They are always there, sitting on both shoulders, sounding into your ears. On either side, they buzz insistently their ceaseless drone. Now, they speak of Syria, whisper and wheedle action or inaction as they wish. They have been singing their songs of superpower or imperial America since the end of World War II.
In the mid 1950s it was the “bomber gap.” Misconstrued numbers of Soviet M-4 Bison bombers, estimated at near a thousand and amplified by the device of policy by press release, set the United States on a frantic construction binge of almost 2,750 B-47 and B-52 bombers in response. President Eisenhower was doubtful, but even he did not face down the fervor of Air Force General Curtis Lemay and cries from congressional Democrats that Eisenhower – the former Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force for the invasion of Western Europe during World War II – was “weak on defense.”
“It is clear that the United States and its allies,” said Senator Stuart Symington sounding what would become perpetual alarm, “may have lost control of the air.”
But there was no gap. It was later established that the Soviets had only 20 B-4 Bisons.
By the late 1950s, it had become the “missile gap.” A 1957 National Intelligence Estimate predicted a Soviet capability of 10 prototype ICBMs by 1959. By January of 1959, Albert Wohlstetter of the Rand Corporation published in Foreign Affairs “The Delicate Balance of Terror,” in which he argued that the “the thermonuclear balance” hung precariously against the U.S. and that current American efforts at deterrence were inadequate. Soon enough, influential journalist Joseph Alsop was citing classified intelligence that the Soviet Union would have 1500 ICBMs by 1963, compared to only 130 for the U.S. John F. Kennedy and other Democrats consequently again charged Eisenhower with weakness on defense.
In fact, by 1960 the Soviet ICBM force was only 2, compared to a U.S. force of 12. By Alsop’s target year, the Soviet missile level rose to 99 rather than the prognosticated 1500, while the U.S. ICBM count was a six-fold greater 597.
There was, indeed, a missile gap – in favor of the United States.
Dwight Eisenhower departed office warning of a “military-industrial complex.”
Often, policy by press release has been masked as pure reportage.
“American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New Aggression”, announced a Washington Post headline on Aug. 5, 1964.
That same day, the front page of the New York Times reported: “President Johnson has ordered retaliatory action against gunboats and ‘certain supporting facilities in North Vietnam’ after renewed attacks against American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin.”
But there was no “second attack” by North Vietnam — no “renewed attacks against American destroyers.” By reporting official claims as absolute truths, American journalism opened the floodgates for the bloody Vietnam War.
The country would face the manipulation of “reporting official claims as absolute truths” again in the future.
In the 1970s, forces in the GOP foreign policy establishment began to argue again that the U.S. was underestimating Soviet nuclear capabilities and misunderstanding its strategic nuclear intentions. Once more the call to arms was made by Albert Wohlstetter, this time in Foreign Policy, in “Is There a Strategic Arms Race?” During a period of post-Watergate weakness and diminished morale, Wohlstetter and a bevy of defense hawks who opposed détente charged that the “intensity, scope, and implicit threat” of Soviet offensive intentions were being consistently underestimated by the CIA’s National Intelligence Estimates. While Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld argued in speeches that the Soviet Union was acting against the spirit of détente, figures such as Richard Pipes, Paul Nitze and board members of the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), with the aid of Rumsfeld protégé Paul Wolfowitz, made the case for an alternative, extra-agency assessment of the Soviet threat.
The focus of attention was the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB), which new CIA director George H.W. Bush authorized to conduct the external review. Participants in the review were divided into three teams, with different areas of attention. The now notable “Team B,” chaired by Pipes and including William Van Cleave of the CPD, was advised by Nitze and Wolfowitz, among others. Over the course of 1976, in various venues and reports from other sources with which team members were associated, and in a Sunday, December 26, New York Times story, Team B’s classified conclusions were repeatedly leaked. They “identified a strong shift in the quantitative military balance toward the Soviet Union over the past 10 years.” Under pressure, the “CIA itself revised its estimate of Soviet military spending to 10-15 percent of Soviet gross national product (GNP), as compared to 6-8 percent in previous NIEs.”
The work of Team B, along with that of the CPD successfully scuttled the era of détente and led to the Reagan-era American arms buildup.
Among the many “Team B” assessments of a growing Soviet buildup and emerging strategic superiority was the prediction – like those in the 1950s about bombers and ICBMs – that by 1984 the Soviets would possess 500 Backfire bombers. In fact, and much as in those earlier instances, by 1984 the actual number of Backfire bombers in the Soviet arsenal was 235. After the Soviet Union disintegrated, it became known that the apparently dramatic increase in defense spending was, by the time of the Team B warning, already declining, with increased expenditures not the product of growing production, but economic inefficiency that would help spell the end of the Soviet Union – in the face of military competition that preceded the Reagan buildup.
The contours of Team B’s efforts were the same as previous militarist campaigns: expert warnings in conjunction with politics by press release, along with emergency organization (Committee on the Present Danger) to spread alarm. The alarm is twofold: the nation’s enemies are achieving a dangerous level of military advantage while responsible parties in the U.S. government are systematically failing in their response and weakening national security.
