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On Syria and Serbia
Kaiser Obama
by ELLIOT SPERBER

When Barack Obama was an inexperienced presidential candidate back in 2008, one question that was repeatedly raised was whether he was qualified to competently carry out the duties required of the executive. Upon announcing that – contrary to Bush’s belligerent approach – he favored negotiating with foreign leaders, Obama invoked John F. Kennedy’s failed attempt to negotiate with then Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev in Vienna in 1961. Confirming the suspicions of many, Obama’s example betrayed a profound lack of knowledge of US history. For, among other things, Kennedy was famously out of his depths in that 1961 summit. Not only did Khruschev bully and belittle Kennedy, in Kennedy’s own words Khruschev treated him “like a little boy.” Telling New York Times reporter James Reston that Khruschev “beat the hell out of me,” and “savaged me,” Kennedy added that his dealings with Khruschev at that 1961 summit amounted to one “of the worst experiences of my life.”

Needless to say, John F. Kennedy’s foreign relations debacle would not seem a very strong precedent to invoke if one wanted to encourage confidence in one’s capacity to handle international affairs.

Five years later, as Obama trains his tomahawk missiles on Syria – pursuing a war path certain to lead to further horror for untold Syrians and the region in general – one cannot help but wonder whether President Obama is as ignorant of early 20th century history as candidate Obama was of the Cold War.

Though Obama seems confident that a strike against Syria would amount to a “limited”, controlled, conflict, it is hardly arcane knowledge that unpredictability and dissimulation are not only the most elementary of warfare tactics, but invariables of military conflict. As that master militarist Napoleon Bonaparte put it, “War is a lottery, and one should risk only small amounts.” In spite of this maxim, however, and Obama’s assurances to the contrary, a war with Syria risks very large amounts. Not only does it carry the potential to fuel a long, drawn out conflict in the already destabilized region, anyone paying attention to the Middle East over the past few years must recognize that such a strike could easily lead to thermonuclear war as well. Though this may sound sensationalistic, the probability of such a catastrophic outcome is so real that it should not be dismissed out of hand. As is well known, Israel is not only in possession of nuclear weaponry, the US ally (and the US itself for that matter) has been gunning for war with Iran – one of Syria’s most important allies – for years. Pakistan, another nuclear power, has meanwhile stated that it would oppose the US should the latter attack Iran, potentially dragging India, another US ally (and nuclear power) into the fray as well. Seen from this perspective, it is beyond foolhardy to predict a quick, easy outcome – not that that is what Obama actually wants.

By all accounts, a quick outcome was never the Obama Administration’s top goal. Rather than preventing a humanitarian crisis, until recently Obama et al. were primarily interested in keeping the war going as long as possible, encouraging the belligerents to bleed themselves dry. It seems a prolonged war, rather than peace, would, ironically, have created the most stable situation – at least as far US interests are concerned, Syrian people be damned.

As conditions shifted, however, and insofar as Obama seems to be following the George H. W. Bush, post-Cold War “New World Order” associated with the Cheney, Wolfowitz, et al., Project for the New American Century (one major aim of which is the initiation of war against Iraq, Iran, and Syria, among other nations), there are plenty of reasons to suspect that the US would not shrink from taking advantage of an opening in the fluctuating Syria situation – allowing the US to not only shore up its control of the Middle East, with its vast resources, but to contribute to its encirclement of China to boot.

Notwithstanding such grand designs vis-a-vis Syria, and with the caveat that one can never really know what is being planned, as the pitch for war intensifies it seems safe to presume that the Obama team does not necessarily plan to restrict US involvement to the “limited scope” heretofore discussed. To be sure, as the New York Times reported, when Saudi and Syrian opposition leaders complained about the potential lack of forcefulness implied by the pledge to deliver limited strikes, John Kerry assured them that language involving limitations was only designed to mollify the US public.

