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After committing a half dozen acts of war across the Middle East in recent years, we’re now treated to the absurd spectacle of an American general warning us of the dangers of committing an act of war. On Monday, U.S. General Martin Dempsey starkly outlined options for military action in Syria in a letter to the Senate, ruefully adding a few caveats about costs and collateral damage that triggered some chest-thumping histrionics in the Senate. Dempsey’s menu of warmongering druthers included training and advising the opposition (the term ‘nonlethal’ is always excitedly appended to advisory activities); conducting limited missile strikes; establishing a no-fly zone; creating buffer zones; and controlling chemical weapons. These additional options come even as Congress approves arms shipments to Syrian ‘rebels’.
Importantly, though, Dempsey did emphasize that the use of force in any form would be “no less than an act of war”. This may appear to be a given, but it is not within the Washington bubble, hence the need to overstate the obvious. Outraged by this show of good sense, senior Senator John McCain threatened to block General Dempsey’s re-election as America’s top military appointment. McCain has been clamoring for a ‘no-fly zone’ for months, and finds the General insufficiently hostile to Syrian sovereignty. This is itself absurd, since Dempsey had just laid out five ‘acts of war’ for the White House to consider. While the various approaches appear quite different prima facie, they share a common objective—the end of the Bashar al-Assad government. As employed in Libya, a nominal no-fly zone bears little distinction from Dempsey’s “stand-off strikes,” the former providing rhetorical cover for a brutal aerial assault on a country’s military infrastructure, usefully evading Congressional interference and erecting a posture of last-resort humanitarian action.
Much to McCain’s continuing chagrin, Dempsey also usefully detailed some of the exorbitant costs of any of these actions, including the eye-popping $500 million upfront costs for a no-fly zone, followed by a mere billion dollars a month for maintenance. Controlling chemical weapons would run a billion a month, too. (Training unhinged Islamic jihadists came in comparatively cheaper, at just $500 million a year.) After laying out these costs, Dempsey couldn’t resist noting with dutiful trepidation that these expenditures arise even as we “lose readiness due to budget cuts and fiscal uncertainty”. This must have caused some discomfiture even among the most stalwart deficit hawks.
Dempsey also performed the tiresome hand-wringing pantomime, noting grave concerns that weapons or intelligence could fall into the hands of Al-Qaeda affiliates (such as those we are backing), as well as reminding us how heavily these decisions weigh upon our noble civilian leaders. (Perhaps we are meant to conjure Obama’s discerning visage, a gentle Caesarean wreath of laurels cresting his pate.) Any of the items on the a-la-carte menu, Dempsey noted, might produce “retaliatory attacks” and “collateral damage”, might inadvertently create “operational zones for extremists” or “unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control,” among a number of other regrettable forms of chaos. One has to wonder whether Dempsey is late arriving to the Syrian conflict, considering it is common knowledge that arming extremist is the cornerstone of our Syrian strategy, or that it is quite possible that the extremists in our employ have already deployed chemical weapons in service to their discredited rebellion. Perhaps Dempsey ought to look back to Libya again for a better sense of what “unintended consequences” really entail—namely, destabilizing delicately balanced communities inside neighboring nations (see Mali) and the indiscriminate diffusion of both weaponry and stateless jihad across the region. It might also behoove McCain to ponder the internal effect of the Libyan no-fly zone, which precipitated not only the aforementioned regional phenomenon, but also left Libya itself reduced to a confection of simmering sectarian strongholds with a cowering and nominally federated government in Tripoli. The only question that remains is whether these consequences are “unintended” or not.
It’s hardly absurd to suggest the possibility that Pentagon sometimes likes to “trigger” failed states. Once achieved, several fortuitous opportunities emerge: large lending regimes move in, conditioning aid on the chaining of renascent economies to structural reforms designed to refashion the country as an unfettered market for Western multinationals; and also the use of the country as a staging hub for military actions across the region; and other surreptitious designs.
But nothing feels more disingenuous than Dempsey’s pronounced concern over committing an “act of war”. Is funneling cash, weapons, and intelligence to mercenary forces in an effort to unseat a sovereign government not itself an act of war? Are not the pernicious and unsanctioned drone bombings of civilians in Pakistan, Yemen, and Afghanistan not acts of war? Is conducting clandestine cyber warfare within Iran an act of war? What about funneling millions to opposition candidates in last year’s Venezuelan election—surely a serious provocation at least?
You’d be hard-pressed to imagine any of the above acts being taken against the United States that didn’t induce an instantaneous and vicious military reply—and a deluge of indignant rhetoric from the White House. Imagine an Iranian computer virus taking down half our Internet servers. Or a Pakistani drone liquidating a ‘threat’ in Iowa. Or Syria funneling arms to Islamist cells in Delaware.
Dempsey should at least be cognizant of the fact that we’ve been launching acts of war on a regular and unrepentant basis. And perhaps that’s why his modestly alarmist message—albeit couched in a freshet of regime-change mechanisms—will likely fall on deaf ears in our effete and enervated Senate.
Jason Hirthler is a writer and veteran of the communications industry. He lives and works in New York City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.