Overnight Decision to Go to War is Forty Years in the Making


I cannot believe I have to say this, but this ain’t about WMDs.

It is unfathomable to me that anyone can look at the air strikes launched by US warships and authorized by the historically unpopular President and think that the quandary here is one of bellicose utility: if we have the power to end suffering, should we?

It is even more infuriating that those who have obsessed over Trump’s connections with Russian intelligence for the last month – to the exclusion of important coalition building around critical domestic policy issues such as healthcare – now see this attack on Putin’s ally as some kind of Machiavellian maneuver that proves their theories correct.  Regardless of whether Trump colluded with Russia to hack the DNC or more, this strike brings into stark relief the geopolitical conflict at the heart of violence in the Middle East and how no amount of hacking or trolling will change that.

But let’s get into why this new war is not happening because of the use of chemical weapons, but because the US military and foreign policy establishment seeks domination over the Middle East and finally has a president unpopular and gullible enough to give it to them. Again.


If we take the evidence that Assad has used chemical weapons against civilians at face value then we are chumps.

I’ve seen the video.  I am not asserting that this is some false flag by the al-Nusra Front to trigger a US invasion.  But if this action was taken in earnest by the Assad regime, it is stunningly foolish, as it inevitably will bring the roof down on top of him just as Russia has cleared the path for him to stay in power. So perhaps applying some standard of evidence beyond unverified reports within a warzone and acting on them within a week is justified, considering the scale of the conflict and ramifications of US direct involvement against a Russian ally.  Again, not saying the reports aren’t already damning, but shooting missiles into a country requires more than a cursory examination.  We have every reason to be skeptical of claims about WMDs and why we must go to war to destroy them.  

Meanwhile, those who stand to gain most by US intervention against the Syrian government – Turkey, al-Qaeda affiliates backed by Saudi Arabia, and fucking ISIS – have shown similar disregard for the population of Syria, going as far as to commit genocide and forced migration at an incredible rate (possibly with chemical weapons themselves) while Trump, and liberals, and the West at large mostly snoozed.  That Assad is nominally the head of state in Syria makes this crime beyond the pale, somehow?

A philosophical debate about whether to intervene in a discrete, knowable situation where American violence can uniquely prevent a massacre is not necessary, because that is not what is happening here.  (I don’t think it has ever happened.)


These wars are planned in advance of their justifications.

In 2007, former general Wesley Clark wrote in his memoirs that, in the days following the September 11 attacks, he was privy to a memo that showed the Department of Defense under Donald Rumsfeld had already made a list of which countries the US would invade in the newly permissive atmosphere: Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Iran and Syria.  Afghanistan and Pakistan, the countries who harbored the terrorist group responsible for the attack, were not on the list. It is now widely understood and acknowledged, even among the fawning national news media, that the neoconservative priority of consolidating former Soviet client states under US control found a jet-sized opening after 9/11.  They immediately set about remaking the Middle East in the image of Saudi Arabia: compliant Sunni petrostates with no love for Russia but plenty for US defense, logistics, concrete and energy concerns.  This was a nexus of geography, resources, power and trade that the US had desired since the end of WWII, and 9/11 gave them a chance to be the good guys as they dropped bombs on Iraqi cities in the name of humanitarianism.

This is supported by facts on the ground during the initial invasion of Iraq.  Lost in the shock in awe was a concerted attempt by the foreign policy establishment to include Assad’s government in the Axis of Evil.  Cases were made that Syria was harboring Iraqi troops, supplying them with arms, and hiding their WMDs.

During my interviews with veterans of Iraq for my play Reveille, I spoke to a half dozen different infantry, artillery and motor pool guys who, totally separate of one another, talked about the poorly held secret within the US Army that Syria was next.  A US Army Ranger told me about missions on and even over the Syrian border, and the constant preparation to move north into the territories now held by ISIS in eastern Syria.  The administration at the time was itching for Assad to come to the aid of his Ba’athist counterpart in Baghdad, and for an excuse to expand the war into Syria, Lebanon and Iran.  All they needed was political cover for the president who needed to make that call, a flimsy excuse that the New York Times and NBC News could repeat endlessly over footage of Tomahawk missiles bursting in mid air.


