the Christian call to “love one’s neighbor” and, harder, “love your enemies.” Nor is war democratic, even in defense of democracy. To kill people indiscriminately (like dropping bombs or invading cities) to “save lives” and defend rights is moral hypocrisy in which the ends are said to justify the means.  Given the ancient, old-fashioned failure of war, and given war’s inherent violation of human rights, how can any “liberal” be anything but an anti-war activist?

It is now fashionable to make distinctions between liberal and progressive; a progressive is a more liberal liberal, or a left-liberal, or a populist liberal, etc. Then there is the “democratic socialist”–more liberal, or radical, I guess, than a progressive. But concerning foreign policy, almost the entire “left” side of the political spectrum are apologists for war, as long as war is not used too often or allowed to last too long in any one location.

There are, of course, various anti-war organizations that spring out of liberal or liberally religious sympathies: Code Pink, Peace Action, War Resister’s League, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, World Beyond War, Religious Society of Friends, Pax Christi, Jewish Voice for Peace, etc. But these are liberal fringe groups without much, if any, influence on the Democratic Party or most “liberal” members of Congress at present.

If the term “liberal” is no longer liberal enough to signify an anti-war perspective, I prefer to adopt the old term, once used pejoratively, of “bleeding-heart liberal.” This relates directly to the sense of compassion and Christ-like renunciation of violent means which can resurrect liberal as the all-encompassing intellectual and emotional word for truly humane and democratic civilization.

 

By John Frederick Kaufman

So the United States suddenly felt the need to give our MOAB (“mother of all bombs”)–more officially known as GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast–a try on Thursday in the desert of Eastern Afghanistan. Though the bomb has been around for awhile, neither Presidents George W. Bush nor Barack Obama cared to actually use it because it has a “blast-radius” of a mile in all directions and the “collateral damage” could be, let’s say, excessive. But President Trump has no such qualms about the consequences of bombing as long as it doesn’t involve chemical weapons. It is heartening to know that at least we have evolved morally enough in the U.S. to take into consideration how many innocent people we will kill when we drop a bomb. When we dropped the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan we quickly killed an estimated 120,000 civilians.  As we guessed we would.

In the case of MOAB, we apparently tried to make sure no one but ISIS militants would suffer the fatal effects. According to reports, the “mother of all bombs” wiped out the lives of 36 members of ISIS. An Afghan ministry spokesman says not a single civilian was killed. But one member of the Afghan parliament told The Guardian that he had a local report of a teacher and his young son killed in the MOAB blast. Given the size and power of the bomb, some civilian casualties and damage to nearby homes would not be at all surprising. Were there women and children among the militants in the tunnels and caves? We don’t know.

After Trump launched missiles at Syria, his “job approval” went up a point to 39% and many pundits (and even some leading Democratic politicians) approved. Having dropped the “mother of all bombs” will Trump’s approval rating shamefully go up again?

But perhaps we are making too much ado about this quaintly named bomb. For as Jeffrey Lewis of the confusingly named Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (how did Vermont get to California?) has pointed out in the Washington Post, the MOAB isn’t really all that powerful and deadly compared to the atom bomb. Perhaps the shock of its use has something to do with the erratic, warmongering nature of our current president and the fact this is the first time such a weapon has been used? Or maybe we are all a little appalled by big bombs? Here’s Lewis:

As our technological capacity to wreak destruction has grown from machine guns to poison gas to nuclear weapons, more than a few people have observed that our species’ tendency to resort to violence may be our undoing. Eliminating war, though, seems unlikely. And so, falling short of that lofty goal, we try to prohibit the worst weapons — those that cause unnecessary or gruesome suffering and, most important, those that do not discriminate among combatants and noncombatants. If our lines are imperfect, we know they are better than no lines at all.

“Eliminating war, though, seems unlikely.” So much for that lofty goal. Yet our species’ tendency to resort to war is counterbalanced by the same species’ tendency not to resort to war or violence. The religious denominations all contain tenets or ideals opposed to war, and a few are outspokenly pacifist. Humanism has a strain of pacifism as well. No war is inevitable. The fact that the United States devotes 48% of its federal funds budget to military spending is a choice that makes resorting to military action far more likely and acceptable. The creation of the United Nations was meant to help make war as a method of conflict resolution obsolete. So far,  the U.N. has failed to end war, but the principle and promise of discussion and diplomacy, as opposed to war, remains.

