Responses to wrongdoing must not exacerbate problems.
– Jonathan Granoff, President, Global Security Institute
Watching news coverage of the debate over bombing Syria, one realizes there’s more going on than Barack Obama or John Kerry are telling Congress and the American people. Kerry may have sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — but that doesn’t mean he has to tell the whole story.
The fact is there’s an elephant in the room everyone involved seems sworn to never mention. Or if it slips out, it suddenly gets silenced. That elephant is Israel.
Consider this little mind game: What if Syria and the rest of the volatile Middle East did not surround the tiny state of Israel? Would we still need to bomb Syria? With the Arab world in an uproar right now, tensions are especially high in Israel, thanks to its iron-walled determination to sustain a military occupation over native Palestinians.
Secretary of State John Kerry sees the Israel/Palestine crisis as one of his most important diplomatic challenges. It’s ironic that Kerry, once an eloquent antiwar Vietnam veteran, is now the Obama administration’s point man pushing hard for war and the bombing of Syria. The same irony haunts President Obama, a consistent opponent of the Iraq War and, of course, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Let’s extend this mind game: What if Israel had been established in the early 20th century on the Africa continent between Chad and Darfur, which is in western Sudan. Imagine that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir had voiced hatred for this tiny neighbor populated by refugees from Europe. When Bashir took up slaughtering many thousands of Darfurians, would the president of the United States have sent in cruise missiles — instead of what he did, which was nothing? In fact, while the US president damned Bashir’s slaughter on one hand, US Pentagon and Intelligence operatives met with Sudan’s chief military intelligence officers to iron out cooperation against terrorism. (In the hunt for al Qaeda, let’s not forget how Bill Clinton actually sent cruise missiles into Sudan to blow up what turned out to be a civilian pharmaceutical plant. It was a big embarrassment.)
Then there’s the very recent case of Egypt, whose military units purposely gunned down over 1000 students and other pro-democracy demonstrators in the streets and wounded or locked up many thousands more. Why this did not rise to the level of an “atrocity” in need of “accountability” is a mystery. But, then, I’m more a moralist than a blind US patriot.
Actually, I’m being intentionally disingenuous, here, since I — and many other Americans — do understand what’s going on. It’s not really a mystery. It’s the international variant on that tried-and-true American standby, selective enforcement or selective accountability. You know how it works: You have all sorts of laws or “red lines” on the books that you only enforce against those you don’t like. It’s actually quite elegant. For those you do like, the law is either ignored or there is some mitigating condition. In the case of the Egyptian military, that mitigating condition is the US government’s purchase of loyalty with annual donations of cash rooted in a pact to keep the Egyptian military friendly with Israel.
Equally compelling, there was no call to attack Egypt because our leaders liked what their Egyptian military friends were doing, which was to unseat the Muslim Brotherhood party that rose to power democratically and to brutally crush the Brotherhood movement once-and-for-all across the nation. It’s true, they did not use chemicals to kill their people. But dead is dead.
Selective accountability doesn’t take into consideration the hypocrisy factor of the present US government outrage when we have used white phosphorus, napalm and chemically volatile weapons like agent orange and depleted uranium shells for decades to kill people, many of them civilians. The same goes for all those coordinates and bombing instructions we gave Iraq intelligence so the Iraqis could drop sarin gas on Iranians at least three times during the Iran-Iraq War. That was OK because it turned the war around in favor of our ally, the man who would only later become the arch-villain Saddam Hussein.
Israel is at the center of both the Egypt story and the Syria story. Israel’s role since the Cold War era has been as an outpost of US imperialism in the Middle East, a role that is becoming ever more difficult to sustain as the region comes unglued. In fact, Israel’s role vis-a-vis the US is so tricky it’s often relegated to the realm of secrecy; in many ways it has become a relationship that demands silence.
The Israeli lobby — The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — was recently described by a White House operative as “the 800 pound gorilla in the room” when it came to selling the bombing of Syria. AIPAC’s argument is that if Syria is not attacked, Iran will be emboldened. Once the “gorilla” remark appeared in The New York Times, a funny thing happened. It subsequently disappeared in all future editions and on the NYT website. Someone had gotten to The Times and all mention of AIPAC was scrubbed from the story.
The recent history is interesting. According to a Financial Times article, in 2007 Israel shifted its position on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from accepting the “devil they knew” to wanting him removed. His links with Hezbollah and Iran were the reason. “Removing Syria from the Iranian axis is seen as an overwhelming Israeli interest,” The Financial Times reported. Former Israeli Deputy Prime Minster Avigdor Lieberman said the collapse of the Assad regime “would be a severe blow to Iran’s subversive activities in the region, given that Assad’s Syria serves as a forward base [for Iran].”