The justifications shift, but the targets never do.

After the horrendously planned invasion caused a genocidal sectarian conflict and the American public started to tire of the occupation, the generals and their thinktank allies found a new way to push the spread of war against Iran and Syria – now they were responsible for the insurgency that caused the conflict to drag on and cost so much life and limb for American troops.   You see, the insurgents were able to use those pesky national borders in northern Iraq to cross over into Syria and avoid pursuit by American forces.  Nevermind that we fired weapons into Syria with impunity throughout this period.  An escalation of conflict against this Russian ally must be considered, in order to protect American (and Israeli) security interests.


Both sides do it, but sometimes politics gets in the way.

By the time the Arab Spring came to Syria, Bashar al-Assad was ready, and he was scared.  He unleashed brutal violence against his own people to quell the uprising, putting a peaceful revolution out of reach and causing the hellish fracture which has destroyed his country.  In such a conflict, there are no moderates, and now the groups who have the power to topple and replace him are just as bad or worse than he is, especially if they gain hold of the same monstrous weapons we try to deny him.

When evidence was first presented that Assad had used chemical weapons against civilians, Barack Obama was considerably more circumspect than his predecessors, and certainly more than his successor.  But was this due to his patience and judgment, or the climate in which he considered open war?

In 1998, Bill Clinton launched cruise missiles against a Sudanese compound purported to be a manufactory for chemical agents, but turned out to be a medicine plant. He did so with much less evidence.  Was this a moral difference with Obama or Trump?  Probably not.  You see, he launched those strikes just as he’d been exposed for lying about ejaculating on Monica Lewinsky, and a military conflict in Sudan had almost no political downside for him.  It was a win-win: he could satisfy the foreign policy establishment, which he relied on to manage US policy, and their plans for American dominance in the Middle East and North Africa, and he could boost his popularity and political capital with a show of executive force.

The situation was more delicate for Obama, and he is a different man.  War in the Middle East was still uniformly unpopular in 2013, and he faced a Republican Congress that somehow hated him even more than they loved wars against Arabs.  Donald Trump himself spoke sagely of what a mistake increased American violence in Syria would be, statements which further compound his incomprehensible hypocrisy.  But the problem isn’t that Donald Trump disagreed with Obama then, it’s that he agrees with him now.

Obama knew strikes in Syria would be unpopular, but his generals wanted it. so. bad. Obama had already allowed them to fund militia groups allied with al-Qaeda in the region for years, but air strikes are less covert, and Obama would have to make the public caseObama set up a gambit to try and appease them but also demonstrate that he had political cover for the action.  He set a ‘red line’, but broke it.  He sought authorization from all sides.  Finally, he gave Russia an opening to negotiate with Assad, then accepted an offer to disarm Assad in exchange for an abeyance of military involvement. The politics didn’t work out. The generals would not have their way.

That chemical weapons are still in use in Syria shows that despite the best efforts of genuinely well-meaning disarmament officials in Syria, such a deal was a smokescreen to get Obama out of supporting an unpopular war.  Political restraint, in this case, won the day.  It’s little comfort to the victims of this attack, but staving off that intervention prevented a much greater loss of life, and it only happened because the US military’s usual excuse for invading countries vital to their plans for power projection didn’t work.


But not this time!

It’s working like a charm this time.  Chuck Schumer is praising the attacks.   Elizabeth Warren and Jeff Markley just want to make sure Trump gets Congressional approval for the strikes he has already launched without their approval.  Hillary Clinton emerged from the forest to declare that she, too, would have bombed Syria.  It seems no matter how we voted, we would have had this war.  A comforting thought, I suppose, that in the end we had no choice. News channels and newspapers are fawning over the might of American warships, saying that ‘this is the moment Trump became President.’  It’s happening again.

And most frustrating is that people of conscience and reason spend their time agonizing over whether such strikes are just, given the use of chemical weapons and the scale of the human suffering, as if that is the real reason for our engagement, or that such an act has no further consequence for the Syrian people or veterans of American wars, and as if such engagement do not fuel the terrorism we hate and fear so much.

When will we learn?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s