Attendant with the 1980s military buildup that Team B’s work successfully enabled were the Reagan administration’s anti-Communist counter insurgency efforts in Central America, which form a bridge between earlier Cold War preventive destabilizations and the George W. Bush administration “freedom agenda.” One instructive effort is that in Guatemala.
U.S. Cold War involvement in Guatemala dated back, infamously, to the 1954 CIA-sponsored overthrow of democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán. The coup was not just a betrayal of America’s liberal and democratic principles. It had long-term after effects: a thirty-six year civil war between a succession of oligarchic governments and leftist groups, primarily supported by the vast, impoverished indigenous Mayan and the Ladino populations, that was not brought to a close until 1996, forty-two years after the coup.
It was estimated by Guatemala’s 1999 Historical Clarification Commission (HCC) that as many as 200,000 mostly Mayan Guatemalans had been killed over the course of the civil war, 93% of the deaths attributable to government forces. Most of these deaths occurred during the 1980s, when Guatemalan regimes were receiving full-throated and significant military support from the Reagan White House. After Gen. Efrain Rios Montt overthrew his predecessor in 1982, Reagan endorsed him as “a man of great personal integrity” who was “totally dedicated to democracy” and who was “getting a bum rap” in reports of his human rights abuses. History – and contemporaneous reports known to the Reagan administration – reveals a different story.
[I]n the 1980s, the army committed 626 massacres against Mayan villages. “The massacres that eliminated entire Mayan villages … are neither perfidious allegations nor figments of the imagination, but an authentic chapter in Guatemala’s history,” the commission concluded.
The army “completely exterminated Mayan communities, destroyed their livestock and crops,” the report said. In the northern highlands, the report termed the slaughter “genocide.” [Washington Post, Feb. 26, 1999]
Besides carrying out murder and “disappearances,” the army routinely engaged in torture and rape. “The rape of women, during torture or before being murdered, was a common practice” by the military and paramilitary forces, the report found.
Just this year, in historic national proceedings, the 87 year old Rios Montt was convicted by a Guatemalan court of genocide. (The conviction was overturned on appeal and Rios Montt awaits retrial.)
In just and proper defense of its own and international security, the United States opposed totalitarian communist expansion, and in so doing, in numerous instances, was led by the most extreme elements of its own defense and security establishments to act, not just in the 80s in Guatemala, but in the 1950s and 60s, too, in direct opposition to its own national ideals and governing principles. In cases such as Guatemala, the unforeseen consequences linger now for more than half a century, tallied in numbers of lives lost attributable not to Marxist foes, but to the U.S. itself. And in a perverse rhetorical sally worth remembering as a model for today’s arguments, The Washington Post editorial board on March 1, 1999, while acknowledging the truths revealed by the HCC, sought to lay some of the blame for the crimes of the Guatemalan generals not at the feet of their rightwing U.S. supporters, but on the Carter administration in the 1970s – for having cut aid to the Guatemalan government and thus helped foster the insurgent successes that led to the government war crimes in response.
At just the same time during the 1980s as genocide was being committed in Guatemala, another kind of aftermath, with different signification, was still unfolding in Southeast Asia. While the Marxist, Maoist, Trotskyite, and New Left were decrying U.S. Vietnam War deception and violence, they were also championing the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. As long as the United States remained a combatant, the lives, deaths, and “liberation” of Vietnamese were a precious subject of political debate and humanitarian concern. Once the U.S. left Vietnam, the far left fell out of compassion with the Vietnamese, soon enough turning its attention to Central America, where the single determining factor of interest and concern had now become part of the equation: U.S. involvement.
Yet according to the Aurora Foundation’s 1983 Violations of Human Rights in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, as many as one million non-communist former South Vietnamese were imprisoned in the infamous post-unification “reeducation” camps. Foundation reports indicated that the mortality rate in the camps averaged ten percent a year. During the same period, according to the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, more than 1.6 million fled Vietnam as “boat people,” including the more than 260,000 ethnic Chinese who either took flight or were forced across the border by the Vietnamese government. Forty-eight years after American withdrawal from Vietnam – a withdrawal including that of the compassionate interest of the West’s far left – Vietnam continues to be ruled by an authoritarian government guilty of “administrative detention, religious repression, crackdowns on human rights defenders, stifling of press freedom, widespread use of the death penalty… [and] abuses of women’s rights, including sex trafficking and coercive birth control policies.’ And in what should serve as remonstrative symbol to right and left, the sign atop one of Ho Chi Minh City’s tallest buildings reads Citibank.
This use of national populations and nationalist causes to advance a Western anti-imperialist agenda of course had pre-Vietnam antecedents. Even as there arose good cause to know of Stalinist crimes, apologists on the far left were content to offer just opposition to 1950’s McCarthyism while tendering no acknowledgment of their own Soviet misalignment. So it was with Mao and with Ho Chi Minh, until the Vietnamese, having served their purpose, were abandoned for the Sandinistas. Ever since, far left political allegiance, antipathetically rather than sympathetically motivated, has wandered ever farther from class analysis, internationalist bonds, and any grounding in universal human rights. Actual anti-imperialism itself need play no role in focusing far left anti-Western attention, and the cry of colonialism, using and abusing the Indigenous cause, can be heard even in the desert.
