The Sword of Damocles over Syria
President Barack Obama has often stated that he seeks to be a transformational president. Assuming that the landmark Affordable Care Act (ACA) survives the Tea Party plan to shut down the U.S. government in order to force him to relinquish his signal achievement as the ransom price, the ACA will be a transformational domestic policy accomplishment. The President’s decision to seek congressional endorsement on the Syria question could mark another transformational inflection point, reversing the long-standing foreign policy trend towards congressional acquiescence to the executive branch on use of military force.
The current powers of the presidency do not require that he seek congressional approval for military action to sanction Syria for the claimed use of chemical weapons, but the Obama administration’s decision to place the matter in the hands of Congress is a welcome step towards restoring the constitutional balance of powers. This is a precedent-setting action that will impact any future president and help to restore public confidence in government. The Iraq War debacle, as British Prime Minister David Cameron wryly noted, “Well and truly has poisoned the well of public opinion.”
Given the long track record of the American Empire of generating ‘false flag’ attacks to whip up public support for imperial military adventures, our skepticism is justified. The U.S. emergence as a world empire began with the Spanish-American War in 1898, sparked by the sinking of the battleship Maine under mysterious circumstances, which was then hyped into a casus belli by the Hearst newspaper chain. That war initiated a century of nearly constant military interventions in Latin America, resulting in a regional backlash which brought Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and other Bolivarian populist revolutionaries to power.
We are still paying the price for the CIA-directed overthrow in 1953 of the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mosaddegh in Iran, which led to the Iranian revolution under Khomeini in 1979. The Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 was a classic false flag attack which was employed by the Johnson Administration to plunge the U.S. into the quagmire of Vietnam, a national wound that has never fully healed. The Reagan Administration was fully aware of Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons in the fratricidal Iran/Iraq war in the 1980’s. We are right to be suspicious when the drums of war start to beat.
That checkered history has led most of the American Left to reject out of hand any U.S. military intervention, regardless of the case. The reflex assumption is that any proposed use of force is illegitimate and rooted in an imperial scheme to seize foreign assets. That narrative overlooks the other side of the coin of American influence, which has been to be the primary architect of the international institutions that promote human rights and democratic governance around the world. America’s role has been both a curse and blessing. This fact creates a lot of cognitive dissonance for both hyper-nationalists and anti-imperialists. Our job as citizens is to strengthen the better angels of the national character, help the country become a more perfect union and to fulfill our national aspiration to be the guarantor of human rights around the world.
The Syrian crisis is at the stage where the obvious desire of the Obama Administration to stay clear of the situation is running up against our deep national commitment to sustain the foundations of the international order that we and our allies created after the devastation of the Second World War. Despite the massive firepower used in that war, the international norm established after the First World War prohibiting the use of chemical weapons largely held. That norm must be defended, lest that scourge re-enter the world.
Rather than draw a premature conclusion, I would like to pose a question. Under what circumstances and in what manner is it appropriate to employ military sanctions to deter a sociopathic regime from going down the dark path of mass murder with chemical or biological weapons? Many of my allies propose U.N. negotiations as the alternative, but that route has already been exhausted, and the U.N. as presently constituted is a dysfunctional institution. Even if the U.N. had the political consensus to take action, it simply lacks the military capacity to actually carry it out. The blunt truth is that the only the U.S. has a big enough hammer to do the job. That’s the realpolitik of the world we live in.
I welcome a vigorous national debate on the role of American power in the world, and I commend President Obama for taking this decision to our representatives in Congress. We need as much transparency as possible in weighing the evidence and coming to an accurate determination of responsibility in this grave matter. This pause for consultation will allow the U.N. weapons inspectors to complete their report and for Congress to take up its constitutional responsibility.