Those rollicking jihadists, the Syrian rebels, love a joke: although they can be deadly serious – such as when they’re eating the internal organs of their enemies – what they enjoy more than anything is a really good prank. There was the time they claimed the Assad regime was killing babies in incubators – not very original, but hey, it worked for the Kuwaitis! Then there was the "massacre" at Houla, which was alleged to have killed 32 children and over 60 adults: a photo started appearing in the mainstream media, documenting the slaughter. The state-supported BBC was first to run with it – until it was discovered the supposedly incriminating photo was taken in Iraq during the recent war. The photographer was justifiably furious, the story was withdrawn, and the Syrian rebels went back to the drawing board.
I could go on for quite a while about the various Syrian hoaxes we’ve been subjected to, but let’s get down to the latest one – a claim Syrian government forces used nerve gas at the Syrian village known as Ghouta. Videos posted by the rebels show rows of people killed or incapacitated without any dramatic indications of physical trauma: instead, the victims display convulsions and other signs of exposure to asphyxiating gases. Yet, as Ha’aretz reports:
"Western experts on chemical warfare who have examined at least part of the footage are skeptical that weapons-grade chemical substances were used, although they all emphasize that serious conclusions cannot be reached without thorough on-site examination.
"Dan Kaszeta, a former officer of the U.S. Army’s Chemical Corps and a leading private consultant, pointed out a number of details absent from the footage so far: ‘None of the people treating the casualties or photographing them are wearing any sort of chemical-warfare protective gear,’ he says, ‘and despite that, none of them seem to be harmed.’"
Perhaps Allah is protecting these caregivers and others attending to the sick: or maybe the aid we’re shipping the rebels includes some really neat stuff from Marvel Comics. On the other hand, maybe the whole thing is yet another put up job. You tell me.
If the "massacre" at Ghouta involved military-grade nerve gas, all those doctors and others milling around the fallen victims would be dead or in serious trouble. That’s because the poison would stick around for days, penetrating the skin and being inhaled by anyone who came close to them or even entered the vicinity. Another problem is that, as Kaszeta says, "One issue is that you can’t really test for sarin gas, you test for chemicals that are released as it decomposes."
The UN inspection team was in Damascus anyway, investigating previous claims of poison gas use: of course it’s just a coincidence that this latest claim is made about a site a few miles from where they’re staying. They are on their way to Ghouta even as I write: but how will they determine who used whatever chemical agents were unleashed, if indeed that is what happened? The answer is: they won’t. They have only to come up with "evidence" that some sort of "WMD" was used: in spite of rebel claims that they would "retaliate" in kind in response to previous alleged chemical attacks, it will simply be assumed by Western governments and media (or do I repeat myself) that the Syrian government is responsible.
As for Washington and its allies: they aren’t waiting for the "evidence." They already know who is guilty, and who is not. A "senior US official" is cited by ABC as saying:
"Based on the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, witness accounts, and other facts, there is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident. We are continuing to assess the facts so the President can make an informed decision about how to respond to this indiscriminate use of chemical weapons."
The War Party has the President’s ear, and believe you me they aren’t whispering in it – they’re making their case loud and clear, in public and no doubt in private. The only dove in the vicinity of the White House is Hagel, and he’s consigned to simply preparing the US military for any and all contingencies. On that front, the news isn’t good: US forces are already converging on the region and moving into position.
So if the evidence for a nerve gas attack is so thin, and the rebels’ record of crying "Wolf!" at the drop of a scimitar is grounds for skepticism, what is all the shouting about? Are we really about to go to war on the strength of a transparent hoax?
The shouting is about taking the NSA story off the front pages for a while and drowning out the rising voices of civil libertarian protest. Edward Snowden’s revelations of a wide-ranging years-long domestic spying operation threatens Obama’s presidency. It also threatens the leadership of the two parties, who are confronted with a grassroots rebellion on both sides of the aisle and have only just barely managed to contain it. Official Washington has been shaken to its already pretty flimsy foundations by the scandal – and there’s nothing like another war to take everyone’s mind off the fact that they’re shredding the Fourth Amendment.