Additionally, instead of the delay attached to Obama’s decision to wait for congressional approval for a US strike leading to cooler, more pacific heads, the delay appears to be producing a predictably contrary effect; instead of cooling down, feelings are heating up. As retired US General Jack Keane told the BBC, goals are being reassessed. Rather than simply talking about restoring a chemical weapon-free norm, talk has turned to not only “deterring” but “degrading” Assad’s military capabilities. At the same time that the military is discussing degrading Assad’s forces, talk has turned as well to “upgrading” the opposition – all of which sounds far closer to advocating the “regime change” that, just days ago, was dismissed as being outside the “limited scope” of the intended strike.

In spite of all this, even if the US could, hypothetically, simply and quickly “restore” the chemical weapon-free “norm” which was – in the words of National Security Adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes – the principal rationale for air strikes, and even if US forces could quickly withdraw from the war-zone, there is still no way to ensure that a military intensification of the sort involving missile strikes won’t inadvertently widen the conflict.

Indeed, while Obama’s argument in favor of launching a military strike against Syria – specifically his position that his and US credibility is at stake – brings to mind JFK’s Cuban Missile Crisis, the parallel is in fact far closer to an exponentially far more severe conflict, one that started nearly one hundred years ago: the first World War. This, however, should not lead one to dismiss all comparisons to the Cuban Missile Crisis; by launching an attack on Syria, Obama would not be merely potentially instigating a world war, he would be setting in motion what could very well amount to a world war fought with nuclear weapons.

Though this may sound dramatic, it should not really be too contentious a claim. For, in addition to the likely involvement of Israel (and possibly Pakistan), the US – the only country to attack another with nuclear weaponry – has already been using low-grade nuclear weaponry in the region, in the form of depleted uranium, since the 1991 Gulf War. Moreover, in another – though less well-known – capacity that Obama shares with Kennedy, Obama has in fact already brought the world to the verge of nuclear war. Though not widely reported, Operation Neptune Spear – the 2011 invasion of Pakistan that resulted in the extralegal assassination of Osama bin Laden – involved violating Pakistan’s sovereignty. Because the Pakistanis were unaware of the incursion into their territory, and had good reason to fear that their rivals the Indians (or the US even, in what are referred to as “snatch and grab” operations) could have been seizing nuclear weapons, the Pakistan government was nearly provoked into launching a nuclear strike, precipitating nuclear war.

In spite of the potential for staggering human harm, like his predecessors Obama continues to assert US hegemony, selectively referencing and selectively enforcing international norms. As he vivifies a pivotal component of the US system of power, this should really not seem too out of the ordinary, nor should it seem strange that Obama should increasingly come across as a veritable pastiche of presidents past. Beyond his nods to Reagan and Lincoln, his Nixon-esque war crimes, and the aforementioned JFK resemblances, it has been widely noted that Obama’s claim that Syria is using “weapons of mass destruction” echoes Bush II’s similar, 2003 claim. Moreover, the legal argument for bombing Syria absent UN sanction is also remarkably similar to the argument Clinton – and NATO – put forward for bombing Kosovo absent UN approval in 1999. In that purportedly humanitarian mission, NATO forces attacked the Serbs, notoriously inflaming the conflict there as well as exacerbating harm to civilians. Yet while the present situation is indeed similar to the conflict involving Kosovo and Serbia, it may in fact be related less to the NATO bombing of Kosovo than to events that transpired in Serbia nearly a century earlier. For inasmuch as the present tangle of alliances creates an extremely volatile situation, Syria resembles Serbia in 1914, at the time of the Austro-Hungarian invasion that triggered World War I.

Ninety-nine years ago, the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire ruled over not only a large expanse of Central Europe, but over a considerable portion of the Balkan Peninsula as well. Controlling much of this territory since the 16th century, by the early 20th the Austro Hungarian Empire was sandwiched between its ally, the German Empire, and its rivals, the Russian and Ottoman empires. When the nationalistic furor of the late 19th century infused its client-states with a desire for national autonomy, the Slavic Kingdom of Serbia – allied with their fellow Slavs, the Russian Empire – was not alone in agitating for political independence. And when the nationalist assassin Gavrilo Princip shot and killed the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, he set off a chain reaction of alliances and counter-alliances that brought all of the major powers to war with one another.

