When 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.
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.
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 A Palermo Political Commentary
Thursday, 5 September 2013