12:14 p.m. September 5, 2013

Syria: An Epic Tornado of Bullshit Assumptions

For a country that still longingly stares at its television for moral guidance, there is a special signal that tells us Important Things are happening - and it is neither the mind-numbing "Breaking News" chyron nor the red-faced pundit/anchor pulling yet another Howard Beale. The signal in the noise is the relative quiet of CNN abruptly turning into C-SPAN, as it did this week when it delivered wall-to-wall coverage of Syria-related congressional hearings.

These moments are few and far between - and they are, indeed, important, but not only for how they remind us about the whole democracy thing. They are also significant for how they provide that rare unvarnished glimpse of all the subjective assumptions du jour, and how those assumptions ignore even the most self-evident facts and the most obvious history.

Not surprisingly, an aversion to constitutional fact and historical context defined this latest spectacle from the moment President Obama announced his desire to start yet another military campaign in the Middle East. As Washington quickly hooked the drums of war back up to the media's assembled amplifiers, few seemed to even notice the oxymoron of such an announcement coming a mere 72 hours after the same president pledged his loyalty to the ideals of Dr. Martin Luther King - aka the man who self-righteously derided the U.S. government as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world."

Even fewer seemed to notice the inadvertent comedy in Obama's decision to request Congressional authorization for an attack on Syria. Despite that being a crystal clear constitutional requirement, our self-congratulatory president deemed it a "pretty big idea" - as if he sincerely believes it is a radical notion to simply follow the law.

All of that, of course, was just the beginning. As the drums now thrum louder, so many history-averse assertions and fact-free presuppositions are now swirling through the discourse that it is probably inaccurate to call the back-and-forth over Syria a "debate." This is an epic tornado of Bullshit Assumptions carrying Dorothy, Toto and the rest of us away to a militaristic Land of Oz.

In the midst of what is now officially deemed the era of "persistent conflict," it is worth pausing to behold the texture, consistency and flavor of this particular type of bullshit. It is worth, in other words, clicking the heels of America's blood-soaked shoes and pondering five of the bullshittiest of the assumptions.

Perhaps when we finally wake up, we can then answer the biggest question of all: What are the real objectives of the wizards behind the curtain?

Bullshit Assumption #1: The United States and its Western allies are vehemently opposed to chemical weapons, so when Syria used chemical weapons, it crossed the West's sacrosanct "red line."

The pretense for a war in Syria is the allegation that Bashar al Assad's regime used sarin gas during a skirmish in the Damascus suburbs. According to President Obama, this crosses a sacred "red line" because "we cannot turn away from the massacre of countless civilians with chemical weapons."

Let's set aside the fact that 1) the United Nations has yet to issue its report on the allegations 2) U.S. intelligence officials admit the evidence is "no slam dunk" 3) Lawmakers from the president's own party say the administration's evidence is "circumstantial" and "raises more questions than it answer(s)" and 4) the United States government has a well-known and very recent track record of lying about the weapons caches of the Arab dictators with whom it is is not currently allied.

You can ignore all of that and still call bullshit on the assumption that the West is somehow offended by the use of chemical weapons. How? By remembering that the West has a long and distinguished record of arming dictators with chemical weapons and of deploying chemical weapons against its opponents.

Yes, the same American government that asks us to believe it is morally opposed to chemical weapons used them in Vietnam, gave them to Saddam Hussein and helped him use them. More recently, the United States crossed its own alleged "red line" by using chemical weapons in Iraq, giving them to Egypt to use against protestors, and deploying them against its own domestic dissidents. The U.S. military also still has chemical weapons stockpiles. Meanwhile, the British government reportedly sold chemical weapons components to none other than Bashar al Assad in the midst of his civil war.

So please, let's stop pretending this is about some specific hostility to chemical warfare. Chemical weapons are awful and hideous - and unfortunately in practice, the United States and Britain has very little objection to them.

Bullshit Assumption #2: The United States government wants to intervene in Syria primarily because it wants to stop the killing and support the local population's democratic aspirations.

To listen to Secretary of State John Kerry liken Syria to the Nazis and lay waste to Godwin's Law is to hear the heartwarming-but-false tale of an American government that intervened in World War II primarily to free the Jews. It is also to hear echoes of George W. Bush attempting to rally NATO members to support the Iraq War. Evidently, no matter what war is being sold to America, it is always packaged in Adolf Hitler wrapping paper.

But, of course, America is AOK with brutal dictatorships, violence and repression, as long as it is our brutal dictators doing the repressing.

Head over to Google and put the phrase "U.S. support" next to words like "Suharto," "The Shah" or "Pinochet" and the American government's humanitarian rhetoric suddenly sounds more than a bit silly.

If for some reason you flippantly write that off as old history, then simply recalibrate your flux capacitor to more recent times - say, when the U.S. continued selling weapons to the Bahrain regime in the midst of its bloody crackdown. If that's not enough for you, consider how the U.S. continued flouting the international cluster bomb treaty and sold those hideous WMDs to the Saudi royals. Or ponder the fact that the Obama administration is now trying to weaken arms export laws while the British government has now supplied about $20 billion worth of weapons to some of the world's worst human rights violators. Or think about how your tax dollars subsidize a megacorporation called Booz Allen Hamilton, which exports "security" systems (read: repression instruments) to various American-allied dictators in the Middle East.