When the Austro Hungarian Empire invaded Serbia to punish its regicidal transgression, the Russian Empire – a Serb ally – was drawn into war against the Austro Hungarians. And since the Russian Empire was allied with France and Great Britain in their Triple Entente as well, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its allies – the German Empire and the Ottoman Empire (from whose conquered territory Syria would be carved) found themselves at war with the French, British, and Russian empires. Fueled by nationalistic sentiment, and by imperialist competition for economic expansion, as well as for natural resources, like oil, the ensuing offensives quickly engulfed the world in one of the most devastating wars of human history.

Yet in spite of the massive arms race leading up to it, and the unprecedented toll the Great War would ultimately take, many initially predicted that it would be a short war. Though it is unclear as to whether Kaiser Wilhelm II truly believed that it would be a brief fight, or whether he was merely attempting to raise morale among his subjects, he reputedly told his troops – in a phrase reminiscent of Obama’s assurances concerning the limited scope of war with Syria - that the troops would be “home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.”

In another echo from WWI, in a recent interview with Le Figaro, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad described the war torn region as “a powder keg.” Though it has arguably become a cliche, the expression “powder keg” is most famous for designating the Balkans on the eve of WWI. And though these correspondences, not to mention competition over resources, may be germane to most military engagements, the case with Syria shares an analogous complex of highly volatile alliances that could, with minimal provocation, lead to a metastasization of violence comparable to, or even surpassing, that of WWI.

For instance, since Syria is allied with Iran – a nation nearly as populous as Egypt – an attack on Syria could very easily drag that pivotal nation into the war. The fact that the US has been ratcheting up pressure on Iran for the past few years only increases the likelihood of war with one of Syria’s principal allies. Indeed, one of the reasons the Obama Administration appealed to congress to authorize attacks on Syria in the first place was that they feared that a unilateral strike could potentially destroy their chances for obtaining permission to launch a later war with Iran. Beyond the US, however, one of the United States’ closest allies –  Israel – is also itching for war with Iran.

Although it seems likely that Israel will stay out of a war with Syria, as it stayed out of the 1991 Gulf War, it is hardly a stretch to imagine that Israel – whose leadership is far more bellicose now than it was in 1991 – and has been pressing for war with Iran for years – would take advantage of the “legality” that the opportunity of war provides and attack Iran. Indeed, as of the morning of September 3rd, Israel and the US confirmed that the two just concluded joint military exercises, testing Sparrow target missiles in the Eastern Mediterranean.

While this in itself may not be unusual, the extremely hawkish rhetoric of Netanyahu, among others in the Israeli government, may be indicative of plans for attacking Iran. And while recent studies have cast doubts as to Germany’s unilateral belligerence back in 1914, few would be surprised if Israel were to mimic Germany’s World War I invasion of France – invading Iran, Syria, or Lebanon (where Hezbollah, whose effective 2006 military performance against Israel caused no small degree of embarrassment for Israel, is ensconced) all under the legalistic cover provided by a state of war.

Russia, meanwhile, whose power is arguably stronger than it’s been since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, is another longtime partner of Syria. Having supported Syria throughout the Cold War, political, economic, and military ties between the two nations are still close. And while Russia has not indicated that it would enter the war, according to Bloomberg Russia has moved several warships – including two destroyers, an anti-submarine ship, and a missile cruiser – into the eastern Mediterranean in a show of force.

Of all the alliances, however, the strangest is arguably that of the US and the Syrian opposition. Among others in the coalition of Syrian rebel forces, the Al Nusra Front – which is among the strongest of the rebel forces – is allied with al Qaeda. Since al Qaeda happens to be the US’ principal enemy in its so-called War on Terror, by aligning with the Syrian opposition, the US will place itself in the peculiar position of being – in some respects – at war with itself. What makes this alliance all the more strange, however, is that rather than the Assad government, evidence suggests that it may be the rebels who are responsible for launching the August 21st chemical weapons attacks that Obama and Kerry argue require a punitive response.

