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Syria: the rhetoric of selling war

“The strike will not be like a humanitarian intervention such as in Kosovo. It will also not be a direct intervention like in Iraq and it will not be an invasion like in Afghanistan. This will be a “targeted military strike”. It seems as if the Obama administration is running out of names for wars.”

By: Rahim Akrami

News Writer

In its infancy, America tended to stay out of foreign wars. George Washington’s farewell address warned the American people against going to war with other nations. The United States had adopted the isolationist policy – an default position of noninvolvement in foreign wars and politics. This approach however, did not last long. President Woodrow Wilson made a case for intervention for the US in order to maintain world peace and order during the horrors of World War I. The US soon got involved and came out as a victor. Not long after, World War II came to pass and the US found itself again entangled. Being on the side of the victors once more, the military and economic might of the US had grown formidable.

During most of America’s history, selling a war to the American people had been relatively easy. The rhetoric for selling wars had either a moralistic, humanitarian or ideological agenda. From Reagan’s support of the Contras in Sandinista, the Clinton-led NATO strikes on Kosovo, to the war in Vietnam, the American public has mostly bought the wars – at least initially. The US rushed to save Kuwait after Iraq had invaded it in 1990. The Iraqi invasion was condemned by the international community. The United Nations Security Council took immediate steps and passed Resolution 660 warning Saddam to withdraw his forces or “face war”.

Even with the faulty intelligence reports, the government was successful in selling the 2003 Iraq war to the American public. This time, the US had little international support from allies and went to war without a UN Security Council resolution. Prior to the Iraq war, the US had invaded Afghanistan in 2001. The two wars proved too much even for the military capabilities of the United States. The US realized that its power had limits.

Now, president Obama is making a case for military strikes on the Bashar A-Assad regime in Syria. The Obama administration claims it has evidence that the Syrian leader has used chemical gas on his own people. The use of any chemical weapons is banned by international law and therefore, Assad should be punished. Obama does not call his proposed strikes on Syria a war, and he promises to not put boots on the ground. Several questions arise. Will the president be able to sell his case to the American people? Will the American people buy it? Are there immediate threats to the national security of the US? Can the US afford to strike Syria? Will bombing Syria really deter Assad from continuing to attack his own people or would such actions further escalate the civil war or even aggravate regional tensions and instability? Will the US sincerely honor a Russian-brokered process of turning over the Syrian chemical weapons to the international community?

These questions are the focal point of a hot debate on Syria. President Obama made his case during his address to the nation on September 10th leaning on the following points:

1)      The Syrian conflict was a civil war until August 21st when the Assad regime allegedly used chemical weapons on its people, killing thousands including children.

2)      The use of chemical weapons is a violation of international law constituting “crimes against humanity”.

3)      If we don’t act, Assad won’t stop gassing his people.

4)      Since America is exceptional and has moral duty, it has the responsibility to punish the Assad regime.

5)      A targeted military strike will deter the use of chemical weapons.

There is no doubt that a chemical weapon – sarin gas, more specifically – was used. However, the certainty of this information does not make a stronger case for war. The complexities of Syria and the region, awash with religious, ethnic and partisan tensions, are many. There are no immediate threats to the national security of the US. In an interview with Charlie Rose, the Syrian president Assad warned that “there are other key players” in the region that would respond to the strike, likely referring to his long-time ally Russia and others.

With no immediate threat to US interests, Obama’s self-interest is perplexing and suspect. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the bombing will not kill civilians, even if they are guided missiles controlled from the Pentagon itself. Ironically enough the bombing could kill the same children whom Obama is pledging to protect.

Arguments that a military strike will deter Assad from continuing to commit atrocities are likewise flimsy. The Syrian leader warned in an interview that the US should “expect everything” in retaliation to attack, including chemical weapons.

While the Assad regime had previously neither denied nor accepted possessing chemical weapons, it is now claiming it has them. After Russia proposed that Syria could turn over all of its chemical weapons to the international community, the Syrians welcomed the proposal in hopes of avoiding a potential US strike.

Interestingly enough, US secretary John Kerry had proposed a similar proposal in a news conference saying that “Assad could turn all his chemical weapons to the international community, but it cannot be done obviously.” When the Russians took him up on the proposal, the White House was quick to say that Secretary of State Kerry was only “giving a rhetorical argument” and that the proposal was not a true offer. In any case, the proposal – if accepted by the US – will end the debate on chemical weapons, thereby avoiding a US strike. Diplomacy will win over war.

Even if the US accepts the proposal, there are many issues that arise. According to reports, Syria has 1,000 tons of chemical weapons stored at more than fifty sites all over the country. How would the turning over process work? It seems unlikely to destroy the weapons at a war zone. So far there is no country volunteering to take the responsibility storing and disposing of these weapons, and it would be unacceptable for the US if Russia offered to fill this role.

The rhetoric of punishing the Assad regime is another concern. Obama agreed that the US is not the “world police” in his speech on Tuesday. The president claimed that his administration has “tried diplomacy and sanctions, warning and negotiations” over the past two years but the use of chemical weapons justifies a strike.

This justification is based on a rather weak and slim case. First, there will be no troops on the ground meaning there will not be a military intervention. The strike will not be like a humanitarian intervention such as in Kosovo. It will also not be a direct intervention like in Iraq and it will not be an invasion like in Afghanistan. This will be a “targeted military strike”. It seems as if the Obama administration is running out of names for wars.

The “targeted military strike” is perhaps a new-and-improved, more friendly and more easily marketable name for war. If there are fifty sites filled with chemical weapons all around the country, would they not all qualify for “targeted strikes”?  How is the targeted strike any different from a regular strike? How does one make that distinction? What guarantees that the bombings will be 100% precise? Take for example the drone attacks in Pakistan. Hundreds of civilians have been killed because drones could not distinguish the enemy from innocent people. It has hard to pinpoint an attack from the air without strong intelligence about the targets on the ground. Especially in the case of a missile; once it is launched, there is no coming back. It has to go somewhere.

Lastly, President Obama pointed out the classic rhetoric of American exceptionalism. In his address to the nation, Obama said “America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”

Perhaps the best response to this argument came from the Russian President Putin in his commentary published in New York Times on Wednesday, September 11. Putin jabbed Obama on the traditional value of equality which America was founded on. He wrote, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”



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