This is the Iraq-Iran Border. Between 1980-1988 it was the sight of the Iran-Iraq War, that might have killed as many as 1.3 million on both sides. The Iraqis (Saddam’s Iraqis) used chemical weapons, their use encouraged by the then Reagan Administration
For the second time in two days, President Barack Obama has held a press conference on what most of the world thought was a prelude to a U.S. attack on Syria. This time he announced, to the surprise of many, that there would be no military action taken against Syria unless he gets support from the U.S. Congress – thus at least, postponing the much publicized attack.
This is, of course, good news.
At the least, it buys time to build opposition to such a reckless course, at the most, it is the beginning of a change in direction. Too early to tell. I would hope the latter but fear the former.
A number of factors probably help explain Obama’s decision to hold off. Among them:
a. Undoubtedly the vote in the British Parliament against the UK partnering with the US in the military strike was a blow to the stomach in Obama’s plans – one could feel the tension deflate, the international support (the little there was) unravel immediately. This hurt the military strike’s legitimacy deeply. It was the first time in decades that the USA has not been able to rope Great Britain into one of its misguided military ventures.
b. Although some commentators (on MSNBC) blithely suggested that there would be no military response to a U.S. attack from opponents in the region (Iran, Syria, even Russia), the tension throughout the Middle East was palpable and very much elevated; the danger that a U.S. strike could have escalated into a regional conflict was great. Take a look at the Israeli press of the past few days to see how seriously Israel took the possibility of regional war.
c. Despite the Secretary of State and President’s press conferences of yesterday (August 30) claiming strong evidence that the Assad Government of Syria was behind the chemical attack – this claim is fast unraveling. Not only that, now a counter claim that it was the rebels with the connivance of Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia who were the genuine architects of the chemical gassing. The fact remains that the Obama Administration did not prove its case and thus its pretext for military action was undermined.
d. Some people (on the internet) have suggested that the American people played no role, none whatsoever, in staying Obama’s hand. While it is undeniable that the above factors were probably more central to Obama’s decision, the speed and extensiveness with which domestic opposition grew was really remarkable. The memory of the drumbeat to war with Iraq a decade ago, with false claims of `weapons of mass destruction’, of a mobile chemical weapons factor, of a nuclear threat to New York City (this bullshit actually appeared in the New York Daily News and other media/misinformation outlets) was not forgotten. White House phone lines were inundated; major news outlets, the New York Times, other outlets warned against a military strike without substantial proof; even that dead horse, the US Congress suddenly came alive (for one brief moment) in protest. True there were few demonstrations, but they too were starting to get off the ground and more – demonstrations are not the only manifestation of opposition. There are many others.
e. The two theoretical concepts behind the intervention – “humanitarian interventionalism” and “pre-emption” – the former more or less the Democratic Party’s justification for military aggression, the latter mostly the Republican (and AIPAC)’s pretext were not completely believed this time.
In the past few days, prior to Obama’s announcement, I’ve been involved in some exchanges over the course of events that I’d like to share with people. As might be expected, given that, until a few hours ago the likeliness of a U.S. air (or other) strike on Syria seemed imminent, there were many exchanges taking place about what is happening and why… and I have been in dialogue with a number of people, among them students, alumni and some colleagues at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies.
I’d like to share some of these more publicly as they might be useful to some readers. There are three below
On “Hit ‘Em Hard” Hill…
The reference to “Hit ‘Em Hard Hill” refers to University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies Dean, Christopher Hill, who was quoted a few days ago that he hopes that the U.S. hits Syria hard, a rather curious statement for someone who was/is? a high level U.S. diplomat. A friend reminded me of the comments of Kurtz, the protagonist of Joseph’s Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Referring to the Congolese whom Belgium was about to colonize in the late 1800s, Kurtz says “exterminate the brutes.” Hill uses a slightly revised expression…”Hit these people and hit them hard” he was quoted as say. “These people?” How different are these comments in the end?
Thinking back, I have a memory of Hill making similar statements about regime change in Iran not all that long ago in a university forum that included Hill, former Korbel dean, Tom Farer and former Colorado governor Richard Lamm. Although on so many domestic issues, he has moved consistently to the right in recent decades, Lamm was the only one of the three who came out squarely against any U.S. attempts to overthrow the Iranian government. He was very clear on that point. Farer, who, when Korbel dean in 2003 supported the invasion of Iraq (if somewhat gingerly), straddled a middle ground, but it was Hill who took the hardline on Iranian regime change; he supported sanctions, counter – insurgency against Iran and seemed to buy into the Bush’s notion of `the evil empire’ even if Hill did not use those terms.