Thus, by way of Iraq, we arrive at Syria in 2013.
When President Obama threatened to strike Syria in response to the Ghouta Sarin massacre, both shoulder sprites began to sound off. The level of deception and hypocrisy was enough to fork tongues, but that, as they say, is a feature, not a bug.
On the right, Obama was criticized, even as he threatened to strike, for not having taken action at least half a year earlier, after previous, smaller chemical weapons deployments – as if wise policy for the world’s sole superpower is to be conned into war by any small force element able to obtain a modicum of chemical agent for purposes of just that manipulation. He was criticized simultaneously from the same quarter for planning only a punitive or preventive action and not plotting a course that could determine the course of the war – that is, more fully entering into the conflict in support of rebel forces.
Entrance into the war, in fact, is what the imperial right wishes, and nothing short of it will satisfy, so when Obama grabbed at the opportunity not to strike militarily to deter the Assad regime from further chemical attack, but to join with the Russians in fully chemically disarming a suddenly compliant Assad, the right mocked him. It still does, though its voices sound a little less assuredly, now, about the preposterousness of chemically disarming Syria, as the OPCW-UN Joint Mission in Syria meets the deadlines of its various stages. Let the mission fall behind at any point – as it not unlikely will given the complexity and difficulty of the task – and listen for the crowing choruses of “told you so.” They are being practiced as you read. One ugly secret is that the right does not truly wish for the mission to succeed – for the interim success of a chemically disarmed Syria is not what the right desires: that would ratify the possibilities of measured security gains without actual military engagement. What the right wants is Obama’s failure in pursuit of any kind of variant course. What the right wants is the United States in Syria.
In order to achieve the end of American involvement in the Syrian civil war, policy by press release has been deep and far ranging. The most notorious instance so far has been Elizabeth O’Bagy’s op-ed by in the Wall Street Journal, titled “On the Front Lines of Syria’s Civil War,” seeking to counter the most oft-repeated concern regarding support for Syrian rebels – that they are constituted significantly of Islamist jihadists. O’Bagy confidently informed us otherwise, attempting to sell an uncritical readership on the presence of a larger “moderate” element among the rebels, who are significantly Salafist, and in whose behalf O’Bagy, unidentified in the op-ed as political director for the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SEFT), could muster as her most ringing endorsement only that they are a “force with some shared U.S. interests.” SEFT has as its political director Mouaz Moustafa, who appears to be making a current career working for similar organization attempting to draw the U.S. into Arab “Spring” conflicts such as, previously, Libya. O’Bagy was also a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), which has, undisclosed at its website, Bill Kristol and Elizabeth Cheney as board members. Kristol, as the reigning editorial voice of the post World War II militarist tradition, and Cheney as daughter and vocal advocate of her father’s militarism, provide only the most prominent link to the vein that runs back to Team B. I offered a fuller account of O’Bagy’s argument in “Masters of War,” but she has since been fired by both SEFT and ISW for lying about her academic credentials. Wrote Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor’s Security Watch,
But what’s most troubling is that despite the history of lies fed to the US government by exiles seeking US involvement in foreign wars (Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress’ role in stovepiping claims of Iraqi WMD programs ahead of the 2003 invasion of that country should be top of mind) [O’Bagy] was listened to in the first place.
In Washington circles her work with SETF was known – and she herself relied on one particular wing of Syria’s complex rebellion, a wing that she relied on to arrange her travel and meetings inside Syria, to arrive at her conclusions. The SETF’s leadership is largely composed of Syrian exiles, much as the Iraqi National Congress’s leadership was composed of Iraqi exiles. Should such people be taken at their word when they seek US assistance?
Since Obama’s decision to seek opportunistically and peacefully what he would far less certainly have accomplished with even a series of strikes, efforts at policy by press release have shifted in their message. Less often now is heard O’Bagy-brand assurance of rebel “moderation,” since almost daily accounts of the conflict offer an increasingly contrary report. Now the militarist narrative begins – in shades of assigning responsibility for Reagan’s material support of Guatemalan genocide to Jimmy Carter, for his not having armed the oligarchs earlier – in blaming Islamic radicalization of the Syrian rebels on Obama, for not having armed the opposition earlier. Apparently, for America’s war adventurers, both Islamism and oligarchic genocide grow out of the barrel of an undelivered gun. That the presence of as many as 160,000 U.S. troops themselves on the ground actually provoked the Islamization of the Iraqi insurgency rather than forestalled it is effortlessly overlooked by the peddlers of perpetual war. It is a hallmark of contemporary American militarism, however, to disregard any lessons from the past twelve years of war other than to believe that their failures – much as in Vietnam – were the product only of inadequate force levels, insufficient tactical aggression, and the unwillingness to pacify foreign lands on the time-scale of Roman legions.
