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Saying No to Syria Matters (and it's Not About Syria)

Each instance of war in the past 12 years was a choice by Washington.

| Thu Sep. 12, 2013 12:30 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Once again, we find ourselves at the day after 9/11, and this time America stands alone. Alone not only in our abandonment even by our closest ally, Great Britain, but in facing a crossroads no less significant than the one we woke up to on September 12, 2001. The past 12 years have not been good ones. Our leaders consistently let the missiles and bombs fly, resorting to military force and legal abominations in what passed for a foreign policy, and then acted surprised as they looked up at the sky from an ever-deeper hole.

At every significant moment in those years, our presidents opted for more, not less, violence, and our Congress agreed—or simply sat on its hands—as ever more moral isolation took the place of ever less diplomacy. Now, those same questions loom over Syria. Facing a likely defeat in Congress, Obama appears to be grasping—without any sense of irony—at the straw Russian President Vladimir Putin (backed by China and Iran) has held out in the wake of Secretary of State John Kerry's off-the-cuff proposal that put the White House into a corner. After claiming days ago that the U.N. was not an option, the White House now seems to be throwing its problem to that body to resolve. Gone, literally in the course of an afternoon, were the administration demands for immediate action, the shots across the Syrian bow, and all that. Congress, especially on the Democratic side of the aisle, seems to be breathing a collective sigh of relief that it may not be forced to take a stand. The Senate has put off voting; perhaps a vote in the House will be delayed indefinitely, or maybe this will all blow over somehow and Congress can return to its usual partisan differences over health care and debt ceilings.

And yet a non-vote by Congress would be as wrong as the yes vote that seems no longer in the cards. What happens, in fact, if Congress doesn't say no?

A History Lesson

The "Global War on Terror" was upon us in an instant. Acting out of a sense that 9/11 threw open the doors to every neocon fantasy of a future Middle Eastern and global Pax Americana, the White House quickly sought an arena to lash out in. Congress, acting out of fear and anger, gave the executive what was essentially a blank check to do anything it cared to do. Though the perpetrators of 9/11 were mostly Saudis, as was Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda itself sought refuge in largely Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. So be it. The first shots of the War on Terror were fired there.

George W. Bush's top officials, sure that this was their moment of opportunity, quickly slid destroying al-Qaeda as an organization into a secondary slot, invaded Afghanistan, and turned the campaign into a crusade to replace the Taliban and control the Greater Middle East. Largely through passivity, Congress said yes as, even in its earliest stages, the imperial nature of America's global strategy revealed itself plain as day. The escape of Osama bin-Laden and much of al-Qaeda into Pakistan became little more than an afterthought as Washington set up what was essentially a puppet government in post-Taliban Afghanistan, occupied the country, and began to build permanent military bases there as staging grounds for more of the same.

Some two years later, a series of administration fantasies and lies that, in retrospect, seem at best tragicomic ushered the United States into an invasion and occupation of Iraq. Its autocratic leader and our former staunch ally in the region, Saddam Hussein, ruled a country that would have been geopolitically meaningless had it not sat on what Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz called "a sea of oil"—and next to that future target of neocon dreams of conquest, Iran. Once again, Congress set off on a frenzied rush to yes, and a second war commenced out of the ashes of 9/11.

With the mighty American military now on their eastern and western borders and evidently not planning on leaving any time soon, Iranian officials desperately sought out American diplomats looking for some kind of rapprochement. They offered to assist in Afghanistan and, it was believed, to ensure that any American pilots shot down by accident over Iranian territory would be repatriated quickly. Channels to do so were reportedly established by the State Department and it was rumored that broader talks had begun. However, expecting a triumph in Iraq and feeling that the Iranians wouldn't stand a chance against the "greatest force for liberation the world has ever known" (aka the US military), a deeply overconfident White House snubbed them, dismissing them as part of the "Axis of Evil." Congress, well briefed on the administration's futuristic fantasies of domination, sat by quietly, offering another passive yes.

Congress also turned a blind eye to the setting up of a global network of "black sites" for the incarceration, abuse, and torture of "terror suspects," listened to torture briefings, read about CIA rendition (i.e., kidnapping) operations, continued to fund Guantanamo, and did not challenge the devolving wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Its members sat quietly by while a new weapon, armed drones, at the personal command of the president alone, crisscrossed the world assassinating people, including American citizens, within previously sovereign national boundaries. As a new president came into office and expanded the war in Afghanistan, ramped up the drone attacks, made war against Libya, did nothing to aid the Arab Spring, and allowed Guantanamo to fester, Congress said yes. Or, at least, not no, never no.

