“When it is said to them: ‘Make not mischief on the earth,’ they say: ‘why, we are but peacemakers!’
Surely, these are the ones who foster discord, but they perceive it not.”
In the midst of his ill-fated case in the Parliament to authorize the use of force in Syria, PM David Cameron claimed that the recent attacks in Ghouta mark “one of the most abhorrent uses of chemical weapons in a century.” We can sidestep the fact that it was likely the rebels who carried out this attack—his claim is patently absurd.While it is certainly despicable that hundreds of non-combatants, to include women and children, were killed in such a horrific fashion—does it really compare to the horrors of chemical attacks during the two world wars? Or even to the US use of chemical agents (such as Agent Orange and napalm) during Vietnam, which killed not hundreds, but hundreds of thousands. To this day, the Vietnamese are plagued by birth defects and other health epidemics as a result of these attacks—to say nothing of the long-term consequences to the Japanese as a result of the United States deploying nuclear weapons (the only country in the world to have done so).
The incident in Ghouta is not even equivalent to Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iran—which, according to a recent article by Foreign Policy, the United States tacitly approved of. Nor is it equal to the US use of depleted uranium shells in Iraq during the Gulf Wars.It is also perplexing that these latest 300 somehow evoke more outrage than the previous hundred-thousand lives lost, and the millions displaced within and around Syria, and the decimated infrastructure of the country–brought about by the US and Gulf-sponsored insurgency. It is conceivable that more Syrian civilians will be killed in the US “response” than in the Ghouta attack itself. It is confusing how these most recent martyrs provoke such a drastic US response in the face of the thousands who have been killed in Egypt following the coup of the first democratically-elected president in the country’s history. The US continues to sponsor and arm the SCAF, even as it seeks to overthrow Bashar al-Asad. And lest we forget, America’s #1 regional ally is an apartheid state which exercises an unyielding disregard for international law.
President Obama claims that chemical weapons-use is decisive because it is a gross violation of international norms—even as he is preparing to unilaterally strike another country, violating the sovereignty of a non-aggressor state. UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has stated that an attack without approval of the Security Council would unambiguously be a violation of international law. The attack may even be a violation of US law, as the President has not obtained authorization to engage in the Syrian theater from Congress—not to mention that the American people oppose U.S. intervention (it is unpopular among Syrians as well). The idea that the impending strike would somehow uphold the sanctity of international norms or the rule of law is ridiculous.A decade after the Iraq war, we find ourselves again with a President gearing up for an invasion based on sketchy “evidence” of WMDs, even while disregarding UN weapons inspectors, and indeed, the UN in general—not to mention neglecting the legislative branch of his own government—and all of this for the sake of engaging in a deeply unpopular war for which, according to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Dempsey, the United States does not have a clear tactical vision. But to be fair, there are some differences between now and then:
In fact, Obama is worse than his predecessor. While Bush II unquestionably overstepped both his UN mandate and his Congressional authorization by committing forces so deeply in the Iraqi theater, at least GW eventually obtained a mandate from Congress and the UN. The current president is preparing to act unilaterally and with a total absence of authorization.
It is particularly perplexing that these actions are being undertaken by Barack Obama, who rose to national prominence precisely because of his vitriolic opposition to the war in Iraq; he argued at the time that the Bush Administration was using Saddam’s tyranny and the threat of WMD’s as a mere pretext for instantiating his vision for the Middle East, manipulating the intelligence towards this end–how the times have changed!
One thing has not changed: much like R2P, the “War on Terror,” or spreading “democracy/ human rights,” WMD claims are used almost exclusively to justify interventions against “inconvenient” actors. Western powers are more than happy to cooperate with agents carrying out the very atrocities they are condemning when geopolitically expedient (consider for a moment that Saudi Arabia is one of the primary allies “bringing democracy” to Syria); when there is little to gain from an intervention, they are eager to turn a blind eye to astonishing human suffering.
And of course, in delivering their righteous condemnations, they conveniently overlook their own crimes, both historical and contemporary. France and Britain, as colonial and imperial powers, and America as the unipolar superpower, have carried out and supported atrocities at a scale which no other actor could dream of. But of course, there is no one to hold them accountable for their crimes. In light of these contradictions, the narratives derived from these ethical tropes are typically heavily-reliant on sketchy and politicized intelligence, exaggerated claims, empty rhetoric, and at times, outright lies. The discourse surrounding Syria is a prime example of these trends. Even in those cases where Western accusations are more-or-less true, one cannot lose sight of the fact these intercessors are not acting out of altruism, but are exploiting others’ tragedy and horror in the service of their own geopolitical ends. Often more lives are lost under R2P than stood to be lost without intervention, greater oppression follows Western “liberation,” greater atrocities unfold as a result of Western “punishment” for “crimes against humanity,” more extremists are created as a result of the “War on Terror.” But it is irrelevant whether or not the espoused “moral” end is achieved, as long as the geopolitical aim is successful—much like gathered intelligence, “ethical considerations” are used merely to justify policies already committed to, not to inform what the policies should be.
There would be nothing moral about a US strike on Syria. Policymakers should instead be discussing the prospects of an intervention in terms of the geopolitical considerations which are the primary driver of US policy, which the ethical nonsense obscures–even as it inflames anti-American sentiment. But of course, the tactical case for an intervention would likely be just as weak as the “moral” one.