“Masters of War,” compellingly titled, fortuitously timed in its creation, ranks among Bob Dylan’s most jejune songs. The apparent good fortune of its historic timing emerged out of a natural uprising from circumstance. Given that circumstance, and the song’s generalized complaint, how, it almost seems, could the United States not have become fully drawn into a Vietnam War? The song’s lyrics are commonplace at best, its ideas simplistic, its attitude simple minded – much of what is spoken about war is. But the song did not arise out of nowhere, was not merely the febrile complaint of a barely post-adolescent artist. There are, however much more complexly than the song suggests, masters of war.
The masters of war want an American war in Syria. They do not, as Barack Obama does, want a punitive or preventive strike against Syria in response to Syria’s chemical weapons use, in order to uphold international prohibition. They mock such an action. They mock it in itself and they mock it because it is, or was, the plan of Barack Obama. They refuse, still, to acknowledge that Obama early on made the clear choice not in any way to enter the Syrian civil war, because he believed there was little the United States could do and that it would only replicate an error of war the country has made already too many times. But whatever Obama does, if it is not in accordance with the aggressive Bush-era “freedom agenda,” has been, is, and will be called by his usual foreign policy critics “feckless” and “dithering.” They mean weak and cowardly. That is the way masters of war speak when you do not give them what they want. What they want, this time, is an American war in Syria.
My last post, “Forgetfulness Is a Chemical Weapon,” attempted to limn the follies and even bad faith often to be found at far ends of the war question and now, particularly, a Syrian “war” question. I enclose “war” in those challenging marks because what I endorsed at the end of “Forgetfulness Is a Chemical Weapon” is, as President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have presented it, a limited military action with two aims. The first is to deter the Bashar al-Assad regime from further use of chemical weapons. The second, collaterally, is to degrade the regime’s ability to further use those weapons and even, perhaps, its prospects of prevailing in the civil war. That last outcome could hasten – appears the only thing that might hasten – a move toward a political settlement and thus the end of the current bloodletting. Every other idea at “intervention” seems likely only to increase the death toll and draw the United States into actual, protracted war.
To be clear, however, the second goal is subsidiary and opportunistic in light of the first. Without the chemical weapons use, there has been no policy to pursue that second goal.
We should always be concerned about the uncertain consequences of military action, even when we think ourselves compelled by moral imperative as much or more than by the calculus of security and interests. We should be more concerned then, as we may act too rashly, driven by the values that impel us and not with sufficient focus on the effects of our actions. The best intentions may have the worst consequences.
With those concerns as pretense and cover, the usual political elements fashioning themselves as “antiwar” have reflexively appeared. In their opposition, they organize not against war in most places in the world, but against any action by the U.S. or the West in armed conflict. They contort even the most moral of purposes, in support of even their own highest ideals, into perversions of imperial power to be opposed. After organizing not at all for two years to “stop” the Syrian civil war, now they gather in spiritual enclaves to “stop” a war that for them began only as the U.S. might become attached to it and will escape their attention whenever the U.S. might move on. One death by Western bombs is an imperial outrage, 100,000 by tyrants are not theorizable for politicking. These protesters of war cannot lose the moral authority they lost long ago.
Preening “antiwar” protesters are not a fixed political block, however. Their numbers can swell and recede as people are led by their understanding to see the world. Doesn’t that make them ripe for manipulation. Are not we all, always.
The masters of war seek now again to manipulate public opinion, just as they did as proponents of the Iraq War, in just the same ways.
The single most cited account of the situation in Syria over the past two weeks was an Op-Ed by Elizabeth O’Bagy in the Wall Street Journal. Titled “On the Front Lines of Syria’s Civil War,” the column sought to counter one of the greatest concerns regarding support for Syrian rebels – that they are constituted significantly of Islamist jihadists. O’Bagy, who has spent much time in Syria, informed us otherwise.
According to O’Bagy, jihadists like Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq are not at the front lines leading the fight against Assad, but busy consolidating territorial gains in the North of the country, where they hope to establish an Islamist state. It is unclear whether that detail is meant to reassure about intervention or provoke Americans to prevention.
