Militarism for the purpose of destabilization remains a way of life for US foreign policy. America insists on projecting the image that it has a morally, politically, and ideologically superior position to accord itself the role of patron imperialist delivering the wretched of the earth to Western capitalist civilization – a 21st century version of the 19th century “White man’s burden”.
Nothing unifies America at home and rallies support among its allies quicker than a bombing of a Muslim nation, no matter the ideological, political and moral justifications about the military option as a first resort before or after the bombing. Governments divided and lacking popular support, governments questioned by a segment of the military, political and business elites, and by their allies resort to military conflict as a means of bringing together opposing factions and unifying the disparate elements behind military action, even if the longer term consequences are disastrous. This has been the case since fifth century Athens and it remains true to this day with the US in the early 21st century desperately holding on to its post-WWII role as the world’s policeman amid gradual economic decline, chronic socioeconomic and sociopolitical polarization, and the rising global influence of non-Western powers.
This is not to imply that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad (2000-present) has been politically and socially just; certainly no more so than others in the region allied with the US against Syria in the civil war started in 2011 and intended to bring down the regime that the US, UK, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey oppose. Nor does critical analysis of US militarism mean that Moscow backing Damascus is engaged in anything but the preservation of a long-time strategic ally; denying the West the privilege of enjoying hegemony in the Middle East. The issue is not one of moral superiority or “just war” by one side vs. the other. However, there are degrees of blame for the tragedy of Syria since 2011 just as is the case in Yemen’s monumental tragedy resulting from civil war.
Despite its long-standing record of militarism as a way of life in perpetuating Pax America since the Spanish-American War (1898-1901), the US insists on projecting the image that it has a morally, politically, and ideologically superior position to accord itself the role of patron imperialist delivering the wretched of the earth to Western capitalist civilization – a 21st century version of the 19th century “White Man’s Burden”.
Does the US have such a stellar record of delivering “freedom and democracy” to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen or anywhere in the world where it has intervened militarily since the Spanish-American War that it reserves the right to conduct unilateral bombings killing mostly civilians? Is the US so concerned about delivering democracy to Syria and stopping the use of chemical weapons resulting in civilian deaths, or did it have a role in causing and perpetuating the Syrian civil war?
Other than delivering more contracts to defense companies and the ability to justify a 10% rise in the US defense budget of 2018, what exactly is the US national security interest in Syria, as candidate Donald Trump often asked throughout 2016 while campaigning? Other than creating the dislocation of tens of millions of refugees that burden neighboring nations and Europe while denied entry into the US, what is the goal of American militarism? Is it the added acres as it was in Vietnam where defeat was inevitable from the outset but the war continued until there was no hope for Pax American to prevail? Other than throwing fuel on the fire of jihadist terrorism as the US defines it, what exactly is the end game of destabilization policies in the Middle East? Certainly not human rights and social justice because the entire world knows the US record regarding these issues as it does the treatment of its own minority citizens, immigrants and refugees.
Military power for the sake of symbolism and feeling good comes at a very high cost and long-term consequences to the detriment of the country engaged in reckless conduct in everything from higher public debt to declining civilian economy. This has always been the case throughout history, from the Athenian Empire under Pericles, to the Roman Empire after Marcus Aurelius, the British Empire subjugating Africans and Asians, the Japanese Empire focused on “Asia for Asians” militarist policy, ND the German Empire and Nazi Germany largely responsible for the two world wars.
US bombing of Syria: Beyond the regional balance of power
On 6 April 2017, the US hit Syrian Shayrat Airfield with 59 missiles from two ships in the Eastern Mediterranean. The reason given was that US officials “believed” – not knew as and had verified by the UN – that Damascus was responsible for the use of gas warfare against jihadist rebel targets a few days before where 100 civilians died. The UN Security Council had requested time to investigate the use of chemical weapons to determine what actually took place. Russia argued that Syria’s chemical weapons had been removed in 2014 and that its planes hit a gas chemical weapons site belonging to jihadists, thus releasing the toxic chemicals that killed innocent civilians.