To be sure, despite Obama’s humanitarian rationale for bombing Syria, there is in fact no credible evidence to support the finding that the horrors Obama saw in a series of YouTube videos were launched by the Assad regime. As was the case with the lead up to the Iraq War, instead of strong, persuasive evidence, the US government has been building its case for war on contradictory and incomplete evidence, filling the gaps with conjecture. In spite of these shortcomings, Obama is proceeding with his case anyway. Arguing that, in addition to stopping a humanitarian disaster, US involvement is necessary to maintain Obama’s and US credibility. Of course, in putting forth such an argument, Obama and his supporters have missed the fact that they cannot lose what they never possessed in the first place. For, in addition to the flimsiness of their evidence, the US has lost nearly all of its credibility already. Preemptively dismissing a UN weapons inspection report on the matter, maintaining that the time lapse of five days would preclude the UN team from collecting unadulterated evidence (contrary to the claims of experts who note that, though evidence may lose some of its freshness, highly relevant information can be collected months and even years after an event), did little to bolster US credibility either. To be sure, rather than engaging in a good faith analysis of what is actually happening vis-a-vis chemical weapons in Syria, and who is actually to blame, and where the attacks in fact occurred, and which faction indeed controlled the area at the time, repeating Bush II’s arguments regarding weapons of mass destruction Obama is rushing into another war.

Yet even if the Assad regime did use chemical weapons, as Obama claims, as horrifying as such an attack may be, it would still not suffice to provide the US with legal justification for an attack on Syria. That is, if the US Congress sanctions Obama’s use of force, that may lend legitimacy to Obama’s war; but because the US is proceeding without  UN Security Council consent, and is not acting in self-defense, a US strike itself would constitute an extra-legal – criminal – act of war.

None of the above, however, should distract attention from what ought to be the topmost concern – the human crisis unfolding in the Middle East. With over one hundred thousand casualties in two years of fighting, and over two million refugees (and over triple that amount displaced within Syria) the Syrian people are no doubt suffering the depredations of not only the brutal Assad dictatorship but the persistent, deadly attacks committed by the rebel forces. As the former attempt to hold onto power, and as the latter attempt to assume it, not only are the belligerents killing thousands of innocent people; held hostage to the Assad dynasty for generations, the Syrian people are now held hostage by the rebel opposition as well.

While concerned people argue that something must be done, those expecting US strikes to initiate human rights in Syria may find themselves as disappointed as enlightened Prussians were when Napoleon’s defeat of the Prussians in the first few years of the 19th century failed to initiate human rights there. Instead of bringing liberté, egalité and the other universalistic ideals of the French Revolution, Napoleon brought brutal occupation. Similarly, the US does not extend the ideals suspended in its Declaration of Independence to the lands it divides and conquers. One needn’t point to the atrocities committed in Vietnam or the war crimes – revealed by Chelsea Manning, among other imprisoned whistleblowers – committed in Iraq and elsewhere to demonstrate this; one need merely refer to the US justice system, or the ongoing Snowden affair to see that the US doesn’t realize these ideals, or its very own laws, within its very own borders. As Global Cop, the US’ principal function is the dissemination of Global Order – a function which, insofar as it simply maintains order (as opposed to justice), amounts as well to a mere semblance of politics. With such a conflation of politics and war in play, one can expect the Syrian people – along with so many others throughout the world today – to be held hostage by the US, as well as by Assad and the rebels.

Among its other attributes, and contrary to Carl von Clausewitz’s formulation that war is the continuation of politics by other means, war (which is fundamentally force) is qualitatively distinct from politics. For though politics may often be conducted dishonestly and manipulatively, politics differs from war to the extent that it relies on some measure of consent and participation. As such, rather than the continuation of politics, war marks politics’ failure. In spite of this, though, this conflation of war and politics tends to pass for our very notion of politics. Not only is war regarded as the continuation of the political, in many respects politics (and economics) has become indistinct from a variety of war.