Creating highly destructive weapons is also a choice, as is choosing to actually use them. If we make such massive weapons, justifying doing so by appealing to “national security” and fear of other nations, we are at some point likely to use them. That the making and selling of arms is a very profitable business at present only adds to the likelihood of war. Not much money to be made in the peace industry, as peace activists can well attest.

If we are appalled by really big or really lethal weapons like MOAB, chemical and nuclear weapons, why are we so willing to accept the death and destruction caused by smaller, so-called “conventional” weapons? The child-like bombs of the “mother of all bombs” are just as deadly and, as we are now witnessing daily in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, are continually killing people, many of them innocent, many of them real children and mothers.

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Giant puppet of Iraqi mother holding a dead or injured child in her arms, at anti-war rally, Judkins Park, Seattle, Washington, 27 October 2007. (Photo by Joe Mabel [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
To say that we humans are doomed to state violence and personal violence, that we have to accept an acceptable level of violence, strikes me as maladroit, masculine malarkey. It may be that human beings, imperfect as we are, will always struggle against violent impulses and sometimes tragically give in to them. But equipping ourselves with powerful weapons, be they carried personally or dropped out the back of huge cargo planes, is not something done without a lot of thought and planning. We can choose not to kill and destroy in the name of nations or politics or tribes or religions. We can choose to cherish what mothers do.

 

 

 

The ongoing war in Syria is a vast catastrophe; what began as a peaceable resistance movement against the Assad regime, one among many in the “Arab Spring” of 2011,  has devolved into a brutal war in which at least 300,000 have been killed and as many as 96,000 Syrian civilians have died, including more than 17,000 children. It is crucial to remember that the U.S.-led Coalition bombing in both Syria and Iraq is also responsible for some civilian casualties, though the Coalition claims to avoid purposefully killing the innocent.

The Associated Press and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights are reporting that the death toll from the suspected chemical attack in Idlib province now at 72, including 20 children and seventeen women.  SOHR reports based on witnesses say that the military jets involved in the chemical attack were of a type both the Syrian and Russian air forces use. The Syrian government is suspected of using the toxic weapon, likely sarin. Syria was supposed to have rid itself of all chemical weapons since the chemical attack in 2013 that killed more than 1,000 Syrians in the suburbs of Damascus.

It is an odd fact of war that only so-called “war crimes” are condemned as “heinous” and “acts of barbarism” that will not be tolerated. As long as war plays by its own rules, war is deemed necessary and a traditional part of international relations.

Meanwhile, the Russian government now claims that bombs struck a “terrorist” chemical factory thus releasing the nerve agent into the air. But as CNN reports, there is no evidence for this claim and what evidence there is, including eye-witnesses and expert opinion, points to Syrian jets dropping a chemical bomb. This attempt by Russia to provide what appears to be a made-up excuse for Assad’s army only makes Russian complicity all the more reprehensible.

The Trump Administration condemned the chemical attack in Syria but primarily blamed the Obama Administration for failing to act militarily against Syria.  Mother Jones points out that Mr. Trump himself had urged then-Pres. Obama (via Twitter, naturally) not to launch an attack on Syria back in 2013.

Is it likely that Mr. Trump will now order a military strike against Syrian President Assad or call for any economic/diplomatic pressure on the Syrian regime? Just last week his administration made clear that removing Assad was not a priority, which may have something to do with Russia’s alliance with Syria. Sec. of State Rex Tillerson did issue a statement that said in part: “Russia and Iran also bear great moral responsibility for these deaths.” Russia and Iran have worked to influence the Syrian government regarding previous cease-fires in the Syrian war.

There will be calls by many in the United States and Europe for some sort of military response to what appears to be the latest chemical attack against the Syrian people. It is always tempting to demand humanitarian military intervention, and certainly the Syrian people have suffered immensely. But Obama (and Congress) chose not to take major military action in Syria for good reason: it would likely lead to a wider, more deadly war. Obama chose diplomacy to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons, and apparently not all capacity to make/use such weapons in Syria was eliminated.

But given Assad’s desperation and draconian methods, what would he do if provoked by a U.S. attack? How many deaths and refugees would a larger war create if Russia and/or Iran came to Syria’s defense? It is possible to argue that the conditions in Syria cannot get any worse, and we have to do something. I understand the frustration. And yet we won’t end this war, or any war, by adding to the violence and terror. Nor should the U.S. risk sparking a much larger war in the Middle East. There is much we can do in terms of diplomatic condemnation and pressure on Russia, Iran and Syria and that should remain the more prudent path.

