Obama’s Fateful Line in the Sand
To die by cobra is not to die by bad pork
— Gregory Corso, “Bomb”
Who would have imagined that, five years into Barack Obama’s tenancy of the White House, American whistleblowers would seek refuge in Russia (or China or in formerly subservient but now robustly independent South American countries) or that investigative journalists and documentary film makers would find Germany or Brazil safer havens in which to practice their trade than the United States?
The answer is no one: not even those of us who have always been skeptical not just of Obama’s leadership skills but also of his intentions.
At the same time, some things haven’t changed: the American government, like all governments, still wallows in hypocrisy.
But even with a President more “disappointing” than anyone would have imagined, and a government that demonizes its enemies’ depredations and cloaks its own in the mantle of “humanitarian” righteousness, the “line in the sand” that the Syrian government may or may not have crossed is still over the top.
Remarkably, though, hardly anyone in the political or media mainstream sees it that way.
President Obama declared long ago and more than once that should Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad use chemical weapons against rebels trying to overthrow his government, he would risk bringing the United States – and whatever “coalition of the willing” partners he could cobble together – into the war on the rebel side.
It was plain even at the time that Obama had boxed himself in. If that line is crossed and he does nothing about it, he will look indecisive and weak. With elections (always) looming, a President, especially a Democratic one, cannot afford that. Neither can any leader of an imperialist super-power that bullies the world.
As of now, it is not certain what actually happened August 21 in Jobar, a rebel-held district on the outskirts of Damascus. All that is known for sure is that a lot of people, perhaps as many as thirteen hundred (though probably fewer), died.
Informed observers agree that chemical weapons were used, but there is no agreement on the identity of the perpetrators; each side blames the other. The predominant view – promoted by Western governments and by Assad’s enemies in the Arabian Peninsula and also by many Western and Middle Eastern journalists, is that it was Assad’s “regime.”
[In media parlance, the government Assad leads is a “regime,” while Obama heads an “administration.” “Regime” sounds nasty, and “regime change” is sometimes an estimable goal. “Administrations,” on the other hand, are benign and, as the word suggests, almost apolitical. School boards, universities and public utilities (the ones that haven’t yet been privatized) have administrations; dictatorships have regimes.]
Maybe Assad really is culpable; he has never been a leader who bothered much about ethical side constraints, and he does seem intent on holding onto power by any means necessary.
But the cui bono? (who benefits?) principle suggests the opposite. The Syrian government plainly has enough popular support to withstand the forces arrayed against it. Indeed, it seems to be winning the war.
Amidst all the murder and mayhem, it has become increasingly evident that the rebel forces cannot win — unless something happens to alter the balance of forces.
And what could happen besides Western, especially American, intervention?
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have been arming the rebels for some time; lately the West has joined in as well. The United States has already announced its intention to increase its already considerable share.
At the same time, our leaders understand that siding with the rebels is a risky business if only because the forces in rebellion include some of the Islamists the U.S. is fighting against elsewhere. The Obama administration has always been clueless on the Middle East, but there are limits even to its folly.
And so the prospects for a successful proxy war against the Syrian government are bleak; rebel forces can tie the Assad “regime” down, but not destroy it.
To effect regime change – in other words, to overthrow Assad’s government — the U.S. and its allies may have to go to war on their own.
But for that idea to sell, a suitable pretext must be found. Only then might the United Nations be persuaded to approve military action. So far, principled Russian and Chinese opposition have blocked that prospect.
In our topsy-turvy world those countries are not only better than the United States on the right of international humanitarian asylum, but also on other venerable precepts of international law – like those that uphold the right of sovereign states to be free from external, unprovoked aggression.
The United States has lately settled on a different principle sometimes called the “responsibility (and right) to protect.” That ostensibly well-intentioned notion is a concoction of “humanitarian interventionists.” Obama has brought some notorious proponents of that idea into his administration – Susan Rice and Samantha Powers, among others.
Humanitarian interventionism is neo-conservatism for liberals. It operates to “justify” the United States and other Western countries taking on the role of planetary gendarmes ever at the ready to visit death and destruction upon “regimes” that challenge American domination or otherwise thwart the empire’s will.
Because Russia – and therefore the United Nations Security Council – was not willing to go along, the Clinton administration had to resort to this kind of thinking to excuse the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Serbian areas throughout the former Yugoslavia.
The pretext then was a “humanitarian crisis” in Kosovo. George Bush would go on to deploy even phonier pretexts to justify his wars. But it was the Clinton administration that showed how it could be done.
When hard core neocons came into power under Bush and Dick Cheney, the humanitarian intervention excuse became otiose — real neocons don’t need no stinkin’ responsibilities or rights to overthrow governments they don’t like. Under Obama’s aegis, with the neocons gone, the idea has sprung back to life.
