Obama Backs Down, A Little

On President Obama’s proposed hit and run intervention into the Syrian civil war, there are, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, “the known knowns; …things that we know. There are known unknowns; …things that we now know we don’t know. And there are also unknown unknowns –…things we do not know we don’t know.”

To start with “the known knowns,” it is or ought to be plain, from a “pragmatic” point of view, that it would be hard to think of anything dumber than what Obama has in mind.

In making his case for setting Bashar Al-Assad right, Obama emotes copiously about the children killed in suburban Damascus – allegedly by “the Assad regime’s” poison gas. We know beyond a reasonable doubt that intervening with American bombs and missiles into the combustible mix that Syria has become is a recipe for guaranteeing that many more children will die. If it really were Syrian children that Obama cares about, he would do less harm by advising them to play outside while their elders kill and maim one another.

We know that the very best that could happen is that Obama’s bombs and cruise missiles only kill a few more people – saving them from being killed by his Syrian counterpart.

We also know that it is far more likely that Obama’s bombs and missiles will cause the Syrian civil war will to spill out over the entire region – drawing Israel in and also, quite possibly, the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, and that it will further complicate relations with Iran.

The Syrian civil war began as an episode in the unfolding Arab Spring. But, for a variety of reasons, including fierce repression on the part of Assad’s government and outside aid from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Kuwait and Qatar, it has turned into a proxy war between Sunni Arab states in the Persian Gulf and Iran. We know beyond a reasonable doubt that Obama’s bombs and missiles will exacerbate this perilous situation.

Another known known that is not much discussed in our media, though it is plain as can be, is that, from a moral point of view, Obama’s intentions are not only outrageous in themselves, but preposterous in their assumptions. How dare the world’s main purveyor of violence – and terror – claim standing to serve as the world’s enforcer of political morality? The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

In view of these known knowns – known to Obama as well as anyone – why would he nevertheless threaten Syria?

The question is all the more mysterious inasmuch as the American military would plainly prefer to have nothing of it. General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has laid out the arguments against intervention as eloquently as anyone could.

Obama too has said much the same — many times over, and even now, even as he threatens to “shock and awe” the Syrian “regime” into compliance with international norms governing the use of chemical weapons.

Has he suddenly converted to neo-conservatism? That isn’t likely – especially now that even neo-conservatives are having second thoughts about free and fair, competitive elections.

That used to be high on the list of changes they claimed they wanted as the US made the Middle East over. By now, however, they realize that, in the countries whose governments they would overthrow, the results are usually not to their liking; and they are coming to understand that this is not likely to change anytime soon. The illusions that the War Party promoted in 2002 and 2003 are impossible to sustain ten years later.

Could it be that nefarious humanitarian interveners like Susan Rice and Samantha Powers have the Nobel peace laureate in their thrall? Maybe they do. Maybe Obama has converted not quite to neo-conservatism but to its liberal variant. But Obama is a weak and ineffectual leader who would not dare risk offending the sounder minds that still run the military-national security state complex – not, anyway, for reasons as flaky as the ones those humanitarian interveners put forward.

Perhaps Obama has suddenly rediscovered international law. That would account for his insistence on enforcing the ban on chemical weapons. But this is the most preposterous explanation of all – not just because Obama routinely violates both the letter and spirit of international law, but also because the military actions he wants to launch, without UN Security Council approval, are as illegal as can be.

Or maybe, appearance to the contrary, Obama has taken a realist turn; maybe he is concerned that the Syrian government has been doing too well lately in the Syrian civil war, and he wants to redress their advantage by favoring the other side.

This isn’t likely either. Apart from the moral bankruptcy of a policy that aims at keeping the killing going, it is another known known that the civil war in Syria is becoming difficult to contain. The Lebanese civil war started in 1975 and ground on with varying degrees of intensity – and outside interference — for some fifteen years. It devastated Lebanon, but did little overt harm outside Lebanon’s borders. No informed observer thinks that anything like that could happen with the civil war raging in Syria today.

That leaves only one explanation: that Obama has come to the conclusion that nothing is more important than maintaining “credibility.” That word is a familiar euphemism for what gangsters do.

If a President (or mafia boss) is defied, the defiers must be taught a lesson – no matter what the consequences. This is a familiar theme of American foreign policy. It accounts for the prolongation of murder and mayhem in Vietnam for some four or five years beyond the point when it became plain to American political elites that they could not “win” that war.

Ironically, John Kerry understood that point as well as anyone when, in his finest hour, he served as the public face of the Winter Soldier Investigations of 1971, and asked how many more people would have to die for what is essentially a lie. Today, Secretary of State Kerry is the most fervent spokesman in the U.S. government for doing just the kind of thing that he once inveighed against.