The World Today

Twelve years later, the dreams of global domination are in ruins and the world America changed for the worse is a very rough place. This country has remarkably few friends and only a handful of largely silent semi-allies. Even the once gung-ho president of France has been backing off his pledges of military cooperation in Syria in the face of growing popular opposition and is now calling for U.N. action. No longer does anyone cite the United States as a moral beacon in the world. If you want a measure of this, consider that Vladimir Putin seemed to win the Syria debate at the recent G20 summit as easily as he now has captured the moral high ground on Syria by calling for peace and a deal on Assad's chemical weapons.

The most likely American a majority of global citizens will encounter is a soldier. Large swaths of the planet are now off-limits to American tourists and businesspeople, far too dangerous for all but the most foolhardy to venture into. The State Department even warns tourists to Western Europe that they might fall victim to al-Qaeda. In the coming years, few Americans will see the pyramids or the ruins of ancient Babylon in person, nor will they sunbathe, among other places, on the pristine beaches of the southern Philippines. Forget about large portions of Africa or most of the rest of the Middle East. Americans now fall victim to pirates on the high seas, as if it were the nineteenth century all over again.

After 12 disastrous years in the Greater Middle East, during which the missiles flew, the bombs dropped, doors were repeatedly kicked in, and IEDs went off, our lives, even at home, have changed. Terrorism, real and imagined, has turned our airports into giant human traffic jams and sites of humiliation, with lines that resemble a Stasi version of Disney World. Our freedoms, not to speak of the Fourth Amendment right to privacy, have been systematically stripped away in the name of American "safety," "security," and fear. Congress said yes to all of that, too, even naming the crucial initial piece of legislation that began the process the PATRIOT Act without the slightest sense of irony.

When I spoke with Special Forces personnel in Iraq, I was told that nearly every "bad guy" they killed or captured carried images of American torture and abuse from Abu Ghraib on his cellphone—as inspiration. As the victims of America's violence grew, so did the armies of kin, those inheritors of "collateral damage," seeking revenge. The acts of the past 12 years have even, in a few cases, inspired American citizens to commit acts of homegrown terrorism.

Until this week, Washington had abandoned the far-from-perfect-but-better-than-the-alternatives United Nations. Missiles and bombs have sufficed for our "credibility," or so Washington continues to believe. While pursuing the most aggressive stance abroad in its history, intervening everywhere from Libya and Yemen to the Philippines, seeking out monsters to destroy and, when not enough could be found, creating them, the United States has become ever more isolated globally.

Our Choice

The horror show of the last 12 years wasn't happenstance. Each instance of war was a choice by Washington, not thrust upon us by a series of Pearl Harbors. Our Congress always said yes (or least avoided ever saying no). Many who should have known better went on to join the yes men. In regard to Iran and George W. Bush, then-candidate for president Senator Joe Biden, for instance, said in 2007, "I was Chairman of the Judiciary Committee for 17 years. I teach separation of powers in constitutional law. This is something I know. So I brought a group of constitutional scholars together to write a piece that I'm going to deliver to the whole United States Senate pointing out that the president has no constitutional authority to take this country to war against a country of 70 million people unless we're attacked or unless there is proof that we are about to be attacked. And if he does, I would move to impeach him. The House obviously has to do that, but I would lead an effort to impeach him."

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Only a year ago, Biden criticized Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for being too anxious to go to war with Syria. That country, Biden said, "is five times as large geographically [as Libya], it has one-fifth the population... It's in a part of the world where they're not going to see whatever would come from that war. It'll seep into a regional war... If in fact it blows up and the wrong people gain control, it's going to have impact on the entire region causing potentially regional wars."

Biden has been missing from the public eye this week. His last public statement on Syria was in late August. Monday, while Susan Rice begged for war and Obama taped multiple TV interviews, the vice president was in Baltimore handing out federal grant money to improve the port. Silence in the face of a car wreck isn't golden, it's deadly. Good God, man, hit the brakes before we kill someone!

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