The most pervasive meme in the current policy by press release is Obama’s “dithering” or “uncertainty,” even “disinterest” in Syria. Against all the pervasive evidence that Obama is, in reality, quite certain what policy he wishes to pursue in the face of general Arab upheaval – decidedly not the policy of the militarists – rightwing efforts are purposely to misrepresent this certainty as its opposite. While the second most dysfunctional region in the world erupts in political chaos the after effects of which may play out for decades, interested parties scream out to the American president to “do something!” when the wisest course for some time to come may well be not to do anything too definitive at all. But purposeful caution will always be caricatured by the rash and aggressive as weakness and cowardice. The proper response to that cartoon, though, is to recall one benefit of the Iraq War: that in its aftermath few any longer criticize George Bush the elder for not, after driving Saddam Hussein from Kuwait during the Gulf War, having marched on to Baghdad.
Still, what we regularly read in the press is that U.S. allies in “the region” – that is, the monumentally despotic, oppressive and theocratic Middle East – are unhappy with U.S. policy toward Syria. This is the emerging militarist version of the “bomber gap,” missile gap,” and the analysis-and-war-head gap of Team B – a new confidence and trust gap.
Significantly, what this primarily means is Saudi Arabian displeasure. American militarists and superpower imperialists now actually openly offer as criticism of American foreign policy its misalignment with the wishes of the greatest sponsor of Islamist radicalism in the world. The Weekly Standard’s Lee Smith was refreshingly candid about this in conversation with Michael J. Totten.
I can make an argument for backing the Syrian rebels, but it can’t be for humanitarian reasons alone. I can make the argument that we should do it for strategic reasons.
And yes, a lot of people are making that kind of argument about the Saudis, saying a pox on them, how dare they complain. The Saudis from time to time make an awful lot of noise and at other times they cross us. And of course there were fifteen Saudi nationals on the planes on 9/11. And yet Saudi Arabia has been an ally of the United States for more than sixty years. The reason for that isn’t because we share cultural or political values—although some of the elites really are pro-American.
The reason we’re allied with Saudi Arabia is because they have the world’s largest known reserves of oil. This is a vital American interest, perhaps the most vital American interest after the security of our fifty states.
Lee Smith believes the world’s sole remaining “superpower” should express the meaning of superpowerness by pleasing the Saudis and going to war in Syria in order to preserve our access to cheap oil. “Peace and justice” minions all over the West are whispering “thank you.”
More subtle by far, and easily so, is the likes of “Obama’s Uncertain Path Amid Syria Bloodshed” by Mark Mazzetti, Robert F. Worth and Michael R. Gordon of The New York Times purporting to offer an inside account of Obama administration deliberations on Syria over the course of the year. Note the “uncertain” in the title.
A close examination of how the Obama administration finds itself at this point — based on interviews with dozens of current and former members of the administration, foreign diplomats and Congressional officials — starts with a deeply ambivalent president who has presided over a far more contentious debate among his advisers than previously known. Those advisers reflected Mr. Obama’s own conflicting impulses on how to respond to the forces unleashed by the Arab Spring: whether to side with those battling authoritarian governments or to avoid the risk of becoming enmeshed in another messy war in the Middle East.
Note that sources of this account include former members of the administration, including those whose advice will not have been accepted. So when one reads critical words like “paralysis,” understand that a critic’s choice of that word is a funhouse mirror of a proponent’s chosen “inaction.” When “one former senior White House official” critiques that “[w]e spent so much damn time navel gazing,” consider how much advice you want from that source on matters of whether to arm and even enter yet another war – a war far from critical to U.S interests, yet one that could be deeply destructive of them.
Under the shadow of the report’s titled uncertainty, we are nonetheless told that
from the beginning, Mr. Obama made it clear to his aides that he did not envision an American military intervention, even as public calls mounted that year for a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians from bombings.
In response to contentious debate among his advisors and a CIA plan “to begin arming and training small groups of rebel forces at secret bases in Jordan,”
Mr. Obama, who had said at the beginning of the meeting that he would make no immediate decisions, appeared skeptical. He cautioned against a “haphazard” plan to arm the rebels, and asked about tactics — who would get the weapons, how to keep them out of the hands of jihadists.
The president’s view, according to one administration official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing debates about classified operations, seemed to be that “we’d be taking a lot of risk without a clear plan.”
Far from “uncertain” or “navel-gazing,” Obama appears to be the wisest person in the room, and the only one among the major voices to have learned any lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan other than more, more, more, longer, longer, longer.
There is in the account one brief, yet remarkable passage – how often we have seen its like in the attempt to denigrate a leader. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we read,
Even as the debate about arming the rebels took on a new urgency, Mr. Obama rarely voiced strong opinions during senior staff meetings. But current and former officials said his body language was telling: he often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching and chewing gum.