Not only have normalized hostility and competitiveness become pervasive aspects of everyday life, to the degree that these are taken as natural, what pass for conditions of peace in the US, and elsewhere, are often indistinct from a variety of slow-burning cold war – a class war in which social classes (and so-called races) regard one another not as neighbors, but more or less as enemies competing for the same “scarce” resources – from vital resources, including water, homes, and food, to completely arbitrary resources, like jobs. Popular say in how these resources are distributed is taken for granted as being outside the scope of the political.

Because the internalization of these norms involves conceiving of (not only the natural world, but) the poor, the working class, and organized labor, among others, as enemies to be dismissed, such groups tend to be regarded as obstacles to be removed rather than as political partners with whom to negotiate a shared existence. As opposed to an actually egalitarian politics, then, which would attempt to collectively rectify collective problems, contemporary ideological hostility not only rationalizes the attack on labor and the poor, but leads in turn to its complementary egalitarianism – a regressive egalitarianism in which all are dragged to the same impoverished level.

An actual politics, on the other hand, is distinct from war. And insofar as this is the case, an actual politics – in which all are equal partners – is anathema to Global Order. Indeed, to the extent that an actual politics emphasizes inclusion (as opposed to exclusion), and justice (which requires constant adjustment -as opposed to order and stability), rather than a pseudo-political regressive egalitarianism, an actual, egalitarian politics would champion a critical egalitarianism in which global resources would be equitably distributed. This, in turn, would necessitate a disruption and adjustment of the existing Global Order. Not only did something akin to this type of critical egalitarianism arise with the Arab Spring (among other popular, emancipatory, political movements), somewhat ironically it provided the Syrian opposition a veneer of political legitimacy in the first place. And though the initial Syrian uprising may have been related to the emancipatory political movement that swept through North Africa and the Middle East, the opposition in Syria very quickly turned into a force at odds with the universal, emancipatory ambitions characteristic of the Arab Spring. Much like the Morsi government in Egypt (which was less a deviation from the old game of neoliberal political economics than a new party to it, that merely wanted a seat at the old game of exploitation) the Syrian opposition, like Assad’s regime, along with the US, are but facets of the existing Global Order.

As recent events in Egypt have demonstrated, this Hostage-Order relation is a  systemic problem that cannot be simply reversed, or inverted. Indeed, any such inversion still maintains the principal relation – i.e., though they may be different, it still continues to hold hostages. While it cannot be reversed, however, this does not mean that it cannot be neutralized altogether. Neutralization, though, only ever acts as a type of political defibrillator, momentarily pausing pathological rhythms. That is, after a defibrillation, a new rhythm of life must proceed. And in order for a salutary rhythm to emerge, among other things those national, international, and economic institutions that perpetuate rhythms of coercion and exploitation, and preclude salutary modes of life from arising, must be dismantled. In a political landscape dominated and determined by the institutional and physical parameters of the nation state, these determinants must be dismantled as well.

It takes little insight at this point to see that a US strike will not only not induce any such salutary situation, it is likely to exacerbate monumental harms. Insofar as it is pursuing Order – an Order indistinct from systemic ecological and human harms – this should not come as any surprise. Yet, whether it will be because of anthropogenic, ecological disasters, such as Fukushima, or war, or whether it will be the result of emancipatory political and social movements, this Order is itself destined to fade.

To be sure, as Obama argues his case for bombing Syria it is interesting to reflect upon the fact that at least since the death of Louis XIV, in 1715, there has been a major shake up in European western power every hundred years. In 1815, after the defeat of Napoleon, the alliance largely established at the Congress of Vienna maintained a balance of power that persisted until an industrializing, unified Germany upset it, leading to World War I in 1914, after which a new Order arose. And now, in 2013, over 20 years since the end of the Cold War, one cannot help but wonder whether an overextended, historically unpopular US will precipitate its own demise, joining Napoleon’s Empire, and the Austro Hungarian Empire, and so many others in the clutter of the dustbin of history.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and contributor to hygiecracy.blogspot.com He lives in New York City and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com.