Indeed, a little "kinetic action" in Syria affords them the opportunity to tear the Constitution into even tinier pieces by going to war without even bothering to consult Congress, and without much of anyone outside Rand Paul, Justin Amash, and a few others (all Republicans, by the way) making a fuss about it.
Speaking of those intrepid libertarian-leaning Republicans: invariably, when the subject of Syria comes up, their first response is to address the question of whether it’s constitutional for the President to simply send in the bombers without going to Congress. This action would be clearly unconstitutional, it’s true, but that can’t be the end of it, and it is barely the beginning of an adequate argument: aside from the purely procedural case, we need to hear substantial policy-oriented specifics as to why overthrowing Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad would be a stupid move on our part.
They might start by accurately characterizing the "rebels" as terrorists, the lot of them either formally affiliated with Al Qaeda – remember those folks who brought down the twin towers and breached the Pentagon? – or else willing dupes and fellow travelers. Suicide bombings, the beheading of their enemies – and even the eating of their victims internal organs – it seems there’s nothing these savages aren’t capable of.
Oh, but they’re our jihadists – well, that’s not quite what the interventionists are saying, but that will be the effect if the War Party wins out. The allegedly "secular" groups we are supposed to be aiding aren’t exactly Unitarians, and, aside from that, they’re not a real presence on the battlefield. They merely serve as mouthpieces for the real hub of Syria’s emerging Islamist state – the numerous autonomous "commanders" of the various Islamist militias currently rampaging through half of Syria, killing Christians, looting and murdering their way across the countryside.
The US predator has been circling its Syrian prey ever since George W. Bush’s first term, There was that whole Hariri business, which was supposed to trigger a UN interdict and then presumably US-NATO military action. However, that somehow got lost in the shuffle, perhaps because the "evidence" the Lebanese leader was killed by Syrian intelligence agencies was thin to nonexistent. Anyway, that ticking time bomb was somehow defused, but the ever-inventive folks over at War Party HQ soon came up with a new scheme and a new narrative – and that’s where we are today.
Amid all the solemn UN "investigations" and "inspections," all the learned discourse on the pros and cons of intervention as it impacts America’s (alleged) "national interest," the reality is that this is all mere window-dressing. It matters not a whit that – just based on the science of how nerve gas and other military-grade variants work – the rebels’ claims aren’t even half-credible. Nor does it matter what sort of blowback we’ll have to endure, including the increased threat of terrorism on our shores. There is no "national interest," only the political interests of individual political actors who seek, above all, to maintain and extend their own power and prestige.
A crude interpretation of this theory – that domestic politics essentially determines the course of a nation’s foreign policy – would be vulnerable, in this instance, since this administration is seriously considering war in spite of polls showing massive opposition: a pitiful nine percent favor US meddling. The pro-intervention group increases somewhat if it’s shown the Syrian government used chemicals weapons, but still a plurality – 46 percent – oppose US action.
Yet the administration may be willing to take heat on this front rather than on another potentially far more disastrous front: the NSA scandal that is unraveling the credibility of this White House at Weiner-like speed. Obama’s poll numbers are plummeting at alarming speed, and if the Guardian keeps publishing in spite of the best efforts of the British government it won’t be long until Obama’s tied with Mayor Filner in the polls.
Consider the President’s position: first his DNI went in front of Congress and lied about the nature and extent of the NSA surveillance programs – and later joked about it. Then the President himself went in front of the American people and flat out lied to their faces, denying any such domestic surveillance program existed. Not only that, but his lie was exposed within one week, with new revelations coming courtesy of Snowden.