What, then, led Obama to back off – to the extent that he so far has? For the time being, we can only speculate. In time, memoirs will be written and perhaps then we will know. Until then, we can only speculate about known unknowns and wonder what unknown unknowns are out there.

But there are some things we can say with considerable confidence even now.

What Obama was planning was in plain violation of international law — because there is no Security Council approval and, thanks to Russia and perhaps China, no chance that there will be. The only other legal justification for initiating war against a sovereign state is self-defense, and the relevant standard for that is an imminent threat of attack. No one claims that Syria is about to attack the United States with chemical weapons or in any other way.

When, in the course of dismembering the former Yugoslavia, the Clinton Administration found it expedient to bomb Serbian populations in Kosovo and elsewhere, including Belgrade – ostensibly for “humanitarian” reasons, but actually to show the Europeans, especially the Germans, who was boss – the Russians also blocked Security Council approval.

Clinton therefore sought international legitimacy from NATO, where America calls the shots. But even he insisted that this extraordinary move should not be regarded as a precedent.

The crack legal team Law Professor Obama has assembled to find a legal justification for attacking Syria with bombs and missiles seems to have forgotten that part of the so-called Kosovo precedent. In this respect, as in others, Obama’s rule is worse even than Bill Clinton’s.

The concern in the Clinton days was that the Kosovo bombings, if construed as a precedent, would put the idea of national sovereignty in jeopardy; that it would undo understandings that have been in place in Europe since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, and that have been adopted subsequently everywhere else — even by countries in the throes of anti-colonial and national liberation struggles.

The borders of many of those countries, especially in Africa and the Middle East, were arbitrary colonial contrivances. Syria now, along with Iraq and many other states in the region, must deal with the unfortunate consequences of the state system the colonial powers contrived. But the understanding still is that, in almost all instances, it is best not to tamper with it; that the dangers of doing so outweigh any possible advantage.

No doubt, Obama is very aware of this and appreciates its importance. But, in his gangsterish mind, credibility trumps all; and, to justify what he wants to do for its sake, he is willing to go to any extreme.

Even so, the Kosovo precedent is a non-starter because, this time around, there isn’t even NATO support for throwing a lighted match into the combustible mix. At most, the French may be dragged into it, but, given French public opinion, even that is becoming increasingly unlikely.

All that is left, therefore, is a recently “discovered” (concocted) principle — the responsibility (and right) to protect – an admirable ideal, but a dangerous policy when undertaken by an empire in decline, acting without even a pretense of international legitimacy.

Perhaps Obama had second thoughts about being so plainly, and inexcusably, lawless, and about undermining a bulwark of international order.

Or perhaps he had second thoughts about violating the US Constitution so blatantly, by using military force not just without a declaration of war, but without any Congressional authorization whatsoever.

The reason is plain: he doesn’t want to risk Congressional disapproval – especially as all the polling data suggests that the American people are no more convinced of the “need” to start another war of choice in the Middle East than the populations of other countries throughout the world.

To be sure, since the Nixon administration if not before, the executive branch has been working to usurp the legislative branch’s plain Constitutional authority over matters of war and peace. Perhaps Obama thought he could push the envelope a bit further than his predecessors had.

For the fact that he didn’t try last week, we have the ghost of Martin Luther King Jr. to thank. Obama and his advisors know that public opinion is not on their side, and they fear Congressional resistance. In their view, therefore, “if it were done,” as Macbeth would put it, “…then ‘twere well done … quickly.”

But that would have interfered with the theatrics around the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, commemorated by Obama (along with two other Democratic Presidents) speaking on the spot in front of the Lincoln Memorial where King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech.

Anyone like King, who was willing for moral reasons to take on LBJ over Vietnam, when LBJ was delivering for black and poor people like no previous (or future) American President would, could only be appalled by Obama’s dumb and indefensible bellicosity.

At some level, Obama – who has done less than nothing for black and poor people (beyond “being there”) – must have appreciated that. Even he could not bring himself to launch a pointless war of choice while standing in MLK’s shadow.

Perhaps also Obama did not want to cancel out the one sure way his foreign and military policies are still, despite everything, perceived to be better than Bush’s.

Unlike his predecessor, Obama has always made an effort to act multilaterally – even to the extent, as in Libya, of joining in, decisively but “from behind,” to depredations launched by key allies. Once the British bowed out, even the pretense of multilateralism seemed shot. That too could have given Obama second thoughts.

