The Crossroads on Syria

AFP Photo, Aleppo

Yesterday, in an interview aired by PBS, President Obama said that the United States must now attack Syria. The reason was the imminent danger that, if we do not, the Assad government will use chemical weapons against Americans on the U.S. mainland. “When you start talking about chemical weapons,” the president told Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill,

in a country that has the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the world, where over time, their control over chemical weapons may erode, where they’re allied to known terrorist organizations that, in the past, have targeted the United States, then there is a prospect, a possibility, in which chemical weapons that can have devastating effects could be directed at us. And we want to make sure that that does not happen.

This fantastic and hollow pretext comes so close to a statement made by Tony Blair in the run-up to the Iraq war that the two assertions invite a comparison.

What Blair said on September 24, 2002, was that “Iraq has chemical and biological weapons, that Saddam has continued to produce them, that he has existing and active plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, which could be active within 45 minutes. . .and that he is actively trying to acquire nuclear weapons capability.” All this turned out to be based on false reports, forged evidence, outdated sources, and wishful thinking toward war. It precipitated a change in the fame of Tony Blair from “conscience of the free world” to something a good deal smaller and shabbier.

Compare, once more, President Obama’s words yesterday on PBS: “the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the world. . .their control over chemical weapons may erode. . .allied to known terrorist organizations. . .target the United States. . .devastating effects.” Or to put the new claim in familiar language: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” President Bush’s National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice had a conscience as quick on the trigger President Obama’s adviser Susan Rice. But in the president’s own televised claim, the pileup of distortions was entirely worthy of the predecessor who hired the earlier Rice; for the “terrorist organizations” he was speaking of could only have been Hezbollah and its affiliates, the sworn enemies of Israel; and yet those organizations happen never to have attacked the U.S. or any of its assets on the scale of the bombings carried out by al-Qaeda in 2001. In Syria the president is already allied with al-Qaeda’s sister sect, the al-Nusra Front, and to the extent that he weakens the Assad government he will strengthen al-Qaeda.

Probably Obama, like Blair, justified the untruth to himself by a mental reservation. “What I mean is the distant ‘possibility'; the ‘prospect’ as I call it; the small (say 1%) remotely projectable chance that chemical weapons might get into the wrong hands in Syria and be transported to the U.S. and be used thereafter not by Bashar Assad but by agents of his at three removes to hurt the American people here at home.” But will letting those weapons fall into the hands of a successor regime of uncertain allegiance be likely to have effects less disastrous for the U.S.? Some way under the surface, what the president also doubtless intended to say was that “devastating effects” would likely be directed not at the continental United States but at are our soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and our security operatives stationed in Libya and elsewhere. But again the question returns: will you lessen or heighten the risk by weakening the hold on those weapons by Syria and bringing them closer to the control of al-Qaeda?

The president spoke in the same place on Wednesday about the need for “limited, tailored approaches, not getting drawn into a long conflict, not a repetition of, you know, Iraq, which I know a lot of people are worried about.”

Well, we are worried, it’s true, and more than worried we are apprehensive and angry, because we remember Iraq. We suspect that any soldier who has suffered in a war, and any family that has seen its members decimated among the collateral damages of an American “surgical strike,” would grow angrier still at the sound of the anesthetic phrase tailored approaches.

What can one say? The scurry of avowals and reservations and retractions and reassertions over the past three days may represent a tailored approach to the truth, but it doesn’t fit the body that the president is trying to hang it on. The body in question is called Syria. Its fate is now in the balance, at the reckoning of a superpower half a world away; and the decision is being made on the basis of videos of people who were horribly killed by chemical weapons of some sort. The president and the president’s men have mistaken their reaction to those images for assurance about the persons who caused the suffering. They spoke their reactions early and loud, and without the qualification that others who saw the same evidence have felt necessary to enter. And now they are trapped by the unconditional words they were heard to utter.

John Kerry and Joe Biden set the stage for the president’s deeply dishonest suggestion about the danger Assad poses to the American people. They said the evidence that the Assad government had used the chemical weapons was beyond challenge. On the contrary, it was described with lukewarm approval by Mike Rogers of the congressional intelligence committee as “convincing if not compelling.” When pressed by Robert Siegel of NPR to say that the evidence “disproved” the alternative theory that the chemical weapons could have been used in a false-flag operation to convict Assad and draw in the U.S., Rogers answered that far from being “inconceivable” (as Siegel had suggested) such a hypothesis of falsification by the rebels was “not improbable.” Like others in Congress, Rogers is now urging the president to consult the legislative branch and not to act unilaterally, as he did in Libya with regrettable effects that are still being counted. Again, in the past day-and-a-half we have heard that “U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity said there were noticeable holes in US intelligence assessments linking Bashar Assad to the use of chemical weapons on 21 August.” And further: “A classified assessment by the director of national intelligence said agents could not continuously pinpoint Assad’s chemical weapons supplies, according to an AP report. The White House said it would publish an unclassified version of its intelligence assessments.”

