You wouldn’t expect a comedian to deliver an insight into the American doctrinal system, but George Carlin once did. During a memorable stand-up performance, he talked how the American military manipulates the nomenclature of war to shield the public from the grisly effects of the battlefield. He noted how, after World War I, soldiers returned to the States having been “shell shocked.” After World War II, those vacant stares, concussed reasoning, and horrible headaches were refashioned as, “combat fatigue”. A lexical summit was reached following the Vietnam War, when psychiatrists hit upon the bland and innocuous, “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”, a benign term more suggestive of the clinical aftermath than the living hell.
As our Gulf Wars unfurled before us on CNN, the phrase was truncated to “PTSD”, satisfying the all-new 24-hour news cycle. Once mentioned, it was swiftly buried beneath an avalanche of mystifying military terms, such as the F-15, the scud, SA-3s, WMDs, projectile munitions, ABMs, incendiaries, UAVs, bunker busters, APCs, Kevlar vests, DMZs and IEDs, among others. No surprise that the viewer would often fall into a catatonic state as the on-screen army lieutenant waved a magic wand at a topography of bombardment.
Carlin’s expert description of this nuanced progression from clarity to anguished abstraction is still relevant, as the Pentagon busily redefines every new term generated by feckless international bodies hoping to place constraints on its reckless imperialism. Even as I write, three such terms are helping to freshly disarm the conscience of the American public for wars with Syria and Iran, a process now codified into three simple steps, no more difficult to learn than a Caribbean salsa.
Falsifying a Legitimate Framework: RTP
America has for some time been intervening abroad under the flimsy pretext of “humanitarian intervention.” Since Bill Clinton’s Eastern European exploits made a travesty of this well-intentioned term, and George Bush’s Iraqi quagmire helped cement its fate, it became obvious to the sage arbiters of empire that our ham-fisted use of such a delicate euphemism had delegitimized it. Hence the more recent “Responsibility to Protect” (RTP), which makes imperial interference feel a bit more consequential if not sufficiently messianic. The RTP protocol was defined and passed as a resolution by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005, the latest in a long line of ethical protocols designed to restrain state terror, but whose ironic fate is to be used by states to justify the very acts they were meant to deter.
As Noam Chomsky recently related, another version of RTP has been commonly invoked by the West, namely that of The Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty on Responsibility to Protect, by an extempore Canadian commission headed by Gareth Evans, former Australian Prime Minister and “intellectual father” of RTP. It authorizes “action within an area of jurisdiction by regional organizations subject to their seeking subsequent authorization from the Security Council.” Note how this version makes the Security Council’s sanction a requirement—ex post facto. The U.N. version requires not only a Security Council resolution in advance of action, but also real attempts at mediation, sanction regimes, and other non-military means as a necessary impediment to rash unilateral interventions. By including an option for states to act beyond the purview of the U.N., the Evans version simply elides the very protocol that gave the RTP its heft. States are thus morally compelled, when faced with a temporizing Security Council, to act unilaterally to address “conscience shocking situations crying out for action.”
This hyperbolic moral injunction was conjured, in spirit if not name, by George Bush in 2003 just moments after conjuring WMDs out of thin air. The right often rails against the idea of diluting our sky-clear moral vision in the amoral bogs of the U.N. General Assembly, where worldwide pariahs like Iran and Iraq and Venezuela have a say in the decision-making process. But the alternative—leaving decisions about interventions up to the jaundiced and self-interested judgment of imperial states—is far worse.
Summoning the Mushroom Cloud: WMDs
With the shabby justifications of a reworked RTP at the ready, the fear of “conscience-shocking” events must be made to “cry out for action.” This spring and summer, the always-useful Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) rationale is being re-commissioned as the falling domino that invokes RTP in the Syrian conflict.
In contrast to PTSD, which is what our soldiers suffer, and is thus designed to disguise the evidence of real anguish, the term WMD is what the enemy possesses, and is thusly calibrated for maximum fearmongering. So far it is a brilliant acronym for stirring up hostile sentiment. The signal for intervention used to be given by a mushroom cloud, the fear of which had mid-century Americans frantically digging absurd bomb shelters in their backyards. Today, the mushroom cloud is a low fog. Chemical weapons are the trending WMD and clear “red line” across which dire consequences await the perpetrator. On Tuesday The New York Times noted that the Obama administration has concluded “with some degree of varying confidence,” that the Assad regime has slain rebels with chemicals. This despite concessions that the sarin chain of custody is hazy. The issue is thus settled. Evidence is no longer a prerequisite for conviction. A dose of speculation from the Times and a grave look from John Kerry will do. (See the annexation of Texas and Gulf of Tonkin as useful precedents in this regard.)
