Above: President Barack Obama, flanked by Sally Jewell, secretary of the interior, and Chuck Hagel, secretary of defense, speaks during a meeting with his cabinet at the White House in Washington, September 12, 2013. (Photo: Doug Mills / The New York Times)
Is Right-Left Opposition to War on Syria an Opportunity to End American Empire Responsibly?
In 2003 in the run-up to the Iraq War, tens of millions protested around the world. The New York Times was forced to take note and acknowledge there were two superpowers in the world – the United States and the people.
The people failed to stop that war, but the people are playing a critical role in resolving the crisis in Syria without war.
The peoples’ response was essential to the reversal of President Obama’s stated desire to bomb Syria in the face of what sounded like a done deal, given the mass media’s promise that bombing would start on Thursday – now three weeks ago. Diplomacy has quickly resulted in a framework for the removal of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons, although we recognize that sometimes diplomacy is a prelude to war.
This situation may be temporary, and there are still many opportunities for the United States to manufacture justification for an attack; but Syria, which could have been a bloody escalating war by now, has instead become an example of democracy and diplomacy working.
Can this experience be the beginning of a transformation of US foreign policy? Is our nation capable of ceasing the never-ending wars of the post 9/11 world? Can we face up to the history of American Empire and find a way to end it responsibly?
We view the current situation as a real opportunity for change; however, before there can be change, we must face some truths about US foreign policy. This reality requires confronting a lot of myths about what the United States’ role has been for the last 50 years and going back even further to examine the whole premise of manifest destiny.
In his speech on Syria, President Obama claimed, “the United States has been the anchor of global security” for the last seven decades. We doubt many of the people of the world would describe the United States in that way after suffering numerous military attacks, wars, military coups and now drone bombings at the hands of the United States. For many, the United States has caused great insecurity, killed or imprisoned loved ones and undermined democracy, self-determination and a fair economy.
The true story of American Empire is very much the reverse of the propaganda history Americans are taught and presented with in the commercial media. Our entire culture has been dependent on belief in the myth of American Exceptionalism and denial of the global toll of the American Way of Life. Yet, there are signs that more are becoming aware that there are different forces at work than the rhetoric of spreading freedom and democracy.
The recent organic groundswell that stopped the imminent attack on Syria – and the mass refusal to blindly accept the story told to justify it – create hope that we could be at a turning point in US history. We have an opportunity to remake US foreign policy and responsibly dismantle our gargantuan empire (before it falls of its own weight). Below, we outline below some key principles and steps toward a more cooperative role for the United States on the global stage.
The complicated US relationship with Syria
In our recent article, we described two examples of US foreign policy causing instability and suffering in Iran and Guatemala. The CIA recently admitted its role in a 1953 coup that ended Iran’s move toward a secular democracy. In 1954, the US coup in Guatemala similarly overthrew a democratic government. In both cases, the US installed brutal dictators; and the people continue to be impacted by these actions.
These are two examples of many. More specific to Syria, the United States was involved in a number of coups that ended Syria’s move toward democracy. The first coup, in 1949, removed elected President Shukri al-Quwatli and replaced him with General Husni al-Za’im.
The United States did not approve of al-Quwatli. The CIA recommended that Syria be “quarantined” through a military coup that would get rid of its elected leaders and bring in a dictatorship, so the Syrians could “mature” and hold more favorable elections in a few years, i.e. elections that resulted in candidates allied with the United States. Agent Miles Copeland describes how the CIA’s “Political Action Team” worked in a 1968 book, The Game of Nations:
“The political action team suggested to Za’im the idea of a coup d’état, advised him how to go about it, guided him through the intricate preparations in laying the groundwork for it . . . Za’im was ‘the American boy.’ ”
Copeland describes one dissenter in the group, Deane Hinton, who warned: “I want to go on record as saying that this is the stupidest, most irresponsible action a diplomatic mission like ours could get itself involved in, and that we’ve started a series of these things that will never end.” Deane was not only ignored, but ostracized and forced out of the group. The March 1949 coup was a “success,” except that it led to a series of coups. Five months later, Za’im was murdered in another coup. And, another followed that. Copeland acknowledges Hinton was right, the United States had “opened the door to the Dark Ages” in Syria.