Why should this atmosphere of political slackness and imprecision matter? The interventionist argument starts by reducing the choice to a calculation of pure morality and brute power. What should matter is that we believe Assad probably did it; and he has committed other atrocities (as have the rebels); and therefore, who cares about the evidence, or for that matter about international law? We feel that punishing the Syrian government by bombing their defenses is right. So what if the Arab League have announced they won’t go along with it, and Jordan has said the same. It “shocks the conscience” to see the video images, as Secretary of State Kerry said, and that means we must bomb somebody; but we can’t bomb the rebels because, even though they are al-Qaeda-linked, the noisiest Americans on the subject such as senators McCain and Graham have closed their eyes to the facts about al-Nusra in Syria. Aren’t the fanatics provisionally on our side? The president himself has turned against the emphasis of his entire first term, and has thrown away his primary justification of the Afghanistan war, when he now evokes Hezbollah as an organization superior in evil and more dangerous to the U.S. than al-Qaeda.

As Hans Blix recently pointed out, the Obama administration in the panic days we have lately witnessed has also behaved a great deal like the Bush-Cheney group of 2002-2003 in its show of disregard for UN inspectors. The administration said it wanted inspectors. Then it said that the inspectors permitted by Assad came in “too late to be credible.” Thus, having accused Assad of reluctance, the state department and the White House tried to call off the UN in order to begin the bombing on schedule. They used the improvised excuse that the sites of chemical harm would have been degraded by shelling by the time that inspectors arrived. This bogus explanation lasted until the chemical experts weighed in and said that there was no truth at all to such an assertion: it had clearly been made up on the spot by a government operative with no knowledge of the weapons. And now, word has come that the initial data about who used the chemical weapons was passed to the U.S. by Israeli intelligence; and that American intelligence did not hold so high an opinion of it as Kerry and Biden had let on. Now we are waiting for the results of the inspection, though the French Doctors Without Borders are quite sure that they know who did it, and the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, who was sure about another such attack five months ago where the evidence didn’t hold up, is equally sure that France should back the U.S. in doing whatever we end up doing to Syria.

For Congress, this has become a test of constitutional function. Are they a vestigial limb of the executive branch — persons who need not be consulted on the most pressing matters of national policy and the commitment of arms, resources, and the fame of the country in defiance of international law? Are the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives less significant than the parliament of Britain, which demanded consultation and debate after David Cameron tried to extract their support without it? Just this evening, parliament rejected Cameron’s push for war as a piece of adventurism that worked against the interests of the people of Britain. Both the action and the proceeding were instructive. Has the United States become a less democratic nation than the country it revolted against in the name of democracy?

Many left-liberals have been silent at this moment, and many right-wing Republicans, with voting records that attest their credentials as lovers of war, have risen to challenge the president. And so it is being said by some loyal Democrats that the questioners of the president — everyone from John Boehner to Ted Cruz — are cynical, and in that regard entirely unlike the well-meaning and sympathetic leader who got himself unhappily cornered by saying (in the parental voice and using the parental posture he favors) the words “red line” once too often. But a great fact about constitutional democracy is that the very structure of political opposition encourages bad people to do good things for the most ambiguous reasons. Besides, the truth is that this president’s good nature, if that is what it is, has misled him and done harm to the stature of the country before now. He spoke the words “Mubarak must go” and “Gaddafi must go” also once too often. The results are before us: the Egyptian coup, the Benghazi attack, and more. President Obama also said “Assad must go,” and in saying it, threw down a gauntlet to himself which he now feels compelled to pick up, or else. Or else what? Or else (it is said) the U.S. will lose credibility because the president will lose face.

Perhaps so. But balance that against the catastrophe of war, a catastrophe that one series of “tailored” missile strikes will not make smaller. It is sheer delirium to suppose that a world power can inflict massive damage and then pull back, full stop. You can’t support the rebels now and watch in silence while they are hammered in retaliation, with or without chemical weapons. This seems to be a truth that the president, with his antiseptic power of fantasy, cannot bring himself to recognize. The largest delusion in play however is the idea that — no matter who the guilty side — the right response for the U.S. is to direct missiles against Syria as a “shot across the bow”: another of the president’s phrases and a bad euphemism (a shot across the bow is a warning that inflicts no damage, but the strikes he is planning will inflict much damage and will cause some deaths to persons unrelated to chemical weapon). All of the people who want this attack also want the U.S. to enter as a large player in a regional war. The president is trying to convince himself that he can play their game without moving toward their result.

The way out of war is always peace. The way out is not limited, well-tailored, well-spoken, discreet, “smart” shots across the bow which you pretend are not acts of war. But peace comes from negotiations: an activity of which this president has always spoken in high terms but at which he has shown few results during five years in office — not in Afghanistan, not in Iran, not with Russia or China, not on global warming or nuclear proliferation. Why not start with Syria? It is smaller than those other cases, and peace there might lead to peace elsewhere. It will be unsatisfactory, no doubt. And deeply disappointing to people who admire speed and decision and the chance to wrestle with fortune while employing the largest weapons in the world. But it will be better than the multiplication of deaths. It may be too much to expect the administration to see the good of such a course in the next few days. Let us hope for it all the same. And let Congress call an end to its passive obedience and irresponsibility, and help the president to get out of the trap he has laid for himself and for this country.

David Bromwich is on the editorial board of Dissent, and teaches literature at Yale. He has written on politics and culture for The New Republic, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, and other magazines. He is editor of Edmund Burke’s selected writings On Empire, Liberty, and Reform and co-editor of the Yale University Press edition of On Liberty.

Cross-posted from the Huffington Post.