Thus President Obama will be free to step forward, unencumbered by needless legal restraints, to invoke his fuzzy math: WMD + RTP = NATO. Later a few groggy journalists, hung over from the festival of premeditated bloodlust, will hazily recall that key evidence for the use of chemical weapons is by the rebels themselves. But the story will be drowned in the din of gurgling marine fuel as aircraft carriers speed toward Syrian shores.
War By Another Name: NFZ
If WMDs are the smoking gun, the vaunted “No Fly Zone” has become the default mechanism by which we actually implement RTP. As witheringly outlined by Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic, the imposition of a no-fly zone is an act of war. Imposing one means laying waste not only to a country’s air force, but also its caches of anti-aircraft missiles. Warmongering zealots like Arizona Congressman John McCain, who persistently calls for a no-fly zone in Syria and anywhere else bombs can helpfully fall, often fail to note—as even U.S. military officials have—that just 10 percent of the casualties in the Syrian conflict are victims of President Bashar al-Assad’s air power. Doesn’t this call the no-fly strategy into question? Not if your objective is regime change. Any pretext will suffice.
It is instructive to note the disinterest with which the U.S. treats another less scintillating strategic option: diplomacy. Proposed talks between Syrian stakeholders and Russia, the United States, and Iran have been kneecapped by America’s petulant insistence that Iran be excluded. After all, the larger point of the conflict is to expose Tehran. Having them usefully negotiating a cease fire would only undermine that objective’s critical dependency: deposing Assad. Comically, the Syrian National Council (SNC) has lifted a page from America’s negotiating playbook by refusing to participate unless Assad’s removal is agreed to in advance. This is asking that one’s demands be met as a pre-condition of negotiations. If Assad were to concede this, what would be point of the talks? Could not the SNC simply fax a timetable to the bunkered regime?
This petulant demand by the SNC belies its hubris. The SNC knows that the West is salivating at the prospect of replacing Assad with a pliant Sunni proxy. But even this is naïve. Can we be sure that the SNC itself is not a front for a bought-and-paid-for mix of Salafist mercenaries, motivated, armed, and backed by Western intelligence?
In any event, foreign populations aren’t much interested in our brotherly assistance. Perhaps because it so often results in greater bloodshed than was originally anticipated by state action, as was the case with the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, when massive ethnic cleansing was hysterically conducted under the chaos of the bombing raids. In just the last dozen years, our unquenchable thirst for petro-resources has led, directly or indirectly, to hundreds of thousands of deaths across the Middle East, beginning in Iraq and continuing through the Syrian conflict today, with rubble-strewn Libyan towns and Afghan villages littered in between. And that’s leaving aside the many thousands of dismembered, otherwise maimed, exiled or internally displaced citizens.
It was precisely this fear that caused the RTP to draw fire at a 2009 General Assembly debate. All of the usual suspects objected. Iran complained of the lack of a normative framework for the application of RTP. Venezuela stressed the possibility that the concept could be manipulated for the exploitation of weaker states. Syria complained that a critical clause on the protection of the population had been mysteriously elided from the Secretary-General’s report on implementation of RTP.
But their misgivings fell on deaf ears. We’re now witnessing the consequences, as the Syrian plot unfolds with an Iranian showdown brimming on the horizon. Is it any wonder that the U.S. and Israel were notably silent during those proceedings? Would their insipid platitudes have inspired anything but contempt?
Almost anywhere American foreign policy is at work, there are tragedies afoot. Drones filter through the depleted ozone over lands still smoldering with depleted uranium. The most heinous deformities now appear in the birth population of Fallujah, where the U.S. deployed white phosphorous against Iraqi ‘insurgents.’ At the State Department, bizarre blueprints dating from the neocon era still promise to refashion the Middle East as a deregulated free market paradise—or at worst, an plundered ghetto good for renditions and other imperial habits that require a touch of inhumanity.
Flags of Freedom
Whether the rationale is RTP or WMD or a flight-free sky, the images that will soon swarm your television set will serve up the prefabricated triumph of might in the service of higher moralities. You already know the script. Our benevolent but militant emissaries will plant our spangled flags alongside foreign oil derricks. They’ll prop up a makeshift government infused with uncomprehending exiles and unfeeling sociopaths. Then they’ll attempt to pacify the vanquished with the maxims of a threadbare paternalism—and the great gift of a phantom democracy. The storyline has become so tawdry and discredited in recent years, it is a wonder that our government even bothers to defend its actions. Better to drop the pretense altogether, embrace the dark side, and proclaim our lofty vision for the planet: One world, under surveillance, with indignity and injustice for all. All rights reserved.
Jason Hirthler is a writer, strategist, and 17-year veteran of the communications industry. He lives and works in New York City and can be reached at email@example.com.