And then it must also have dawned on Obama and his advisors that fighting alongside the very Islamist militants they fight everywhere else may not be an altogether wise move.

Nevertheless, these second thoughts were not enough – until, reportedly, the very last minute (on Friday night, August 30). What changed?


Here it is necessary to be even more speculative, but it is fair to suggest that these three considerations were at least partly in play.

First, doubts about the quality of the intelligence upon which the United States was relying may finally have reached even into the bubble that surrounds the Leader of the Free World.

It is noteworthy that, unlike ten years ago when Bush and Cheney were about to launch their war against Iraq, nobody claimed that this time around the evidence is a “slam dunk.”

It is noteworthy too that, so far as we know, there is no physical evidence whatsoever about who the perpetrators were if, as seems likely, some 1400 people really were killed in a poison gas attack. All the evidence is circumstantial.

Some of that evidence does point to the Syrian government. But there is also a circumstantial consideration that points overwhelmingly in the contrary direction: that the Assad government had everything to lose by using poison gas, while the rebels have everything to gain by convincing the world (or at least the Obama Administration) that this is indeed what it has done.

Also, it seems that there is now strong evidence of small-scale poison gas attacks waged by forces on the rebel side. And there has long been speculation that, if the attacks were indeed coming from government forces, it was from rogue elements within the government’s ranks.

If press reports can be believed, much of the “signal” intelligence in this case comes from Israel and Turkey – countries with their own agendas, as Obama and his advisors surely understand.

Maybe, therefore, Obama decided that he did not want to risk finding himself in the same position as George Bush did, once the weapons of mass destruction fraud exploded in his face.

It is true, and perhaps relevant, that Bush and Cheney made sure that the CIA cooked the intelligence to get the results they wanted. Nothing like that seems to have gone on with Obama. But that doesn’t mean that he isn’t being played – if not by Israel or Turkey or Saudi Arabia, then by rogue elements within his own military-national security state establishment.

There is another difference with the Bush WMD story that is seldom mentioned but that nevertheless bears notice; it does not redound in Obama’s favor. The Bush government used fake intelligence to justify a pressing threat to the United States and its close allies – one that might first become apparent, as Condoleezza Rice put it, in the shape of a mushroom cloud.

Obama’s efforts to claim a comparable rationale — in, for example, his August 28 interview on PBS — are so lame that one can hardly imagine a man of his intelligence uttering the words that come out of his mouth.

Obama’s imagination is simply not up to the task of fabulating a plausible threat to the United States from Syrian chemical weapons; no one’s is. This is why, for the most part, the rationale he and those who speak in his behalf invoke has nothing to do with dangers to the United States or its interests. It is about teaching the Syrian government a lesson.

A second factor that may account for Obama’s turnaround was the vote in the British parliament that took Britain out of Obama’s war plans. Not only was this a blow to his vaunted multilateralism; it was an attack on the “special relationship” that has become so crucial to post-Vietnam America’s imperial designs.

Could the British Parliament have issued its own Declaration of Independence by voting not to go along this time? Perhaps Obama is afraid of finding out.

Finally, it may have counted for something that the most august citadel of Sunni Muslim scholarship in the world, the Al Azhar mosque in Cairo, Sunni Islam’s highest authority, issued a categorical condemnation of Obama’s plans. This cannot bode well for someone who seems to have been counting on Sunni-Shi’a animosities for gaining at least some support in the Sunni Muslim world – beyond, of course, the support of Saudi Arabia and the other anti-Iranian dictatorships on the Arabian Peninsula, and of officially secular Turkey.

Although he had little reason to fear Catholic opposition, Stalin famously disparaged the Church’s importance by asking derisively how many battalions the Pope commanded. After the Al Azhar condemnation, Obama and his advisors might have become concerned that Muslim clerical opinion might just turn out to be less otiose.


Congress is not due to return from its summer vacation until the second week in September. Therefore, unless Obama changes his mind about waiting for Congressional approval, the world has at least a week and a half reprieve.

He might change his mind. In his view, as reported by those who speak for him, he has the authority to do whatever he wants, and he is only “consulting” with Congress; whatever it decides is therefore ultimately of no legal importance.

Needless to say, he is wrong about that – wrong enough to raise doubts about what he learned at Harvard and taught at Chicago. But he is right to worry about the political fallout if, unlike David Cameron, he ignores what the peoples’ (official) representatives decide.

The conventional wisdom, as of now, is that the President will get his way. But that was the conventional wisdom in Britain about Cameron too.

There are reports already that the Obama administration will play the Israel card to gain votes for its side. That makes sense: in Congress, Israel’s wishes trump all. But maybe they won’t this time around.

