If the British Can Stop Their Government From Waging War in Syria, Why Can’t We?

 Waging War in SyriaToday, once again, it feels like we’re being herded into supporting a military action in Syria that will end up, like the Iraq War, making the world an even more dangerous place than it is now. Then, as now, we see influential journalists tripping over themselves to fall into line.

The British parliament’s vote against going along with the United States’ attack on Syria is a direct result of that country’s attempts to come to terms with the lies of the Iraq War. Unlike the United States, the people in the United Kingdom forced their government to convene a commission where former Prime Minister Tony Blair and other Iraq War luminaries were asked some uncomfortable questions. (When was the last time you saw George W. Bush or Dick Cheney grilled for their roles in fomenting the Iraq War?) The vote in the U.K. shows that there are just enough people there who have apparently wised up to make a difference and aren’t willing to let their elected representatives hoodwink them into another precipitous military action based on dubious “intelligence.”

In 2008 (and in 2012) the American people rejected the neo-con, John Bolton view of the world, where the U.S. acts as the world’s “indispensible” nation meting out “justice” through its awe-inspiring military power. Yet President Barack Obama is apparently preparing to bomb Syria unilaterally without even the pathetic “coalition of the willing” that had backed George W. Bush’s attack on Iraq.

President Obama is moving us into another “national security” area where neo-con belligerence is considered the “new normal.” He has already normalized executive branch assassinations, warrantless NSA surveillance, and cracking down on whistle blowers. Now, if he goes through with his unilateral bombing of Syria without a Congressional resolution or a United Nations mandate we’ll be right back in the bad old days when George W. Bush set loose John Yoo to interpret the legal “limits” to presidential power. While claiming the moral high ground Obama is losing the moral high ground.

In the 21st century launching wars willy-nilly is far too perilous given the destructive power and widespread distribution of high-tech weaponry. When initiating something like this no one can be certain which act of military violence might set off a chain of events that plunges the region or the world into catastrophe. There are far too many variables to Obama’s promised cruise missile barrage against Syria to fall into a neat and predictable outcome. Not even the Svengalis among our nation’s most esteemed pundits can tell you how many “Friedman Units” will have to pass before the wreckage of this pending attack on Syria is cleared away.

The President just got done celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, but this month also marks the 60th anniversary of the CIA’s coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran that contributed mightily to the subsequent failures of American policy in the Middle East. If one considers the record of the United States: the assistance in Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War; or U.S. forces’ use of depleted uranium and white phosphorous in the 1991 and the 2003 Iraq Wars; or giving its blessing to Israel when it dropped about a million cluster bombs in southern Lebanon as a parting shot in its war with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006, (not to mention the Agent Orange dropped in Vietnam), and what we see is a government whose expressions of moral outrage, at least internationally, lack credibility. And from the moment President Obama drew his “red line” against the use of chemical weapons we’ve been told that U.S. “credibility” is at stake if he doesn’t bomb the shit out of Syria.

To have legitimacy what the Obama Administration should do is go through the proper channels of the United Nations, allow the U.N. investigators to do their work in Syria, bring their findings to the General Assembly, and have a vote on the use of military force to re-establish the “norm” of punitive action against states that use chemical weapons. After those conditions have been met if Russia and China veto the measure in the Security Council it will show the world that two major powers are not willing to punish the Syrian regime for gassing its own people. In the eyes of “world opinion” (if there is such a thing) the United States then could be seen as being slightly less hypocritical than if it plows ahead with this ill-advised unilateral military operation.

As it stands right now, the kind of strikes Obama is promising are illegal both at home (if Congress doesn’t pass a resolution approving them) and abroad (if it doesn’t have the imprimatur of the United Nations). Obama’s “shot across the bow” against Syria (which is a terrible analogy) will only serve to de-legitimize America’s aims in the Middle East. And by building on George W. Bush’s precedent of saying “fuck you” to the United Nations, it will simply normalize the dangerous neo-con policies that the American people rejected in two presidential elections.

On the domestic political front, Karl Rove and Reince Priebus must be thrilled because the Democratic Senate candidates in 2014 are going to have to campaign apologizing for yet another unpopular war in the Middle East. The Democratic faithful are already fatigued by Obama’s lack of action on a number of fronts relating to jobs and education, NSA spying, and drone policies. Add to this disillusioning mix the U.S. partaking in another bloodbath in the Middle East and the Democratic base is going to limp into 2014 just as it had limped into 2010. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could then complete his long-term project of turning Obama into a lame duck, thereby setting back the struggles for greater unionization of low-wage workers, dealing with climate change, protecting women’s rights, and every other piece of the progressive agenda.

War might be the “health of the State,” but historically it has been fatal for those who value progressive reform. And with Raytheon’s stock now ticking upward anticipating the billions of dollars worth of Tomahawk cruise missiles going up in smoke, war is the “health of the Corporation” too.

There’s a reason why the United Nations Charter requires the Security Council to approve any military operation. It was designed to try to keep little wars from growing into larger ones by providing an off-ramp before the big powers are drawn in. President Obama sounds overconfident that the Syrian regime and its allies will not respond in any way to a unilateral attack against them.

But what if there are Russians or other third country nationals or technicians killed around some of the sites the U.S. decides to “take out?” What if any number of freelance groups allied with the Syrians and Iranians decide to launch some attacks on their own giving the governments of Syria and Iran plausible deniability that they had nothing to do with them?