If one followed the same logic as the US government’s justification for launching a missile attack on Syria, then where is the accountability for the US air strikes in Mosul (Iraq) that left twice as many civilians dead as the chemical strike in Syria in April 2017? In the age of the web and mass communications with photo and video evidence of atrocities, hypocrisy by any government or group is quickly exposed throughout the world no matter what the corporate or government media efforts to obfuscate the evidence and propagate.
Given their own foreign policy goals in the Middle East, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other authoritarian Arab governments, many of which have been providing direct and indirect support to ISIS, al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups in Syria and Yemen, they immediately expressed support for US bombing. NATO members immediately came to the defense of their principal member that had been expressing lukewarm commitment toward the historical Atlantic Alliance with overtones for rapprochement toward Russia and political support for anti-EU rightwing populist parties in Europe. What a better way to bring the US back to the fold than to applaud bombing operations toward Syria? What a better way to send a signal to Russia, Iran and China that have been supporting Assad than to strike at Syrian military targets?
Just days before the US struck Syria, both the US Secretary of State and President publicly stated non-interference policy, refusing to engage in regime change politics like the Obama administration. Because the continuation of American militarism as a way of life has been a catalyst to political unity and distraction from the serious issues that matter in peoples’ material lives – living standards, health care, affordable housing and college – Trump caved to immense institutional pressures for military action regardless of the longer term costs and regardless of the absence of any goals other than deterrence.
Did Assad or Russia have a motive to use chemical weapons precisely at a time that Washington announced it was content with the status quo? An investigation could prove that Russia and Syria were indeed responsible, but it has yet to take place. Did jihadist rebels have such a motive immediately after Trump announced that Assad’s regime was acceptable? Eventually, we will find out who really used chemical weapons, just as we found out that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction but the US and UK governments had absolutely no problem lying to the UN, to their citizens and to the world. By the time the facts emerge about who used chemical weapons in Syria, the US would be preoccupied with other military operations because militarism for the purpose of destabilization remains a way of life for US foreign policy, no matter the announcement by Trump to be more restrained and narrowly focused about highly costly military operations.
As already stated, there were enormous domestic and international pressures on the US to remain the status quo Cold War power committed to NATO, militarism, and anti-Russian as though we are still amid the Cuban Missile Crisis. Domestic and international pressures on Trump expected him to play the role of the world’s policeman with destabilization in the Middle East at the epicenter. There was and still is very little support domestically among both US political parties, and among EU and Middle East allies to deviate from the long-standing policy of militarism as a way of life because political, military and economic elites of all the respective countries benefit from militarism linked to political and economic interests. Saudi Arabia purchasing billions of dollars in defense contracts from the US and UK have tragic implication in Yemen’s civil war – Sunni-Shiite power struggle. This struggle that has resulted in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises is inexorably linked to massive profits in the UK and US selling weapons to Saudi Arabia.
This is not to minimize the regional balance of power that has to do with Iran emerging as the most powerful regional player after the US spent close to $4.6 trillion in the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Gulf States do not want a powerful Iran as much in Syria and Iraq as in Yemen. For the sake of multi-billion dollar defense contracts and securing the loyalty of authoritarian Arab regimes, the price paid is by millions of civilians including women and children that the US and UK bombs have killed, injured, and displaced in the first two decades of the 21st century.
As far as the US and its allies are concerned, these are not war crimes. Just as the case of innocent civilian victims in Mosul, Iraq, killed by US bombs are collateral damage rather than war crimes, similarly, any war casualties no matter where and how many are just that, whereas the same war casualties owing to enemy fire constitute war crimes. American Exceptionalism remains a justification for license to maintain militarism as a way of life.
Domestic political pressure
The Democratic Party’s strategy has been to use the Cold War anti-Russia card as a means of attacking Trump who invited WIKILEAKS and the Russians to hack the DNC emails and undermine the electoral process. Clearly, Trump’s family and various associates under FBI investigation have had financial interests in Russia and they have proved that they were at least willing to sell policy for the right price, no differently than Democrats have done with Wall Street and friendly nations. To mobilize public support among the popular base, which was sharply divided between the progressive wing of Senator Bernie Sanders and the neoliberal-militarist wing of the Obama-Clinton establishment, the Obama-Clinton Cold War-neoliberal wing of the party used the Russian issue to attack Trump from the right in an ironic role reversal with rightwing Republicans like John McCain siding with Cold War Democrats.
