What’s the war about?

The article below by David Finkel must be one of the most clear-headed
analyses of the current semi-war-drive I’ve seen in the left media.

One thing I’d add is that, if as he suggests the chemical attack was
“carried out by a Syrian military unit but not authorized by Assad”,
thus revealing “signs of weakening of the regime’s command and control
over chemical weapons,” then this also helps explain Israel’s
contradictory role in this. As he correctly notes, Israel prefers Assad
to the alternatives, and to the extent it sometimes sabre-rattles over
the US not enforcing “red-lines,” it is precisely the issue of example
it has in mind, with regard to the Iran nuclear issue.

But this time, unlike pretty much the whole of the last 2 years, Israel
has appeared relatively hawkish, compared to previous behaviour. Given
that Israeli leaders have stated countless times, with abundant clarity,
that their greatest fear is not Assad controlling chemical weapons, but
rather the danger that the fall of Assad could result in these weapons
falling into the hands of “terrorists”, meaning either Hezbollah but
even more ominously the anti-Assad Sunni Jihadists, the idea that the
regime’s control may be fraying would indeed be a significant problem
for Israel, that would require noone other than the US to try to fix
(and must absolutely not be left to Saudi-backed elite FSA units based
in Jordan).

On the other hand, there is also enormous apprehension about the lack of
any clear US strategy, and this has led to a sharp difference between a
relatively dovish Israel and much more hawkish US Israeli lobby (again
revealing the limits of “lobby theory”), as this article indicates:

What’s the War About?



by David Finkel


September 11, 2013

This article is adapted from comments on the Solidarity e-mail list. It
was written before Obama’s speech on 9/10/13.

Against fierce public and political opposition, Team Obama is going
all-out for a Congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force
(AUMF) to bomb Syria. The term they’re using is “flood the zone,” but it’s
looking more like a “Hail Mary pass.” So what is this about? Several
things. First, Obama’s credibility and, by extension, that of the U.S.
imperial dictat, is at stake (more on this later).

Second, there’s an element of stupidity and bungling. Presidential
stupidity is never a fundamental cause of imperial adventures and
debacles, but it’s a factor. Stupidity was a factor in 1979 when Jimmy
Carter, apparently on his own, allowed the deposed Shah of Iran into the
USA; it was a factor way back when JFK took the CIA’s bait to invade
Cuba (Bay of Pigs, 1961); it was a factor when George W. Bush dissolved
the Iraqi army in 2003, bringing about state collapse and sectarian
mayhem there.

Bungling is a factor now around responding to the chemical weapons
attack, particularly the U.S. refusal to recognize what should be
obvious: (i) that Russia, not the U.S. or some scrawny COW (“Coalition
of the Willing”), is the real key to stopping the Syrian regime from
using forbidden weapons, and (ii) that Moscow is understandably enraged
by having been suckered on Libya. Cruise missiles and B-52 bombers will
not deter the Syrian regime, but Russia can tell Assad that it will pull
the plug if chemical weapons are used again, making his regime a
liability rather than an asset for Moscow.

The Russian government, of course, is acting overwhelmingly in Russia’s
state interests. Russian intelligence must have already known what
German intelligence has reported, that the chemical weapons attack was
apparently carried out by a Syrian military unit but not authorized by
Assad. This doesn’t absolve the regime and its leadership from criminal
responsibility, but the point here is that any signs of weakening of the
regime’s command and control over chemical weapons must be freaky-scary
for the Russians, as it should be for everyone.

Both the “imperial credibility” and “stupidity” factors have a common
root. It’s an assumption going back decades (elaborated as the “Carter
doctrine” but earlier too) that U.S. military might is the key to the
“stability” of the Middle East. (Israel fits into this equation,
obviously.) But while the U.S. is of course the overwhelming military
power, its capability to control and determine events is decreasing. The
decline of U.S. power was greatly accelerated, qualitatively so, by the
Iraq disaster. But the instinct remains to “prove our resolve,” which in
turn contributes to the tendency to bungling and stupidity.

Another element is the U.S. political gridlock and the administration’s
indecisiveness, even policy incoherence, on Syria, which gives McCain
and the neocons the opening to insert their own agenda to which Obama
has made himself hostage. That agenda remains as it has been under
Bush-Cheney, to push toward confrontation with Iran. If this results in
the destruction of Obama’s presidency, that’s an added benefit from
their point of view. And Israel is lining up with the neocons on going
after Iran-the Israeli goal is not to overthrow Assad (whom they prefer
to the existing alternatives) in Syria but to take down Iran, ultimately
by force. This has not been the Obama administration’s strategic goal,
at least in the short term.

The contradiction facing Team Obama now, which makes it all the harder
to convince the public or ram through the AUMF, is on the one hand that
a strictly “limited” strike will be strategically ineffectual and only
reinforce the (correct) perception of declining U.S. hegemony. On the
other hand, a massive strike that changes the balance of forces in the
Syrian conflict might (i) strengthen the fundamentalist and al-Qaeda
types, (ii) enrage the Russians to the point where they don’t give Assad
the ultimatum to enforce the no-chemical-weapons ban; (iii) push the new
Iranian government away from bargaining and even toward a rush for
nuclear weapons.

It is fashionable among the pro-bombing punditry to ascribe the
opposition of the U.S. public to “war-weary isolationism.” This is
patronizing and one-sided at best. Yes, there is war-weariness after the
Iraq debacle and the Afghan quagmire, but there is also genuine horror
over the chemical weapons attack (yes, the Syrian military did it) and a
feeling that “something needs to be done.” And indeed, something needs
to be done, but Team Obama can’t coherently explain what it intends to
accomplish because it doesn’t even know. And the continuing slow-motion
social catastrophe in America and the budget gridlock certainly
contributes to the mood of rejection.

This is not a war that the ruling class is particularly enthused over
either. Imperial prestige does matter, and there is the potential for
Congressional disapproval to cripple a presidency, there really isn’t a
clearly identifiable U.S. “national security” stake here–not oil, not a
terrorist threat, not even a threat to Israel. If anything, bombing
Syria could push Iran in a more dangerous direction and create the
small, but not trivial possibility of setting off a regional catastrophe
by miscalculation or accident

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