What was the hurry to attack Syria?

Free Syria Army
Free Syria Army

Is it really “isolationist” not to risk a new Mid-East war today? 

During this lull in the Syria tsouris, we’re hearing way too many beltway blowhards bloviate about something they’re calling “our new isolationism” or “the post-American world” or some other extreme label designed to push a personal agenda. Everyone needs to chill out and get a little perspective.  What we’re now doing about Syria is better than what we were about to do, and a whole lot better than what we’ve done to too many other countries over the years

It should be immediately obvious that the United States, with 700 foreign military bases (compared to Russia’s 11), is not exactly isolationist, and won’t be any time soon.  What follows is an attempt at a longer reassurance that no apocalypse is at hand just because we’re not bombing Syria or otherwise being exceptionally American.

In the beginning there was Common Sense, and the Declaration 

Originally, during the late 18th century, American exceptionalism included a determined sense of isolationism (and non-interventionism). At the same time, many of these isolationists also articulated the fight for American freedom as a fight for the freedom of everyone in the world. That exceptional American contradiction remains vividly alive in public discourse more than 200 years later.

Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” (1775), best known for making the case for American freedom from British rule, argued that one benefit of independence would be that America would no longer be forced (as a colony) to support European wars irrelevant to American interests – a benefit to be protected by a policy of isolationism.  Even before the United States existed, American revolutionaries were wary of an alliance even with a supportive France.  The Second Continental Congress eventually allied the nascent nation with France largely because that seemed to be necessary to win the Revolutionary War.

George Washington, in his carefully re-written Farewell Address (1796), famously articulated his country’s isolationist policy (without actually using the phrase “entangling alliances”):

“The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.”

In his inaugural address in 1801, Thomas Jefferson crystallized this American policy in more familiar words, promising:  “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”

Protecting a revolution in a counter-revolutionary world, and promoting it

Besides being emotionally appealing, the ideas of independence and isolation defined an extremely practical, protective policy for a country that was relatively small, poor, and weak.  Avoiding entanglements with others was really more about hoping to keep other more powerful states from getting entangled with us, and the tactic was mostly successful. The less powerful were another matter entirely.

But even as American revolutionaries chose a protective isolationism for their state, they promoted their revolution as a universal benefit.  The Declaration of Independence (1776) is rooted in the universal right of all people to establish “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.”Â  From the beginning, the exceptional American “right of one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another” was established as a global entitlement  – but not one without internal contradictions.

This evangelism of freedom remains one of the strongest themes in the idea of American exceptionalism, serving as both inspiration and/or excuse for the international entanglements we at first set out to avoid.  Early on we saw ourselves as leading by example, as Jefferson articulated in his farewell address (1809), calling the United States an “empire of liberty,” a governmental model for others to imitate:

“Trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth, if other regions of the earth shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence.”

This almost religious sentiment was already at odds with the American reality of westward expansion, not least in the extra-constitutional purchase of Louisiana from France (1803). Acquiring Louisiana roughly doubled the size of the United States, headed off war with France, and put a territorial wedge between the Spanish holdings in America. The purchase turned the U.S. into one of the largest countries in the world, but it wasn’t exactly a boon to the freedom and self-determination the people who lived there, despite their theoretical entitlement by the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God. Instead, Louisiana became susceptible to the benign influence of freedom and self-government by being subjected to and by the United States.

Expansionism became more powerful than isolationism 

The inherent contradictions in America’s expansionist isolationism eventually gave way to a dominant policy of expansionism with such highlights as the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 (this is “our” hemisphere, everyone else keep out), the Mexican War of 1846-48 (well, it’s our manifest destiny to take what we want, especially California), and the Spanish-American War of 1898 (guaranteeing a free Cuba and establishing our first off-shore empire in Puerto Rico, Guam, Hawaii, and the Philippines – what some call the beginning of the “American Century”).

Insofar as the United States embraced isolationism before and after World War I, it was the odd isolationism of a global empire picking its fights. And when we went into that European war in 1917, Woodrow Wilson drew on the American evangelical freedom tradition, telling the nation, without apparent irony:

“The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.”

