Barrack Obama has always been distinctly known for his gift with words and oratory prowess. Some may still question his Nobel Peace Prize investiture to this day, but all would agree that he managed to entrap his audience in inspirational uplift with his acceptance speech all those years ago. I am not a believer but after reading that transcript I have to admit, it was a rousing speech, “To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.” I am however a skeptic. It means I am willing to change my mind when new evidence presents itself. And this time, it would seem his words have trapped him.
If I was to paraphrase his same quote using the key words and put its context against the recent world headlines, it would seem ironic that the situation now in Syria “recognizes the imperfect man to be historically cynical on his say for the limited reasons in the necessity of force about to be called.”
War rhetoric is dangerous. Even more so when a statement is proclaimed for the world to hear. Obama did himself no favor where soft power maneuvering is concerned when he spoke out last year about drawing a so-called invisible moral “red line” that cannot be crossed if the United States ever started to see chemical weapons being utilized by the Assad regime. If Obama could have then known the ramifications of such a statement more than a year later today, he would probably agree that making this White House statement in March last year would be like Barrack-ading himself with no outs, pardon the puny pun. Effectively, what this means is that the escalation of the recent chemical weapons use in Syria will cause him to lose face if he fails to react decisively to the alleged sarin gas murder of more than 1,000 civilians by the Assad regime.
The risk of losing face is not really a good reason for attacking another country, no? Yes, wars have been waged for less. But Obama is in an impasse. His reputation and the credibility of America’s foreign policy are on the line. That is why he is buying time by putting forth the decision for the authorization of US military intervention in Syria to the US Congress for voting and counting on Russia and China exercising their veto as permanent members of the UN Security Council to put a lid on his blunder. In that capacity, he would appear to be living up to his words, while leaving the outcome of actions to the hands of others without actually wavering in his commitment.
To put matters into perspective, the US and other governments in Europe and the Middle East are not credulous with what has transpired in the Syrian sandscape today. They share the same responsibility that has transformed Syria into a killing field by overtly seeking the violent overthrow of Assad. Almost anyone can argue that without their involvement, Assad’s regime would likely have remained repressive. But no one can dispute the site of mass death and destruction that Syria has now become with more than 100,000 people dead and many of the world’s oldest cultural and archaeological treasures gone forever.
In order to understand the bearing and weight of the Syrian crisis today, we need to consider how the civil war effectively took off. The first phase started off as an internal protest which erupted from the Arab Spring events in 2011 in the usual grievances under a brutal authoritarian regime. The protests became a military rebellion when parts of the Syrian army seceded from the regime to establish the rebel Free Syrian Army we know today. Turkey then became the first country to support the rebellion by providing refuge to the rebel forces along its border. The violence intensified in the second phase when the US, while leading other countries along, pledged financial and logistical aid to the rebels.
A month later, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to presage Obama’s earlier red line rhetoric by declaring “We think Assad must go.” Needless to say, this type of open-ended statement in the absence of visible means to achieve the goal at that time has done much to fuel military escalation in Syria. And now it has pushed the US government to defend its credibility against a red line in the sand that should never have been drawn.
Without taking anything away from the condemnations of the US on the regime’s recent use of chemical weapons in quelling the rebellion, current Secretary of State John Kerry is right to call the use of sarin gas a “moral obscenity”. But is killing civilians with chemical weapons morally more obscene than shooting, bombing or starving them to death? Was it more immoral to kill roughly 100,000 people in Hiroshima with an atom bomb than killing more people in Tokyo in one single night of incendiary bombing? Was it more immoral to gas Jews than to shoot them down into open pits? The true moral distinction here surely lies in the killing, and not the methods used.
The moral outrage expressed in the rhetoric of Obama, Clinton and Kerry, no matter how justified, is not a sufficient reason for going to war. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, more than 40 million Chinese perished when Mao Zedong oversaw the democide and systematic human rights abuse of his country but no one in their right mind would even dared whispered that a military intervention in China would be a good idea.