On MSNBC this morning (August 31, 2013) prior to Obama’s second appearance in two days “Hit ‘Em Hard Hill” took a different tack – supporting the strike against Syria by downplaying the possible consequences of an attack. I don’t know what the consequences will be, but they could be serious, more serious than Hill is suggesting.
“Hit ‘Em Hard Hill” cited in NY Times article. The sense come through from the different sources where he is quoted over the past few days that his position shifts according to circumstances.
Concerning Syria… in response to questions a Korbel Alumnus asked…
1. Opposition to a U.S. air (or other) strike against Syria is not so much to defend the Assad regime; many of us have long been critics. In my case, many years ago I visited the place, found it one of the more repressive Middle Eastern regimes. Few illusions there.
– Like with Iraq – one could oppose U.S. plans to invade, see through the pretexts, oppose military action because of all the human damage it would do without supporting Saddam. In fact, this was a common enough position among U.S. advocates of peace and opponents of the U.S. led war there, which destroyed a country. Of course we would often be presented with the claptrap that opponents of that war were `pro-Saddam’, a part of a `if you are not with us 100% you are against us’ mentality. Nonsense. Some of us were criticizing Saddam’s brutal practices already in the late 1970s, early 1980s – his C.I.A. connections (well documents), his brutal repression of democratic, left and Shi’ite elements once he came to power, his incredibly reckless, vicious opening of a war against Iran – prodded on by the Reagan Administration, his use of chemical weapons both in that war and against the Kurds in 1988.
So it is with Syria. It is easy to translate `No Attack Against Syria’ into `We support Assad’ but that is not where I – or I would venture to say most opponents of current U.S. war plans – line up. If asked – which is rarely – I make that clear.
2. On the chemical weapons charge – If one is careful, again, one should at least try to be, all we can say right now – is a) the evidence that has been presented that it is the Assad government that gassed its people is inconclusive. Remember that we were shown the same kind of satellite maps of `mobile chemical weapons factories’ in Iraq in early 2003. that proved to be completely bogus. b)There are also at least some indications the chemical attack could have been organized by those elements of the opposition supported by/connected to the Saudis (as I posted yesterday). Again – not confirmed. I know that. Point is to show that there is another explanation.
It is usual in such cases that it will take some time – weeks, months – to tease out the truth and my position at this point is that I don’t know
What is known – and the whole world knows – is that THERE HAS BEEN A RUSH TO JUDGEMENT, and that rush to judgement has been a pretext for a military attack, that we are being railroaded again – first, a decade ago, by a wacko Christian fundamentalist Republican to whom Korbel is about to give an award, and now by a liberal Democratic president who either knows what he is doing (as I suspect) or who himself is being railroaded, the difference though is negligible: all indications are he is about to commit (another) war crime.
3. the policies that are pushing us to military intervention/war: I see two overarching threads:
a. the neo-conservative emphasis on `pre-emption’. the neo-cons have been writing, thinking planning `pre-emption’ (attack them before they are strong enough to attack you) for two decades. As pre-emption is in complete violation of international law, the neo-cons have had to invent both legal and moral pretexts for what is little more than aggressive war-making.
it is all getting pretty esoteric in the case of Syria – meaning we `pre-empt’ (attack) Syria to weaken Iran. We `pre-empt’ Iran actually to isolate China from its energy supply – so on some bizarre level, what is going on in Syria is really about China. By the way if you think that this is off-the-wall (as some people do) just know that I firmly believe it and there is plenty of evidence on neo-con websites, publications to justify this view. We eliminate our enemies militarily so that they cannot successfully complete with us economically…
b. the liberal policy of `humanitarian interventionalism’ – especially as it is espoused by Samantha Powers and Susan Rise who as much as the neo-cons, and maybe even more – are pushing the attack on Syria. The `theory’ of humanitarian interventionalism is seemingly humane – stop crimes against humanity, genocide – like we (and more responsibly the French) didn’t do in Rwanda. One can debate its intentions frankly (and I will look at them in another post), but, regardless, its application has been hijacked for sectarian political purposes. This (Syria) is really the second time in recent years (third if you count Kosovo) that it has been invoked. Kosovo, Libya, and now Syria. Actually as my friend Kazerooni notes, intervention on humanitarian grounds goes back to at least the Biafra struggle in Nigeria, when it was a cynical effort to whip up British support for Biafra separatism so that the UK could continue to control Nigerian oil.