Despite all the obvious reasons that some discordant voices might wish to offer this image of Obama, what are the reasons for reporting it? How many ways might we account for it, if we were to credit it at all? That at given moments the president was rightfully bored with repeated, discordant arguments among his advisors, offering nothing new? That he received a text message from a daughter, an email from an aide on Capitol Hill about budget negotiations? How often do you think, during these many hours of debate and policy consideration – in contrast to slouching and chewing gum (Nicorette or just a pacifier for the challenged smoker?) – Obama leaned in with interest, questioned, even challenged his advisors while keeping his own counsel, supremely interested in determining the right course in a critical foreign policy situation for which, of course, he will be scrutinized by history? Who knows?
Yet only this one image is offered of Obama’s bearing by the reporters. Who are the targeted readers for this reported slack comportment of a generally dignified and elegant Harvard law grad and constitutional law professor, first black president of the United States? The readers of National Review? Supporters of Louis Gohmert?
Who are the reporters, in fact? Gordon is the Times’ military correspondent, who has written extensively on the Iraq War and who, with Judith Miller – Bush administration house reporter at The New York Times – authored the September 08, 2002 “THREATS AND RESPONSES: THE IRAQIS; U.S. SAYS HUSSEIN INTENSIFIES QUEST FOR A-BOMB PARTS,” in which it was reported, among multiple other anonymously sourced and false claims about an ongoing Iraqi nuclear program,
In the last 14 months, Iraq has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium.
Mazzetti is the Times’ national security and intelligence reporter who has often repeated the Bush administration line in war-against-terror coverage, including, as well, adoption of the “brutal interrogation” euphemism in place of the legally accurate torture. It was also Mazzetti who secretly provided without his colleague’s knowledge, before publication, a copy of a Maureen Dowd piece on “Zero Dark Thirty” to CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf, in order to calm concerns about what Dowd might have written.
Of course, in the contest over Syria many who believe in humanitarian intervention, in the principle of “responsibility to protect,” have been moved by the death toll and human suffering in Syria to offer a common call with proponents of superpower imperialism – which is the idea that now that the Cold War is over and the U.S. has emerged from it as the sole superpower, it must, to protect the interests it accumulated in the course of its ascension, continue to bestride the world as that unchallenged and dominating force, acting, as if it always were possible, at all times to shape outcomes.
A Western guilt-inducing analogy commonly offered in the attempt to spur action has been to the precedents of Rwanda and Bosnia: how fallen are we that we would allow it to happen again?
But what is “it”?
What we refer to as Rwanda was exclusively a fast-moving genocide of enormous barbarity, in stupendous numbers. What we call Bosnia in this context, much smaller in scope, contained discrete acts of genocide. In either case, quick and decisive military action could have halted and reduced specific acts and patterns of violence.
Whatever the ethnic and religious components, whatever the magnitude of the death toll, Syria is not genocide, but a civil war, one that began as a rebellion against a tyrant. Intervention of the kind contemplated would be aimed at producing a victory in a conflict between two sides battling each other with strategic objectives. However, we might wish it ended, the killing stopped, and the tyrant gone genocidal acts and civil warfare are not the same phenomenon. Perhaps it should not be left to the Institute for the Study of War to determine that the ideal responsibility to protect (R2P) be now transformed into the responsibility to intervene in civil wars when the side you wish to lose appears as if it may not lose.
When advocates of U.S. intervention attempt to shame those who resist it with declarations of their moral decadence, one has to wonder why there remains any Western moral fiber left to decay after its failure to intervene in the Congo Wars – also post Rwanda and Kosovo – from 1996-2003, that may have left in excess of six million people dead? Where were Bill Kristol, John McCain, and the Institute for the Study of War then?
Maybe we should look to Lee Smith for an answer.
Is it a consummation devoutly to be wished that the world might one day assemble via the U.N. the righteous unity, force, and will to referee and part all remaining combatants? To dream. And the United States would rightly be called upon to play its part. But the world is not yet there, and the United States for countless apparent reasons of human and political understanding cannot assume that role by itself as if there were no difference in effect. There is. There are multiple reasons why the U.S. should not hazard on its own a significant stake in Syria.
- However the superpower imperialists will color it otherwise, there is no natural ally of the U.S. in Syria and little reason to expect one even in defeat of the Assad regime. Oil discounted, and the course of current Arab-world upheavals completely unpredictable, there is no clear strategic advantage to Syrian involvement.
- It was not previously the policy of the United States to seek directly or by proxy the military overthrow of the Assad regime. There is no reason under current circumstances why the U.S. should be impelled into war by elements of the Syrian populace tht felt the need to take up arms. Would a like uprising in any unfree nation in the world similarly require American military support? Is that the destiny of the American nation, to be yoked to the chain of every national rebellion in the world?
- After twelve years of war in two distant countries, all but one of those years, in one country, Afghanistan, mistaken – and at real cost to the nation’s economic and social health – another misguided militaristic venture could inflict determinative damage on the American polity.
- There may be greater challenges ahead with Iran and against Islamic terrorism. To become embroiled in Syria to no clear purpose could be a major historical error, greater even than, and certainly compounding, that of Iraq.