So the issue of legalities is hardly a reason to go to war, no? Because although using chemical weapons are deemed flagrant actions in violation of international norms and the laws of war, as stated in the Chemical Weapons Convention, Syria never actually signed it. But it is guilty by being party to the Geneva Protocol. As such, there are reasonable grounds to treat Assad as a war criminal in which he should be indicted at the International Criminal Court, which is incidentally a treaty that the US has never ratified. But when the US overtly declared its support for the Syrian insurgency and fronted the attempt to depose Assad, it effectively bypassed and undermined the United Nations’ peace initiative, then being led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, of calling for an armistice followed by a negotiated political transition. This preemptive action only served to further harden Assad’s resistance as well as the resolve of his two allies in the UN Security Council: Russia and China.
The semblance of justice, especially when it is distorted, are weak grounds as impetus for intervention as well, no? Because let us be honest, no one is going to shoot missiles into Russia or China for the sake of saving face, or upholding human rights and international standards of warfare. It is no state-secret that “humanitarian intervention” usually takes place in the case of a “weak” country where no big power is involved. A US intervention cannot guarantee an end to the civil war. But a US missile will guarantee its direct participation.
So where do we really draw the line? Despite the questionable motivations behind some of these major Western powers, how can any responsible governments ignore when innocent civilians are being slaughtered? How many deaths constitute genocide? Perhaps it is not even a question of numbers but a matter of intent.
We know that morality, legality and justice has very little to do with America’s motivations. It is the proxy war with Iran that is more likely to be the endgame here. Seeking to depose Assad will deprive Iran of an important ally in the region, one that borders Israel, whose military and political benefactor is none other than the US. The absence of any rational motivation here is stark. But if there is any kind of rationale at all, however weak it may be, it seems to concern Iran and Israel more than Syria. There are many authoritarian regimes in that region which the US does not try to overthrow. In fact, some of them are even America’s close allies. So then, why does the US continue to support a deadly insurrection that is escalating dangerously?
Because the truth is that the US and its close allies still believe they should be the ones to determine who governs in that region. Assad must go not because he is authoritarian but because he is allied with Iran which makes him a regional threat in the eyes of the US, Israel, Turkey, several Gulf countries and other major Western powers.
And this time, with the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the US is once again bypassing the UN by declaring its intention to use its military force to deter, disrupt, prevent, and degrade the potential for, future uses of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction by invoking the United Nations Security Council Resolution on the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons which constitutes a threat to international peace and security. I’m sorry, but is the Resolution’s title called the United States Security Council Resolution?
There is no doubt where all this will lead to should the US direct a unilateral attack against Syria. It will more likely inflame the region further than resolve the crisis there. Instead, America should galvanize the UN and its Security Council to condemn the Assad regime and refer such criminal violations to the International Criminal Court. Concurrently, the Obama administration should move away from its inherited neoconservative approach and find a common ground with Russia and China to enforce the Chemical Weapons Convention. It is time the US should abandon its fantasy that it can or should determine who rules in the Middle East. If Obama fails, while acting multilaterally, Russia and China will find themselves pressured into international isolation. After all, Obama did once said that “adhering to standards strengthens those who do, and isolates – and weakens – those who don’t.”
Obama should then consider abandoning his cynical strategy in using Syria as a proxy against Iran. Isn’t it already obvious that America’s support for the rebellion has not addressed Syria’s crisis to this very day nor resolve its issues with Iran?
For Obama would do well to remember the very clear link between the red line he regrettably drew for Syria and the one he has drawn, perhaps even equally unwise, for Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. Or else the world shall bear witness to another declaration for military intervention, and possibly another war, in the near future.
Do the people in that region be watchful in the days ahead and search the skies for hints of glistening silver that will herald the impending whine and buzz of attack drones? Or does America take the silver lining from the recent new president in Iran and search for a modus vivendi for a change of course on their respective foreign policy? Because simply saving Obama’s honor hardly seems to worth the greater risk.