Pressure from Israel explains a lot about the intensity of the Obama Administration’s call to bomb Assad and Syria. A broken up and fragmented Syria would not necessarily be friendly to Israel, but it’s considered by Israeli leaders (including, The Financial Times says, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) much less of a threat to the Zionist state than an Assad-dominated Syria.
Does this constitute Israel as “the tail wagging the US dog”? That’s a subjective metaphoric call. All we know is tiny Israel is a significant factor in the mix, and it’s consistently held up as a militarist model for attacking “terrorism.” This even though in comparison to tiny Israel, the US is a massive continent-size nation with friends to its north and south and vast oceans to the east and west. That is, it has nothing at all in common with tiny Israel — unless you see Israel as a US imperial outpost in a hostile region.
Instead of avoiding this elephant in the room, as the nation and Congress debate bombing Syria I submit it would be in the national interest and, thus, beneficial for politicians and ordinary Americans to discuss the US-Israel relationship in a more frank manner without fear.
We act as if Arab and Muslim states are the entire problem in the Middle East. We like to box them up as cultural “failures” because they don’t operate at the warp speed of more “exceptional” Western cultures like the US and Israel. The Muslim religion can be exasperating — but so can fundamentalist Christianity and super orthodox Judaism.
We hear all the time how Arab and Muslim nations have failed in the modernism game. But what about the failures of modernism itself? Failures like environmental catastrophe, corporate power and greed, George W. Bush’s Iraq War and the 2008 financial collapse. That’s the short list. Don’t all these major, largely top-down problems at some point accumulate into something pretty serious?
Is it possible for cultures to get too far ahead of themselves for their own good? Maybe it’s a good thing to slow down to do some serious self-examination for the good of the larger system. The current debate over bombing Syria is a perfect place to begin such a national discussion. It’s already begun. If not bombing Syria means a loss of face for the President of the United States, maybe that’s not such a terrible thing. Maybe it’s a sign of progress — a balancing of runaway militarism.
Jonathon Granoff, quoted above in an epigram, points out that it doesn’t make much sense for the United States to hold Syria’s Assad “accountable” for acts of violence when the likelihood is very good a US military attack will only exacerbate and increase the problem of violence. This seems very hard for American militarists to grasp. If moral accountability is the real reason the bombing of Syria is being proposed (and it may not be the real reason), the arguments for such a moral response are simply preposterous and as disingenuous as suggesting most Americans don’t really understand what’s going on here — that from the beginning the US has avoided the idea of a negotiated solution like the plague and has clearly focused on knocking off Assad like they did Muammar Gaddafi.
The problem for the Obama administration is that it has consistently sent out signals that regime change was its goal and that it was a certainty. Now that Assad seems able to hold onto power (in fact, he’s telling everyone he’s fighting the US’s favorite terrorist network, al Qaeda) the US has to either eat crow or escalate. It seems Israel and the US have concluded the only way to move the regime change idea along is some kind of US intervention that alters the stalemate nature of the war — like someone shooting off a gun in a room full of squabbling people.
Polls and anecdotal interviews across the nation suggest the American people are thoroughly fed up and opposed to an attack on Syria — a feeling expressed strongly across party lines.
Granoff, president of the Global Security Institute, says Assad should be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
“If [the ICC] decided that crimes against humanity had been committed, the entire political landscape would change,” he says. “[Chemical weapons] use is illegal as a war crime if intentionally directed against a civilian population in a non-international armed conflict. Such a crime can be prosecuted by the ICC.”
For militarists, accountability via the ICC is not as satisfying as killing people and destroying things. International prosecution would take time, and more people would likely be killed in the meantime. But more death and wider war is also a certainty if the US sends bombs into Syria. And we’re at the point it’s not outlandish to envision US intervention leading to a region-wide conflagration — as Rachel Maddow recently put it, “Syria as the Archduke Ferdinand leading to World War Three.”
So there are a number of options short of more killing and destruction. For instance, serious, pragmatic talks involving all the interested parties from the US and Russia to Israel and Iran is a real possibility. All it would require is willingness and humility and dropping the old and tired “Munich” analogy.
It’s actually quite a historically novel idea for parties to bypass war and sit down for negotiations. Usually, the traditional, escalating bloodbath cycle has to run its horrific course, and talks happen only when all parties involved are sick of the killing and the destruction.
I submit it’s time for President Obama to actually earn his Nobel Peace Prize by giving up on bombing Syria and throwing the power of his office into pursuing the negotiation route.