“Make no mistake – this has implications beyond chemical warfare. If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorist who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?
We cannot raise our children in a world where we will not follow through on the things we say, the accords we sign, the values that define us.” – Barack Hussein Obama 2013.
“If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.” – Richard Milhous Nixon 1970.
When the US claims that its reasons for using military mass violence are to maintain credibility it is really scraping the bottom of the rhetorical barrel. But is this desperation, or is it simply that they no longer even care enough to lie convincingly? Or is it that the price of being seen as a liar is less than the price of revealing the true motives and reasons for US government actions?
Our Soviet Moment
Even lies can only do half of the work of engineering the consent or assent (or mere apathy) required to launch a war. Lies provide a pretext which gives moral legitimacy and emotive force to the case for war. Lies are also used to adopt a mantle of formal legitimacy under international law. But there is a third component, necessary but so de-emphasised that it may pass entirely unnoticed. It is the component of reason or rational justification. You can establish your moral and legal right to act, but you still have to give some sort of case, however cursory and pathetic, to explain why the use of mass violence and mass killing actually makes some sort of sense. To give an example, lies were told to the about Kuwaiti newborns being dumped to die of exposure by Iraqis to give moral impetus to US intervention, but the rationalisation given for bombing and killing so many Iraqis was encapsulated in the Munich analogy highlighting the dangers of “appeasement”. This was more important and more emphasised than justifying the use of force as a means of liberating Kuwait.
(The essence of the Munich analogy is that if you do not use military force to oppose acts of international aggression you are simply emboldening the perpetrator and ensuring greater aggression – and hence war and suffering – in the future. The analogy doesn’t actually stand up because the Munich Agreement was actually collaboration not appeasement, but most people don’t know that. In 1990 the fundamental reason given that military action, as opposed to other forms of action, was a rational response to the aggression and atrocities of Iraqis was the threat of further aggression. We were told that Iraq was poised to attack Saudi Arabia. Naturally it was a lie, but it was a necessary lie.)
9-11 was crucial not just for the fact that it caused emotions to over-ride sapience, but because it provided that implicit rationale of using force to kill those who would do harm to you. It is true that this does not bear much thoughtful reflection, but those given to thoughtful reflection tend to oppose wars anyway. This and the Munich analogy are veneer rationalisations designed mainly for those who have faith in the judgements and goodwill of authorities – authorities who have successfully persuaded them to distrust their own perception and mental capacities. The danger for the US government is that these latter people – those whom they count on to support wars – start to think that their leaders are habitual liars. This is called a “credibility gap” a key component of the “Vietnam Syndrome” which prevented overt US aggression for over a few years. The “Vietnam Syndrome” meant that people would not accept further major acts of war.
But the way people seem to feel right now isn’t quite the way they felt when the “Vietnam Syndrome” held sway. It is both a cause for alarm and a great source of hope that the situation faced by the West now resembles the jaded scepticism of the peoples of the Soviet Bloc in 1980 more than it does the uncertain distrust of 1980 Western Bloc peoples. In 1980 radical and dissident voices were, as always, excluded from the public discourse of the mass media, but in the West at least the scepticism of the majority was acknowledged and represented. Now, like the mass media of the Soviet Union, our mass media have become totally detached from public opinion. There is a sense of piety which would view honesty as heresy – even those journalists who harbour the heresy themselves would not dare utter such dangerous notions, while the truly faithful act with such spittle-flecked fervour as would warm the heart of Torquemada. The heresy in question, the unspeakable notion of this moment, is that it makes no sense whatsoever for the Syrian government to have used chemical weapons at this time and therefore Obama and Kerry are probably just bald-faced liars.