In 1954, Syria edged back toward democracy and held elections that resulted in a diverse Parliament, with the top two parties being the People’s Party and the Ba’ath Party, but with independents being the largest bloc. Once again, the United States went into action with Operation Wappen, another coup.
In The United States and Arab Nationalism, by Bonnie F. Saunders, this coup is described as bribing military leaders to take over the government. One of the Syrians who went along with the plot exposed it before it could occur. The US Embassy was surrounded by Syrian troops, and all Embassy personnel were put on 24-hour surveillance. The US ambassador, an assistant and a US Army attaché were accused and forced to leave the country.
US interventions in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, plus the developments in Israel and interventions by the Soviet Union, created a desire by many people in the Middle East to rid the region of foreign intervention and control. An initial experiment was the creation of the United Arab Republic under Egyptian President Nasser uniting with Syria. This lasted from 1958 to 1961, when Syria broke from the agreement.
Another response was the rise of the Ba’ath Party in neighboring Iraq. In a strange twist, a US-assisted coup led to the Ba’ath Party taking control of Iraq in 1963, through which the US helped to bring Saddam Hussein to power. One month later, a coup without US participation brought the Ba’ath party to power in Syria, providing a path for one of its members, Hafez al-Assad, to rise to power in 1971.
Assad used his power brutally to control dissent within Syria. He put in place a foreign policy that was sometimes allied with the United States. Syria joined the US alliance during the 1990 Gulf War, when George H. W. Bush was president. In 1976, Syria was a leader in a peacekeeping force in Lebanon, sponsored by the Arab League to end the civil war.
When Hafez al-Assad died in 2000 of a heart attack, he was replaced by his son, Bashar Al-Assad, who still rules today. While Assad is painted in one-dimensional terms as a tyrant and dictator in the media, his rule is much more complicated. In fact, by 2004, Assad had put in place several positive reforms. Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on “Face the Nation” in March, 2011, “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”
We are not endorsing Assad, but are attempting to provide a more complete picture. Assad’s attack on nonviolent protesters seeking real democracy and open elections is another part of the makeup of the man, which we do not ignore or understate.
Regime change in Syria has been on the radar of Americans who seek to reshape the Middle East to fit the needs of the United States, Israel and allies like Turkey since the late 1990s. One month after 9/11, the neocon Project for a New American Century, which included many Bush administration officials, sent a letter to President Bush urging war on Iraq, but also action against Syria, if it did not comply with the United States. In the January, 2002, Nuclear Posture Review, Syria was one of the countries where the United States was prepared to use nuclear weapons in an attack. In 2004, Congress passed the “Syria Accountability Act,” which considerably weakened Syria’s fragile economy and contained other provisions designed to pave the way to regime change.
By 2005, US military planners were updating target lists for a military attack on Syria. In fact, “military officers involved in the high-level planning efforts say Syria has eclipsed Iran” as a concern because of its border with Iraq and its smaller size and population, making it an easier target; and “since early 2003, there have been numerous reports of clashes between US and Syrian forces on Syrian soil, as well as reports of US special operations forces operating inside Syria on select missions.”
There were reports of Syrian troops being killed by US forces in border clashes, as avillager told Associated Press, ” ‘What bothers us the most are the continuous American attacks on our village,’ said Asir Hamid, 25, from the village of Sanjak, near the Iraqi border city of Qaim.” The United States has also been meddling in Syrian internal affairs. Diplomatic cables between the US embassy in Damascus and the State Department, released by Wikileaks in 2011, revealed that the United States gave financial support to political opposition groups, a television channel that broadcast antigovernment messages and related projects beginning in 2006 and continuing in the Obama era.
