Thursday, September 5. 2013
As long as the war drums are beating for Syria, we might as well
keep the links coming. But first, let me quote myself. I was asked
to write something for a Wichita Peace Center press release, and
turned in the following paragraph. (I've since added some paragraph
breaks.) Not sure what they did with it, but I gather it was longer
than expected, so they trimmed here and there. Anyhow, it's a
succinct position paper, touching on a lot of the central points.
The Civil War in Syria is both tragedy and folly: tragedy for the
100,000 people who have been killed since the Assad regime met
demonstrations for democracy with bullets and opponents of the regime
tried to overthrow it by armed struggle, and folly because by
resorting to violence both sides are only deepening the nation's
wounds. The only solution is for both sides to cease fire and seek
help in mediating their differences.
A big part of the reason this
hasn't happened is that foreign countries have chosen sides and are
sending in arms to further fuel the fire: Russia and Iran back Assad,
while Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Turkey support the
insurgents, and such aid gives both sides hope that they will triumph
in a war which, like all wars, only has losers. Meanwhile, Lebanon is
divided and fears that the war will spread, and Israel has been more
or less at war with Syria since 1948, and has perpetuated hostilities
by occupying the Syrian (aka Golan) Heights since 1967 -- much of the
reason Syria is so militarized and so autocratic can be traced back to
its losing conflict with Israel.
Nor has the United States done
anything to end the war in Syria. In particular, President Obama has
made a series of unfortunate statements -- stating that "Assad must
go," offering arms to the insurgents, declaring a "red line" over the
use of chemical weapons, and most recently asking Congress for a
resolution to endorse his desire to launch missiles at undisclosed
targets in Syria. No one -- not even Obama -- thinks that bombing
Syria will do anything but prolong and escalate the killing and
suffering. So why do it? Supposedly it has something to do with the
president's "credibility" -- so that people will understand that when
they cross his "red lines" they will face a stiff punishment.
only makes sense if you assume that the US has a right to interfere in
every other nation's business, and an obligation to be judge and
executioner over other peoples. Even more critically, it assumes we
are so prescient as to use our powers wisely. Unfortunately, from the
CIA's 1953 coup against a liberal democratic government in Iran up to
Obama's latest tantrum over Syria, it is hard to think of a single
instance when this was true of the US in the Middle East. But at least
this time, Obama has given us, through Congress, a chance to reject
the drumbeat of war. We should take this opportunity and resoundingly
say, "hell no, we won't go!"
I didn't want to play up the question of chemical weapons. I'm not
convinced that Assad's forces have actually used chemical weapons,
but I don't think they have any particular scruples against doing so.
One of the many problems with Obama's "red line" speech is that it
gives anti-Assad forces reason to fake chemical attacks in the hope
that if credible such attacks might push the US into providing more
anti-Assad support. If that turns out to be the case, Obama could
wind up bearing some responsibility for the use of chemical weapons
In any case, we won't know more about recent alleged chemical
attacks until the UN inspectors finish and publish their analysis.
At that point the findings should be kicked up to the UN Security
Council for action, which could condemn Syria, impose sanctions,
and/or authorize the US to use force to punish Syria, or not. But
unless that happens, the strikes that Obama is proposing are war
crimes, nothing less. I didn't get into that point either, because
at this point it's virtually impossible to win an argument on the
basis that the action you're opposed to would be a war crime. The
problem is that hardly anyone in the US appreciates the prospect
of living under international law any more. Proof of that is that
even if he passes on Syria, Obama is already a war criminal, one
of many in a procession that dates back through Bush and Clinton
and on to the other Bush and Reagan, and Nixon and Johnson, and
arguably other presidents.
We could, of course, debate about the need for international
law and what that law should cover, and we could go into the need
for reforms that would make the UN more effective. But you don't
have to be so idealistic to see the folly in Obama's plans, so
that is what I chose to focus on. I also didn't get into the
matter of how much open-ended war with Syria would cost, or what
else should be done with the money. For one thing the reflexive
politics of Washington will always find money for any wars they
want to fight, and can never be counted on to allocate that same
money to any other project.
Needless to say, anyone who wants to limit government, let alone
safeguard freedom, should first cast a jaundiced eye at the military.
But those who do fall into the "limited government" trap will never
be persuaded by arguing that the same money could be better spent
on schools and bridges. Indeed, most of them have repeatedly voted
for war on the theory that if the government has to spend money,
at least there it won't be spent on anything constructive.
Some links (plus cartoons from Truthdig):
Associated Press: Putin on Syria: Interview with the president of
Russia -- you know, the guy Obama refuses to meet with even though he's
in Russia this week, the one world leader who is in the best position
to get Assad to agree to a ceasefire and negotiations.