After the Great War, the indispensible nation proclaimed itself dispensible from the world community, resisting further entanglement in European wars until an Asian war came to Hawaii.  Since World War II the idea of “American isolationism” has remained an oxymoron – except perhaps to those who wanted the U.S. to attack the Soviet Union then, or Iran or China now. For most of the time since 1945,  governments of both parties have limited American interventionism to relatively limited, stupid, pointless wars like Viet-Nam or to covert attacks on “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle” the people of Iran, Guatemala, Peru, Indonesia, Chile, Nicaragua, and so on.

And how does – or how should – Syria fit into the “New American Century”?  

All that Cold War militarism, with its special justification, came before the “New American Century” crowd took power with the 2000 election in the Supreme Court.  Once they got their fervently desired “new Pearl Harbor” on 9/11 the following year, the United States entered a period of chronic, useless, bankrupting war unlike anything in our prior history. The indispensable nation’s present willingness to put its useless attack on Syria on hold is hardly enough to signal that the world’s only superpower has come to its senses.

And it remains unlikely that the people of the world, and especially the people of Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya see us as indispensible to anything but their continued suffering.

The real isolationism with regard to Syria is the American willingness to go it alone, whatever “it” might turn out to be. Virtually isolated in its willingness to commit acts of war, the U.S. has apparently stumbled into a reprieve offered opportunistically by Russia. In his New York Times op ed column September 12, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said, without apparent irony, “We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.” That’s a charade Russians and Americans might enjoy equally, even as it serves the public good.

Some are opposed, of course.  Invoking their own version of American exceptionalism, the nattering nabobs of national narcissism continue to babble incoherently about toughness and credibility and sending messages ­– all of which require the nation to kill more people or be seen as isolationist, or even dispensable!

What would be truly exceptional would be for the United States to contemplate a complex crisis thoughtfully and patiently, without reflexively assuming that the best and only response should be military.

A day of U.S. “credibility” at work in Syria


Fake intelligence summaries, rhetorical peace offers enliven U.S. war plan in Syria. What would it look like if a government really knew what it was doing?

Lacking a comprehensive, coherent account of rational beings acting in rational ways to work towards peaceful and reliable solutions to difficult questions, we offer here a fragmentary highlight reel of one day in the life of an American government  spinning in all directions toward no known goal in Syria.

But first a note about the context of the current public debate about Syria: we’re getting conned by the White House on intelligence assessments. Again. As reported by Gareth Porter for IPS on September 9:

“Contrary to the general impression in Congress and the news media, the Syria chemical warfare intelligence summary released by the Barack Obama administration Aug. 30 did not represent an intelligence community assessment”¦.

“The evidence indicates that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper culled intelligence analyses from various agencies and by the White House itself, but that the White House itself had the final say in the contents of the document.”

In other words, the political document one might expect from the Director of National Intelligence was replaced by an even more politicized document created in the White House to justify acts of war.  This suggests that the phrase “American credibility” is an oxymoron and the political vaudeville that played out publicly early this week is a pretty accurate reflection of an administration doing handstands and backflips to distract the audience from the glaring contradictions of its Syria policy.

Kerry: when I say something it’s likely I mean something else

Monday madness began early for Americans on September 9, when Secretary of State John Kerry gave a news conference in London while most of his fellow citizens were still asleep, literally.  At that news conference, Kerry set off a tizzy by saying this about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad:

“Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week – turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting, but he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done.”

Reporters promptly spun this as the U.S. giving Syria a one-week deadline.  Reports mostly ignored the possibility that Kerry’s assertion (“it can’t be done”) could mean that it’s logistically impossible, or that the U.S. will attack anyway, or anything else.

Also Monday morning, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called a news conference in Moscow to announce that Russia was urging Syria to put its chemical weapons under international control in order to head off an act of war by the United States.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, in Moscow for talks, said that: “The Syrian Arab Republic welcomes the Russian initiative, motivated by the Syrian leadership’s concern for the lives of our citizens and the security of our country, and motivated by our confidence in the wisdom of the Russian leadership, which is attempting to prevent American aggression.”

The Russian and Syrian foreign ministers also call for UN inspections now.

