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Ed Asner Explains Hollywood Silence on Obama, Syria: They 'Don't Want to Feel Anti-Black'

Ed Asner Mike Farrell - H 2013
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Ed Asner, left, and Mike Farrell

Don't look for Iraq War-style protests, says the liberal activist, who -- like "M*A*S*H" star Mike Farrell -- opposes military action.

In 2003, ahead of a U.S. attack on Iraq, a robust anti-war movement in Hollywood included a TV commercial starring Martin Sheen and Sean Penn visiting Baghdad. There were online petitions signed by Ed Asner; letters to President George W. Bush pleading for peace were signed by Matt Damon, Tim Robbins, Barbra Streisand and Alec Baldwin; former M*A*S*H star Mike Farrell fronted multiple press conferences where celebrities denounced war. In interviews, Janeane Garofalo stopped identifying herself as an actor -- she preferred to be called a member of the U.S. anti-war movement.

The good news for President Barack Obama as he considers a military response against Syria for using chemical weapons against rebels is that he probably won't have to deal with a similar anti-war movement from Hollywood. But that's not because there isn't opposition. It's just not organized, and, as Asner and Farrell – two of the industry's most vocal progressive activists -- told The Hollywood Reporter Friday, perhaps it never will be.

While some conservatives see hypocrisy, Farrell says that an all-out war in Iraq under Bush, a Republican who was very unpopular in Hollywood, was a much bigger deal than potential missile strikes against Syria under the direction of Obama, a Democrat who drew millions for his campaigns from showbiz industry donors.

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Asner, 83, and Farrell, 74, both expressed extreme disappointment in Obama for advocating military action.

"What he is talking about in Syria is a potential war crime," Farrell said. "It will be illegal, and if citizens are killed it certainly could be considered a war crime."

Even if Obama presents irrefutable evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used poison gas against civilians, military action is still unwarranted, the two activists say.

"This administration ought to insist that the international community charge [Assad] with a war crime and prosecute him, and in so doing Obama would be following the law instead of flaunting the law," Farrell said.

"It's incredibly improper for the president to call for a strike. I have said it everywhere I can and I suspect a lot of others will do the same, but whether there will be an organized effort, I don't know," Farrell continued. "We're talking about the difference between an invasion in Iraq and a limited action in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria."

Asner said the lack of an organized effort against war in Syria is a matter of timing. Bush took months to make the case for war in Iraq, giving the antiwar left plenty of time to prepare a response.

"It will be a done deal before Hollywood is mobilized," Asner said. "This country will either bomb the hell out of Syria or not before Hollywood gets off its ass."

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Also, said Asner, unsuccessful efforts to prevent war in Iraq led to complacency among left-wing activists.

"We had a million people in the streets, for Christ's sake, protesting Iraq, which was about as illegal as you could find. Did it matter? Is George Bush being tried in the high courts of justice?" asks Asner. "We've been so God-damned stung in this country by false wars, repeatedly, that, how can you believe in any just war with the history we have had?"

Another reason some Hollywood progressives have been reticent to speak out against war in Syria, according to Asner, is fear of being called racist.

"A lot of people don't want to feel anti-black by being opposed to Obama," he said.

Asner said Hollywood activists should read a Huffington Post blog item by Dennis Kucinich, where the former congressman lists the "Top 10 unproven claims for war against Syria."

"Whether it's a Republican or Democrat president, or Republican or Democrat Congress -- and it doesn't make a God-damned difference -- it behooves us to get off our ass and ask these questions," Asner said.

Farrell and Asner both say that beating the war drums on Syria is one of many mistakes Obama has made.

"I voted for him, but I'm not proud. He hasn't thrown himself on the funeral pyre. I wanted him to sacrifice himself. Instead, he has proved himself to be a corporatist, and as long as he's a corporatist, he's not my president," Asner said. "A lot of people have lost hope -- with the betrayals, the NSA spying ... People aren't getting active because 'Who gives a shit?' is essentially the bottom line."

Adds Farrell: "I'm frankly deeply disappointed in the president's foreign policy, war-making, his reliance on military rather than diplomatic responses, his use of drones, continued allowance of the Guantanamo prison. He's a disappointment to me and other people I know."

As much as Obama is loved by Hollywood power-brokers, Asner says he doesn't fear backlash by speaking against the president.

"Hollywood can't mobilize for that either," he joked. "If they try to punish me, what are they gonna do? Take away my pension?"

E-mail: Paul.Bond@THR.com