Can “Obama Derangement Syndrome” Help Stop the U.S. from Waging War in Syria?

Syria U.S. WarWhen it comes to Syria, the old saying that even a broken clock is correct twice a day might apply to the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party. Those politicians associated with the anti-interventionist Far Right have an opportunity to show that they really can take a stand on principle. And if the affliction of “Obama Derangement Syndrome” serves the cause of peace, so be it.

Given the GOP’s past enthusiasm for foreign interventions if the party were united the President would get his war. Today’s hyper-partisanship on the Republican side might turn out to be helpful in rolling back the Imperial Presidency and reasserting congressional war powers. This authorization to use force is bigger than President Barack Obama or George W. Bush.

There is a cynical political calculus here. When the cruise missiles start flying it becomes difficult for the Democratic base to move forward on health care or immigration or a hundred other domestic issues that the Tea Partiers view as creeping Socialism. But denying Obama congressional approval could be a poke in the eye and weaken the President. I’m sure Reince Priebus is huddled up with his strategists figuring out how best to mine political gold from the Constitutional confrontation even while the GOP remains bitterly divided.

In the hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Representative Gerald Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, framed the issue this way: “If we do nothing what will happen?” This was an argument we heard during the lead up to the Iraq War, but it’s a false dichotomy. No one is saying that the United States should “do nothing.” This technique limits choices down to two in order to shut down debate. Either go along with what we want to do (launch a war) or “do nothing.” Those who prefer a non-military solution to the crisis, far from advocating “doing nothing,” are saying take it to the United Nations, bring to bear multilateral pressure by including Iran and Saudi Arabia in talks to impose a cease fire, assist the 2 million Syrian refugees, and enlist the “international community” we hear so much about to move the conflict from the streets to the bargaining table.

Gerald Connolly

Representative Gerald Connolly (D-Virginia)

If the use of chemical weapons is such an affront to the “world community” then why not allow the United Nations process to play out? Force a vote in the Security Council and let the world see Russia and China excuse chemical attacks on civilians.

War shuts down the discussion of just about all progressive legislative proposals. One Raytheon cruise missile costs about as much as the annual salaries of 15 to 20 teachers or a college education for 30 or 40 students. How can we carry on a debate about growing social inequality and expanding workers’ rights when the nation’s political elites, in bi-partisan fashion, are once again driving the U.S. into a protracted bloodbath in the Middle East?

Few people believe the Administration’s guarantees that the U.S. war in Syria will remain limited in ferocity and duration, and rightly so. This operation (yet to be given its catchy name) has “regime change” written all over it. Overthrowing Bashar al-Assad has been on the U.S. agenda since the earliest days after 9-11.

More alarmingly, citing one of Thomas Friedman’s many glib analogies, what we see on the “menu” of U.S. options might be the “appetizer” of Syria followed by the “main course” of striking Iran’s nuclear facilities (a neo-con goal for over a decade). With people like John McCain and Lindsey Graham in the forefront cheering it on few people believe the calls for war in Syria do not have a hidden agenda beyond imposing an international “norm” against chemical weapons and shielding Arab civilians.

Secretary of State John Kerry testified about the U.S. being the “indispensible nation” and drew comparisons with World War Two. Once again, the glow of the “good war” is being transplanted onto the current calls for war. We’ve already heard the obligatory comparisons of Assad to Hitler. With dreary repetition whenever the elites in this country want to go to war they make the same moral appeals and faulty historical allusions.

Secretary Kerry and others argue that cruise missile strikes are not “an act of war.” But it sure looks like gunboat diplomacy and illegal under established international law according to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. That might be why the United States is adamant about bypassing the U.N. route and going it essentially alone without the cover of NATO or even the United Kingdom. To use a World War Two analogy: if cruise missile strikes aren’t an “act of war” then the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941 on Pearl Harbor wasn’t either.

In August 1964, President Lyndon Johnson, a very liberal president who guided through Congress Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, Student Aid, PBS, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, etc. truly believed that by bombing North Vietnam for the first time it would be a “shot across the bow” to Ho Chi Minh. LBJ argued that the “reprisal” air raids against North Vietnam (retaliation for the trumped up Gulf of Tonkin incident) would teach Ho a lesson and compel him to keep his hands off the South and America’s allies in Saigon. But the President was wrong and that decision, although “bi-partisan” at the time, ended up tearing apart the Democratic Party and paving the way for Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968.

