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The Fun of Empire


(updated below)

CBS News, August 18, 2011:

President Barack Obama officially demanded that Syrian President Bashar Assad resign for the sake of his own people, saying he was no longer fit to lead after “imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people” during a crackdown on pro-reform protesters.

New York Times, October 24, 2012:

Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster, according to American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats.

Barack Obama, August 31, 2013:

Now, after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets. . . . [W]e are the United States of America, and we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus.

New York Times, today:

President Obama has authorized surveillance flights over Syria, a precursor to potential airstrikes there, but a mounting concern for the White House is how to target the Sunni extremists without helping President Bashar al-Assad. . . . The flights are a significant step toward direct American military action in Syria, an intervention that could alter the battlefield in the nation’s three-year civil war. . . .

On Monday, Syria warned the White House that it needed to coordinate airstrikes against ISIS or it would view them as a breach of its sovereignty and an “act of aggression.” But it signaled its readiness to work with the United States in a coordinated campaign against the militants.

It was not even a year ago when we were bombarded with messaging that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a Supreme Evil and Grave Threat, and that military action against his regime was both a moral and strategic imperative. The standard cast of “liberal interventionists” –  Tony BlairAnne-Marie SlaughterNicholas Kristof and Samantha Power – issued stirring sermons on the duties of war against Assad. Secretary of State John Kerry actually compared Assad to (guess who?) Hitler, instructing the nation that “this is our Munich moment.” Striking Assad, he argued, “is a matter of national security. It’s a matter of the credibility of the United States of America. It’s a matter of upholding the interests of our allies and friends in the region.”

U.S. military action against the Assad regime was thwarted only by overwhelming American public opinion which opposed it and by a resounding rejection by the UK Parliament of Prime Minister David Cameron’s desire to assume the usual subservient British role in support of American wars.

Now the Obama administration and American political class is celebrating the one-year anniversary of the failed “Bomb Assad!” campaign by starting a new campaign to bomb those fighting against Assad – the very same side the U.S. has been arming over the last two years.

It’s as though the U.S. knew for certain all along that it wanted to fight in the war in Syria, and just needed a little time to figure out on which side it would fight. It switched sides virtually on a dime, and the standard Pentagon courtiers of the U.S. media and war-cheering foreign policy elites are dutifully following suit, mindlessly depicting ISIS as an unprecedented combination of military might and well-armed and well-funded savagery (where did they get those arms and funds?). Something very similar happened in Libya: the U.S. spent a decade insisting that a Global War on Terror – complete with full-scale dismantling of basic liberties and political values – was necessary to fight against the Unique Threat of Al Qaeda and “Jihadists”, only to then fight on the same side as them, and arming and empowering them.

Nobody disputes the brutality and extremism of ISIS, but that is a completely different question from whether the U.S. should take military action against it. To begin with, the U.S. not only ignores, but actively supports, all sorts of brutal and extreme parties in the region.

More important, what are air strikes going to accomplish? All one has to do is look at the horrific chaos and misery in Libya – the Successful Humanitarian Intervention™ – to know that bombing Bad People out of existence accomplishes little in the way of strategic or humanitarian value. If one really wants to advocate that the U.S. should destroy or at least seriously degrade ISIS, then one should honestly face what that actually entails, as detailed by the New America Foundation’s Brian Fishman:

No one has offered a plausible strategy to defeat ISIL that does not include a major U.S. commitment on the ground and the renewal of functional governance on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border. And no one will, because none exists. . . .

Bombing ISIL will not destroy it. Giving the Kurds sniper rifles or artillery will not destroy it. A new prime minister in Iraq will not destroy it. . . . [W]ar makes the jihadist movement stronger, even in the face of major tactical and operational defeats.

The conflicts in Syria and Iraq strengthen ISIL because war is the only force terrible enough to hold together a broad and extreme enough Sunni coalition to be amenable to ISIL. Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi recognized this in 2004 and built a strategy of provoking Shia militias in order to consolidate fearful Sunni groups. . .

Without war, ISIL is a fringe terrorist organization. With war, it is a state. . . . This is where I am supposed to advocate a brilliant strategy to defeat ISIL by Christmas at some surprisingly reasonable cost. But it won’t happen. The cost to defeat ISIL would be very high and would require a multi-year commitment. . . . 

The country must be ready to accept the sacrifices necessary to achieve grand political ends. Until then, any call to “defeat ISIL” that is not forthright about what that will require is actually an argument for expensive failure.

If you like running around sermonizing on the need to destroy ISIS, at least be honest enough to acknowledge what that will really require and then advocate that. Anything short of that is just self-glorifying deceit: donning the costume of Churchillian Resolve and Moral Purpose without any substance.

It seems pretty clear at this point that U.S. military action in the Middle East is the end in itself, and the particular form it takes – even including the side for which the U.S. fights – is an ancillary consideration. That’s how the U.S., in less than a year, can get away with depicting involvement in the war in Syria – on opposite sides – as a national imperative. Ironically, just as was true of Al Qaeda, provoking the U.S. into military action would, for the reasons Fishman explained, help ISIS as well.

But the only clear lesson from all of this is that no matter the propagandistic script used, U.S. military action in that region virtually never fulfills the stated goals (nor is it intended to do so), and achieves little other than justifying endless military action for its own sake. How long before we hear that U.S. military action is needed (again) in Libya to restrain the chaos and extremism unleashed by the NATO intervention in Libya? Does anyone really believe that “limited” bombing of Syria and Iraq in a rage against ISIS will result in anything other than more justifications for military action in that region?

 

UPDATE: The U.S. “is sharing intelligence about jihadist deployments with Damascus through Iraqi and Russian channels,” the Agence France-Presse reports today, citing one source as saying: ”The cooperation has already begun.”

From The New Hitler (back) to U.S. Partner in less than a year: an impressive feat for both Assad and U.S. propaganda.

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