There have also been reports that the United States was providing weapons. Historian William Blum writes there have been “numerous reports of forces providing military support to the Syrian rebels – the UK, France, the US, Turkey, Israel, Qatar, the Gulf states, and everyone’s favorite champion of freedom and democracy, Saudi Arabia; with Syria claiming to have captured some 14 French soldiers; plus individual jihadists and mercenaries from Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Libya, et al, joining the antigovernment forces, their number including al-Qaeda veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who are likely behind the car bombs in an attempt to create chaos and destabilize the country.”
By mid-August 2011, President Obama publicly stated his belief that Assad should step down; in 2012, he admitted destroying Syria was part of a strategy against Iran. The Wall Street Journal reported that when David Petraeus headed the CIA, the agency expanded its involvement with Syrian rebels in March of 2011; sending arms and training rebels in August, 2011. In August, 2012, The NY Times reportedthat the United States had joined with allied countries to pay and equip Syrian rebel forces. On July 19, 2013, Assistant Secretary of State Rick Barton told an audience that the Obama administration had provided millions to pay police officers in Syria $150 per month; other reports indicated the United States was paying rebel forces the same amount. This September, Wall Street Journal writer Adam Entous reportedthat Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, who had also been involved in arming the Nicaraguan rebels in the Reagan era, was now working with the CIA on arming and funding the Syrian rebels. This also includes the CIA paying leaders of the Free Syrian Army to build relationships into the future when the Assad regime was removed.
Toward a New Foreign Policy
Understanding the relationship between the United States and Syria is important not only for viewing the current debate on Syria in the context of history and current events, but also as an example of how US foreign policy operates. Stories like this could be repeated involving numerous countries on every continent. Recently we posted stories about another 9/11 – the US supported coup in Chile that resulted in the deaths of thousands, with ongoing repercussions today.
Dennis Trainor, Jr. the video documentarian and producer of the weekly Resistance Report, describes US foreign policy as “manifest destiny’s child” because it is consistent with the way the United States crossed the continent, massacring Native Indian populations and stealing land from Mexico. The Philippines, Korea, China, Honduras, Guatemala, Haiti, Nicaragua, Cuba, Vietnam and so many others have felt the aggression of US Empire.
Militaristic US foreign policy is not new, but since 9/11, it has been much more overt and even more aggressive. Americans are now promised never-ending wars, but as the recent reaction to a war in Syria shows, Americans do not want any more wars. So, how do we create a new foreign policy? And, what would it be?
We put forward two foundational principles as a starting point:
1. Act within the Rule of Law: This is fundamental and consistent with the rhetoric that US political leaders use, even if it is not consistent with their actions. It includes obeying domestic and international laws and ratifying international treaties.
The domestic Rule of Law is the US Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 11, known as theWar Powers Clause, vests in the Congress the power to declare war, stating:[The Congress shall have Power…] To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.
The founders intentionally did not put the power to take the nation to war in the hands of one person, the president; rather they put it in the hands of elected officials who are closer to the people. To fulfill the intent of the Constitution, the United States must be more democratic when it comes to foreign policy, especially war, which requires being more transparent and giving people the information they need to direct their elected representatives.
The War Powers Act of 1973, 50 U.S.C. 1541-1548, does not give the president the power to attack another nation. It requires the president go to Congress for approval unless the president is acting in an emergency when there is no time to go to Congress. There is no question that regarding the threat to bomb Syria, there was no urgency and therefore no power vested in the president to commit an act of war. President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have consistently misstated their authority when they claim they can act without Congressional authorization.
In terms of international law, the United States as the lone superpower on the globe does not have the authority to attack other countries. International law makes an attack on another country the most serious crime a nation can commit. Military force is only permitted in self-defense or by a decision of the UN Security Council.
