Slouching towards Damascas

A White House release, issued anonymously (an odd procedure by an Administration that hates unofficial leaks, but consistency is the hobgoblin, etc.) , sets forth the reasons why the President now believes that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons, according to today’s  New York Times Given that a previous allegation about the al-Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons met with equivocation by the President and given that other unnamed “officials” have told the Time that a list of missile targets has been circulating at the White House for a week (evidently in anticipation of a kill meeting, a convocation this Administration has some considerable experience in), it appears that our Nobel Peace laureate commander-in-chief is about to again use his foreign policy instrument of choice on the powers that be in Damascas.

We should be satisfied, I suppose, that this Administration has seen fit to give an (anonymous) explanation of its thinking to as respectable a source as The New York Times, rather than, say, Jay Leno, one of the President’s more important press conduits. That the Times was unable to put any questions to the (anonymous) official shouldn’t concern us. This White House’s official position is that “precision strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles against a limited set of clearly defined targets” are not “hostilities” and therefore do not require the President to seek authorization under the War Powers Act. That seems to be what they have in mind here, so they are not going to submit to interference by the national legislature. Why should they then stoop to answer questions by the establishment media, whom they have very little respect for any way.

The legal team that delivered the novel idea that missile strikes on a foreign country are not “hostilities” is probably the same one that has decided that Mr. al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons violates international law. Undoubtedly the world would be better off if the use of chemical weapons were eliminated. One begins to wonder, however, why it is that only one nation seems willing to enforce these international norms, even without the sanction of the international institution we might expect were the more appropriate forum for making such determinations.

I, of course, was never awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, so there is no particular reason for anyone to consider my own qualms about the slippery legal niceties of our leader. Nevertheless, it is curious to me that at a time when the White House is gearing up to use overwhelming force in a foreign country for a mission that has no definable goal, despite the unhappy outcome of the previous adventures of this sort, under the banner of a legal principle, we are ignoring the realities of the other one-time member of the former United Arab Republic. Of course, the Administration has played a part in another legal irony there. Section 202 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012 says that U.S. foreign aid cannot be extended to “the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed in a military coup d’état or … a decree in which the military plays a decisive role.” It was the obligation of the Administration to cut off $1.5 billion in aid (essentially all military aid) when the generals in Egypt deposed the duly elected head of government of Egypt. Even the legal creativity of the Bush legal opiners would have found it difficult to say that the actions with respect to Mohamed Morsi was anything other than a coup d’état.  But, get this, the State Department’s crack legal team has determined that the law does not require the U.S. government to make the determination that a coup has taken place. When Congress enacted the legislation, it evidently forgot to say that the Executive Branch was bound by the law. And therefore, lucky for our present rulers, they can continue to give the money to the Egyptian military.

Now here’s the thing that is hard to get out of my craw. Our leaders, who have not given Mr. al-Assad any chemical weapons, far less the authority to use them, somehow feel that they must risk the lives, spend the fortune and have the country endure the inevitable blow-back of open-ended hostilities (albeit not of the type that Congress can regulate) in order to vindicate the international norms the violation of which do not seem to motivate to action other nations. And yet, when the Egyptian military initiates a bloody repression against the majority political party in the country, largely because the Egyptian military has age-old hatred for it and because the Gulf State oligarchies fear that they might be tumbled by its republican ideology, this Administration will not lift a finger, not even to stop the funds which the military is using for weapons to kill its own citizens in an illegal coup. In other words, while we police a repressive regime over which we have no sway, we allow a bloody military, which we and our Gulf State friends finance, to continue to use ugly and bloody repressive tactics, which are both anti-democratic and not in our long-term best interest. Not to mention that our national legislature has attempted to prevent our leaders from financing a military coup. Not that their views are needed or wanted. But still.

So we in one case have the Administration’s desire to preserve the citizens of Syria from a regime we do not support and in the other have no interest in complying with a law by our own Congress that would stop the military of another country from using our own money to kill its citizens. There may be a moral or rational reason for this contradiction in our values. But don’t expect to find out the real reason. At least not for another fifty years, as we learned this week when the CIA finally admitted to the role it had, and kept from the American people (whose name it acted in), in the overthrow of another duly elected regime, in Iran in 1953.

It looks like Noam Chomsky was right: we act nothing like a democracy. Oh, and by the way, the CIA also kept a dossier on that trouble-maker too. I suppose we should just be grateful that our leaders do all these things against our interest without our knowledge. Otherwise we would have to live in despair that we have no control over events.

