By William Pfaff
Barack Obama foolishly remarked last fall that if the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria made use of chemical weapons in its fight to suppress the insurrection in that country, it would cross a “red line” so far as the American government was concerned. His statement implied that the United States is in charge of international war and peace.
The obvious threat was that the U.S. would intervene in the war. How it would intervene, with what means, to what objective, he did not say. His governing team in Washington, in respect to foreign relations and American foreign policy, remains largely a band of well-meaning amateurs, collected from university faculties and NGOs (and, of course, from community organizing).
It includes supporters of the theory of international protection for victims of war. This is inspired by the genocides committed in Rwanda and by the Bosnian Serbs against Muslims at Srebrenica during the Yugoslav war. Chemical weapons are not genocide, but are an internationally condemned weapon of war, like cluster bombs and phosphorus.
One assumes that, in speaking so casually and recklessly about a red line in Syria, President Obama failed to grasp—how could he have done so?—that he was handing his Republican and neo-conservative opponents a primed bomb with which, as they certainly instantly understood, they could destroy him politically if there were a chemical attack and Mr. Obama did not go to war in Syria.
He was doing something else. He was giving the same bomb to any other international actor who might seek advantage in an American intervention in Syria that would spread the war, possibly to President Assad’s regional allies, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, already active clandestinely.
The French and British governments now seem convinced that the Syrian government was responsible for the recent gas attacks. Obama has said that he is convinced. The only skeptic I have seen in the press and television coverage of the affair has been a British diplomat, who said, “haven’t we been through all of this before, in Iraq, with its non-existent weapons of mass destruction?”
Israel insists that the Syrian government did it. The Times of Israel reported that Israel Defense Force intelligence was listening in on Syrian leadership during the chemical weapons attack. The article went on to claim that the source of most of the information that U.S. has about Syria is Israeli—which is a devastating claim, if true, since Israel is the country that wants a war between the U.S. and Syria’s ally, Iran, and with Hezbollah. Has the U.S. government no better intelligence in this matter than what it gets secondhand from Israel, the country that has a vital interest in promoting an expanded war?
The U.S. bears no authority for ruling world affairs. The American president is constitutionally required to obtain Congressional consent to initiate aggressive military actions. It has no material stake in how this war comes out. People in Washington are talking about “a few” strikes on Syria—to “teach a lesson.” Suppose someone in the area fires an anti-ship missile at an American naval vessel, to teach a different lesson, and sinks it? Obama would demand instant intervention and escalation of the war, and would suddenly become a warrior president—just like George W. Bush.
Consider a different possibility. Suppose that Obama were to tell the American pubic that, while the gas attack constituted a serious and regrettable new step in the Syrian tragedy, he had consulted senior American military leaders, and the most sober and respected of American elder statesmen, and found a consensus of opinion that foreign intervention in Syria’s war would serve only to multiply the existing horrors of the war, and risk igniting a larger regional conflagration. (Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has already told Congress that there is no apparent alternative to the current Syrian government, and only a disorganized and internally divided mixture of rebels and fanatics on the other side.)
Such a presidential statement would concededly please none of Mr. Obama’s enemies and not a lot of his friends, nearly all of whom, since the end of the Cold War and above all since the 9/11 attacks, have fed upon notions of permanent war, terror, torture, international lawlessness, executive assassination, illegal apprehensions, punitive sequestrations and indiscriminate civilian murders—with many of them developing an appetite for all of this.
The war in Syria is a political war for power and political gain in Syria. It is war as war used to be, so to speak. Wars that could be settled, often waged by evil or brutal men, but with tangible and identifiable aims. Why should the U.S. intervene or escalate this Syrian civil war? Syrians started it. No one except Syrians can put an end to it. Anyone who tries risks becoming part of it.
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.
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