Paris, August 28, 2013 – When 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 United States 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 Sebrenica 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 only way Mr. Obama’s “red line” would be crossed would be if the Assad government carried out the chemical attack itself, or if the rebels chose to kill their own countrymen (actually, preferably their countrywomen and children) -- in a way that would lead Americans and the international community to believe this actually had been done by Syrian government forces.
The French and British governments believe that the Assad government was responsible.. Barack Obama has said that it is what he believes, at least until evidence to the contrary turns up. 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?”
It certainly is what the Israelis say. The prominent Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronoth reported on August 27 that “the Israel Defense Force’s 8200 intelligence unit was listening to the Syrian leadership during the lethal chemical weapons attack last week…and it was Israel that relayed the incriminating information to the West.” The newspaper added that Israeli officers travelled to Washington on Monday “to show their counterparts the most updated intelligence” and claimed that “the source of most of the information that the 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 United States and Syria's ally, Iran, and with Hezbollah. Has the U.S. government no better intelligence in this matter than what it gets second-hand from Israel, the country that has a vital interest in promoting an expanded war?
The United States bears no authority for ruling world affairs. The American president is constitutionally required to obtain Congressional consent to initiate aggressive military actions. Washington 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? Barack 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 Barack 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, Chief of the Joint Chiefs, 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 the Washington political class, since the end of the cold war and above all since the 9/11 attacks, has fed upon notions of permanent war, terror, torture, international lawlessness, executive assassination, illegal apprehensions, punitive sequestrations, indiscriminate civilian murders -- with many of its members 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 United States 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.
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