Brian Beutler: Elites fall right into trap, fecklessly support war
secrecy: Kerry pleading his case at the Senate. Last line: "Much
later in the hearing, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., reflected on a series
of U.S. missile strikes against Iraq in the 1990s, which in a real
way primed the country for the invasion in 2003. That's the scenario
Kerry tried but failed to hide."
Patrick Cockburn: In Syria, it's a case of all or nothing: I don't
see how the "all in" case would work, but this much is surely true:
"All sides are dependent on outside backers, and even those who most
want to fight need weapons, ammunition and money. Heavy pressure could
be put on them to agree to a peace conference and a temporary ceasefire."
Also: "In practice there has been a stalemate in most of Syria for the
last year. If the Syrian army did use poison gas, it shows it does not
have the strength to retake even the inner rebel-held suburbs of Damascus.
It is better therefore for the battle lines to be frozen under some form
of UN supervision. Long-term solutions will only begin to be feasible
when Syrians are no longer at the mercy of what Northern Ireland
politicians used to call 'the politics of the last atrocity.'"
Juan Cole: A US attack on Syria will Prolong the War, and
On Syria: The US Is No Long Ranger and Should Put That Six Shooter
Away: The former makes its case succinctly, especially that US
support for the insurgents makes them less likely to negotiate.
(I would go further: the US is starting to see this as a proxy war
against Russia and Iran, and as such a chance to relive Cold War
glory.) The latter goes down the whole chemical weapons rathole,
where the US and UK don't exactly have clean hands. (The UK, you
may recall, were the first to use chemical weapons in the region.)
Last point: "In 1998, then-President Bill Clinton fired cruise
missiles at the Sudan of President Omar al-Bashir. If you don't
know, do a quick Google search for whom the sitting president of
the Sudan is now. Bombs are seldom the answer to geopolitical
EJ Dionne, Jr: Syria and the Return of Dissent: "Ultimately, after
intricate negotiations, the balance of power among all these factions
will almost certainly give the president the congressional victory he
needs to take action -- in part because majorities in both houses know
that an Obama defeat on Syria would be devastating to American foreign
policy." I wish it were that easy, but my second thought is that Dionne
(who on most matters is a sensible journalist) is drawing a "red line"
of his own. If Obama's war resolution fails Congress, even if it fails
by failing to garner support from superhawks who don't think it goes
far enough -- accommodations to which, by the way, were necessary to
get it through the Senate committee vote -- it will be a shocking
rebuke to Washington's "conventional wisdom" which has thus far
sheltered and enabled the world's largest war machine. Once it proves
possible to say no to war, it will only get easier.
Tom Engelhardt: Alone and Delusional on Planet Earth: Like
Lind (below), a history of the neocon impulse, which Engelhardt
finds still deeply entrenched, even if pivoting toward easier
game in Africa after having made an expensive mess of the Asian
belt from Pakistan to Lebanon -- not that they would pass up the
opportunity to show the colors in Syria, and possibly regenerate
some of that terrorist blowback that proved so profitable in the
Robert Fisk: Once Washington made the Middle East tremble -- now no one
there takes it seriously: Rambles a bit, but the common thread of
all the examples is how little Obama and company know about the Middle
East and how ridiculous that makes them look -- the scoffing of a man
who does indeed know quite a lot. Also see Fisk's
Iran, Not Syria, Is the West's Real Target. The surest way to
perpetuate war in Syria is to view it as a proxy contest with Iran.
Chas Freeman: Don't Just Sit There, Bomb Something: A long-time
US diplomat -- you may recall that when he initially took office Obama
tried hiring Freeman as a Middle East advisor, but he was bullied into
withdrawing the offer because Freeman wasn't Zionist enough. Nothing
here on Israel -- a subject that actually has much to do with the
equation -- but lots of useful history and perspective that seems to
be lacking in the currently AIPAC-certified White House staff.
Glenn Greenwald: Obama, Congress and Syria: "There are few things
more bizarre than watching people advocate that another country be
bombed even while acknowledging that it will achieve no good outcomes
other than safeguarding the 'credibility' of those doing the bombing."
It will be interesting to see how Kerry's insistence that Obama has
the right to bomb Syria even if Congress rejects the resolution plays
out. Lack of consequences may prove liberating to Congress, allowing
members to vote their conscience, or even (gasp!) the popular view,
and it will probably give Republicans leeway just to vote against
Obama. As Greenwald points out, the House rejected a resolution to
rubber stamp Obama's bombing of Libya, and that's fed into their
peculiar obsession with Benghazi.
Haaretz: Israel lobby strongly supports attack on Syria: "The
Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations said in a
statement that 'failing to take action would damage the credibility
of the U.S. and negatively impact the effort to prevent Iran from
achieving a nuclear weapons capacity.'" So this is a case of one
foreign country (Israel) using its political influence in the US
to promote a war with another foreign country (Syria) in order to
further its own conflict with a third foreign country (Iran).