The US has violated international law; most recently President Obama took a UN resolution to protect civilians in Libya and used it to force regime change with the assassination of Muammar Gaddafi by US-allied rebels. This action by Obama violated both international and domestic law.
There are numerous important treaties the United States has not ratified. Perhaps the most important is not joining 110 other nations in ratifying the International Criminal Court. Ratification was blocked by President George W. Bush, and this has continued under President Obama. The United States obviously fears the jurisdiction of this court because over the past 50 years, US leaders have committed numerous crimes, e.g. starting illegal wars, widespread killing of civilians, torturing people, instituting coups and installing governments, occupying nations, and holding people for lengthy imprisonment without trial.
2. Respect the sovereignty of other nations: The United States needs to stop intervening in other countries’ affairs. No more threats of military attack or drone killings. No more coup d’états and efforts to undermine governments by funding rebel groups or creating radio, television and other outlets for media propaganda. No more “humanitarian wars” where the United States acts unilaterally with military force against another country. US policy of intervention has undermined US security by creating enemies throughout the world. Intervention creates a cycle of violence that comes back to haunt us. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home. They destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.” If there is a humanitarian crisis, the United States needs to work within the framework of the United Nations.
The US should not be forcing its economic or political system on others. Trade agreements like the secretly negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership, which demand major changes in economic systems and laws and empower US-based transnational corporations, making them more powerful than governments, is a form of economic hegemony that intrudes on the sovereignty of nations.
Nonintervention does not mean withdrawing from the world or becoming defenseless. It means actually using the military to defend the country, not as an offensive weapon against other countries. It means engaging with other nations with respect and working diplomatically rather than making economic and military threats. It requires trade agreements that are based on principles of fair trade, not neoliberal trade that make US corporations more powerful than nations.
Current US policy is dominated by the threat of military action rather than based on communication between nations; it relies on spying and intelligence rather than on diplomacy.
Nonintervention means a significant shift in budget. For fiscal year 2014, the Department of State and USAID budget totals $47.8 billion. The base budget for the Pentagon for FY 2014 is $526.6 billion, with an additional $88.5 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations for a total of $615.1 billion. If budgets show priorities, then it is evident US priorities are weapons and war.
In fact, the US accounts for 43 percent of the world’s military spending. There are military activities in many agencies. When those are all tallied, military spending is $300 billion higher. Some analysts say military spending is actually double Pentagon spending (see also). Added to that, is the US intelligence budget, spread over 16 agencies making up the United States Intelligence Community, of more than $80 billion annually. This totals a military and intelligence budget of more than $1 trillion annually.
If the United States moved to a truly defensive military, that actually focused on protecting the United States from attack, rather than the nebulous “national interest” (which often means cheap labor, cheap resources and profits for transnational corporations), there would be a dramatic reduction in spending on military and intelligence programs.
How Do We Get There?
The dysfunctional elected leadership of the country is unable to change from the status quo of US foreign policy. It was a grass roots reaction to President Obama’s plan to attack Syria that stopped the bombing campaign.
The most important lesson from the campaign to stop the war in Syria was that it took Americans from across the political spectrum, speaking out together against the war. In red, blue and purple congressional districts, the people called, emailed and met with their elected representatives. There is no question that if this were merely a right-wing or a left-wing opposition to war, it would not have flown.
This happened organically and quickly. People reacted and legislators across the political aisle responded. No doubt some of the Republican opposition to war was opposition to Obama – a partisan decision. But, there is also no doubt that some of the Democratic support for the war was support for Obama – a partisan decision. By the time Obama took the diplomatic path and negotiated with Russia, there waslandslide opposition to the war in the House with 264 votes, 47 above the 217 majority, opposed to the war, with 37 members undecided. In the Senate, opposition to war was almost at the filibuster lever with 39 votes opposed (40 needed to filibuster) and 37 still undecided.