The day after Trump was sworn into office, there were mass demonstrations against him. Popular protests continued against the Muslim ban executive order randomly targeting Islamic nations that have no history of posing a threat to US national security. The Democratic Party was moving left and Bernie Sanders, an Independent, was the most powerful politician in the Democrats camp. To bring the party back to its Cold War-neoliberal agenda that faithfully serves Wall Street and the military industrial complex, the party establishment focused on the Russian menace, rather than on the corruption of the Trump family and associates who placed their personal financial interests above those of the broader national interest.
This is not to pass judgment on what Russia did with the election because there has been no evidence declassified to prove anything either way. However, by adopting a hard line toward Russia, Democrats presented themselves as more patriotic, more nationalistic, and more willing to have a full-blown new Cold War than Republicans. Even European leaders were so confused that they were asking both Moscow and Washington to clarify where exactly US-Russian relations stand. The anti-Russian Cold War strategy served Democrats well with the military, political, and corporate elites linked to the party, while it projected the image of a Democratic Party embracing patriotism and national interest that Republicans were at best ignoring and at worst betrayed. Amid FBI and congressional investigations of the Trump clique’s ties to Russia, Democrats pushed the White House to seriously consider military adventurism as a panacea, at least short term and as another Trump distraction from his troubles with Congress skeptical about his agenda. As far as Democrats and Republicans were concerned, militarism makes a politician a leader, a theme accepted by the corporate media, analysts and the business elites.
In an article entitled, “The Syria strike could revive Trump’s economic agenda” one journalist argued that: “The Pentagon’s April 6 (2017) attack on a Syrian airfield used to launch chemical weapons has been about as popular as a military strike can be. Many world leaders support the move, either overtly or through lack of criticism. In Washington, Democrats who have been bashing Trump on everything voiced approval of the Syria strike. That includes Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, leaders of the Democratic resistance on Capitol Hill.”
Establishment Republicans in the Senate and House of Representatives on the defensive for Trump’s Russia links finally felt elated when bombs started dropping on Syria. Defense contractors, ‘think tanks’, and the corporate media finally breathed a sigh of relief that Trump authorized military action signaling that he was willing to confront Putin by attacking his ally Assad. It was as thought military adventurism was the oxygen that Trump had taken away from the establishment and they were suffocating until bombs began dropping on Syria, symbolic as that action was. At last militarism as a way of life, although in very limited form, was back on track for the ideologues, for the Israeli lobby, for the corporate media, for all questioning Trump’s patriotism amid allegations of Russian meddling in the US election. In the absence of going after North Korea militarily as a realistic option, and given the symbolism of having China’s president at the time of ordering the bombing in Syria, Trump took the advice of the Pentagon, CIA and National Security Council as well as the Republicans who wanted him to prove that he was a mainstream Cold Warrior and not an isolationist.
A strike against the Assad regime was a strike against Russia but also the new beginning of an international armed conflict. That was exactly what US allies wanted from the Trump administration. After all, he had raised doubts about pursuing foreign policy along the bipartisan path that had been carved out since the Truman Doctrine in 1947 with NATO at the center of the militarist global network intended to facilitate Western imperial expansion. Although a number of foreign governments stated that the US government “believed” (not had facts) that the Damascus government used chemical weapons, it was hardly surprising that all US allies, except Austria, backed US military strikes against Syria and were unwilling to have the US wait for a multilateral approach with some semblance of UN consultation. Clearly, there was no cost to US allies and many benefits to see Trump move into the foreign/defense policy mainstream that he had vowed to ignore.
One could argue that the risk in such action was alienating Russia and Muslims worldwide, with possible terrorist strikes in Western cities such as the one that took place in Stockholm, Sweden, hours after the US dropped bombs on Syria. Echoing unilateral themes, Trump has stated that he did not wish to be the leader of the Free World, but of the US, thus disregarding the historic commitment to leading military blocs and defining national security on the basis of the Truman Doctrine.
