The news reports have been positively breathless with the fevered anticipation of more aggression by the United States, and still more by President Obama, the Nobel Peace Laureate. The reports and images (real and imagined) of gas attacks against civilians have generated the requisite reaction from those of us far away (as they should when innocent lives are taken, whether by chemical or conventional weapons). And so the Syrian issue has sucked all the air out of the news cycle, as it will continue to do for some time yet. Though, the notion that the deaths of 1,500 Syrians from a suspected Sarin gas attack somehow requires an immediate response from the world community when 100,000 casualties in that country's ongoing civil war has merited till now no substantial interest is, I humbly submit, disingenuous and self-serving on the part of those so ardently pressing for military action.
Before we jump into the equivalency at the heart of my post, lets recap the current situation in the Situation Room. Over the past two weeks, President Obama has veered from unrelenting warrior to committed diplomat (for the moment, and because he doesn't have the support in Congress). He had previously drawn a red line in the Syrian sand, and told Bashar al-Assad he not dare cross it. And when it was crossed (allegedly) by someone (we know not yet who, with any certainty), Obama's widely reported revulsion at the deaths of these innocents caused him to rev up America's war machine once more.
Britain's Prime Minister, wishing to participate in yet another grand adventure -- so as to enhance the special relationship -- becoming, in the process, an international statesman in the likeness of Tony Blair (because that's what war does), assumed his parliament would fall in line with more bloodshed in the Middle East (justified and righteous, of course). But to David Cameron's great surprise (and to the UK's supposed humiliation) democracy actually worked, and the members of parliament correctly divined the wariness of their constituents who, sensibly, did not want to sanction another fiasco even remotely similar to Iraq. And thus Britain has been forced to watch from the sidelines, and Cameron suffered his isolation in St Petersburg.
Meanwhile, President Obama, finding himself alone and exposed in the international community (and not wanting to wait for clarification from the UN inspectors), even as he reached his own judgment, was forced to seek ratification from Congress. The world watched that process unfold on its well-worn and familiar track of manufacturing consent. Surprisingly, for the moment at least, American public opinion may have snatched from this President his "responsibility to protect". Obama and his surrogates had begun a full court press on the Hill and in the media, even as he sought some personal cover by saying, "I didn't set a red line. The world did." Except, he did set the red line and, thankfully, has been called out for his hypocrisy and duplicity (see here, here, here, here, here and here, among the many examples).
It had already become clear that his path to war was in jeopardy when, as the G20 meeting concluded, reports emerged that Obama could not build a new coalition of the willing to take immediate military action. The New York Times notes,
"President Obama ran into an impasse on Friday in his bid to rally international backing for a military strike on Syria as world leaders wrapped up a summit meeting...Mr. Obama emerged with a few supporters but no consensus, as other leaders urged him not to attack without United Nations permission...The failure to forge a stronger coalition here in the face of opposition from the Russian host, President Putin, raised the risks even further for Mr. Obama as he headed home to lobby Congress to give him the backing his international peers would not. It also left Mr. Obama in the awkward position of defending his right to take action largely alone if necessary after campaigning against what he portrayed as the unilateralist foreign policy of his predecessor, George W. Bush."I'm struck by the phrase "defending his right to take action". American presidents have repeatedly defended their right to take action (in the name of freedom, democracy and humanitarianism) for the past 100 years -- a catalogue of war and invasion that has killed millions of innocents around the world (and I'm reminded of the 40 year anniversary of the coup in Chile, and of America's participation in that dreadful event). I've yet to note any revulsion or outrage from President Obama over the deaths of innocents from the US drone campaign in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; and meanwhile, civilian death tolls continue to mount in Afghanistan and Iraq.