It is no coincidence that our decaying Soviet moment is coming at a time when ordinary people can no longer sustain the illusion that there is a fundamental fairness in our system of governance. As with the Soviet Union, the links between political power and material wealth throw a spotlight on the fundamental corruption of a system of power referred to by the meaningless term of “capitalism”. People have long accepted the concept that those who acquire greater wealth wield greater political power, but now that we can no longer deny that it is in fact those who wield greater political power who acquire greater wealth. It was always so, but used to be arranged on a class basis in order that it would seem that some neutral economic mechanics of market functions made certain people wealthier than others. Now we can see quite plainly that the wealthy write laws to make themselves more wealthy at the expense of the poor. People are pissed off, but more to the point they are literally dis-illusioned. It is also no coincidence that this occurs at a time when the fist of the police state is ever more evident in both the use of physical force and in the unprecedented level of surveillance. Our society resembles the late era of the Soviet Union right down to the denial of the metastasised systemic malignancies of a régime that eats its own rotten flesh and sweeps the victims of its dysfunction under a rug bearing a bread-and-circus motif.
Another Reluctant Warmonger
Those who are familiar with the history of the US decision to launch all-out war in Vietnam may get déja vu. Those who already experienced déja vu over the Iraq occupation maybe feeling déja vu encore. (We may not have been impressed with what occurred in Iraq, but clearly someone gave it a standing ovation). Once again the US is proposing that a failure to act will make it appear weak and proposing instead to act in a way which its own analysis suggests will reveal it to be impotent. With regard to Viet Nam concern for “credibility” is still widely accepted as a motive for US aggression. After all, even if it seems a stupid rationale, US policy makers might really have believed it, surely? But, there is a difference between stupid and nonsensical. I don’t personally believe that the US policy makers were individually or collectively stupid, but even if they were that would not be sufficient to give weight to these claims. To claim that the US acted to maintain its “credibility” would be to suggest that they believed their credibility would be heightened by what Kissinger described as, “victory by a third class Communist peasant state.” That, after all, is what their most comprehensive analyses kept suggesting would be the outcome if they continued their escalating commitment, and so, logically, they chose this outcome (being “defeated” by a small nation of peasant farmers) over any other options such as neutralisation or simple unilateral withdrawal and the disowning of the GVN. To reitierate: the idea we are supposed to believe is that being militarily defeated by the poorly armed peasants a small underdeveloped state is supposed to be better for US credibility than doing nothing or bullying said state into massive concessions at the negotiating table.
The credibility motive idea also requires a belief in the highly exaggerated vulnerability of the US evidenced in Nixon’s “pitiful helpless giant” speech. The fact is that all other state actors during the Cold War were at all times very reluctant to really offend or provoke the US. The US no more needed to show a propensity to use its unparalleled might than a 200 kilogram gorilla would have to do so in order to induce those nearby to be cautious. The sheer irrationality of this is perhaps most clearly shown by McGeorge Bundy’s February 1965 memorandum suggesting that the US should bomb the DRV to demonstrate to everyone that the US was willing to bomb the DRV.
In the more recent case Obama is proposing to strike Syria because to leave Syria unpunished is to appear weak, but what exactly are the proposed cruise missile strikes supposed to achieve? They will not diminish anyone’s chemical weapons capacity. They will not achieve régime change. They won’t improve the negotiating position of the rebels. But missile strikes on Syria will demonstrate that the US can conduct missile strikes on Syria. Sound familiar? This weird contention that a message must be sent to Iran and North Korea is to suggest that if either régime attacks its own people with “weapons of mass destruction” the US will also attack their people with weapons that cause mass destruction (not to be confused with “weapons of mass destruction” which are only used by evil régimes).
Abroad in the echoing canyon of mainstream mass yodels is the floating signifier of presidential reluctance. Before the British parliament voted against action, some alleged journalists were trying to say that Obama was having his arm twisted by allied countries. Others say Obama painted himself into a corner with his own rhetoric of a “red line”. More say that the unprecedented nature of these alleged crimes places demands on Obama that he cannot ignore. For those who actually believe that the Syrian army are responsible (given what we know about far more deadly chemical attacks by Iraq) the unprecedented aspect must be the alleged fact that these attacks would have been conducted without US approval and assistance (such as the US supplied to Iraq in numerous ways when it was using CW against Iranian soldiers and civilians. I will admit that it is pretty shocking and chilling to think that people would commit atrocities without Henry Kissinger’s involvement at some level, but I have it on good authority that mass murders occurred before Henry was even born. Strange, I know, but there it is.)