  1. As a lay observer it surely seems that perpetual destabilization has been the goal of the West towards the Middle East, or at least while the tentacles of big oil remain firmly embedded in the desert sands. Absurdity is the only word that comes to mind when trying to characterize the Mid East policy of the Western powers since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Supporting extremism with the left hand, and democracy with the right. Go figure.

  2. Western commentators talk about Egypt’s “deep state”–the ossified bureaucratic structure presided over by a jack booted military which prevents any deviation from the Mubarak policies. (Incidently, is it more than irony and “rule of law” that sees Mubarak liberation by the Supreme Court at the same time that the military is cutting down the only political force with enough popular backing to make it face down?)

    Someone should study the “deep state” here were there is a non-partisan consensus on how we should support without qualification the perceived Saudi-Gulf interests in Egypt and Syria and the supposed Israeli interests in Palestine and the West Bank. It doesn’t matter who is in charge of foreign policy or what he/she said before, the US foreign politcy “deep state” makes our leaders come to heel, whether it’s for our good or not.

    • Sounds like a good “pet” project for the wee hours of the morning. lol Any recommendations on books addressing the subject?

      • If one were to look for a “sociology” of the American “deep state” (at least in terms of the national security aspects), it would have to be by an outsider on the principle of Marshall McLuhan that fish cannot discover water because they don’t know anything except water.

        You would have to examine 3 components at least. First, the “political” team–the national security advisers that each president brings with him. There have been many books about individual national security teams from Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest to James Mann’s Rise of the Vulcans. Those stories (supplemented by insider accounts) explain the dynamics of the political team. But there is more. There is the action of the military. The Pentagon has its own axe to grind and can move the political team. Witness how Stanley McChrystal forced Obama’s hand in the build-up in Afghanistan. In a very specific way Fred Kaplan’s The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War shows how the military moves and is moved. But the Pentagon is too big to understand anecdotally. It has a conservative weight but also has tentacles throughout the U.S. economy, and the firms that make huge profits from the Pentagon throw their own weight around politically (in an even more conservative way, because they are seeking to maintain the money flow to them–nothing personal or even ideological, just business). I don’t know if anyone has tried to analyze how the whole military-industrial-lobbyist-political edifice has institutionally dragged every Administration to the right. But there is one other aspect: the intelligence sector. Like it or not, the spooks give the information on which the President makes his decisions (as constrained as those might be). And they do this in secret. There have been studies of individual CIA heads that have been interesting, but no one is allowed to write what goes on inside the CIA for fear of having their royalties taken (as in the case of Frank Snepp) or of prosecution, as is the fate of whistle-blowers under our current “liberal” administration.

        The interplay of all three of these institutions has always turned every President since Truman rightward, even against his better judgment: for example LBJ (who knew he was going down the road to perdition in Vietnam) and Carter (who felt he had to use military options in the end in the hostage crisis). Now there may be some discretion around the edges (Carter could talk about human rights and Reagan talked of Evil Empire), but the whole national security apparatus seems to make the same decisions no matter who is in charge: We do nothing when Israel makes more settlements, even though everyone knows that it’s not in their or our or anyone else’s interests that they do so. We support right wing coups because, … I don’t know why. I suppose because that’s what we do. Etc.

        There is a sociology of the national security state that prevents anyone from escaping the self-destructive courses we take. We jump on the tiger even though all the evidence says once on we can’t get off. But we jump with eyes open.

        And all of this is lauded by the Washington media crowd, who have no interest in good policy. There could be no truth more clear from Leibovitch’s This Town.

        If you were going to attempt to get to the bottom of what causes our bad choices, you probably shouldn’t do it late at night as you suggested. The big picture is probably so depressing that, combined with the darkness of night, you might become suicidal.

  3. lol @ becoming suicidal in the darkness of night. Have no fear my good man, I’ve a whit of experience working with the other end of the sanity spectrum and narcissistic sociopaths donning Italian trappings shall dishearten me not. Thank you for the comprehensive response. You certainly do seem to possess a wealth of knowledge on the subject. Maybe the Times bestseller on the “deep state” is yours to behold.

  4. Very droll, which may be the sanest way to deal with this never-ending farce.

    If you haven’t looked in on Sic Semper Tyrannis, it’s worth a visit. Lots of people with similarly raised eyebrows, some of them ferociously well-informed. Including, of course, the site’s host, Col (Rtd) Pat Lang.

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