President Obama's point man on the Syrian issue is none other than Secretary of State John Kerry, a man who proved his own enthusiasm for the killing of innocents in Vietnam. Kerry has elevated the discourse in the usual way, by claiming that Syria's Assad is the reincarnation of Sadam Husein and Adolf Hitler (it is always useful to draw upon the spectre of Nazism, just as George Bush did when he likened Sadam to Hitler in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq, before ultimately executing him). Now Secretary Kerry warns us,
"This is no time to be silent spectators to slaughter...this is not the time to allow a dictator unfettered use of some of the most heinous weapons on earth."This is, of course, a tactic applied by every US administration since 1940 -- direct a righteous indignation and horror at the acts of others, acts that pale in comparison to those routinely perpetrated by America or its surrogates (see John Pilger's excellent summary of some of the worst American atrocities committed in the last century, and see also this excellent commentary on America's utter hypocrisy regarding the use of chemical weapons). And it's always important to justify any action as being vital to American security, just as its useful to minimize any foreseeable difficulties (reminiscent of the "cakewalk" that was supposed to be Iraq). This is, in fact, exactly the messaging from Secretary Kerry, as reported recently by The Guardian,
Kerry insisted that intervention in Syria was vital to American security. He sought to assuage concerns that it could lead to a lengthy and difficult campaign by saying that any military action would be "targeted and limited but clear and effective" and would not involve "boots on the ground." He said: "We are not talking about going to war, this is not Iraq and it's not Afghanistan. It's not even Libya or Kosovo."You've got to admire the man's deadpan chutzpah: "It's not even Libya or Kosovo." We can only hope so, since the number of dead in Libya has been variously estimated in the tens of thousands, as The Guardian noted at the time,
What is now known...is that while the death toll in Libya when Nato intervened was perhaps around 1,000 - 2,000 (judging by UN estimates), eight months later it is probably more than ten times that figure. Estimates of the numbers of dead over the last eight months -- as Nato leaders vetoed ceasefires and negotiations -- range from 10,000 up to 50,000. The National Transition Council puts the losses at 30,000 dead and 50,000 wounded... Of those, uncounted thousands will be civilians, including those killed by Nato bombing and Nato-backed forces on the ground. The figures dwarf the death tolls in this year's most bloody Arab uprisings, in Syria and Yemen. Nato has not protected civilians in Libya -- it has multiplied the number of deaths, while losing not a single soldier of its own.The results of Western humanitarian (read: military) intervention in Kosovo likewise fails to inspire confidence as we await the first of the "targeted" American strikes in Syria. Human Rights Watch reported in 2000 that the Yugoslav government claimed that NATO was responsible for at least 1,200 and as many as 5,000 civilian deaths. HRW also noted that,
"Once it made the decision to attack Yugoslavia, NATO should have done more to protect civilians. All too often, NATO targeting subjected the civilian population to unacceptable risks."The salient point that emerges from any review of past American humanitarian (read: military) interventions is this -- the very civilians (supposedly) desperate for aid and longing for freedom were generally among the first to die from its application, and in disproportionate numbers. And when the bombing begins, the humanitarian (read: military) forces typically refuse to acknowledge the resulting civilian deaths, though, when forced to, always respond with the same vacuous phrasing -- "we deeply, deeply regret any loss of innocent life". Appropriate, then, that the Nuremberg Tribunal declared aggressive war the ultimate war crime, since all other atrocities (chief among them, civilian casualties) flow from it.
And so the situation in Syria has morphed into one of negotiation and diplomacy. That which was so recently so urgent has become an opportunity to step back and take a deep breath. A summary of the latest reports (here, here, here and here provide a representative sampling) variously suggest that President Obama lost his nerve and credibility, while Russian President Putin scored a major victory for his client state. Lost in the scoring is the Syrian civilian population, who might yet be spared the West's unique brand of freedom and democracy, as it has been historically and consistently applied to Arab peoples.
The chemical attack was an urgent matter -- right up to the moment it wasn't. It was a problem that demanded action, and since a military response is a kind of action, Obama chose to solve the problem with a military response -- simple (and consistently American). After all, when you've only got a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And now that the US is forced to ponder next steps, we too might take a moment to consider the question posed at the top of this post: "Is Syria Like Global Warming?"
Such an equivalency might at first seem frivolous but, given the preceding discussion, I might just as easily have asked: "Is President Obama like Martin Luther King or more like President George W. Bush?"; or perhaps, "Is unprovoked aggression of the kind outlined by the Nuremberg Tribunal like humanitarian intervention or more like a war crime?" But back to my primary question.
Like the situation in Syria, the global warming "debate" has its own red lines. So too are governments creating narratives that utilize facts selectively, ignoring root causes and placing their own actions and motivations in the best possible light -- often in direct opposition to the truth. And of course, like Syria, the global warming issue is shrouded in a labyrinth of special interests and the dominant power relationships of the status quo.
But if you agree that 400ppm merits at least the same level of international urgency as a chemical weapons attack, then Syria is not the same as global warming -- the very governments so keen to bomb the crap out of a country in order to punish a reviled dictator have also chosen to ignore the perils of man-made climate change that will affect us all, and for all time.
On both files, the human race is captive to leaders that demonstrate neither leadership nor vision.
Your musical accompaniment for the day: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Ludwig van Beethoven. Originally conceived as a dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte and the ideals of the French Revolution, Beethoven became enraged when Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor, and tore the title page in a fit of rage. Enjoy.