Nothing humanitarian about the empire

September 5, 2013

The proponents of "humanitarian intervention" are leading the drive to attack Syria.

HUMANITARIAN INTERVENTION may be the public justification for the Obama administration's drive to attack Syria, but there's a more cynical purpose behind the façade.

Writing in the August 24 New York Times, Edward Luttwack, a military strategist with a long career at the highest levels of the foreign policy establishment, argued that a "prolonged stalemate is the only outcome that would not be damaging to American interests."

Translation: The longer that the combatants in Syria's bloody civil war--the dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Assad on one side, and rebel fighters on the other--carry on killing one another, the better for the U.S.

"Maintaining a stalemate should be America's objective," Luttwack wrote. "And the only possible method for achieving this is to arm the rebels when it seems that Mr. Assad's forces are ascendant and to stop supplying the rebels if they actually seem to be winning. This strategy actually approximates the Obama administration's policy so far."

Remember that the next time you hear Barack Obama or anyone else claiming that the U.S. and other Western governments have to punish Assad's government for using chemical weapons for the sake of the Syrian people. Washington's humanitarian concerns are a veneer covering a strategy that Luttwack correctly characterized as prolonging a military conflict, with an inevitable cost of more lives lost.

A U.S. aircraft carrier and guided missile destroyer
A U.S. aircraft carrier and guided missile destroyer (Robert M. Cieri)

During the Vietnam War, a U.S. Army officer declared: "We had to destroy the village in order to save it." Today in Syria, the terms are reversed: The U.S. hopes to "save" the country by not allowing Assad's regime to crush its opponents--in order to destroy it through a protracted civil war where no side wins.

It should already be clear that the military strike Obama and others are pressing for isn't about saving civilian lives. If that were the case, the U.S. wouldn't have waited until more than 100,000 people were dead--the toll since the beginning of the Syrian uprising two and a half years ago during the first days of the Arab Spring.

And Secretary of State John Kerry's comparisons of Assad to Adolf Hitler stink of hypocrisy. Not too many years ago, U.S. officials were praising Bashar al-Assad as a reformer. When he took over from his father in 2000, Bashar imposed sweeping neoliberal market reforms, further encouraging U.S. officials in their hopes of drawing Syria into their stable of Washington-allied dictatorships in the region. As former chair of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry took a special interest in promoting this relationship--that's the origin of the photos you may have seen of Kerry and Assad toasting one another over a fine meal.

Now, U.S. officials insist that Assad must go, but Washington's problem is finding a friendly opposition figure to replace him in order to keep the repressive arm of the Syrian state intact--hence, the goal of prolonging the fighting.

The U.S. has a tough needle to thread in striking Syria. On the one hand, it must preserve its "credibility," given that Obama declared more than a year ago that the use of chemical weapons would trigger U.S. military action. On the other, it wants to continue its policy of blocking Syria's popular uprising against the regime from succeeding.

Opponents of war and imperialism must stand strong against the drive to attack Syria--which would be a projection of imperial power, not a "humanitarian intervention." But we also must support Syria's ongoing popular revolution against a dictatorship that poses as "anti-imperialist" despite being a torturer for the U.S. and neoliberal "innovator."

WITH THE selection of Susan Rice as National Security Adviser and Samantha Power as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Barack Obama has among his foreign policy team some of the leading proponents of the doctrine of "humanitarian intervention."

The stated idea is that the U.S. should use its military might aggressively in defense of human rights. Predictably, however, the human rights violators that become targets of "humanitarian intervention" are official enemies of U.S. foreign policy, while war crimes and other violations of international law committed by U.S. allies--not to mention the U.S. itself--escape attention.

Thus, Rice has been a vocal supporter of George W. Bush's war against Iraq, an architect of the assault on Libya in 2011 and a tireless defender of Israel's military attacks on Palestinians, including the merciless bombing of Gaza during Israel's Operation Pillar of Cloud last year.

Samantha Power's 600-page Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide makes the case for decisive U.S. military intervention in the face of genocide. Yet it doesn't even mention the U.S. green light for Indonesia's genocide in East Timor beginning in 1975 or the regime of sanctions that cost the lives of more than 500,000 Iraqi children in the years between the two U.S.-led Gulf Wars.