Maybe the U.S. objective all along has been to try to tip the balance against Iran and its Shia allies in the Arab world by neutralizing Syria and the chemical weapons issue is just a pretext? That possibility might explain why the U.S. is adamant about eschewing the U.N.

Or maybe the Americans are being snookered into another war by cunning regional players who know the U.S. is always shopping for a pretext to assert its military dominance in that part of the world?

Or maybe the U.S. weapons contractors simply cannot contain their greed any longer after the winding down of the Iraq War and are seeking new revenue streams? Or maybe what’s driving this is the internal logic of what used to be called “U.S. imperialism,” which requires punitive strikes now and then to show everyone in a neighborhood floating on a sea of oil that the United States is not afraid to use its military to protect its “vital interests?”

On the other hand, why would the Syrian government, which has shown itself to be so brutal in massacring its own people, be intimidated by the kind of “limited” short duration strike Obama spoke about during his recent PBS interview? A few hundred cruise missiles aren’t going to change anything.

Are we really ready to believe that striking selected targets in Syria will have any wider effect on the civil war or the balance of power in the region that has unfolded between the Sunni states and their allies and the Shiites in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon and their allies?

It was the U.S. military aggression in Iraq in the first place that ended up turning that country’s “power ministries” (Interior, Defense, Foreign Affairs, Oil) over to the Shiite majority for the first time ever, and in the process, strengthened Iran’s power in the region. This de facto alliance between Iran and Iraq put the Sunni kingdoms in a weakened position. Now it appears the United States wants to punish the Shia power centers of its own creation.

Conveniently, the chemical weapons attack of August 21st in Syria delivers a perfect pretext for the U.S. to attack. And if Syria or its proxies respond by hitting U.S. “interests” in their neighborhood the U.S. is then fully justified to “defend” itself with strikes against Iran or Hezbollah or more aimed at Syria. The American people have been kept in the dark about what’s happening in the Middle East. Even after eight years of occupying Iraq the average American knows very little about the region and its people. We are told once again by our government: “trust us,” we have the “intelligence.” Journalists are even throwing around the term “slam dunk” without any sense of irony.

It all reminds me of the confidence that President Lyndon Johnson showed in February 1964 when his National Security Council drew up 66 targets to hit in North Vietnam. He saw it as limited in scope and believed it would teach Ho Chi Minh a lesson. Instead, it opened a Pandora’s box that cost 58,000 American lives and at least 2 million Vietnamese in a war that marks one of the most shameful episodes in American history. Yet it appears our leaders have learned nothing from our experiences in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq.

“Governments lie,” the great journalist I.F. Stone used to say. And the Middle East has more than its fair share of double-crossers and people posing as one thing but carrying out an agenda for something else. We cannot believe anything that comes out of the offices of any of those regimes, but neither can we believe our own government since we’ve caught it in so many lies, particularly those designed to facilitate going to war. Pretexts come and go (Remember the Maine! — The Gulf of Tonkin Incident! — Iraqi WMD!) and consent in a democracy must be manufactured.

joseph palermoWe’ve been told that “we” must enforce a “norm” against the use of prohibited weapons. But ever since the CIA coup in Iran 60 years ago that lit the fuse of theocratic revolution U.S. policy in the Middle East has been one disaster after another for the people in the region and for the American people too. I don’t think a few billion dollars worth of cruise missiles can erase more than a half-century of misguided imperial policy.

Joseph Palermo

Friday, 30 August 2013

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. 9-1-13 Comment. As far as I know, I am writing from Vietnam, there is not proof of who used chemical weapons, how they were used or even the total damage from the attacks. It is interesting that the US is seeking to lead this charge in some pious stance when our nation did use chemical weapons in VN [agent orange, white phosphorus, napalm], nuclear weapons in Japan, and on and on including shells made from spent nuclear material in Iraq. Too, we allow Israel to use chemical weapons (white phosphorus and others) as well as stockpile nukes. If any chemical weapons were used in Syria it is horrible. And as far as evidence, where are the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Why should anyone believe that “chatter overheard” as reported by the US intelligence means anything. There was chatter a few weeks ago that closed embassies all over the place and the chatter heard was bogus or non-existent. Chatter isn’t action — the President has been chattering about Syria for months as well as McCain who bombed in NVN maybe with chemicals, and other chattering heads on TV who are mostly former analysts who got us into middle east wars.

  2. Jon Gasporra says:

    The persons’s comment below fails to answer the question as well. Do we really need to have someone tell us what the causes are for why the US can’t seem to move fast enough to launch this pending strike? Who cares what the reasons are, they are at this point irrelevant. We need some method of assessing the feelings of the American people, and we need to channel those feelings into a way to stop this strike from taking place. Then, after we as a people have stood our ground and said “no” to our Marion’s military being effectively turned into a corporate militia, we need to force our leaders to account for their actions. Petitions, active protests and a credible means of telling our leaders that they cannot count on several million votes in upcoming elections…. These actions will make our voice heard. Perhaps we organize and actively vote 3rd party, and force out all of the old guard buisness as usual politicians? These idiots need to relearn that they work for us, not the other way around.

  3. Joseph Maizlish says:

    The article doesn’t answer the question in the headline. The question wasn’t why do the power brokers and policy makers want power at any cost, including war. The question was why can’t “we” stop this government from waging war (though speaking of this specific war, it’s not yet being waged directly by the U.S. government). The answers? Likely there are many, working together. Vulnerability to being panicked into violent non-responses to problems is one possibility. Like the other answers, it raises more questions, and especially questions about how we change the situation.

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