OK, fine, you say. All that stuff is bad, but two wrongs don't make a right and maybe war proponents in the United States and Britain have finally had a change of heart. Maybe they saw the Syria atrocities and suddenly became true humanitarians.

Even if you believe that especially pungent strain of bullshit, there's the whole problem of military interventions actually intensifying humanitarian crises. That's right - as a recent academic study of "intrastate conflicts" shows, attacks like the one being proposed in Syria typically increase civilian casualties by 40 percent. Additionally, as the Boston Review points out, "more than 40 percent of states that experience foreign-imposed regime change have a civil war within the next ten years."

To look at all of this and to nonetheless simply assume that the Syria attack proposals are motivated by humanitarianism is to be either dangerously gullible or willfully ignorant.

Bullshit Assumption #3: The United States is morally opposed to evil dictators like Bashar al Assad.

The always lampoonable Cal Thomas insists that if America doesn't go to war in Syria, dictators throughout the Middle East and North Africa "can be expected to have little fear" of the United States. The widely held assumption here is that those villains already do have something to fear, when, in fact, the majority of the region's dictators call the United States a trusted friend.

Consider the not-so-secret geopolitical alliances. In addition to propping up the now deposed despots in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the United States today officially allies itself with dictators in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

With the Syrian regime, the United States has up until recently exhibited much the same obsequiousness. For example, John Kerry - in classic fashion - seemed to be for Assad before he was against him. Same thing for Hillary Clinton, who only a year before calling for his ouster promoted the idea that Assad is a "reformer."

In the eyes of the United States, then, Assad's chief crime is not using chemical weapons, killing lots of people or being a repressive assholish dictator. It is the Syrian strongman doing and being those things outside the sphere of U.S. influence.

Noting all of this is not to defend Assad. Whether or not his regime engineered the chemical attack in question, the guy is clearly a monster. But it is to point out that the whole "we hate him because he's a Hitler-like dictator" line is bullshit.

Bullshit Assumption #4: The proposed Syria attack has absolutely nothing to do with the U.S. defense budget.

The Pentagon and the military contracting industry are freaking out that for the first time in a generation, there's the possibility of cuts to defense spending. And it's not some theoretical possibility - it's real. Public opinion surveys show majority support for such cuts, and the sequestration fight has inadvertently made those cuts imminent.

What better way to halt the budget-cutting train than to start a war that blows up the tracks?

Now, sure - a war in Syria is not a pure "Wag the Dog"-style conspiracy by greedy defense contractors. It is never that simple. But it is also hardly a coincidence that the prospect of a military assault on Syria is now being used as the primary reason to reverse proposed Pentagon budget cuts.

The deployment of Syria as the new pro-defense-spending argument has been deft if predictable. First, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R) claimed the United States doesn't have the resources to attack. Then the Air Force chief of staff claimed the sequestration inhibits readiness for a battle with Syria. Then The Hill newspaper reported on experts claiming Syria gives President Obama an "edge" in pushing to reverse Pentagon budget cuts. And now, citing all those arguments, congressional conservatives are making their "yes" votes on Syria contingent on promises to send more money to the Pentagon.

Of course, sequestration's modest cuts to the Pentagon almost certainly do not hamper the United States' ability to drop cruise missiles on Damascus. But such inconvenient facts rarely matter when Washington is dealing with its two favorite commodities, war and taxpayer cash. In those situations, the formula is now automatic: mix the old Domino Theory with George W. Bush's mushroom-cloud demagoguery, and voila - deficit concerns vanish and Pentagon cash magically reappears.

Bullshit Assumption #5: A bombing campaign is definitely not a first step toward another ground war.

Words like "surgical," "limited," "targeted" and "precision" are the preferred newspeak of the 21st century. They are crafted to both mislead a war-weary public and pretend "shock and awe" isn't more accurately titled "blood and guts." This week, these terms are everywhere, and for a specific reason: they are designed to remove the corpsy smell of the Iraq debacle from the Syria proposal and every future plan for a Mideast invasion.

There's just one problem: the linguistic trick doesn't work if you pay careful attention to what is being said and written.

For example, thanks to Kerry's persistent case of foot-in-mouth disease, we now know that a U.S. ground war in Syria is a very real possibility. Thanks to Sen. Tom Udall's (D-NM) review of the history of Iraq - specifically, of U.S. bombing preceding an invasion - we know that an American air assault can pave the way for a ground war. And thanks to the White House's overly broad blank-check war resolution proposal, we also can reasonably guess that the Obama administration has such a ground war on its mind.

Assuming the administration isn't thinking about all this is to purposely ignore the Secretary of State's own words, recent history and the text of legislation that was sent to Congress.

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When the architect of the Syria strike blueprint says the plan will not work and when Obama himself admits that "we cannot resolve the underlying conflict in Syria with our military" it is a sign that the proposal to attack Syria is being driven by other forces than those being publicly acknowledged. The aforementioned assumptions - and the many others at work - are tailored to avoid revealing what exactly those forces are.

As noted, some of it probably has to do with the defense budget. No doubt, some of it also has to do with oil and the attendant Great Game in the Middle East. And some of it has to do with American neoconservatives' ongoing dream of a war with Iran.

You may agree with those motives. You may disagree with them. That's not the point. What matters here is that before anyone can hope to have an informed position on what to do about Syria, we need to shovel away the bullshit. Only then can we have any idea what a military confrontation with Syria is actually all about - and whether such a confrontation is really just a proxy war for something else.