The idea that the U.S. should sit in judgment of other nations' brutality is preposterous, especially in the Middle East, where it has killed far more than any other country in the last decade alone. It's the U.S. government that has repeatedly used chemical weapons in the region--like the depleted uranium rounds that have polluted Iraq with radioactive debris, leading to widespread birth defects, and white phosphorous used during the 2004 assault on Fallujah in Iraq.

In the end, the noble-sounding intentions put forward to justify "humanitarian intervention" are merely a shiny new justification for using military might to pursue what's in the interest of the U.S. But this rhetoric has proved useful in convincing liberals of the need for imperialist intervention after it fell out of favor during the Bush years.

Actually, what's striking is the continuity between the famed Bush Doctrine and imperialism in the Obama years.

The Democratic White House has copied the Bush administration's approach to the United Nations, arguing that while it prefers UN approval of its plans, it has the right to act unilaterally. Likewise, Obama has said he will seek congressional approval for a strike on Syria--but such approval isn't necessary. (As a constitutional lawyer, Obama must know this is in flagrant defiance of the Constitution, but he has the past practice of U.S. presidents on his side--the last time Congress officially declared war was in 1941.)

Obama's "gamble" in asking Congress to sanction a military strike seems to be paying off--on Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10-7 in favor of giving Obama authority to carry out an attack.

IF THE U.S. goes ahead with an attack, it will be over the opposition of a majority of Americans. About six in 10 people oppose missile strikes against Syria, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll--a sharp reversal from several months ago when nearly two-thirds of people supported military action.

This sentiment is particularly striking considering that prominent leaders of both mainstream parties have supported an assault. Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham are leading the call for war, and they've been joined by House Speaker John Boehner--while Democratic leaders like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are making the case on their side of the aisle.

So there is broad opposition to the U.S. attacking Syria, for a variety of reasons--not least because Washington is planning another imperialist adventure at the same time as Congress is cutting $1.5 trillion over 10 years from social programs such as Head Start.

Unfortunately, some forces in the antiwar movement risk undermining this opposition with their declared support for the Assad regime, not only against Western imperialism, but the two-and-a-half-year-old popular uprising against it. These activists celebrate Assad's Baathists for "standing up to the U.S."--and have sought to silence supporters of the revolution among antiwar activists by claiming that they are helping imperialism.

Considering the Assad regime's long record of barbarism and oppression against the Syrian people, this attitude is obscene and outrageous. After all, Assad's cozy-until-very-recently relationship with U.S. imperialism was symbolized not only by his dinners with John Kerry. During the Bush years, Syria acted as a torturer of "suspects" rendered to Syria by the U.S.

Syrian revolutionaries have repeatedly asked supporters of their struggle to show solidarity with their calls for dignity and justice. With so many foreign powers maneuvering for influence--on the side of the government, like Russia and Iran, or the side of the opposition like the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar--those calls have become harder to hear, while weapons are channeled to favored military forces, at the risk of provoking sectarian bloodshed.

But that's no excuse at all for siding with a dictatorship that has murdered tens of thousands of Syrians just since the uprising began.

Some people question whether the Assad regime was responsible for the chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,000 people, many of them women and children, in the Ghouda region, setting off the latest calls for intervention. The U.S. has not produced ironclad evidence that government forces are responsible. But no one who cares about peace or justice should doubt that this regime--which has not hesitated to shell whole neighborhoods, university campuses and hospitals to a send a message against those who defy it--is capable of such a horrific slaughter. It is primarily responsible for a death toll that is many times higher during the civil war.

Those in the antiwar movement who celebrate Assad are assisting the U.S. in one of its primary aims in Syria--to prevent the revolution from sweeping the Assad regime aside and establishing a new government committed to justice for all the Syrian people.

The U.S. government's drive to attack Syria has nothing to do with humanitarian concerns. Every aspect will be organized around what best serves American interests in this conflict. As for the mass of the Syrian people, a U.S. attack would make their situation worse--by killing civilians, increasing the flow of refugees (which has already begun) and giving Assad and his regime the pretext to pose opponents of imperialism and defenders of Syria, as they step up their drive to crush popular forces opposed to both the U.S.'s and Assad's brutality.

This is why we call for no U.S. attack on Syria--and for victory for the Arab revolutions, from Cairo to Tunis to Sana'a to Damascus.

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