Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Aftermath of Syria confrontation

Lots of interesting and generally thoughtful commentary about the Syria war/poison gas story, which, lest we get too comfortable, could still blow up.

Firedog Lake points out that Obama contradicted himself repeatedly in the speech, which, upon inspection, sounds like a series of focus-group-tested talking points rather than a coherent policy statement. For example, on the question as to whether Syrian government use of poison gas on civilians is a security threat to the U.S., Obama’s answers were: yes, no, and sort of.

. . . [I]t is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike. . . . That’s my judgment as commander in chief.

One could question this, and in fact someone did: Obama himself. A few minutes later, he said,

[E]ven though I possessed the authority to order military strikes, I believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take this debate to Congress.

Alrighty then, it is in our national security interests, but it is not a direct or imminent threat to the aforementioned national security. Huh? So what’s the rush?

It’s hard to justify a unilateral attack on a foreign nation that enjoys no UN sanction without some sort of self-defense element, so Obama had to say gassing civilians is a dangerous precedent. Fair enough. But he also simultaneously asserted that Assad can’t lay a finger on us. So which is it? I gather he meant (though he didn’t say) that while there is no immediate threat to us personally from a tiny country half a world away, it is in our overall interests to make sure no one poison gases their own civilians.

This argument, that certain acts, even in war, can’t be permitted by human civilization, then lets Obama further insist that we Americans, whom he explicitly called ‘exceptional’, have to shoulder the duty of making sure those things don’t happen. Perhaps the ‘liberal interventionists’ on his team like Samantha Power are pushing that. It’s an attractive posture, at first glance.

Gassing non-combatant civilians, including children, is certainly a crime against humanity (although Obama never used that term). By why is the U.S.A. exactly the arbiter of these heinous acts and the enforcer assigned to prevent them? After all, some folks might have something to say about vaporizing 200,000 civilians with nuclear weapons, which has occurred exactly once in human history (so far). Or certain skeptics might question what happened the last two times poison gas was used, i.e., by Saddam Hussein against Iranian soldiers and also against his own Kurdish minority. In both cases the leadership of the U.S., the ‘exceptional’ nation, was wink-winnking at a distance because, back then, Saddam was our man.

It’s hard to swallow Obama’s order to go watch the atrocity videos and then get back to him given that sordid (and largely unknown) history. It doesn’t make Assad any less of a vile nazi to understand that the eagerness to go after him militarily has very little to do with his appalling crimes and everything to do with broader U.S. interests, of which ‘national security’ qualifies only in the broadest, most all-inclusive sense. Many people in the government are itching to go after Assad, but, sadly, it’s not because he murdered a thousand civilians.

Then there’s the issue of credibility. After the weapons of mass destruction debacle in Iraq, people have no reason to believe official Washington on who is doing what with what weapons. So it would be reasonable to demand some independent verification before rushing in with cruise missiles blazing. All the pressure to authorize military force before the UN inspectors have done everything they can to gather evidence is highly suspect.

Reading Livy on the long, bloody history of the Roman Empire, as I have been doing lately, is a reminder that powerful imperial states always have persuasive reasons for attacking peoples in distant outposts who dare to rebel, for keeping allies both obedient and intimidated, and for crushing enemies far and wide, even if any concept of threat to Rome itself was grossly exaggerated. (The long occupation of Italy by Hannibal was one important exception.) But these reasons are related to preserving the privileges of empire, not the safety of the homeland. Obama’s speech revealed through its contradictions of language and concept that he is as much an imperial president as Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and the Bushes. It is perversely fortunate that the loonies hate his guts so much that he can’t get away with it so easily. If they were in charge and demanding war with Syria, Obama and the Democrats would be signing on.

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