It used to be said of Israel that the Labour Zionist approach to Palestinians was “shoot, then cry”, but for sheer histrionic reluctance while committing mass-murder nothing can quite compare to a Democrat in the Whitehouse. Some point to Wilson’s 1916 campaign pledge to stay out of the Great War and decision to send troops in 1917, but for my money nothing will ever match Br’er Johnson’s “please don’t throw me in the Vietnam quagmire” performance. Johnson made a very vocal show of having his hand forced. He famously, after the fact, referred to the conflict as that “bitch of a war”. In addition, he called it a “god-awful mess”, and himself as “hooked like a catfish” and “trapped”. He had a habit of thinking out loud with regard to the war, wondering how he could maintain his “posture as a man of peace” and making it clear that all the options available to him were unpalatable. He would have frequent theatrical outbursts of indignation against hawkish advisers and, on one occasion, the constant changes of régime in the RVN (brought about by his own administration).
The most bizarre Johnson outburst I have come across is an instance where a Major was, for no apparent reason, made to hold a map during a meeting between Johnson and the JCS, becoming “an easel with ears”. Later he described the event to Christian Appy:
“…Johnson exploded. I almost dropped the map. He just started screaming these obscenities. They were just filthy. It was something like: “You goddamn fucking assholes. You’re trying to get me to start World War III with your idiotic bullshit – your ‘military wisdom.’” He insulted each of them individually. “You dumb shit. Do you expect me to believe that kind of crap? I’ve got the weight of the Free World on my shoulders and you want me to start World War III?” He called them shitheads and pompous assholes and used the f-word more freely than a marine in boot camp. He really degraded them and cursed at them. The he went back to a calm voice, as if he’d finished playing his little role….”
Historian Fred Logevall describes Johnson’s behaviour as a “charade” undertaken because “Johnson wanted history to record that he agonised.”
Tinkerbell Gets the Clap
Sometimes the more ridiculous and stupid one’s beliefs, the harder to let go of them simply because of the pain of realisation. I recently heard a story of a foreign student in my country who, after an accident, had ended up in hospital with a broken neck, arm, and ribs. She insisted that the sign indicating the suggested speed at which one should take the corner was in fact indicating the number of degrees of bend. She insisted despite being told otherwise by her native-born teacher. She insisted despite the fact that a hairpin bend is obviously not a mere 15 degrees and despite the fact that labelling bends in degrees is a facially ridiculous and unworkable idea. She insisted despite actually being in hospital because of this idiotic belief. However it is tempting to think that if she had been told of her foolishness before her accident she might have been more accepting, so really she insisted because she was in hospital. The problem is that after the event, telling the young woman that she had been really stupid and the author of her own woes does not endear one to her.
I have no doubt that if there is one thing that keeps me isolated from potential intellectual allies it is the fact that I will not soften the blow or sweeten the bitter pill of telling people who oppose US aggression that they are being complete morons every time they smugly condemn the stupidity of US political and military leaders. After 1965 proving that you were smarter that the “best and the brightest” was all the rage for the better and brighter among journalists. Of course the journalists’ problem was that they were fighting the last war (actually the war before that, but a favourite accusation of such iconoclastic journalists is that the US military is “fighting the last war” – there is nothing like a good facile cliché to destroy reflection). They were assuming that the US was losing a war for national security, national self-interest or, at the very least, the enrichment of the national bourgeois ruling class. Instead an imperial cabal was successfully committing an imperial genocide but doing so at a considerable cost to national security, national self-interest and the enrichment of the national bourgeoisie. Some corporate interests did profit immensely, but they were not the “capitalists” who make cars and fridges and such-like, they were imperial interests whose activities (arms, media, finance, oil/energy, biochemical, water) give direct control over populations. The profits they made were also not from the looting of Indochina but from the looting of the US taxpayer in payment for their role in inflicting genocidal death and destruction on Laos, Cambodia and Viet Nam.