- Despite militarist’s consistent and typically disingenuous claims to the contrary, there is every reason to expect that what they urge as mere training and material support would gradually – even, in likely battlefield crisis, dramatically – transform into direct U.S. engagement. Not only would this transformation occur, but at every creeping step militarists would just as disingenuously urge that it occur, for we would by then have invested, committed and in every possible way offered up our sacred national burly world-power honor to the cause and to abandon it then, blah, blah, blah, blah.
- Not even in Iraq in 2003 did the U.S. face ensnarement in distant, multi-party internecine conflicts profound and complex enough to lie so far beyond American military resolution, and with less of any idea how to cope with just one of a multitude of fissures and possible expansions of the conflict among the parties and surrounding nations. To wit:
There is the role of Hezbollah and Assad’s possible fall back into Lebanon, further pulling that country into the mix. There are the sectarian divides of Syria, just as in Iraq, that will not disappear during a civil war and even once Assad may be ousted from power. There are the Kurds, angling across four nations – Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria – for a nation of their own. Now, in addition to Iraq, they have their foothold in Syria. There is an incipient reconciliation process afoot in Turkey between its government and Turkish Kurds that, given history, could collapse at any time, particularly under the effects on Turkey of emboldened Syrian Kurds on its border. Now, too, Turkey has come to think Syria’s jihadist Jabhat al Nusra a threat as well. The possibilities for spiraling and expanding conflict are deep and many. Should they grow, the effects on more surrounding nations, like Jordan, with its currently quiescent Muslim Brotherhood, may grow.
The masters of war want to drag the United States into this.
- The militarists, playing on the compassion and ideals of humanitarians, and the humanitarians themselves, repeat the mounting toll of the dead in Syria – a horror, as were horrific the deaths in the Congo. The current estimate is 115,000 dead. But it is to be recalled in this world of horrors that just this month – regarding a conflict in which the U.S. was actively engaged, indeed, the initiator – “a new study led by the [University of Washington]’s Department of Global Health estimates that nearly half a million people in Iraq died from causes attributable to the Iraq War from 2003 to 2011” (emphasis added). There is every reason to believe that increased U.S. military involvement, rather than acting to diminish the suffering in Syria, would only intensify it, as it did in Iraq. And Iraq, though the U.S. left two years ago, is not over yet: “Iraqi Leader Calls on U.S. to Help Fight Terror Threat.” The October death toll from renewed insurgency and al-Qaeda activity neared 1,000, bringing the 2013 total to over 6000 so far. Were the militarists not distracted by Syria, they would be calling for a return to Iraq, which they never wished the U.S. to leave.
It is folly to pretend the United States can manage the volatile historic, which is not to say necessarily beneficial, upheaval sweeping the Arab and Muslim worlds in the Levant and North Africa. Absent joint-force humanitarian campaigns, the wisest course is to stand back and remain ready to respond to low-cost opportunities to protect interests and serve ideals, such as the entirely unpredictable, yet comprehensible chance at Syrian chemical weapons disarmament, diminishing one fear of an Islamist victory. Another is an appropriate arms-length engagement with an Egyptian emergency government representing the still inchoate wishes of a populace that learned from experience that one future it does not want is that of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In opposition to the incessant and contrary militarist drive to expand U.S. interests and forcefully control them, there remain on the left the simultaneously slack and malign anti-imperial apologists for authoritarianism and illiberalism. A U.S. strike on Syria averted, we see now no further “stop the war” and “end the killing” crisis marches in the major cities of Western nations. The salt of the Syrian earth is quickly cleared from the table.
The contest over Syria in the West, especially in the United States, is not simply a debate over a regional crisis. It is a contest for the future course of American foreign policy, whether there will be now, two decades later, a reset of America’s role in the world with the end of the Cold War. The only other Democratic presidency since, Bill Clinton’s, was too soon after, and without the geopolitical circumstances in which opportunistically to chart the new course. Obama, compelled to end two wars, with the opportunity to reject entry immediately into another even more misguided, has the chance – and, rather than uncertain, is determined to take it.
The vortex of even benign empire is thus: a breadth of interests entails a breadth of power to protect them. A breadth of power generates its own interests. Even a benign power will be caught in this cycle of mutual reinforcement. Imperial behavior, conceived only as protection of interests, expands and then is justified, in what is now the expression of an imperial character, as a necessary advancement of interests. As I wrote in “Obama in Oslo: Power without Empire” about the imperial nation’s ever expanding interests,
Ironically, this makes the superpower a supplicant, always needing to negotiate with other nations over those nations’ natural interests and spheres of power, and far from the natural sphere of the superpower’s interests, because now the world has become its sphere. World security concerns become the superpower’s security concerns, and multiple nations, pursuing their own interests to some degree of variance with the interests of the superpower now become problematic concerns.
The current conservative formula is that any reconsideration of this cycle is a disengagement bespeaking weakness. In order to avoid this appearance – indeed, reality – of (relative) weakness, the cycle must be maintained perpetually. The United States, now that it is the sole superpower, must ensure that it remains the sole superpower. If it is not the conquering, occupying power of imperial epochs past, it must now be and remain the imperial power of enforceable influence wherever its interests and security are perceived to reside, and increasingly they reside everywhere.
