What’s the War About?

by David Finkel

September 11, 2013

This article is adapted from comments on the Solidarity e-mail list. It was written before Obama’s speech on 9/10/13.

Against fierce public and political opposition, Team Obama is going all-out for a Congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to bomb Syria. The term they’re using is “flood the zone,” but it’s looking more like a “Hail Mary pass.” So what is this about? Several things. First, Obama’s credibility and, by extension, that of the U.S. imperial dictat, is at stake (more on this later).

Second, there’s an element of stupidity and bungling. Presidential stupidity is never a fundamental cause of imperial adventures and debacles, but it’s a factor. Stupidity was a factor in 1979 when Jimmy Carter, apparently on his own, allowed the deposed Shah of Iran into the USA; it was a factor way back when JFK took the CIA’s bait to invade Cuba (Bay of Pigs, 1961); it was a factor when George W. Bush dissolved the Iraqi army in 2003, bringing about state collapse and sectarian mayhem there.

Americans demonstrate against intervention in Syria.

Bungling is a factor now around responding to the chemical weapons attack, particularly the U.S. refusal to recognize what should be obvious: (i) that Russia, not the U.S. or some scrawny COW (“Coalition of the Willing”), is the real key to stopping the Syrian regime from using forbidden weapons, and (ii) that Moscow is understandably enraged by having been suckered on Libya. Cruise missiles and B-52 bombers will not deter the Syrian regime, but Russia can tell Assad that it will pull the plug if chemical weapons are used again, making his regime a liability rather than an asset for Moscow.

The Russian government, of course, is acting overwhelmingly in Russia’s state interests. Russian intelligence must have already known what German intelligence has reported, that the chemical weapons attack was apparently carried out by a Syrian military unit but not authorized by Assad. This doesn’t absolve the regime and its leadership from criminal responsibility, but the point here is that any signs of weakening of the regime’s command and control over chemical weapons must be freaky-scary for the Russians, as it should be for everyone.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Both the “imperial credibility” and “stupidity” factors have a common root. It’s an assumption going back decades (elaborated as the ”Carter doctrine” but earlier too) that U.S. military might is the key to the “stability” of the Middle East. (Israel fits into this equation, obviously.) But while the U.S. is of course the overwhelming military power, its capability to control and determine events is decreasing. The decline of U.S. power was greatly accelerated, qualitatively so, by the Iraq disaster. But the instinct remains to “prove our resolve,” which in turn contributes to the tendency to bungling and stupidity.

Another element is the U.S. political gridlock and the administration’s indecisiveness, even policy incoherence, on Syria, which gives McCain and the neocons the opening to insert their own agenda to which Obama has made himself hostage. That agenda remains as it has been under Bush-Cheney, to push toward confrontation with Iran. If this results in the destruction of Obama’s presidency, that’s an added benefit from their point of view. And Israel is lining up with the neocons on going after Iran–the Israeli goal is not to overthrow Assad (whom they prefer to the existing alternatives) in Syria but to take down Iran, ultimately by force. This has not been the Obama administration’s strategic goal, at least in the short term.

The contradiction facing Team Obama now, which makes it all the harder to convince the public or ram through the AUMF, is on the one hand that a strictly “limited” strike will be strategically ineffectual and only reinforce the (correct) perception of declining U.S. hegemony. On the other hand, a massive strike that changes the balance of forces in the Syrian conflict might (i) strengthen the fundamentalist and al-Qaeda types, (ii) enrage the Russians to the point where they don’t give Assad the ultimatum to enforce the no-chemical-weapons ban; (iii) push the new Iranian government away from bargaining and even toward a rush for nuclear weapons.

Obama giving a speech about Syria.