Beginning with US actions in Indochina, but certainly aided by Ronald Reagan and Dan “Potatoe” Quayle, opposition to US foreign policy became ever more mired in self-congratulatory armchair generalisms. The apex of this was the George W. Bush era. Bush was like the Stupid Fairy (Dumberbell). Every time he should have been politically dead (Enron, 9-11, Tora Bora, Katrina) he was resurrected, not by the meathead war lovers, but by the smug liberals who shut their eyes and clapped: “I believe in the Stupid Fairy! I believe in the Stupid Fairy!” And because they believed, and because their hearts were true and pure, nobody said “hey, this guy is doing all of this stuff on purpose”. With the invasion of Iraq Bush engaged in sophisticated and systematic deception in order to justify the continuation of genocide in a new and more brutal phase using invasion and occupation. Even those who knew he was lying completely about his motives still said he was doing it just because he was stupid.
This brings us back to present-day Obama. Already alternative media commentators who are convinced that Obama is lying are equally certain that he doesn’t have any real reason for attacking Syria. It’s all one big mistake because Obama is stupid, or because he is too proud to back down from his unwise and disingenuous mention of a “red line” (which was just innocently thrown out there as a warning to Syria, and was definitely not a keynote in an ongoing campaign to build support for military action). I can already imagine that the academic hacks who indulge in “psychopolitics” are beginning to see how his absent father and lack of ethno-racial peers in childhood would incline Obama to want to attack Syria in a maverick gunslinger at high-noon sort of way. But one does not construct an elaborate deception without having something to conceal. And one does not use this deception to commit a war crime without a pretty serious motive.
The Real Reason
The helpless giant rhetoric currently being used by Obama and Kerry is incredibly weak. Many millions in the US and throughout the Western world, already much more jaded than during Obama’s first term, will become permanently distrusting of the US government. The very fact that Obama was supposed to be different than Bush has been a huge advantage which has enabled Obama to act in ways that Bush would never have been allowed to act. But now those that lose faith in Obama are liable to lose faith in the régime altogether, and they are likely to stay that way for a very long time if not until the day they die. Outside of the West, the fact that even the lies and rationalisations are so pathetic quite understandably fuels an extreme level of anger and directs that anger far more at the people of the US and the West than Bush’s actions ever could. The Obama administration would not create this situation without significant reasons.
With regard to the the specific instance of the threatened cruise missile strikes against Syria I must be speculative, but with regard to the context of ongoing support for armed rebels in Syria I can speak more firmly. I have heard it said that the US encouraged or allowed its Syrian National Council allies or clients to repudiate offers of negotiations on the basis that the US was hoping for military victory. But without a major outside military intervention there has never been any realistic prospect of a rebel victory. When I outlined to an acquaintance the factors which show that the US is, in fact, trying to ensure that conflict continues without a decision there was a reflexive response that the the driving force must be the US arms manufacturers seeking profits. It think that such a response would be common but, in my opinion, it borders on magic thinking. In general, if you think that the tail is wagging the dog then you do not understand how the dog works. Instead it should be clear that the US ensures the continuation of conflict in Syria because the conflict weakens Syria. The conflict destroys Syrian property, divides Syrian society, and kills Syrians.
There must be a real and substantive motive behind US behaviour. These are matters of extreme weight undertaken by an enormous bureaucratic machine. Between the State Department, the National Security Council, the “intelligence community” and the Department of Defense it is not as if Obama could or would just poke his head around the door one Tuesday afternoon and say: “Hey Chuck, how about we arm those FSA dudes?” If there is reason and consideration behind US actions then, why do they not just share those reasons with us? George Orwell had the answer to that question back in 1946: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties.”
The fact is the Obama and Kerry could honestly explain what they are doing in Syria, but to do so would cause worldwide riots; would see allies repudiating their relationship with the US; and might even spawn serious moves towards war-crimes trials perhaps even in the US itself. The US needs to exert some form of control over the Middle East because of its oil resources. Since it cannot rule directly or even indirectly (because the interests of most Middle Eastern people are not compatible with US imperial interests) it must seek to enfeeble these inherently inimical societies through destabilisation and direct or indirect destruction. This is very deadly and very brutal behaviour.