Late Monday morning at 11:47 a.m., Agence France-Presse (AFP) tweeted:  BREAKING Syrian foreign minister welcomes Russia’s Syria chemical handover initiative”Â  (Reuters had tweeted similarly six minutes earlier).

The other side is welcoming our offer, that’s good news, right?  Wrong. Â 

Before there could be any official acceptance of the proposal by Syria, the State Department was contradicting the Secretary’s proposed solution.  An official Foggy Bottom email-of-clarification argued that Kerry was denying his “proposal” was actually a serious proposal at all:

“Secretary Kerry was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used.

His point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons, otherwise he would have done so long ago.”

At more or less the same time in Geneva, the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, was telling the UN human rights council:

“The use of chemical weapons has long been identified as one of the gravest crimes that can be committed, yet their use in Syria seems now to be in little doubt, even if all the circumstances and responsibilities remain to be clarified… This appalling situation cries out for international action, yet a military response or the continued supply of arms risk igniting a regional conflagration, possibly resulting in many more deaths and even more widespread misery.”Â  [emphasis added]

Syria has a research nuclear reactor in Damascus and the government has asked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to assess the likely consequences if the Americans bomb the reactor.  The Russians are pressing the IAEA to make the assessment.  According to Reuters, an anonymous U.S. official saying that “requests for comprehensive risk analyses of hypothetical scenarios are beyond the IAEA’s statutory authority”.

Arizona Senator John McCain takes offense at Kerry’s news conference promise that any strike on Syria would be “unbelievably small.”Â  McCain tweets: “Kerry says #Syria strike would be “unbelievably small” – that is unbelievably unhelpful”

White House National Security Advisor tries to head off possible settlement 

Early Monday afternoon in Washington, the president’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice gave a scheduled speech at the New America Foundation, founded in 1999 as a non-profit, public policy institute whose stated mission is to “invest in new thinkers and new ideas to address the next generation of challenges facing the United States.”

Without matching previous National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s fear-mongering on Iraq (“we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”), Susan Rice came close, taking a hard line in favor of attacking Syria and saying that:

”¢ Syrians attacking Syrians with chemical weapons is a “serious threat to our national security” and that such attacks could “threaten our soldiers in the region and even potentially our citizens at home.”

”¢ “We cannot allow terrorists bent on destruction, or a nuclear North Korea, or an aspiring nuclear Iran, to believe for one minute that we are shying away from our determination to back up our longstanding warnings. ”¦ Failing to respond to this brazen attack could indicate the United States is not prepared to use the full range of tools necessary to keep our nation secure.”

”¢ “Leaders in Tehran must know the United States means what we say. If we do not respond when Iran’s close ally, Syria, uses weapons of mass destruction, what message does that send to Iran?”

”¢  “Opening a door to their use anywhere threatens the United States and our personnel everywhere.”

Rice apparently did not talk about the United States helping Iraq to gas Iranian soldiers and civilians during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.  She did scoff at any further attempts at a diplomatic solution.

State Dept. says we made no proposal, but we’ll see if they accept it

At an afternoon news conference at the State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf responded skeptically to questions about putting Syrian chemical weapons under international control, calling it a hypothetical idea that she can’t comment on. She reiterated the government’s position that Kerry was not making a proposal, that his morning comments were only “rhetorical and hypothetical.”

Harf also said: “We’re going to look at what’s on the table… We don’t want this to be another stalling exercise, and we have serious skepticism about the Assad regime [willingness] to get rid of their chemical weapons”¦. All we’ve heard today are statements from Russians and Syrians who’ve lied for the last two years.”

Despite suspicion about the international control proposal, Harf did say: “We’ll take a hard look at it… but what we’re focused on … is working with Congress to get this [attack on Syria] authorized.”

At a White House briefing, deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinked said, without referring to the Iran-Iraq War: “If we don’t act, the international norm against the use of chemical weapons will be weakened.” But he also said: “we want to look hard at what the Russians have proposed.”

At a mid-afternoon forum on illegal wildlife trafficking, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she had just talked to President Obama about the Russian proposal on Syrian arms.  She said the international community should make a “strong response” to events in Syria: “This is about protecting the Syrian people… and our friends in the regions… If the regime immediately surrendered its stockpiles to international control… that would be an important step. But this cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction.”