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High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, HRC President Laura Dupuy Lasserre and members of the HRC / OHCHR secretariat at the opening of the Human Rights Council urgent debate on Syria 2012. Photo By United States Mission Geneva [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The United Kingdom has said it is not considering military retaliation against Assad at this time and has called, with France, for a meeting of the U.N. security council to condemn and discuss the attack. At the U.N. meeting today, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley did speak out against Russia’s role in Syria and she threatened a strong U.S. response:

“Time and time again Russia uses the same false narrative to deflect attention from their allies in Damascus. How many more children have to die before Russia cares? . . .  When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action. For the sake of the victims, I hope the rest of the council is finally willing to do the same.”

Just what sort of “action” Haley meant is not clear; the NY Times calls it “an ominous warning.”

Trump himself said today that Assad is to blame and such an attack “cannot be tolerated”; it will be tempting for Trump, after blaming Obama for not attacking Syria, to launch an attack to curry favor and rally the nation behind him. Liberals and Democrats should resist such patriotic zeal and find our anti-war voices. Much could and should happen diplomatically to end the war in Syria.

Must politicians and journalists succumb to the language of war?

Or the flip side: Must we put words like “peace” on weapons of war? I’m thinking of the U.S. nuclear missiles called “peacekeepers.”

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Test launch of LGM-118 Peacekeeper Intercontinental ballistic missile by United States Air Force 2002. Photo By United States Air Force [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The “war” on this or that, we say, or the dropping of “bombs” to mean big news; the use of “killer” as an adjective synonymous with “great” or “fabulous”; “scorched-earth policy” and other casual references to war to suggest extremity: must we?

The term in use today to describe what Republicans will likely do in the Senate to confirm Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is the “nuclear option.”  The phrase suggests that using actual nuclear weapons is a rational, if extreme, option, like the so-called “limited nuclear war.”

We understand, of course, that using language like “nuclear option” in the Senate is only metaphor having nothing to do with actual weapons. But we don’t merely shape language; language also shapes us. Breaking a Senate filibuster by suspending an old rule (not unprecedented, by the way) is hardly the cataclysmic political equivalent of using a nuclear weapon. Far worse things can happen in government, and may happen under Mr. Trump. The threat of a nation employing a real “nuclear option” has suddenly increased.

So let’s drop the war metaphors, please. Let’s not talk ourselves into accepting war, especially nuclear war. Associating “nuclear” with “option” should never be an option.

First published February 17, 2017 in The Capital Times

If there is any consolation to be found in the election of President Trump, it is the opportunity to make anti-war protest great again. Most liberals/progressives were willing to overlook Hillary Clinton’s militaristic sympathies during the Democratic primary and in the national election. I certainly did, arguing that Clinton’s experience as a diplomat and the weight of presidential responsibility would likely temper her more aggressive side. And at least she would be a saner, less reckless commander in chief than any Republican alternative, particularly the guy they chose to nominate. Yet the hot-headed presidency of Donald Trump and Republican rule gives liberals a chance to unequivocally demand a peaceable U.S. foreign policy, now and in the future . . . please read the rest of my guest column at The Capital Times website.

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“Women dressed in red, white, and blue outfits with missiles strapped around their hips do cheers in the street as part of the September 24, 2005 anti-war protest in Washington DC. Source: The Schumin Web, September 24 Protests.” Photo By No machine-readable author provided. SchuminWeb assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
[also see “Make the Anti-War Movement Great Again” by Conor Friedersdorf  in The Atlantic on March 28, 2017]

 

Talks are underway this week at the United Nations in New York on a possible global treaty to officially ban all nuclear weapons. More than 120 nations are participating, but not surprisingly the nuclear nations (those that own nuclear weapons), including the United States, and various allies of them are not eager to outlaw what they have spent much time and treasure on obtaining. Once you join an exclusive, powerful club, or have friends in the club, you don’t usually want to abolish it. But there are really good reasons to break this club up.