Since he took office, the responsibility (and right) to protect has been invoked, at least implicitly, in each of the large-scale military misadventures Obama has undertaken — the “surge” in Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Libyan government in 2011. The former was his fabrication; in the latter, he only “led from behind.”
If the Obama administration has learned anything from those mistakes, there is no sign of it. And so, in our name, Syria is on line to become the next killing field.
Since drones are not enough, that will mean bombers – shades of Kosovo – and perhaps cruise missiles; anything to keep American casualties down.
That is crucial because, like Clinton before him, Obama fears hostile public opinion. In Clinton’s time, there were still vestiges of the Vietnam Syndrome to overcome. Now, as the endless wars spawned in the aftermath of 9/11 drag on, the public has grown war-weary.
Syrian casualties, however, are another story; racking them up is the whole point. To stop Assad from killing Syrians with poison gas, Obama will kill them with cruise missiles and bombs.
It is hard to see how anyone can endorse a program so ludicrous, and so morally flawed, without the words sticking in their craw – and yet they do.
And even in a world that where rank hypocrites run the show, as they always have, the hypocrisy in this instance is so breathtaking it can hardly be believed.
After all, Obama is the Commander-in-Chief of a military that, within recent years, has used napalm, white phosphorous and depleted uranium shells, along with a host of other conventional and non-conventional horrors. These weapons are not illegal under international law if used against combatants (a fine point the U.S. often ignores), but they are no less terrible than sarin gas.
Chemical weapons fall into a separate category, but not because they are more horrendous than other weapons now widely in use. They are different for historical reasons that are sometimes set aside, but that sometimes weigh heavily in official circles when it suits nefarious government purposes.
Saddam Hussein used multiple chemical agents, reportedly supplied by the United States, against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, and then in 1988, he used chemical weapons against the Kurdish town of Halabja, killing more than 3000 (perhaps as many as 5000) people, and injuring many others.
None of this bothered the United States until Bush the father found it expedient to demonize his erstwhile collaborator, the Iraqi dictator, during the buildup to the Bush family’s First Gulf War. Even then, it was only the massacre of the Kurds that provoked outrage; gassing Iranians was fine.
Chemical weapons cause injury and death; they ought never to be used. But they have been used without complaint on the part of “the world community,” and they are inherently no worse than many weapons that the American military regularly deploys.
They are certainly not worse than the nuclear weapons that figure prominently still in American strategic planning documents, and that might well be used should the United States or Israel invade Iran and then find their operations going poorly.
Why, then, is the use of chemical weapons in Syria, in the course of an on-going civil war, a reasonable basis for drawing a line in the sand, one that could trigger further disasters around the entire region and throughout the world?
The cynical answer is that neocons and humanitarian interventionists need pretexts, and this is the best they are likely to get. But then there is also the issue of historical memory.
In the aftermath of the First World War, where chemical weapons were indeed more horrifying than any other weapons in use, there were attempts to outlaw war and also, as it were, to civilize it. Needless to say, little came of these well-intentioned efforts.
But a taboo on the use of chemical weapons in combat did take hold. It held up even during the Second World War, and then in the countless counter-insurgency wars the West fought in its aftermath.
That this taboo endured is all the more remarkable inasmuch as it was not legally binding until 1997, when the Chemical Weapons Convention finally went into effect. Syria, by the way, has never been a signatory to that pact.
Why the special revulsion to chemical weapons? Is it worse to be attacked with sarin gas than with bombs or cruise missiles or, for that matter, with Obama’s drones?
Nothing beats drones for terrorizing populations because one never knows when they are coming, and there is no way to protect against them.
For the rest, including poison gas, at least there are shelters and gas masks. But what difference would that make to the dead and dying?
* * *
Why then draw a line in the sand where Obama did?
Could it be because chemical weapons are illegal (though not in Syria)? That would be a more credible explanation if our Commander-in-Chief and his minions in the military-security state complex weren’t quite as heedless of the spirit – and sometimes the letter – of the law as they have repeatedly shown themselves to be.
A more likely explanation is that, at various points in recent months, Obama found it convenient to throw the neocons and humanitarian interventionists a bone, and didn’t quite think through the consequences.
But then why is there so much acquiescence worldwide to the idea that if the Syrian government did indeed cross the line, then something must be done? It is as if the world is in the grip of a dangerous collective imbecility?
The irony is that Obama plainly knows better; the last thing he wants – or needs — is another war of choice in the Middle East.
But he may not be able to resist the pressure.
It is coming full blast from the (increasingly vociferous) War Party in Congress, from Israel, from Britain and France (always eager, lately, for lovely little wars), and of course from the hordes of chicken-hawk pundits who populate the mainstream media.
This may be a case where the problem is not Obama’s instincts or judgment so much as his weakness, his inability to lead. That he drew a line in the sand doesn’t help either.
In all likelihood, there is still time for him to put reason in control, and Just Say No. Don’t count on it, however.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).