Glenn Kessler: History lesson: When the United States looked the other
way on chemical weapons: Argues that Syria's chemical weapons
stockpile had been tacitly accepted by the US as a trade-off against
Israel's unacknowledged nuclear weapons. Makes me wonder whether Iraq's
chemical weapons, which never bothered the US when they were being
used against Iran (and didn't raise much of a peep, at least at the
time, when used against Iraq's Kurdish minority) weren't covered by
a similar "understanding." Again, this shows how US failure to work
out peace treaties to resolve Israel's various conflicts has helped
to destabilize the entire region.
Michael Lind: Bye-bye, neocons: Your fantasy has finally died:
Tries to sort out the major schools of US foreign policy in light of
the Syria intervention question. Not sure that he has this right,
or even that: "Neoconservative dreams of creating a hard-edged,
neo-imperial American hegemony over the world died in the rubble of
Iraq and Afghanistan." The dreams still rise in such fevered minds,
and more importantly Obama hasn't come close to "changing the way
we think about war." Thus far, it appears that the neocons are
divided: willing to give Obama unlimited war powers, but skeptical
that he will use them to their satisfaction. Lind likes to blame
their war lust on Dixie macho, but their mantra is more along the
lines of: what would Israel do if that small nation had the full
resources of the US? Until we confront their "Iron Wall" fixation
we won't be free of the neocon madness.
Paul Pillar: The Coming Congressional Debate on Syria:
"Congress being Congress, however, let us not get too high our
hopes for care and profundity in the deliberative process that
is about to begin."
Gareth Porter: How Intelligence Was Twisted to Support an Attack on
Syria: Too much here to quote, as Porter casts doubt on point
after point that John Kerry insisted "we know," including the Israeli
providence of intercepts. Always amazes me when they call this stuff
"intelligence." Last line: "Regardless of what evidence emerges in
coming weeks, we would do well to note the inconsistencies and
misleading language contained in the assessment, bearing in mind
the consequences of utilizing ambiguous intelligence to justify an
act of war."
Stephen M Walt: Applying the 8 Questions of the Powel Doctrine to
Syria: As opposed to the unquestioning credulity of Powell's UN
speech on Iraq's WMDs. The "Powell doctrine" from 1990 was designed
to prevent the US from getting into another Vietnam while allowing
smaller, more limited conflicts like the 1990-91 Gulf War a free
pass. Had Powell thought to apply it to Iraq in 2003, and been at
all honest with himself and us, that war would probably not have
passed muster. As Walt shows, Syria isn't even close.
Matt Welch: John Kerry's Morally, Linguistically, and Historically
Obscene Case for War in Syria: Goes through Kerry's Senate
testimony with a much finer comb than I had the stomach for, with
a lot of revealing finds -- especially his description of the
upcoming Senate vote as a "Munich moment." (JP Sottile followed
up on this:
When in Doubt, Say 'Hitler'; so did Conor Friedersdorf:
Godwin's Corollary: In War Debates, the Probability of Hawks Invoking
Hitler Approaches One). As I've written many times before, the
anti-Munich taunt was never even accurate about Munich: it was
rationalized after the fact, and has been used by pro-war hacks
ever since then. In the current context, it means little more than,
"you're a sissy if you don't pull the trigger."
Stephen Zunes: Eight Arguments Against Going to War With Syria:
Only eight? "1) A US military attack would be illegal. 2) There is
little strategic rationalization. 3) Military intervention likely
would lead to more death and destruction. 4) The US has little
credibility regarding chemical weapons. 5) A military attack likely
would strengthen the Syrian regime. 6) A military strike likely
would reduce the chances of successfully ending the war. 7) The
United States is isolated in the international community. 8) The
American public opposes military intervention in Syria." I'd edit
out at least three "likely" qualifiers there, and as you can see
from my statement, focus less on international law and hypocrisy --
although if Obama were serious about "international norms" viz.
unconventional weapons (and Cole, above, quite rightly points out
the US fondness for mines and cluster bombs, also condemned by
international law as well as "norms") the way he could actually
have an impact would be to make a case for laws above the whims
of states, even the US. Zunes also misses the far more basic
reason that engaging in this violence is simply wrong -- most
likely he thinks he's gaining some credibility by not being one
of those pacifist folks.
Given that this issue will be voted on in Congress, this is a rare
time when it might actually work to put as much pressure as possible
on your representatives -- especially in the case of Democrats, who
seem to be especially wobbly on Obama (as well as soft on Israel).
Much of Obama's own legitimacy as a presidential candidate owed to
his prescient opposition to the 2003 Iraq War, but he has squandered
his reputation several times over since assuming office, and nowhere
more clearly than here. The same standards should be applied to all
his potential successors: in particular, Hillary Clinton has once
again proven her unfitness for the Oval Office. By all means be
clear about that.