What would happen if opponents of war on the right and left were able to coordinate and communicate; share ideas; and, when appropriate, work together to oppose war and Empire? Perhaps this coalition could look beyond one war to the bigger issue of the direction of US foreign policy and its emphasis on intervention and military attack. Mostly, the left and right work in their own silos, but one group, Come Home America seeks to bring cross-partisan opposition to war together (Kevin, coauthor of this piece, is a cofounder of this group.) There are also some local efforts of cross-partisan antiwar coalitions.
Here are steps that a right-left coalition could take that would move US foreign policy in a more cooperative and less aggressive direction:
1. Demand that President Obama approach negotiations on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile realistically. Diplomacy can sometimes be a prelude to war. We have seen how UN resolutions have been used by the United States to justify war, e.g. Libya and Iraq.
2. Demand that the United States stop providing weapons to the rebel forces in Syria and stop coordinating with countries like Saudi Arabia that seek to overthrow Assad. The battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for dominance over the Middle East is being fought out in the civil war in Syria. This is not an escalation the United States should encourage or participate in.
3. Demand that the United States act within the rule of law with regard to Syria. This means stop threatening the country with military attack. Such threats are illegal.
4. Demand that the United States strengthen the rule of law by acting within the Chemical Weapons Protocol and referring the case to the International Criminal Court for investigation and prosecution. There are doubts about whether Assad ordered the use of chemical weapons. The United States should provide the intelligence it has gathered to the UN so the case may be investigated by a tribunal not tied to a particular country. But there should also be an investigationof claims that the rebels used the weapons.
5. Work together to change the direction of US foreign policy. One immediate task is to stop the economic hegemony of the United States by stopping the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP is crony capitalism on an international scale inaccurately described as “free” trade. President Obama is trying to do an end around Congress even though the Commerce Clause gives Congress the responsibility to “regulate Commerce with foreign Nations.”
6. Consistently seek a redirection of budget priorities away from military spending and military intelligence to diplomacy and domestic spending. Moving away from a budget dominated by weapons and war will end military domination of US foreign policy.
7. Consistently explode the myths on which US foreign policy is based. This includes ending the glorification of the military and no longer claiming that members are fighting for our freedoms or to spread democracy. These claims are false.
8. Correct the corporate media when it puts forward such claims of “precision” bombings, as if only military targets and not civilians will be killed or claims Obama does not need Congress to take military action on Syria. And we should not be subjected to a pro-war perspective only, usually from a former general or military commander. The media needs to ensure the majority view of Americans – which is opposed to war – is heard.
It took the United States many decades to put in place a policy dominated by weapons and war. President Eisenhower warned against it in his final speech from the oval office because he saw the weapons industry develop during his and President Truman’s post-war administrations. Eisenhower recognized that the United States has been “compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions” with high levels of military spending and vast numbers of Americans serving in the armed services. He noted: “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience.” The crux of his warning:
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
“We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
He went on to urge an international community, a “confederation of mutual trust and respect” not “a community of dreadful fear and hate.”
Sadly, Eisenhower’s warnings were not heeded, and the military industrial complex has become stronger. The international community seems more based on fear and hate, rather than trust and respect. And, the United States has become the sole superpower with the largest empire in world history.
The US military has undermined US security, weakened the economy and caused instability around the world. The most recent victim of US attack, Libya, is now a failed state engulfed in tribal wars and weak leadership. Iraq, after years of US occupation, is experiencing violence and ethnic divisions that are pushing the country toward civil war. As the United States leaves Afghanistan, violence continues in that country. Across the Middle East, the Arab Spring is not only a revolt against leaders the United States has supported, but a revolt against the neoliberal economic policies the United States is forcing on the region.
Our task as citizens of this empire is to work together to consciously unwind the American Empire in a systematic way that does not cause greater destruction and division in the world; to end an empire that produces destructive empire economics and unjust policies at home and abroad. Our task is to end the largest empire in world history.
Related articles by Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers
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