The US ranks as the world’s most hated nation followed by its close ally Israel, which relishes in American militarism and destabilization policies. Dropping bombs on Syria would not make the US much more unpopular that it is already. Anti-Americanism began to decline when Obama was elected in 2008, after he had promised but never delivered on a policy that placed diplomacy ahead of military solutions; respect of national sovereignty and multilateral institutions ahead of unilateral intervention; respect for international law and human rights above drone warfare that has killed countless civilians; and observance of national sovereignty and self-determination instead of military intervention that feeds defense contractors more profits and makes ideologues feel better about their delusional sense of American superiority.
Predictably, Syrian allies Russia and Iran categorically condemned US bombing as a violation of Syria’s national sovereignty and an act of aggression and international norms, calling an emergency UN Security Council meeting where Russia and Syria castigated the US for its hypocrisy when it comes to talking about the war on terror but pursuing policies that promote terrorism. US-Russian relations have obviously reached a new low point, as Moscow accused Washington that “terrorists” struck immediately after US bombing, thus signaling a green light for the resurgence in the waning Syrian civil war. Because ISIS benefits from any kind of US or US-allied strikes against Assad, it becomes very difficult to convince public opinion around the world that the goal is to defeat terrorism.
The more important player in all of this was China. President Xi Jingping was having dinner with Trump when the US gave the order to commence bombing. The official reaction of China was to condemn the use of chemical weapons by anyone, but to call for diplomatic instead of military action as a solution to political problems. Unofficially, the Chinese have much larger trade and South China Sea geopolitical issues that concern them to the degree they would understandably not make Syria the core of their discussions. However, China’s UN voting record has been consistently against the US and on the side of Russia and Iran when it comes to the balance of power in the Middle East.
Amid the emotionally-charged atmosphere of the bombings, there were many US politicians, media analysts and others offering opinions about how the entire world would in effect roll over and play dead, or taught a lesson simply because the US dropped 59 missiles on Syrian military targets. There are also those who believe that US demonstrating military resolve somehow proves the US is still the superpower it was in the early Cold War, no matter how much more influential China has become in the world economy. Very quickly the Trump administration will discover what the Obama administration learned the hard way, namely that the policy toward Syria immersed in contradictions must be set aside because it leads nowhere.
Militarism as a way of life in the middle of the 20th century carried a much heavier influence in a world divided between Communist East and capitalist West, a world in which the US was not just the preeminent military power but economic and technological/industrial one as well. In the second decade of the 21st century, militarism as a way of life still sends a message about America’s resolve to use the military option first and resort to diplomacy when that option has failed. Nevertheless, it is more symbolic as it makes people feel good about gunboat diplomacy and somehow asserts their sense of identity with the past when the US militarism was the effective means of implementing “transformation policy”. Such policy neglects to face the reality of American world influence in decline at all levels to the degree that the US has to bomb Syria in order to validate its status in the eyes of its own deeply divided citizenry and the world highly skeptical of the US as a responsible power unable to use its influence in the world arena unless it uses bombs.
If the goal was regime change as the US and those supporting its military solution policy suggest, they are in for a reality check. Assad is stronger than he has been at any time since the US and its allies instigated the civil war. Moreover, only delusional analysts believe that Russia and Iran will simply walk away from Syria and allow the US to reduce it to the kind of chaos that they reduced Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The US refusal to accept defeat in its covert and overt operations in Syria prolongs the tragedy for the people of Syria, and keeps the entire Middle East in a chronic state of instability under authoritarian regimes.
Even if Assad is removed, the idea that a pro-US regime will govern Syria suggests that those dreaming of it do not know Syrian history and have no clue about Syrian society and culture. The best the US can do is to negotiate with Russia and Iran to strike a deal about the regional balance of power. However, US, western European, Saudi Arabian and Israeli interests have a lot to gain politically and financially by having Washington maintain a destabilization policy, thus militarism as a way of life is a deeply ingrained pattern in US foreign policy with deep roots as much in the military and political establishment as in the corporate structure.
* Jon V. Kofas, Ph.D., retired professor of history, is author of ten academic books and two dozens scholarly articles. Specializing in international political economy, Kofas has taught courses and written on US diplomatic history, and the roles of the World Bank and IMF in the world. This article previously appeared in Countercurrents.
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM
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