If Congress blocks Obama it will be the first time the Imperial Presidency has been reined in since the 93rd Congress passed the War Powers Act over President Richard Nixon’s veto in 1973. Given the cost in blood and treasure of unchecked Executive power over the past 40 years that would be a good thing.

joseph palermo

Some pundits are saying the U.S. should bomb Syria because the conflict is spilling over into the region (assumed to mean the Shia-Sunni violence in Iraq and Lebanon and the refugees fleeing into Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq). Yet cruise missile strikes will be certain to cause more refugees and more blowback into neighboring states.

We’re hearing the same moral appeals, the same vilification of the Great Dictator, the same noise and static bouncing off the provincial view many Americans hold of the United States (not shared by most of the world), as a disinterested force dispensing justice and punishment in a wayward Middle East. Yet we also hear talk about U.S. “interests” without defining exactly what those are. And this proposed military action is made all the more dangerous because the rest of the world knows that the American people do not want this war.

Joseph Palermo
Joseph A Palermo Political Commentary

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Published by the LA Progressive on September 5, 2013
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About Joseph Palermo

Joseph Palermo is Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento. Professor Palermo's most recent book is The Eighties (Pearson 2012). He has also written two other books: In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia, 2001); and Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008). Before earning a Master's degree and Doctorate in History from Cornell University, Professor Palermo completed Bachelor's degrees in Sociology and Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Master's degree in History from San Jose State University. His expertise includes the 1980s; political history; presidential politics and war powers; social movements of the 20th century; the 1960s; and the history of American foreign policy. Professor Palermo has also written articles for anthologies on the life of Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. in The Human Tradition in America Since 1945 (Scholarly Resources Press, 2003); and on the Watergate scandal in Watergate and the Resignation of Richard Nixon (CQ Press, 2004).

Comments

  1. JoeWeinstein says:

    Other points, to balance my prior comment.

    Just because Obama will be incompetent at waging war doesn’t mean that there aren’t good arguments for a competent president to do something. Contrary to knee-jerk anti-war voices, the ALTERNATIVES to some use of force in effect DO amount to ‘doing nothing’. There are two reasons for that.

    First, if ‘superpower’ USA demonstrates no will ever to use force in this situation, all other nations will keep doing what they’ve been doing – Assad will carry on and use both conventional and chem weapons whenever and however he likes, and Russia and Iran will keep actively abetting Assad’s war on Syrians. Nations opposed to Assad’s war, and not themselves already involved in arming his Islamic extremist opponents, will not intervene, no matter how horrified they are at Assad’s tactics.

    Second, all the suggested non-military ‘do something’ alternatives are not news: they either don’t solve anything, or there is a reason they aren’t already being tried. Aid to refugees while the ongoing war creates ever more of them is like trying to bandage the wound without applying a tourniquet to stop the massive bleeding. A ‘peace conference’ has long been in the works, but there is a good reason it hasn’t been held: the minimum demands of the rebels are that Assad must go; the minimum demands of Russia and Iran are that Assad must stay.

    The only ‘political’ solution in sight will likely require all involved parties accepting (as the most attainable good) the notion of a Syria without a strong central government, but rather a loose federation of regions – a Northwest controlled by Assad’s Alawites, a Northeast controlled by the Kurds, central regions controlled by today’s ‘rebels’, etc. The result would be victory for neither Sunni nor Shia nor any other particular group. But even this solution can’t happen as long as all sides figure they have more to gain, or less to lose, by continuing to fight.

  2. JoeWeinstein says:

    A normal US president would simply have immediately fired a few cruise missiles pursuant to a Plan B which he would have had in mind when he drew his red line in the sand a year ago.

    Those missiles would have punished Assad’s regime enough to make him realize that he has to pay a price for violating a USA red line. And they would have been the end of the story: Further conflict would have been up to Assad.

    In short, a normal US president would have used the old ‘tit for tat’ strategy which classic social-science studies show is overall the most effective way to control otherwise unmanageable conflicts without needless surrender on the one hand or over-involvement on the other. .

    But Obama didn’t have a Plan B.

    And so far as we can see from his history in office, this lack of Plan B has been the situation not merely in this matter, but indeed on almost all matters whatsoever, foreign and domestic.

    And the reason Obama doesn’t have on-the-shelf Plans B is simple and has also emerged from what we can see. In fact he doesn’t have Plans A! .

    Ex-Gov Arnold instinctively groped at bodies, whereas Mr Obama instead instinctively gropes at the last-possible minute for needed Plans.

    This lack of basic executive competence does not mean that Obama lacks ideologies – in fact problematic ones. But his pursuit of these ideologies seems largely plan-less. His successes with Congress owe mainly to the Repugs there content to make a blustering show of disagreeing with most of his policies – which in fact they mainly either agree with or don’t really care about – and to the Dems there mostly vying with each other to prove that in dealing with Obama they lack vertebrae.

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