The Buzz

Oliver Stone's Silly Syria Screed

Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick have joined the debate over how the Obama administration should address the conflict in Syria. Writing in the Daily Beast on Tuesday – the release date of their profoundly misleading The Untold History of the United States, which the Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz has correctly dismissed as “less a work of history than a skewed political document, restating and updating a view of the world that the independent radical Dwight Macdonald once likened to a fog, ‘caused by the warms winds of the liberal Gulf Stream coming in contact with the Soviet glacier’--but now more than twenty years after the dissolution of the Soviet empire”– they suggest a new course for Washington’s Syria policy. But Stone and Kuznick flatter themselves. The impracticability of their policy prescriptions--which are themselves outgrowths of a specious view of America’s place in the world--means their proposals should not be taken any more seriously than their history.

Since the Syrian rebellion erupted in March 2011, a large and growing body of scholarship, studies, and commentary regarding the root causes of unrest there and elsewhere during the Arab Spring has emerged, with explanations ranging from rejection of autocratic rule to greater global interconnectedness enabled by information technology. That Stone and Kurznick merely point to economic issues – high poverty and unemployment levels – and sectarianism as the conditions that made Syria “ripe for an explosion” suggests that neither has delved too deeply into the existing literature.

Their suggestion that America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 “helped unleash the sectarian passions that now roil Syria” is ahistorical in the extreme: since 1966, Syria has been brutally ruled by members of the Alawite sect, who make up around twelve-percent of Syria’s overwhelmingly Sunni-majority population. “Sectarian passions” are old news in Syria; older, even, than the first Iraq War. It gets better: the U.S., according to Stone and Kurznick, is also largely responsible for the droughts that, starting in 2006, devastated Syrian agriculture, exacerbating the economic factors purportedly responsible for the uprising. They reference a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report from 2011 that argued that the cause of the increased frequency of Mediterranean droughts, including Syria’s, was man-made climate change, something which Stone and Kurznick assert “the U.S., most pointedly and most shamefully, still refuses to take seriously.” Yet the United States is hardly the sole cause of climate change, and Stone and Kurznick give minimal attention to the host of other factors behind Syria’s agricultural problems - including Syrian government policies that ThinkProgress said had “criminally combined mismanagement and neglect of Syria’s natural resources.”

In fact, one could be forgiven for concluding that Stone and Kurznick see America as the root of all the world’s ills, or at least all of its wars. Indeed, they even go so far as to suggest that the U.S. is standing in the way of putting “the world back on a path toward peace.” Stone and Kuznick agree with interventionists that “something needs to be done” in Syria, but “not a military strike” or arming the rebels. Since “a solution will not come from solely within Syria – at least not in the near future”, one “will have to be imposed from without”; that is, via “unified U.N. Security Council action”. While the authors note that efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis through the Security Council have been blocked by Russian and Chinese vetoes, they neglect to mention that these vetoes were cast against Western-led efforts to potentially use military force in or impose sanctions on Syria. But the authors suggest that the substance of these proposed efforts was not why Russia and China vetoed.