This time, elite Israeli opinion is divided, and therefore pro-Israel opinion in the United States is divided too. After hesitating for a long time, the Netanyahu government finally decided that it wants America to intervene on the side of the rebels. But from Israel’s point of view, it is not clear that a rebel victory or even a prolonged stalemate would be a good thing.

Those rebels, after all, include Islamist elements that are not likely to reciprocate for what Israel does to benefit them, and the Assad government served Israel well by keeping its northern border peaceful – even in the occupied Golan Heights.

Of course, Israel’s main concern these days, after Iran, is Hezbollah — in part because they see it as Iran’s principal ally in their neighborhood, and in part because Hezbollah has fought Israel to a standstill several times in the recent past. US intervention might weaken Hezbollah; that is what Netanyahu hopes. On the other hand, it might strengthen Hezbollah’s popular appeal. That could turn into a nightmare for the Israeli state.

The Israel card is a red herring, and will likely be perceived as such. There are no doubt others to come. But, no matter what Obama and his minions come up with, efforts to gain Congressional approval for an assault on Syria are likely to encounter enormous resistance and may well fail. The reason why is already coming into view, and the irony is staggering.

Obama may finally be on the verge of achieving what he has sought more than anything else since he assumed office: a “bipartisan” consensus. But it will not be the consensus he has been pining for; it will be directed against him.

There is no doubt that, had Mitt Romney won the 2012 election, the Democrats would rise up in opposition if he dared propose anything like what Obama is now calling for.

But the (supposed) lesser evil won instead, and so the vast majority of Democrats have remained Obama boosters. Some of them will follow his lead like lemmings. Nevertheless, there are still a few progressive legislators in Democratic ranks, and a few centrists who may be amenable to following their base, not their leader. It is therefore fair to expect that at least some “liberal” Democrats will see their way clear to breaking ranks.

For decades, Republicans have formed the hard core of America’s War Party. To the dismay of many leading Democrats, not just Hillary Clinton, it is they, not the Democrats, who are considered strong on “defense.”

But in this instance, there are likely to be more “doves” in the Republican than in the Democratic fold.

Some of those Republicans – John McCain and Lindsey Graham are conspicuous examples – have already said, quite reasonably, that the kind of “surgical” intervention Obama and Kerry are proposing is pointless, that the United States should either intervene decisively or not at all. As unreconstructed war mongers, they would prefer a more decisive role for the American military. But they are not prepared to compromise; they will vote against partial measures that are unlikely to further any sound imperial purpose.

Then there are Republicans, like Rand Paul, who can be counted on generally to oppose imperialist involvements, though not for anti-imperialist reasons. They believe that where there is an empire, there must also be Big Government, and that this works to the detriment of the free market, private ownership economic arrangements they favor. They too can be counted on to vote against Obama’s proposal for Syria.

And finally there are the many morally and intellectually “challenged” Republicans, Tea Partiers and Tea Party fellow travelers, who hate Obama for all the wrong reasons, and whose hatred knows no limits. They will oppose Obama’s efforts to gain Congressional support for attacking Syria for no better reason than that it is Obama who is asking for it.

Of course, anything could happen in the next week. But it is a known known that Obama gets a D-minus for Congressional arm-twisting, so there is reason to be cautiously optimistic in this instance that what now seems likely will indeed come to pass.

Cameron lost. Obama could lose too. Cameron then gave up. Maybe Obama will as well.


Now is therefore the time to pressure Congress – not just the handful of Democrats who are susceptible to reasoned arguments, but also the Republican hordes for whom reasoned arguments carry no weight.

Because, in this instance, Obama is not acting in behalf of his or their paymasters, but is only trying to save face, public opinion matters.

Most Americans are already against this proposed war of choice, and not just, as some pundits lament, because of war weariness.

There is also, at some level, a growing awareness of how important the rule of law is and how wrong-headed the humanitarian intervention doctrine can be when it operates in its stead.

It should therefore be possible to press home the point that America must not operate as a global gendarme, enforcing political morality worldwide; that doing so is both dangerous and, from a moral point of view, absurd.

Most Americans already know this. The task for now is therefore to make enough of us sufficiently vocal about what we understand to force enough of our representatives in Congress to defeat our President’s plan.

Even that might not stop him, but it will at least be a step towards the restoration of a lawful world order. In today’s world, that eminently conservative goal ought to be every genuine progressive’s primary concern.

We Americans have a special responsibility in this regard. The sooner the idea takes hold here that gangster principles should give way to the principles of the United Nations Charter, the better off everyone will be.

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).

ANDREW LEVINE is 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).