Let us leave the Kosovo example, at least for the moment, aside (although I would argue it fits the general pattern) and let’s look at Libya and Syria because the cases are – when it comes to the pretext for military attack – similar.
In the Libyan case, we – (we = the world) was told without the NATO air war that Khadaffi was about to engage in a full scale slaughter of the people of Bengazi for challenging his power. That was supposed to be a `limited’ air war by the way. It wasn’t very limited though and the scope of it kept expanding. We were told it was `an emergency’; if `the world’ (this time – read NATO) didn’t act swiftly terrible things would happen. A year and half later we can ask ourselves – what was the evidence? did it justify the attack? did it give NATO the right to intervene? again a rush to judgement. Khadaffi’s social base of support turned out to be very weak. It collapsed through a combination of cruise missile attacks and rather ample bribes to different tribal leaders. Khadaffi was no angel – and domestically was a tyrant but many of the initiatives he took for African development – now of course forgotten – were deeply appreciated in sub-Sahara africa (attempt to create and fund an African bank that would offer loans for development at much lower rates than the IMF/World Bank)
The Libyan case has been put forth as `a success’ – this is nonsense – Libya is a mess and will be so for a long time. In the chaos that followed the NATO war, what has happened – weapons stores have flooded Africa and the Middle East, especially in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. The uprising in Mali is directly related to increased weaponry from Libya. And Libya itself is a shattered country (like Iraq); it was always held together by a rather weak thread (Khadaffi bribing tribal chiefs) and now the thread it torn asunder.
My assessment of humanitarian interventionalism in Libya is that it was a failure – a terrible one – and that one could see it happening a mile away. Several close friends and colleagues supported the NATO intervention on the grounds that it would save lives and that nothing else could be done. I disagreed with them on that and I disagree with them now on Syria.
Same goes for Syria. Similar scenario – the threat, whatever, is magnified; the leadership is vilified (not hard – these guys are not, as my mother would say, `nice people’)…but one needs the exaggerated threat and magnified evil as the pretexts to justify intervention.
So…we’ve (or at least I’ve) blown the pretexts out of the water, but pretexts hide deeper reasoning, rationales for military intervention – all they do is act as veils that cover up the more salient explanations for what is going on..
but then you folks are smart – YOU figure it out. What’s it all about Alfie?
‘Dialoguing’ With Sam Peleton
The last exchange was a rather brief, sharp one.
It was with one Sam Peleton, who on reading one of my blog entries (I think it was that), took the time to find my email address and write me a rather emotional note about how he is the child of a family that died in the Holocaust, how horrible Assad of Syria is that I am little more than `a kapo’. The word `Progressive’ in the title of my blog, seemed to strike something of a chord with Peleton, too. For those unfamiliar with the term `kapo’, kapos were concentration camp internees who cooperated with the Nazis.
Usually I simply let such remarks pass – I have been getting them now and then (along with assorted threats from this and that moral cowards, Christian fundamentalist goon types) since 1967 in one form or another. Any Jewish person who has been critical of Israel either in writing or on the spoken media gets such stuff (even though the piece that seemed to annoy Peleton was on Syria!). It comes from over-zealous Zionist types, right wingers of different stripes. But this time I didn’t let it pass.
I don’t appreciate being called a kapo, could have dished out my family Holocaust horror stories as easily as this nut, and really, really, really don’t like bullies, which is all Peleton is. So, rather ineloquently, admittedly, burning yet another bridge, which seems to be my specialty, I wrote back ‘go fuck yourself’ – or something to that effect. Picking up the challenge, rising to the occasion, Peleton then called me an `ivory tower, i-phone, kapo’ – (actually, a rather colorful expletive) and I responded in kind calling him “a rude asshole” and suggesting that our dialogue had nowhere else to go and that we end it.
Thus ended a short but intense exchange…by the way, not an untypical `intra-Jewish’ dialogue, not by a long shot.
But then I was curious and so I did a little web search on Sam Peleton. Turns out I am not the only one graced/honored with Peleton’s profound insights. He has also entered into a dialogue of similar quality with Mondo Weiss,
Phil Weiss’ blog – in my view, the best of its kind in the u.s. of a. Admittedly Weiss handled Peleton with more grace than I and I will try to follow Phil Weiss’ example in the future.