It is fashionable among the pro-bombing punditry to ascribe the opposition of the U.S. public to “war-weary isolationism.” This is patronizing and one-sided at best. Yes, there is war-weariness after the Iraq debacle and the Afghan quagmire, but there is also genuine horror over the chemical weapons attack (yes, the Syrian military did it) and a feeling that “something needs to be done.” And indeed, something needs to be done, but Team Obama can’t coherently explain what it intends to accomplish because it doesn’t even know. And the continuing slow-motion social catastrophe in America and the budget gridlock certainly contributes to the mood of rejection.

This is not a war that the ruling class is particularly enthused over either. Imperial prestige does matter, and there is the potential for Congressional disapproval to cripple a presidency, there really isn’t a clearly identifiable U.S. “national security” stake here–not oil, not a terrorist threat, not even a threat to Israel. If anything, bombing Syria could push Iran in a more dangerous direction and create the small, but not trivial possibility of setting off a regional catastrophe by miscalculation or accident.


2 responses to “What’s the War About?”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    The current farcical turn of events is a loss for the Syrian opposition, and a win for Assad.
    Obama has shifted the discussion to the non-issue of the use or non-use of chemical weapons, and away from the real issue of the 100,000 Syrians slaughtered by Assad’s gangster regime. In effect, the White House is giving Assad the green light to slaughter another 100,000 Syrians — on condition that he not use chemical weapons. Assad can readily assent to this ludicrous ‘demand’ since it doesn’t touch the essence of the matter. If Assad goes along, Obama will save face, the Russians will be happy about their ‘plan’ being accepted, and Assad will fight on.
    For the imperialists in the Kremlin and the White House, preventing a popular victory in Syria is paramount because such a victory could, potentially, in the very best case, lay the basis for a bourgeois-democratic, secular state. Such an outcome would invigorate democratic movements in the Middle East, especially where they’ve been hit hard, as in Egypt. This is the “regional catastrophe” satraps, despots, and religious fanatics, from Al-Qaida to Hezbollah, fear and hate the most. This is well understood by Achcar and Chomsky but by very few others on the left, particularly the crowd around Counterpunch.
    One more point. David says there is “genuine horror” among the American people about the use of chemical weapons and a feeling that “something needs to be done.” I doubt most Americans feel this way. To be blunt, most Americans have been poisoned by imperialist ideology, corrupted by its racism, its moral depravity, its devalorization of human life. Most Americans have been taught, and are ready to believe, that defending the “national interest” is the most moral thing in the world. No doubt, Obama’s sudden appeal to morality is the vilest hypocrisy imaginable. But, because that appeal has not been sufficiently tied to the “national interest”, most Americans have not been moved by it. Sad, but true. Socialists have their work cut out.

  2. Michael Karadjis Avatar
    Michael Karadjis

    David, that must eb one of the most clear-headed analysis of the current semi-war-drive I’ve seen in the left media. One thing I’d add is that, if as you suggest this was “carried out by a Syrian military unit but not authorized by Assad”, thus revealing “signs of weakening of the regime’s command and control over chemical weapons,” then this also helps explain Israel’s contradictory role in this. As you correclty note, Israel prefers Assad to the alternatives, and to the extent it sometimes sabre-rattles over the US not enforcing “red-lines,” it is precisely the issue of example it has in mind, with regard to the Iran nuclear issue. But this time, unlike pretty much the whole of the last 2 years, Israel has appeared relatively hawkish, compared to previous behaviour. Given that Israeli leaders have stated countless times, with abundant clarity, that their greatest fear is not Assad controlling chemical weapons, but rather the danger that the fall of Assad could result in these weapons falling into the hands of “terrorists”, meaning either Hezbollah but even more ominously the anti-Assad Sunni Jihadists, the idea that the regime’s control may be fraying would indeed be a significant problem for Israel, that would require noone other than the US to try to fix (and must absolutely not be left to Saudi-backed elite FSA units based in Jordan). On the other hand, there is also enormous apprehension that the lack of any clear US strategy, and this has led to a sharp difference between a relatively dovish Israel and much more hawkish US Israeli lobby (again revealing the limits of “lobby theory”), as this article indicates: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/09/201391112411550354.html.