Such, however, is part of the historic pattern in the decline of empires. Yet this is the imperative that serves as the basis for misconceiving and rejecting the Obama international vision. It offers a choice not between a weak America and a strong America willing and able to meet genuine security threats. It presents a choice between an imperial America, however internally democratic, attuned to the brute expression and imposition of its will across all reaches, and a strong America integrated, reasonably and with proper regard to its interests, within a slow-developing international order.
Americans will be both the audience and the object of play between both sides on this field of contest, addressed, subject to performance, and bandied about like ball or puck – thoroughly used and abused if they if they are not wise to the game. There are two contestants at play here, neither to be trusted, neither offering time out from the match. Each needs to be resisted if the U.S. is to find its way, finally, into the twenty-first century, and out of and beyond empire. Each needs to be recognized for what it is, with neither the best national self Americans imagine for their country.
Both their houses. Now and forever. No blood on the doorposts.
15 thoughts on “A Plague: Contesting Syria, in Context”
Ouch, serves me right to write a long answer without looking at the accumulated comments. Anyway, my attempt to respond here:
It became too long to be a comment, so here we are…
Hi again. The URL you’ve left in the comment doesn’t want to lead anywhere.
This post contains some good points (esp. on the U.S. government’s moral bankruptcy after the Congo wars, the “missile gap”, and the case of Rwanda), but it fails to discuss potential pro-regime-change Syrian strikes in light of the closest parallel to such strikes -the NATO intervention in Libya. Iraq is simply not a very good parallel to Syria -there was no pre-existing armed opposition in the country before the U.S. came in. There was no al-Qaeda presence in Iraq before the U.S. came in. al-Qaeda rules large parts of Syria and there is a strong armed opposition in the country. Besides, once the Assad regime falls, al-Qaeda becomes everyone’s enemy -even the FSA’s. The present climate allows al-Qaeda to expand at will by cooperating with the FSA and seeing no results of American wrath. Indeed, America directly aids al-Qaeda in Syria.
Once regime change is accomplished, there is no chance the U.S. will continue to do so. I do not support U.S. military intervention in Syria now (I favor an Assad military victory), but I think it might have worked if it had been done in mid-2012.
This has to be your best post yet. While I am myself uncertain about which course of action to take in Syria, it’s clear that Obama does have an idea, and is attempting to take that path. The Right and Left will complain and insult him, but they’re missing the point that a US President is taking a third path, away from all-out war and simply sitting back and doing nothing.
At least, that’s how I see it.
Marc, it is not, unfortunately, as if Obama hasn’t made missteps. He has. One is that he has not regularly and clearly enough articulated his vision. One reason, I suspect, is that he doesn’t want to provoke an even stronger reaction from the right – not unlike attempting more equitable domestic economic policies without provoking financial interests to overreact and actually hurt the economy.
That’s a very good point, Jay. Obama has had to navigate a highwire that his predecessors did not have to. And while the reaction from the right–especially since the GOP took over the House in 2011–has been very strong, I’m still very worried that it’s only the tip of the iceberg, and that they are planning to get very, very nasty.
No, I didn’t say “one can’t argue that U.S. intervention will make matters worse.” I was rather more careful than that! My actual words were “The numbers of course can’t give an answer, but they can call into question any expressions of certainty that US intervention is doomed to make things worse.”
It is possible that a US intervention could make things worse, but I also think it’s quite possible for a US intervention even now to shorten the war and limit the damage, in lives lost as well as in other respects. The result one way or the other would depend in great part on the nature of the intervention. There are precedents for successful intervention.
Anyone claiming that intervention is likely to make things worse should note that when the New York Times criticised Nato for not adequately investigating civilian casualties of its Libya campaign, their journalists were able to find fewer than 100 potential civilian casualties of Nato strikes; that’s fewer than are killed on many a day in Syria.
Going back to Iraq, of course you’re right that intervening in an ongoing civil war is different to invading a country not at war. But if you’re also right that it follows that the cumulative toll in such a war-plus-intervention must be higher than in an invasion like Iraq , then Iraq was spared a worse fate by the US invasion, for if Saddam or his family had still been in power in 2011 then (as Jeff Weintraub pointed out) surely we would have seen a war in Iraq comparable to the one in Syria, if not much worse, and with the US and UK patrolling the no fly zones there would be no avoiding involvement.
Of course, we can’t be certain of any our projections. We can only try to reasonably foresee based on history and the available evidence of circumstance. Nothing in the U.S.’s two most recent military engagements, in similarly – though I think actually less – complex Muslim national situations argues for the likelihood that U.S. intervention would shorten the war or limit the damage. Alter the conflict, certainly – I believe to make it far worse.