O’Bagy characterizes the other rebel forces, collectively, as “moderates.” Never does she explain that descriptor. She does not, for instance, say what it is they moderate between: jihadists and what the West would call “liberals”? She advises at the end that the “U.S. must make a choice. It can address the problem now, while there is still a large moderate force with some shared U.S. interests, or ….” O’Bagy concludes with her best description of the “moderates” as a “force with some shared U.S. interests.” What a curiously tepid and vague endorsement. Could it be because what counts among “moderates” are Salafists, who while not jihadists seeking a universal caliphate, do wish to create a state existing under Sharia law? You will have to ask O’Bagy, so let’s.
According to a O’Bagy, in a 2012 report for the Institute for the Study of War,
Moderate political Islam is not incompatible with democratic governance. However, ultraconservative Sunni Islamists, known as Salafists, envision a new world order modeled on early Islam that poses a significant threat to both democracy and the notion of statehood. Salafi-jihadists are those who commit to violent means to bring about the Salafi vision.
It is difficult to distinguish between moderate Islamists and Salafi-jihadists in the context of the Syrian civil war.
The vast majority of Syrians opposing the regime are local revolutionaries still fighting against autocracy; while they are not Islamists, in the sense that their political visions do not depend upon Islamic principles, they espouse varying degrees of personal religious fervor.
In this context, but absent the same clear, specific, but uncertain account, O’Bagy now advocates support by the U.S, including “a major bombing campaign by the U.S., sophisticated weaponry, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapon systems,” with the “ultimate goal of destroying Assad’s military capability while simultaneously empowering the moderate opposition.”
O’Bagy was identified in the August 30th op-ed as “a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.” A full week later, the Wall Street Journal was led to offer a correction beneath her article.
In addition to her role at the Institute for the Study of War, Ms. O’Bagy is affiliated with the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a nonprofit operating as a 501(c)(3) pending IRS approval that subcontracts with the U.S. and British governments to provide aid to the Syrian opposition.
Even in its correction the Journal was not completely forthcoming. O’Bagy is not merely “affiliated with” SETF; she is identified at its website as its political director. SETF is a Syrian-led organization, via its board of directors and advisors, dedicated to enlisting U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war. It has sponsored John McCain in his trips to Syria. Its executive director, Palestinian-born Mouaz Moustafa, has a LinkedIn profile that still identifies him also as the Executive Director at the Libyan Council of North America, where he played the same role advocating for American intervention in Libya.
Even the Institute for the Study of War holds nuggets of information to be uncovered. Its website lists at the highest level of management Dr. Kimberly Kagan as its president. Of course, the institute does have a board of directors, discoverable through Guidestar. It includes Bill Kristol and Elizabeth Cheney.
The deceptions and manipulations of the masters of war are broader even than these examples. The very framing of the issue to be clarified – whether the Syrian opposition is forbiddingly jihadist or “moderate” enough to comfort Americans in a military engagement – is a deception. The complexity of Syria, the reasons for the United States to avoid entanglement in its civil war, the reasons why President Obama has avoided it, are far greater than the one issue of who the opposition may truly be.
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. After Iraq and Afghanistan, following the toppling of the Taliban, with that record, they want more. They will tell us, too, that the failure of Afghanistan is that we did not commit well enough and long enough – Obama’s fault, of course. Think they will not say that about Syria, too – more, more, longer, longer – when all does not go as swimmingly as they suggest?
They scorned Obama for seeking only to stop Syria’s chemical weapons use – too little, too little, too little. They scorn him now that he pauses to pursue a diplomatic possibility of ensuring that end without a military strike. Now, suddenly, after two years of protracted civil war, if Obama does not launch a strike immediately (which is inadequate anyway), then he has thrown away all trust and respect and the future of the West. He has achieved so far, without launching a missile yet, Syrian admission of its chemical weapons program, Syria’s public acceptance of a proposal that they relinquish it, and Russia’s public agreement to the same principle. Who, a week ago, conceived that those accomplishments were even to be considered as a goal?
Are the masters of war happy? Do they credit these advances at all? Do they do anything but ridicule and degrade? No. They do not. They do only one thing.
Only one thing satisfies the masters of war.
4 thoughts on “Masters of War”
Thanks for responding, AJA.
I don’t have any good answer to this. Only to mention that realpolitik doesn’t necessarily mean cynicism and amoralism: just expediency vs idealism.
I do realize that that world we inhabit is a pretty complex thing. To give you a family example: one of my uncles went to Spain to fight Franco, proceeding to fight Nazis afterward. Only to learn later about the fate of his brother in the hands of Stalin’s NKVD and to learn that Franco saved about 200,000 Jews during the war. Be enough to give a headache to a most brainwashed person, innit?