Toward the end of the day, Dan Roberts, bureau chief of the Guardian, tweets: “febrile mood down in White House press room as Obama tapes six interviews for tonight while US position shifting by the minute toward a deal”

In one of those interviews, the president said he would “absolutely” not attack Syria if the chemical weapons were secured. He told ABC News: “My objective here has always been to deal with a very specific problem. If we can do that without a military strike, that is overwhelmingly my preference.”

By the end of the day the signs indicated that there was no growing support in Congress for an attack on Syria, and that public opinion remained overwhelmingly opposed to risking another war. But a determined government faction still wants to bomb somebody.

The weekend had highlights, too, including a CBS News interview with Assad 

All this activity on Monday followed the weekend news that Senator McCain, the would-be Republican president from Arizona, had suggested that Obama should be impeached – if he went too far and put “boots on the ground” in Syria. (The U.S. already has boots on the ground in, at a minimum, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and Israel.)

Someone might ask McCain whether his proposed impeachment-for-a-boots-job should take effect in the event of any deployment of American troops as part of an international force to guard Syrian chemical weapons.

Also over the weekend, in a CBS News interview broadcast on Monday, Bashar al-Assad warned of retaliation for any U.S. attack, but did not make any specific threats, saying only: “It is difficult for anyone to tell you what is going to happen. It’s an area where everything is on the brink of explosion. You have to expect everything.”

On Sunday, the Syrian state news agency reported that al-Queda-affiliated rebels had captured Maaloula, a Christian village 25 miles northeast of Damascus where the 3,000 residents mostly still speak ancient Aramaic. Some 1,500 Syrian rebels forced the Syrian Army to withdraw to the outskirts of the town.

Meanwhile in Yemen over the weekend, American drone strikes killed eleven people, all of whom may not have been innocent civilians.

And in Syria on Monday, another 49 people were killed, 25 of them in Damascus.


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Obama will have his war with Syria, Russia be damned

Yee-haw, says Slim Pickens, let's nuke it.

After a day or so of the Obama Administration being widely mocked and laughed at for its remarkably incompetent, ever changing foreign policy on Syria, Obama now says he’ll probably lob a few missiles at Syria anyway and pretends to assume it was his bumbling that got Syria to agree to give up chemical weapons. Well no, it wasn’t. Russia simultaneously saved your bacon, Mr President, and made you and your Secretary of State look like doofuses.

President Barack Obama will tell the nation Tuesday night that he is pursuing a last-minute Russian proposal to remove chemical weapons from Syria, and will argue that military force may be necessary.

US intelligence officers say Syria didn’t launch chemical weapons

That intercepted message of Syria officers talking about the attack was AFTER the attack and showed them in panic that an unauthorized attack had been made. A major where the attack supposedly came from insisted to superiors that all his chemical weapons were accounted for and invited general staff to come and look.

The Obama administration has selectively used intelligence to justify military strikes on Syria, former military officers with access to the original intelligence reports say, in a manner that goes far beyond what critics charged the Bush administration of doing in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war.

According to these officers, who served in top positions in the United States, Britain, France, Israel, and Jordan, a Syrian military communication intercepted by Israel’s famed Unit 8200 electronic intelligence outfit has been doctored so that it leads a reader to just the opposite conclusion reached by the original report.

Top chemical weapons expert highly skeptical of U.S. case against Syrian government.

A Syrian Gulf of Tonkin Resolution


Congress ready to be flattered into killing more Syrians. When it comes to war, isn’t our account overdrawn? 

When the president asks Congress for a blank check for war, why does the Congress fret about setting a limit on war powers instead of just saying: “NO” to any check? What happened to checks and balances (as if we all didn’t know)?

Already quislings of both parties in the Senate – Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas – are staking out the “compromise” position of a limited war in response to President Obama’s proposal for an open-ended war authorization.  According to Leahy, Democratic senate staffers are working on an alternative authorization for killing Syrians.

Several Republican senators, including John McCain of Arizona, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina just want the Obama administration to start killing people, the sooner the better, their only caveat being that the president should have a plan.