Regarding Iraq, I think Jeff Weintraub’s projection of what might have occurred in an uninvaded Iraq is very reasonable. However, in the scenario you offer, of the effect in that alternative future of U.S. intervention, I think it quite reasonable to believe that U.S. intervention, in light of the no-fly zone, would have been only in support and protective of the Kurdish north, which Saddam would give up to combat the Shia elsewhere. I do not see in those circumstances the U.S. willingness to intervene in what would have been a pure Sunni-Shia conflict. (Shia we would have every reason to believe, and even moreso under this circumstance, to be an extension of Iran – shades of the Iraqi-Iranian War, when the U.S. supported Saddam.)
Don’t forget that prior to the invasion US and UK planes were also enforcing a no fly zone over the Shia-majority south. In an uprising instead of invasion scenario, they couldn’t have remained uninvolved for long, particularly as we’re imagining a world where there isn’t the Iraq invasion experience as a disincentive.
You’re not trying to argue that the intervention in Libya was a success are you?
It’s a jihadi wild west over there now. In the last couple of days a bunch of lunatics from Misrata (remember that place?) drove into triploi and started shooting the place up. Oil production is at 10% of pre-war levels.
Crucially, in the brief period after the fall off Gaddafi, it rose to nearly 80%. The real craziness happened AFTER the dictators fall, NOT during.
You want the war to end quickly, sure, blow the heck out of Syria’s armed forces. Assad could be defeated in a couple of weeks if NATO decided to be al qaeda’s air force. And then the Jihadis take over. That’s when the REAL killing starts.
I’m not sure how you extracted an argument about Libya from this essay – perhaps inferring from the approving general reference to international rather than unilateral U.S. action. Libya achieved its original stated objective of preventing the prospective bloodbath of a looming Gaddafi victory. Obviously, the international action went beyond its stated objective without a plan for its aftermath, and it produced what you describe. What I do, nonetheless, approve from its example, for just the reasons discussed here, is the role played by the U.S., which supplied its needed military prowess, but which did not as a matter of automatic course take the organizing and diplomatic lead. Two consequences of that are instructive. One is that the U.S. is not recorded, recalled, and held responsible as the sole or even lead instigating national party in this intervention. The second is that the American militarist right wing, for just the reason that the U.S did not take the lead and press a fuller engagement, nonetheless chooses to brand the consequences of Libya, and the U.S. “leading from behind,” a sign of Obama administration weakness and a failure.
“You’re not trying to argue that the intervention in Libya was a success are you?”
-But it was. The failure was in not disarming the militias. As you say, oil production did stay at around 80% capacity throughout 2012. The Jihadis did not take over in Libya; a democratic government was established in 2012. The Libyan people supported the NATO strikes.
This is too crazy long to take on as a whole, and I doubt you’re for turning in any case, but I do want to question your use of death tolls.
You compare the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights October figure of 115,000 dead in Syria with the University of Washington Dept of Global Health figure of 405,000 deaths from causes attributable to the Iraq War from 2003 to 2011. These figures aren’t comparable, as the Syrian Observatory figure is a minimum count of verified violent conflict related deaths, and the UW count of excess deaths over the period is a survey estimate of all deaths from any cause that are in excess of the estimated peacetime norm.
Digging into the figures to gauge what estimate of the number of violent conflict related deaths the UW figure includes, Josh Dougherty, Researcher and Analyst at Iraq Body Count, believes it is in line with their minimum count figures, which amount to around 160,000 when combatants are included.
Excess death estimates sometimes have quite large margins of error, depending not only on the size and nature of the sample but on the reliability of peacetime baseline figures. They will by their nature ALWAYS be larger than minimum counts of conflict related violent deaths as they include deaths caused by disruption health care, food supply, heat, shelter, and care for the vulnerable. All of those factors are present in Syria to a greater degree than they were in Iraq, with massively larger displacement of population, much worse disruption in basic services, and with UN agencies and NGOs blocked from accessing large areas of the country.
Back in January I wrote a post demonstrating that the rate of conflict related violent deaths in Syria was higher than in the worst years of Iraq. Given the massively greater level of destruction and displacement, the rate of excess deaths related to the war is also certain to be higher than it was in Iraq.
Kellie, you make an obviously fair point. I should have addressed the different nature of the figures. In the end, the larger non-combat inclusive death tolls are those that matter most in assessing the destructive magnitude of a conflict. Those are what we use in expressing the magnitude of Second World War destruction, for instance. I take your point, too, that indications are, depending on the length of the conflict, that those numbers, too, will be higher ultimately in Syria.
However, at the scale we’re talking about, the differences aren’t determinative of anything. My point, to the extent that numbers play a role in the argument, is that casualties will be high in any event. I see that in the post of your own that you reference you argued that these numbers mean that one can’t argue that U.S. intervention will make matters worse. The numbers can offer some basis for such an argument, but it is a vague prognostication about a future course with, as I argue, a multitude of possible complicating developments.
I think it’s worth pointing out, too, on this score, one significant difference between Iraq and Syria. The former was a conflict initiated by U.S. action, not the already ongoing civil war at whatever stage of the Syrian conflict. That provides strong basis for a higher casualty count (compared to another high enough in itself), with the possibility of U.S. intervention exacerbating the conflict and the casualties to an even higher degree yet again.