As for morality vs realism: I keep seeing Europe and US going more and more inside their carapaces, leaving the world to manage to the best of its abilities, and this alone should raise a lot of worries. And you don’t want to hear my whining about that travesty we call UN…
Be enough to turn one to the highest authority, but I, as a sworn and incorrigible atheist, could hardly go that way…
Oh well, enough for now. A post about Puting’s triumph is brewing on a low fire, to be posted tomorrow, most probably.
Sorry, AJA, this is another excellent essay on why not to do anything in Syria. However brilliant, it joins the chorus of nay-sayers. Took me quite a long time to understand myself on the subject, which I have eventually done here:
To save you some time, the last part, the one that matters:
To conclude: no one of the parties mentioned above is absolutely wrong when explaining why Syria shouldn’t be attacked, everyone’s position, looked upon from the comfy armchair of realpolitik, has a facet impossible to argue with. Even the last ditch resort to finger-pointing, like in that article by Ed Husain:
” Syria’s civil war is not America’s problem. Syria is surrounded by Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and other Arab nations with large standing armies and advanced military equipment. Their cowardice in acting to stop a war on their doorstep should give us pause for thought. Why will they not act, but we must?”
There are several excellent answers to that whine, but it will suffice to mention Baby Assad preening his pitiful mustache and ordering another bombing or gassing of his own citizens, Putin biting his lips (or his pillow), in a vain attempt to stifle his laughter at BHO and the Chinese honcho briefly smiling before moving to the next item on his daily agenda.
Tell you more: even the inanity of Code Pink, looked upon at a right angle, could be somewhat justified. War is hell, innit? – so there.
But: all of the opinions presented so far are a result of our moral laziness, our superhuman mental agility when we have to prepare an unassailable position for doing nothing in face of any imaginable atrocity – as we, the humans, became very adept in preparing from the dawn of civilization. The following words (thanks to Peter for reminding me) will not be contested by many, but they will definitely be ignored by most. Still it is a good time for a reminder:
” No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
If the XX century, arguably the most murderous in human history, didn’t teach us about the fallacy of realpolitik, nothing ever will and we are facing more of the same.
We can draw artificial and inane red lines, like use of chemical or other weapons, we can satisfy our thirst for peace by picturesque “die-ins” (don’t they photograph good?), we can provide uncounted pages of learned punditry, going deeper and deeper in our reflections on many facets of realpolitik. But the truth is that we are only kidding ourselves. No one is an island, and no one can draw a red line around his country, around his state, around his city or his yard.
Turn your back today, and tomorrow it will be your garden trampled by someone’s boots and your (or your grandkids’) near and dear teared apart by high explosives or shot or gassed. Yes, I know that realpolitik tells us to forget our grandkids for the purpose, but can we?
Bashar Assad should be killed.
Snoop, just FYI, I read your post when it first went up at the blog.
Of course, your excerpt was not written directly in response to my writing; still, I need focus clear responsiveness to me by emphatically stating that my argument is not one based on – a word you use – “realpolitik,” which suggests cynicism and amoralism.
I conceive of policy motivated by the human good, ethics, and self-interest, which are ideally, not often in conflict, with all three practically governed by the achievable. You make the moral argument for intervention. But to quote James Fallows recently: details of the Syrian civil war “tell us that something horrible happened, not what we should do about it.”
I believe in the justness of humanitarian interventions, though obviously most of the world lacks the moral will to do more than condemn, including condemn the US when there is any talk of the US dong something. The question always is whether the intervention has any reasonable chance of success or it will make matters worse in the same or different ways. I think the latter is true of the U.S. and Syria. Nations should not throw themselves headlong into conflicts that they have little chance of winning.
To draw an, as always, inexact, but strikingly apt analogy, if multiple parties fall off a cliff in the midst of a scuffle, no good sense is demonstrated or end achieved by jumping off the cliff after them in the vain hope of disentangling and separating the bodies on the way down. There may be other, modest rescues that can effected, including a hastily prepared net at the bottom, but if you play super hero and jump, hoping to make the rescue in the midst of the fall, you are just going to hit bottom yourself. It may be a balm to burning outrage to cite moral imperatives, but they do not solve the problems they encounter or the even greater problems that wrong action may produce.