Even the President’s most ardent defenders are having a hard time standing up for their guy, who, instead of embodying Lincoln and FDR, as his cultists insist, stands revealed as an unholy hybrid of LBJ and Richard Nixon – exhibiting the politics of the former, the guile of the latter, and the low cunning of both. From this administration’s perspective, it’s time to change the subject, to shift the focus of the camera away from the Liar-in-chief and swing it in the direction of the War Party’s latest hate object – let the mob take out their anger and frustrations on Assad.
In the midst of a public relations and political meltdown, with new information about how they spied and how they lied coming out day after day, this punch-drunk administration is apparently quite prepared to "pay any price" and have us "bear any burden," as another interventionist President put it, as long as they can get this President off the ropes.
So, sure, the idea of going to war in Syria is unpopular, but widespread post-Iraq aversion to intervention didn’t stop him in Libya. If you add in all the indirect costs and benefits in purely political terms, then the interventionist argument begins to make sense: at least we won’t be talking about the latest Snowden documents and what Glenn Greenwald is reporting all the time. A knockout blow will have been averted, at least for the moment.
Several international players have sufficient clout in this country to make the President stop and think before he defies the calls by the political class to "do something" about Syria. To begin with, the Saudis, the main arms supplier and ideological guide to the Syrian rebels, have a powerful Washington lobby, and plenty of cash to throw around. The Israelis, too, are rumored to have a bit of clout on Capitol Hill, although it’s a hate crime to say so. The Netanyahu government is strangely soft on the rebels – who are, after all, fanatical anti-Semites – and seems to have saved all its vitriol for Assad, essentially echoing and amplifying jihadist propaganda – albeit with this twist:
"The civil war in Syria is continuing, with one hundred thousand dead, and, not for the first time, the regime is employing chemical weapons. This is a life-and-death struggle between a regime representing the Alawite minority and a disunited opposition. The end is not yet in sight, and even the fall of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad would not end this conflict."
That ‘s Israeli defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, as cited in the Ha’aretz piece quoted above. Note his characterization of the rebels as "disunited": in other words, they’re not all flying Al Qaeda’s black banner. The main point, however, is the "no end to it" doctrine, as we might call it: Ya’alon’s absolutely accurate prognosis that Western intervention will not be the end of anything.
Israel wants a buffer between itself and a rapidly decomposing Syria: in the end, they hope, we’ll see Western "peacekeeping" troops, no doubt under UN auspices, stationed on the Syrian-Israeli border. By themselves, the Israelis cannot control the chaos they did much to unleash: or, rather, they could control the chaos, militarily, but would rather the West do their dirty work for them, as usual. With the Islamist regime in Egypt quashed, and Hezbollah thrown on the defensive, the Israelis just want to kick back, thumb, their noses at John Kerry, and build more "settlements." What better way to accomplish this than by recruiting an army of human shields made up of Western "peacekeepers" – a scouting party paving the way for the ultimate confrontation with Iran.
All the political interests – including economic heavy-hitters like the "defense" industry, Big Media, the leadership of both parties, the "humanitarian" liberals and the neocon empire-builders – stand united in demanding we "punish" Assad. With one voice, they demand we fulfill our self-appointed role as Arbiter of Global Morality and Planetary Father Figure ever ready to give "rogue" states a proper spanking. This is certainly the British view and style, but I think they rather enjoy it too much, if you know what I mean….
The American people, on the other hand, are as yet unused to – or, at least, largely unaware of – the burden of empire, and have yet to succumb to its perverse pleasures. Certainly our history militates against it: the very idea of America as Big Daddy seems not only presumptuous but positively un-American. After all, didn’t we burst the imperial pretensions of a similarly arrogant and supposedly invincible empire during that little incident known as the American Revolution?
To the Washington policy wonks and power-mad social climbing Beltway sycophants of Power, the American empire can just keep on expanding, exporting its goodness and its decadent culture all over the world. Bankruptcy, either financial or moral, doesn’t enter into it: our rulers have even less fiscal sense than they have moral sense. In both cases, they think we owe it to ourselves.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.