In Iraq it was exactly this sort of behaviour, working on exactly this sort of rationale, that saw the US by direct means cause over 2 million Iraqi deaths in the space of 20 years and leave a shattered and poisoned land of ongoing mass violence behind. This was war conducted against the nation of Iraq – not the government of Iraq, nor the army of Iraq, but the people of Iraq. When Raphaël Lemkin wanted to describe the “antithesis of the … doctrine [which] holds that war is directed against sovereigns and armies, not against subjects and civilians” he came up with a brand new term. That term was “genocide”. That is what genocide means, it means war conducted against a people, their society, their culture, their economy and not their government’s army. In this sense, and under the law contained in the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, there is no question that the US committed genocide in Iraq. If it were ever to be argued properly in court, the case would be open and shut regardless of the fact that many Iraqis died at the hands of the avowed enemies of the US.
Am I then suggesting that the US is committing genocide in Syria when it is not directly involved and when it is the Syrian government forces that have caused many if not most of the fatalities? Yes and no. It is not important whether people apply the term “genocide” or not. What is important is that people realise that the logic behind US actions is the logic of genocide. Some might say that if you are going to look at things this way, you might just as well say that almost everything the US government does is genocidal, including most of its behaviour towards the people of the US itself. Again, that is for the reader to decide. You can make up all the conditions you want for what is and is not genocide as long as they are cogent and applied consistently, but bear in mind that Lemkin invented the term to describe the German approach to all occupied Europe as a whole, not just to certain minorities. Genocide denoted the general strategic approach to direct rule by the Germans (including many actions which were not direct violence) but Lemkin applied the term to imperialist and colonialist dominance and would certainly have applied it to neocolonial violence and control where it was merited.
That is why the Obama has to recycle some of the lamest Johnson, Nixon and Bush rhetoric. That is why Kerry is comparing Assad to Saddam Hussein and Hitler. These are not words which endear the US régime to the world. They don’t inspire confidence or belief. They sound strained and desperate. But the Obama administration is willing to lose credibility at home and abroad because the cost of explaining it real motives would be far far higher.
As to the specifics of why this current behaviour of deliberately and theatrically telegraphing an intent to deliver illegal “punishment” it is probably both a show of force and impunity and a provocation. Given that calling for US attacks is not going to win the SNC and FSA many friends in Syria, it seems a little like the last throw of the dice, but remember that the US has nothing to lose but its credibility. Even if the bulk of the armed resistance to Assad is crushed or quits in disgust at the actions of the US and the most fanatical Islamists, there will be ample opportunity for the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and whomever else wishes to continue destabilisation operations that continue to push Syria ever and ever closer to failed statehood and a permanent crisis of violence and misery.
That is a good point to end on – a reminder that 20 years ago there was no such thing as a “failed state”. It is true that we could have applied the term to Lon Nol’s Cambodia and to the Democratic Kampuchea régime that followed (Kissinger could take the bulk of the credit for both). There would have been other scattered instances before, but on the whole it is a new phenomenon. US destabilisation programmes and warfare, often undertaken by proxies, are responsible for creating these failed states. Events in the Eastern Congo (part of the Democratic Republic of Congo) have shown that having a society being ripped apart and the violent deaths of millions need not interfere with mineral extraction and obscene profits – quite the contrary. This is the neocolonial equivalent of King Leopold’s holocaust. Even if at lower intensities, it is applied throughout the poor states of the world, particularly those rich in resources. This is a genocidal approach aimed at “the destruction in whole or part” of underdeveloped peoples and ultimately even the peoples of the global North.
In the case of Syria, from an imperialist perspective it may be that the horrors of this civil war are doing their job quite well. With 100,000 dead and 2 million external refugees, Israel has decided to allow oil and gas exploration in the Golan Heights. Given that the Golan Heights are part of Syria, Israel would never have dared such a move if the Syria had not been drastically weakened. The contract has been awarded to Genie energy, a company whose “strategic advisory board” include Dick Cheney, Jacob Rothschild and Rupert Murdoch.