Hiroshima_aftermath
By U.S. Navy Public Affairs Resources Website [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons has created a handy guide listing to whom and why the U.N. nuclear ban makes sense. Or not. Some surprises: Japan, the only nation ever to have experienced a nuclear bomb attack in which upwards of 100,000 people were killed quickly or slowly, does not back the U.N. treaty talks because of its good relationship at present with the nation that dropped those atomic bombs. Iran, a nation that some claim is trying to build a nuclear weapon, supports the nuclear ban. Tiny Monaco, however, is no fan of the nuclear ban; ICAN does not list a reason for Monaco’s disapproval, so you are free to speculate. Perhaps the threat of nuclear disaster is good for gambling.

The United States also wants no part of the United Nations nuclear ban. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley told reporters outside the General Assembly today that she would dearly love a world without nuclear weapons but . . .

“But we have to be realistic. Is there anyone who thinks North Korea would ban nuclear weapons?”

If there is one thing that is going to blow the world up, it is military appeals to realism. “Mutually assured destruction” (MAD) is the surest way to destroy all or most of civilization as we know it. Is there anyone who thinks we can stop nuclear arms proliferation by threatening other nations with nuclear annihilation and by not honoring the Non-Proliferation Treaty to its fullest extent? 

Which is more realistic in terms of reducing the threat of nuclear war or accident: Joining the global call to ban nuclear weapons and acting upon it to lead the world to disarm, or maintaining/adding to our stockpile of nuclear bombs and missiles just in case we have to blow a good portion of the earth up in the name of mutual annihilation? If we cling to our nuclear weapons, nations we have deemed to be unstable and irrational (while we have just elected the Mr. Trump) will cling to the idea of obtaining the power and prestige such weapons seem to provide.

It’s a risky world we live in, but the realistically lesser risk is to act on moral principle, lead by example and disarm. This will require that we in the United States place our trust not in military power or strength but in diplomacy and reason, maybe even God. Armed to the nuclear teeth, it is egregious hypocrisy for us to demand that other nations disarm or not acquire nuclear weapons. Nor will it work. To help end the arms race, we, the nation that first developed a nuclear weapon, have to be the first among the Nuclear Club to lay down our nuclear arms, not an easy thing for a newly Trump-inspired macho America to do. But there really is no other realistic alternative.

To survive and prosper, humankind must begin to move away from armed conflict, and the first step is to ban nuclear weapons. Why shouldn’t the world’s most powerful democracy, “home of the free and the brave,” make the first brave move?

 

 

Bourne
Photo of Randolph Bourne by Unknown. Public Domain.

How’s this for a grand generalization? The United States is not great at providing health care and really good at waging war. And by “good” I do not mean effectively. We wage war a lot because we can afford to and very few Americans ever personally feel its considerable terrible effects. And we don’t do health care very effectively because it requires a belief that all Americans have an inalienable right to be cared for with the help of benevolent government assistance. In short, we have not for a while now generally believed in the prospect of benevolent, enlightened government. To prove it, we managed to elect Mr. Trump, and so far he has not disappointed our sense of the limits and limitations of government.

 

In the same week that the Republican Party offered and failed to vote on a draconian, nay, downright cruel health care plan to replace the flawed but humane ACA, it was reported that the U.S.-led Coalition under the Trump Administration was dropping more bombs in Iraq and had reportedly killed some 200 innocent people in Mosul. 

Fortunately, the “American Health Care Act” (known more informally to us liberals as Wedon’tcare) failed to come to a vote in the House of Representatives largely because the Freedom (to perish) Caucus did not think the bill was brutal enough for the dictates of the free market. So, thank God for the Tea Party and the petulant impatience of Mr. Trump who has better things to do than negotiate with politicians. Golf and Twitter may yet save the Republic and the planet by distracting Mr. Trump from actually doing any governing.

It’s a pity though that those responsible for waging war on behalf of the U.S. are not similarly preoccupied. Fighting terrorists by terrorizing and killing civilians in distant lands is the flip side of providing better access to health care with a plan that makes having and affording decent health care pretty much impossible for millions of Americans.

American bankruptcy and ill-health on the one hand and increasing violence against foreign civilians on the other: when Randolph Bourne said “war is the health of the state” he did not mean the physical health of individual Americans. Although the U.S. spends just a bit more on health care entitlements than it does on defense, the much more genuine threat to Americans is illness and poverty rather than terrorists.

What would a truly benevolent and peaceable government look like? One that placed the health of all the world’s people, including Americans, first.