McCain wants the US to do more – he hasn’t said how much more, or if he would accept any military limitations.  “It can’t just be, in my view, pinprick cruise missiles,” McCain said, describing a weapon that doesn’t exist outside of military fantasy.

Rand Paul offers tepid resistance, flatters president for obeying law

One of the few clear voices opposed to the US engaging even “surgically” in the Syrian civil war is Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who calls the president’s proposal an effort to “save face and add bad policy to bad policy.”Â  Paul also said:

“I would ask, ‘How do you ask a man to be the first to die for a mistake?’ I’m not sending my son, your son or anybody else’s son to fight for a stalemate.”

With as mealy a mouth as anyone, Paul stands with the apparently overwhelming majority of our elected leaders, bravely telling reporters he was “proud” of the president for coming to Congress for war-making support. Translation: “Oh thank you Mr. President for not acting like a dictator and embarrassing us with our complete lack of spine to oppose your imperial enterprise (which is, after all, our imperial enterprise, too, but we really don’t like having to say so and some of us even blush).”

Conventional wisdom on September 2 predicted that the Senate would endorse whatever the president wants to do, just not as long as he might want to do it.  The prediction for the House is generally iffy, but House Minority Leader Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California is cheerleading from the front of the war bandwagon.

Such actual Congressional opposition to the whole idea of putting the US any deeper into Syria for ay reason comes from a few representatives in the House:

”¢ Republican Chris Gibson of New York, an Army veteran with multiple foreign deployments: “I hope my colleagues will fully think through the weightiness of this decision and reject military action. The situation on the ground in Syria is tragic and deeply saddening, but escalating the conflict and Americanizing the Syrian civil war will not resolve the matter.”

”¢ Democrat Betty McCollum of Minnesota: “Unilateral U.S. military action against the Syrian regime at this time would do nothing to advance American interests, but would certainly fuel extremist groups on both sides of the conflict that are determined to expand the bloodshed beyond Syria’s borders.”

”¢ Republican Devin Nunes of California: “The apparent chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime is an appalling, unconscionable act by a bloodthirsty tyrant. The ‘limited’ military response supported by President Obama, however, shows no clear goal, strategy, or any coherence whatsoever, and is supported neither by myself nor the American people.”

The blank check comes with no due date, late fees, or penalties 

The White House draft “authorization for use of United States armed forces” is problematical from the first “whereas,” which asserts as a fact a charge that remains in dispute:

“Whereas, on August 21, 2013, the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus, Syria, killing more than 1,000 innocent Syrians”¦.”

If this premise is wrong, as seems quite possible, than the following seven “whereas paragraphs are mostly accurate but irrelevant, with some demagoguery thrown in to persuade or intimidate Congress.

But even if the premise turns out to be correct, the “authorization should be unacceptable for the unlimited scope of action allowed to the president, who still uses the 2001 AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force) against terrorism to justify his authority to wage war by whatever means he chooses in Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Mali, and elsewhere.  That law remains open-ended and unmodified by Congress, allowing the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force” against pretty much anyone he “determines” deserves to be attacked.

The new authorization gives the president the freedom “to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in connection with the use of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in the conflict in Syria,” which seems as if it’s at least limited to the geography of Syria, and only as long as there’s a conflict there.  Of course it implicitly leaves it up to the president to determine what a “conflict” is and even, arguably, what “Syria” is.

Such limitation is a chimera.  Unfettering the president from even that illusory constraint, the authorization goes on to allow him respond to any “proliferation” inside – or outside – of Syria “of any weapons of mass destruction, including chemical or biological weapons or components of or materials used in such weapons”¦.”

And just in case that’s not broad enough to let the president do most anything he chooses, the authorization goes on to allow him to do anything necessary to “protect the United States and its allies and partners against the threat posed by such weapons.”Â 

When protecting against a “threat,” nothing is ruled out, no matter how crazy paranoid the threat may be.  In post-9/11 United States, threat perceptions don’t have much restraint on the paranoid crazy.

In a fundamentally cowardly Congress, members are unlikely to oppose this kind of threat to the national interest, especially now that they getting their egos stroked by the White House.

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