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September 11th, 2013
Freethought San Marcos: Bombing Syria–An extension of failed US foreign policy

Freethought San Marcos: A column


Critics of President Obama’s proposed bombing of Syria to punish President Assad for his alleged use of sarin gas have many reasons to oppose such action.  The administration has claimed that Assad killed 1500 people with sarin gas in Ghouta, in eastern Damascus, on August 21.  But, as more time passes, the facts have begun to appear less clear than the administration claims.  Further, a military attack would only extend a failed US Middle East policy.  One critic of the proposed bombing, appearing on Bill Moyers & Company late last week, explained what is wrong with US Middle East policy.

Andrew Bacevich has been one of the most reasonable voices on American foreign policy in recent years.  He has experienced the personal pain of losing a son in the Iraq War and has a right to be bitter, but if he is, he doesn’t show it.  Instead, he uses his academic training and experience (Professor of History and International Relations at Boston University, graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point, Ph.D. in American Diplomatic History from Princeton, instructor at West Point and Johns Hopkins University, and an Army veteran) to make sensible, thoughtful arguments for avoiding the foreign policy blunders of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, as well as earlier presidents.

Bacevich believes that talk of the president’s credibility being on the line is beside the point.  The facts are that the 1980 Carter Doctrine – the policy to employ American military power, both overtly and covertly through proxies, to “stabilize or fix or liberate or transform the greater Middle East” – has not worked.  The region has not become more stable or democratic, and the US is not seen in a positive way throughout the region, largely because of our interventions.

Instead, Bacevich suggests that we forego a militarized approach and look at the situation more strategically.  Agreeing that the use of sarin gas is a humanitarian issue, Bacevich believes we can get more positive results by focusing on a humanitarian mission:  “I mean, a little bit of creative statesmanship it seems to me might say that there are other things we could do that would actually benefit the people of Syria, who are suffering greatly, who are fleeing their country in the hundreds of thousands. Who are living in wretched refugee camps. Why don’t we do something about that? Why wouldn’t that be a better thing to do from a moral perspective than bombing Damascus?”

More than 1.5 million Syrian refugees now live in camps in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq.  They need food, water, electricity, sanitation, housing, and more.  The US would be seen in a more favorable light in the Middle East if we did something directly to help these refugees.

Bacevich believes that looking back at what the US has done in the Middle East should instruct us about what we can do:

“[W]hen you think back on the actual history, the military history of the United States in the Middle East over the past several decades, victory has been exceedingly hard to come by. We’re always stronger by many measures than the adversary. But somehow or other, being strong doesn’t translate into political objectives being achieved quickly or economically.

“What actually happens is that the projection of American power leads to unexpected complications. And gets us more deeply imbedded in a set of circumstances that we can’t handle. There are enormously deep and powerful forces of change that are, have come to the surface and are transforming that part of the world.

“We have claimed, presidents have claimed, George Herbert Walker Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and now this president, have claimed that we possess the capacity to somehow direct or control these processes of change. Even though the truth is, we don’t have that capacity. The truth is, we are largely irrelevant to what’s going on in that part of the world. But if we reach out and, you know, use our military powers to drop some missiles here and there, we can sustain the illusion that we have some kind of relevance. But we don’t.”

Bacevich’s view is that both major political parties are responsible for the unproductive foreign policy that has poisoned our role in the Middle East:

“If you go back and look at the way Clinton portrayed himself back in 1992, before he won, he made it very clear that hawkish Democrats had regained control of their party. And indeed, if you look at Bill Clinton’s performance in office, I mean, I think we’ve forgotten about this. Here’s a guy who intervened in more places, more times, under more different circumstances than any of his predecessors.

“So we’ve got two parties that despite their differences, in some respects, we’ve got two parties equally committed to the proposition that it is imperative to maintain global military supremacy, not simply strength, and who believed that somehow or other the adroit use of this military power is going to be able to bring peace. . . . And both parties are equally wrong.”

Now, there are new doubts about the use of sarin gas in Syria.  The AP reports that the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of anti-government activists, has so far been able to confirm no more than 502 dead in the area around Ghouta as a result of attacks on August 21.

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said this past Sunday that the administration lacks “irrefutable, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence” of the sarin gas attack.  And the Israeli newspaper Haaretz confirms that there is no conclusive evidence about who may have have ordered a gas attack in Ghouta.  Russia blames the rebels, as it did last March for a gas attack in Aleppo.  The US has yet to name any Syrian commanders it believes responsible for such an attack, nor has it explained how it arrived at a figure for the number of dead.  And Assad may not have been aware of the use of a chemical agent, assuming it occurred, until afterwards.  Some intelligence reports claim that Assad previously rejected requests from his commanders for the use of chemical weapons.

Haaretz’ reporting concludes that “U.S. officials have not presented any evidence to the public of scientific samples or intelligence information proving that sarin gas was used or that the Syrian government used it.”

In light of the inadequate intelligence that was used to go to war in Iraq, it should not be surprising that a majority of Americans may be skeptical about the necessity of a military response under questionable circumstances.  Bacevich’s suggestion of a humanitarian response to help Syrian refugees seems both morally right and useful to establish a positive US role in Middle East affairs.  That would be a major change in US foreign policy.

As this column was being completed, US Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that one way to avert a retaliatory strike by the US would be for Syria to give up control of its chemical weapons.  Soon thereafter, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced a proposal to have the Syrian government hand over control of its chemical weapons to a team of international monitors, which could then lead to the weapons’ destruction.  Russia has close ties with the Assad regime and is in a position to broker a settlement of this issue.  Syria is reported to have welcomed the Russian proposal, as have China, France, Britain, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and several congressmen and senators, though many officials want to be sure the proposal is a serious one and not merely a diversion from the bombing proposal.

Soon after Russia’s announced agreement with Kerry’s idea, however, the US State Department backed down, claiming Kerry’s earlier comments were only rhetorical, used to emphasize that Assad would never bend to such international pressure.  In contrast to the State Department and Kerry, President Obama stated his willingness to pursue such a deal if it is not just a delaying tactic.  But the Secretary of State’s glib diplomatic word game demonstrates that, for the US, negotiation seems not to be on the table as a solution to the Syrian civil war or Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons.  And US Middle East policy remains, as Andrew Bacevich said, ineffective and wrong.

© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos

LAMAR W. HANKINS is a former San Marcos city attorney.

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