Predictably, the Australian Greens were not happy about the US-UK-French strikes on Syria on April 14 in response to the chemical weapons attack on Douma on April 7. Greens Defence spokesperson (perhaps something of a logical contradiction) Senator Peter Whish-Wilson described the strikes as “illegal” and urged Australia to rule out ever being involved in such strikes saying, “We have reached a point in Australia where decisions to drop bombs in a country that most Australians couldn’t locate on a world map, has [sic] inexplicably become normalised.” Whish-Wilson agreed that the chemical weapons attacks were “reprehensible” and “abominable”, but insisted airstrikes would only “risk dangerous escalation in an incredibly complex war.”
So what does Sen. Whish-Wilson think should be done about the “abominable” gassing of Syrians by the regime in violation of a 2013 international deal brokered by Russia? Australia should be “using our diplomatic reach and provide support for a broad United Nations response”, he said.
This reminded me of some important comments made recently by Michael Walzer, long one of the most prominent left-wing intellectuals in the US, author of the classic book on international law and morality, Just and Unjust Wars and long-standing co-editor of Dissent magazine. In his latest book, A Foreign Policy for the Left, he takes on many of his fellow leftists for what he calls “the politics of pretending” – using shortcut arguments to which they can always turn, regardless of the actual state of the world or the specific case in point, and just assuming they will apply.
One of the examples he cites of this “politics of pretending” is the assumption or belief that the International Criminal Court or other organs of the UN can hold bad actors to account and thus deter them. Walzer calls the ICC “the judicial arm of a world government that [does] not exist” and comments on this tendency to believe that the UN can deter and punish bad actors: “Pretending that an effective system of global justice exists when it doesn’t seems to me morally and politically irresponsible.”
Senator Whish-Wilson’s comments and call for a “broad United Nations response” seem a very pure case of this “politics of pretending.”
Reaching for the UN to avoid having to contemplate any use of force is of course one of the shortcuts often invoked on the unthoughtful left. But this case is particularly egregious. Why? Because the slightest knowledge of the history of this Syrian situation shows why it will not work. In the UN Security Council, Russia not only vetoed any action in response to the latest chemical weapons attack, but has in the past repeatedly insisted there is no evidence of Syrian regime involvement in chemical weapons attacks even in the face of overwhelming evidence from the UN’s own bodies. It is crystal clear that there is no evidence whatsoever that will ever “convince” Moscow to allow the UN Security Council to take action against the Assad regime.
But more than that, who is about to become the chair of the UN Conference on Disarmament, the UN body that originally negotiated the chemical weapons convention that Syria has repeatedly violated – as well as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which the UN has found Syria violated with its secret nuclear reactor destroyed by Israel in 2007? Syria’s Assad regime itself, of course. Syria will hold the post from May 28 until June 24 – and UN officials say there is nothing they can do about it.
Yet Senator Whish-Wilson still purports to think a “broad United Nations response” will stop the Assad regime’s blatant and repeated mass-murder using poison gas. “The politics of pretending” par excellence.
Beyond Poland’s Misguided Holocaust law
Much has been written about the new law in Poland, passed in early February, that makes it a crime to blame Poland for the Holocaust – which was of course perpetrated by Germany with most of the worst elements occurring on occupied Polish soil. That law is indeed deeply worrying, inhibiting any discussion or dialogue about the role of Poles in assisting the Nazi regime, or persecuting surviving Jews returning home at the end of the war.
But as renowned Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff has noted, this outrageous law is not a one-off but actually part of a larger phenomenon in Eastern Europe, one which Zuroff terms “Holocaust distortion”. As Zuroff explained in an interview on “World Israel News” scheduled to coincide with Israel’s “Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day” on April 8:
“The new law in Poland making it a crime to blame Poland for Nazi war crimes is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a growing narrative to hide or minimise the role of collaborators, including denial of their participation in mass murder. It’s a huge problem in Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, Poland and Croatia. They are all trying to hide the role of its citizens in murdering Jews… They want to promote the lie of the equivalency of Nazi and Communist crimes. In a choice between portrayal as victims or perpetrators, they want to be considered as victims… This has been a growing trend for 25 years but now the Polish law has brought the issue to the fore.”
Zuroff has made the argument that other Eastern European countries have been even worse than Poland in terms of “Holocaust distortion” – he particularly noted recent attempts in Lithuania to ban books on the role of Lithuanians in the Holocaust, including one Zuroff himself co-authored.
To fight the sort of historical revisionism being pushed by the Polish law, you need to be able to identify the phenomenon accurately – and it is not just a Polish problem. It needs to be addressed as a wider international phenomenon.