A good propaganda system aims at controlling the public dialogue, and in the marketing of war one technique that has proven very successful in recent years has been to encourage public debate about a proposed war, but to do so within a framework that already assumes the basic dogmas that you are trying to sell.
So, for instance, in preparation for the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, healthy debate was encouraged over the question of whether the ‘liberation of Iraq’ would cost the US too much and whether it would solve all the problems for Iraq and for the world that it aimed to solve. Assumed within this framework, of course, was the highly debatable contention that the US had the moral and legal right to invade Iraq, whatever the invasion’s purported aims!
We face a similar situation now with Syria. Healthy debate has been encouraged over whether Bashar Al-Assad should be ‘punished’ for his use of chemical weapons. We are encouraged to think about what will happen if he is not punished, and what will be the consequences if he is. Within the framework of this debate though there are lots of highly debatable contentions that are being assumed!
One is that Assad is guilty. Another is that the US has the right to act as the world’s moral policeman. And within this second maxim lies an even more basic assumption – namely, that the US is trying to act morally. Personally I don’t believe Mr Obama gives a tinker’s cuss about the morality of his latest war, any more than he does about Assad’s guilt or any apparent use of chemical weapons!
That chemical weapons are not the real issue should be obvious to a decently educated teenager. A glance at history reveals quite clearly that the worst offenders when it comes to the use of chemical weapons have been the US and its allies.
The scourge of Agent Orange comes immediately to mind.
Agent Orange is a toxic herbicide that was used extensively by the US during the Vietnam War to destroy trees and crops with the supposed aim of flushing out the enemy. Between 1962 and 1971, the United States military sprayed nearly 20,000,000 US gallons (76,000,000 litres) of this deadly chemical over a full twelve per cent of the total landscape of South Vietnam, at an average concentration of thirteen times the recommended rate for domestic use!
The result, according to Vietnamese figures, was that 400,000 people were killed or maimed, and half a million children were born with birth defects. The Red Cross of Vietnam estimates that up to one million people are disabled or have health problems due to Agent Orange.i
More recent US use of chemical weapons would have to include Depleted Uranium (DU), used extensively by the US and NATO in the 1991 Gulf War, the Bosnia war, the bombing of Serbia, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
DU weapons produce clouds of poison gas on impact. These clouds of aerosolized DU are laden with billions of toxic sub-micron sized particles that can be absorbed through the skin, inhaled or ingested. DU exposure has been linked to a various cancers and birth defects, as well as to chronic fatigue syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, Hodgkin’s disease and other immune system disorders.ii
Arguably the most terrible use of chemical weapons in living history took place during the waning years of the Iran-Iraq war, where Saddam Hussein used both mustard gas and sarin against Iranian troops. Recently declassified CIA documents make clear that this happened with full knowledge of the Reagan administrationiii which backed Hussein to the hilt!
Similar US complicity can be seen more recently in the use of white phosphorous by America’s closest Middle Eastern ally, Israel. White phosphorous is a toxic chemical that burns through both human tissue and bone, and, according to Amnesty Internationaliv, was used extensively by the IDF against the civilian populations of Gaza and Southern Lebanon.
We could draw on other examples, but these are more than sufficient to illustrate the hypocrisy of any ‘red line’ the US claims to draw over the use of chemical weapons. Successive US administrations have employed chemical weapons liberally when it has suited their purposes. Conversely, they have no real proof that Bashar Al-Assad actually used them. Even John Kerry admits that Assad’s guilt is based on ‘common sense’, while those members of Congress who attended the ‘classified briefings’ say that while they can’t reveal the details of the evidence they were presented with, it was not convincing enough to stand up in any court of law.
Let us dispense with further discussion of chemical weapons. Far too many crocodile tears have been shed by the world’s power-players over the dead in Ghota, and I find it nauseating to see these people’s suffering used as a political tool aimed at generating further suffering! The gas attacks are not the issue! They never were the issue! For those in power, they never were more than a propaganda device!
The real issue is simple – US and Israeli control over the entirety of the Middle East. This has always been the agenda, and despite all recent efforts at re-embroidering the Emperor’s new clothes, Obama’s guise is looking increasingly transparent.
The contours of the plan for US Middle-Eastern hegemony were leaked quite plainly by General Wesley Clark in his book of 2003, “Winning Modern Wars”. Clark recounts “As I went back through the Pentagon in November 2001, one of the senior military staff officers had time for a chat. Yes, we were still on track for going against Iraq, he said. But there was more. This was being discussed as part of a five-year campaign plan, he said, and there were a total of seven countries, beginning with Iraq, then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia and Sudan.”v
The program is behind schedule, certainly, but the systematic destruction of independent governments across the Middle East has been as brutal as it has been thorough. We’ve watched the dominoes fall, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya and now Syria and Lebanon, with Iran not far behind, and as each domino falls the cries of millions of suffering human beings fades into the background as we move on to the next target.
Even if Clark had not spelled out the grand plan, the actions of the US speak for clearly enough. The game is one of domination and control of the oil-rich Middle East. It is the predatory activity of empire-building, where the US follows the same murderous course of all the great empires that have gone before it. The US Empire is entirely predictable in its actions as it is no different from any of its predecessors, except perhaps in the sophistication of its war marketing.
Having said that, the reality we have just witnessed was the failure of Obama’s war- marketing machine – a failure that lost the President the battle for Damascus!
Too many people started asking the wrong questions – questions that fell outside of the accepted framework! Instead of keeping to the intended dialogue over whether Assad should be punished and what the consequences of that punishment would be, ordinary people everywhere strayed from the script!
Led by the Pope and church leaders as well as by rival politicians, people everywhere questioned whether Assad was guilty and whether the US had the right to act as the world’s moral policeman. Not many went so far as to ask the truly off- limits questions as to what US intentions in the region really are. Even so, the propaganda machine stumbled and crashed, and Obama’s war edifice collapsed with it! This was a great victory for humanity!
Even so, while this battle for Damascus may have been lost, the war (for both Syria and Obama) is far from over. Since chemical weapons were never really relevant to US war plans to begin with, we should not expect war to be abandoned even if chemical weapons are taken off the agenda entirely. There most surely is a B-Plan!
We notice even now how the US administration is trying to reframe the dialogue.
On the issue of UN jurisdiction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, John Kerry is saying that there will be ‘consequences’ if the proposed UN oversight isn’t conducted satisfactorily and the Syrian government doesn’t keep to its ‘obligations’.
The framework for a new public dialogue is being laid out, where the appropriate questions will be ‘is Assad keeping to his obligations?’ and, if not, ‘does the US have any choice but to force his compliance through re-igniting the war machine?’ We only have to remember the US demands placed on Saddam Hussein to give up his weapons of mass destruction, where whatever the Iraqi dictator did was interpreted as non-compliance, to see how this scenario plays out.
And so the groundwork has been laid for the second battle for Damascus. The question now is whether the church and peace activists around the world will continue to be able to hold their ground against a renewed assault in rhetoric!
Father Dave Smith is Parish Priest, professional boxer, human-rights activist and father of four. He was part of the Mussalaha (reconciliation) delegation to Syria in May 2013. Join Dave’s mailing list via his main website – www.fatherdave.org – and read his updates on Syria on www.prayersforsyria.com
v Wesley Clark, Winning Modern Wars, New York: Public Affairs, 2003, p.130 (nb. you can also watch Clark discuss the issue here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ha1rEhovONU)