Syria: No Better Angels


In my last post on Syria, I commented that “Short of widespread popular unrest, on issues like this, the will of the people counts for nothing against the exigencies of imperialism and Zionism, as understood by the American political elite,” that “there would be no challenging debate in the US Congress like that in the British Parliament,” and that “a combination of domestic political pressure that, along with international reluctance, [which would] create an effective pushback against Obama’s momentum towards war” was “not likely.” I was 100% certain of, and would have bet heavily on, a strike on Syria within a few days.

I am surprised and happy to see that I would have lost that bet. Indeed, there is substantially more than a glimmer of pushback on a number of fronts.  The British parliament’s rejection of a military attack on Syria turned out to be a wedge blow that opened crucial cracks in the hitherto seemingly-impervious American imperial edifice. It pushed Obama into going to Congress for a vote, which bought time in which the American people could think about the case and not just follow the leader, and in which the media would have to open the window of information and analysis at least a bit more than usual.
The New York Times has had to publish a story and a picture (not the worst by far) about the brutality of Syrian rebels, and a blog account from the frontlines describing their fanaticism. McClatchy published a story pointing out that there were “too many holes in the American case against Assad as the chemical weapons villain. The Atlantic, via James Fallows, ran a thorough and devastating must-read analysis by William Polk (a totally establishment guy, former State Department Policy Planning Council,  privy to all US Government information on poison gas, as well as telecommunications interception and code breaking).1
Crucial reports and analyses like these are now quickly and ubiquitously disseminated, in a way that was just not possible before the Iraq war in 2003 – through the internet, social media, blogs, tweets, popping up on people’s phones every ten minutes. There’s so much information, so widely available, that, after a week, it will inevitably undermine John Kerry’s absolute certainty about Assad’s devilry and what-me-worry nonchalance about the Syrian “rebels” – revealing it for the mendacious, hypocritical, and incoherent fairytale that it is.  Even some at MSNBC have had to recognize, this time, that Obama’s war drive is FUBAR, with Chris Hayes coming out explicitly against it. 
Most importantly, through these openings there rushed a flood of overwhelming popular opposition, tinged with such rage and disgust as indeed to approach “unrest.” One congressman says that “I literally cannot walk across the parking lot without being stopped to talk about this issue…To say it’s 99 percent against would be overstating the support.”  Overstating, indeed: only 3 out of 1000 or so calls and e-mails he has received supported any kind of response. And "two-thirds of the correspondents had never reached out to him before.”2 [my emphasis]
This, in turn, has stiffened political resistance within Congress itself, making possible the kind of alliance between principled (what Greg Sargent calls “non-hackish”) anti-war liberals and libertarians that coalesced to nearly de-fund the NSA’s bulk telephone surveillance in July (as discussed in an earlier post), John Conyers-Justin Amash then, Alan Grayson-Ron Paul now.3 Preliminary whip counts now show that Obama is going to have a very hard time getting a Declaration of War on Syria — that’s what it is! – through both houses of Congress. A coalition like that which voted down TARP the first time is possible, and could reject this in Congress.
Philip Weiss remarks on this:

The coming political question is a cultural one: whether the rightwing national interest types, caricatured as isolationists, can build a coalition with the leftwing antiwar types. Both sides are corrupted, the Dems by neoliberalism and doctrinal attachment to liberal Zionism, the right by the Tea Party and a legacy of racism.4

The popular pressure here has rebounded back to Europe, where the formerly gung-ho French President, now seconded by the European Union, has been pushed to await the UN inspectors’ report, not due before September 15th.
All of this already has accomplished something important: Any American attack on Syria is now clearly marked as against the will of the American people and the real “international community.” There is a decent chance that it will be rejected by the US Congress, and a smaller chance that such a rejection, combined with international isolation, will lead it to be cancelled outright for the immediate future. It has become very difficult to hide that such an attack would be an act of imperialist aggression, and making that too visible is itself politically damaging. Things have changed, in a good direction.
Let’s not get carried away with optimism, however. What was 100% last week is now maybe 95%.  If we have to recognize that there has been real political movement, we must also recognize the enormous political, ideological, and financial forces still committed to this war, and how far we are from winning this fight against them. The balance of power is still very much against the antiwar camp.
After all, if popular antiwar conviction were to stop in advance a military attack fervently sought, and proclaimed as crucial to our national interest, by an American President, it would be a big, very big, deal – unprecedented, as far as I can see, in American history. It would be a turning point, if not tipping point, in the effectivity of imperialist leadership, and the imperialist leadership will fight tooth and nail to make sure this does not happen. The largest wave of antiwar demonstrations in the history of the world could not stop the American attack on Iraq ten years ago. Yes, there are a lot of new factors working in our favor — the distance from 9/11, the post-Iraq-Afghanistan cynicism and exhaustion, the economic crisis, the tide of the last week – but we’re far from overcoming the determination of the imperial apparatus.  The “credibility” at stake here is precisely the credibility of the emperor’s prerogative to act against the popular will.  For that, they have barely begun to fight.
Let’s look, for example, at the theater of congressional decision. I know that Obama has asserted, with utter disdain for clear constitutional law, that he has the authority to attack Syria even if the Congress votes against it.  So a congressional rejection will not necessarily prevent a strike. (I do not think it will.) But it’s important to recognize the definite truth of the obverse: a congressional vote to authorize a strike on Syria will guarantee that it will happen. 
In this case, then, the congressional vote is an important and really contested theater, which is why, despite everything — can you say Chuck Schumer — I have sent a letter to my representatives.5
In regard to this vote, however, it’s also necessary to remember what we all know about electoral politics, which goes equally for legislative politics. There are two parallel and different conversations going on here: the conversation with the voters on the one hand, and the conversation with the donors and Serious People  (often conflated) on the other. The voice of the voters is loud and clear, a "NO!" so emphatic as to be the end of it, if the conversation with the voters were determinant. But, as we all (should) know, it’s the conversation with the donors and Serious People that usually wins the day. To the voters, the congressfolk say whatever they think the public wants to hear. To the donors, they make serious commitments that they keep. American politicians assume, usually with good reason, that, with enough money to buy enough ads in the next election cycle, they’ll be able to get away with just about anything with the public.
Who, you might ask, would be trying to play the sleazy, business-as-usual buy-the-vote game on this issue? This is war, after all, and the American public is so clearly sick and tired of bloody and expensive wars with ludicrous and hypocritical justifications.  There’s certainly the famous military-industrial complex, and, yes, Raytheon stock jumped 50% on news that the cruise missiles it makes will have to be restocked.6
But there is another group, which has contributed more ($11.1 million more in 2012, according to Bloomberg) to federal election campaigns than the defense industry: the “pro-Israel community,” as Bloomberg calls it. This is the 800-pound gorilla of the Israeli lobby, which usually does not fret about blatantly lobbying – even for the United States to go to war in the interests of another country — because it usually conducts its lobbying rampages under a magical politico-media cloak of invisibility. This time, as Rosenberg and Philip Weiss  and Haaretz report, AIPAC and “the American Jewish establishment” are now in “full court press” mode in support of a military attack on Syria.7

The New York Times reported about AIPAC’s involvement, before they didn’t. The paper changed an article to scrub mention of how AIPAC was busily “at work pressing for military action,” and was referred to by “one administration official” as “the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”  The Times’ public editor assures us that the references to AIPAC were not disappeared by a quick unfurling of the invisibility cloak. Take a look at the links and decide what you think.8

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