The news is filled with threats of a renewed American war in Syria. This morning President Trump warned Russia and Syria that missiles would be coming “nice and new and smart.” Two days ago the warmongering John Bolton took over as national security adviser. Three days ago Israel bombed a military base in Syria, and Iran has since warned Israel that it will pay for the killing of seven Iranians.
What’s remarkable about these threats is the instant support they are gaining inside the Beltway from neoconservatives and liberal interventionists, the two great hosts of the Iraq war runup 16 to 20 years ago. From Clintonites to Cottonites, the old duopoly of hawkish foreign policy is strong– even as moderating voices express fears about the potential for wider conflict and even world war. Here is a brief tour.
Neocons are thrilled about the prospects for a war with Iran in Syria. The New York Times publishes an op-ed from Michael Doran of the neoconservative Hudson Institute, urging a US-Israeli war with Iran in Syria. Notice the belief in war as a form of diplomacy:
Imagine if Washington and Jerusalem were to develop a joint military plan designed to contain and degrade Iranian forces in Syria.
Even a limited American military commitment to a coordinated United States-Israeli strategy would immediately change the balance of power on the ground. It would most likely engender more diplomatic cooperation from Mr. Putin while sending a powerful message to Tehran about the necessity of respecting American demands regarding its nuclear program.
The Weekly Standard editorial is crazed: “The U.S. must bring hellish consequences on the dictator of Damascus.” That means “enormous U.S. and allied firepower” to “bring heavy consequences on the Assad regime.” Sounds a lot like regime change, with Israel as our loyal partner again.
The Obama administration was willing to cede Syria to Iran and Russia in order to preserve the Iran nuclear deal, then in its final stages…
[Today] U.S. credibility is at stake. Lobbing a few cruise missiles at an airfield may satisfy some high-ranking members of the foreign policy elite, but it won’t punish the Assad regime or deter it from future chemical attacks. The American response must involve enormous U.S. and allied firepower and bring heavy consequences on the Assad regime and its leader. The Israelis began the work with a Sunday night attack on the Tiyas Iranian airbase, but we hope the U.S. won’t let the Israelis do the hard work of retribution.
Israel is also enthused that it finally might be getting the war it has pushed for. Asaf Ronel from Haaretz tweets news:
Very dramatic threat from a “senior Israeli official” quoted today by Alex Fishman in
@YediotAhronot: “there won’t be a trace left of the Assad regime and Assad himself if a wide conflict develops between Israel & Iran in Syria”
EU diplomat tells me his assessment is that Israel is seeking to provoke a response from Iran in order to spark a larger conflict… “Israel on high alert, prepares for possible Iranian retaliation after strike on Syrian base”
As in the Iraq war buildup, neocons have liberal interventionists on their side. Centrist Democrats are mainstream is out in force in favor of intervention. “Nobody wants a big war,” says Ambassador Ryan Crocker, an Obama appointee, on NPR today. But the last retaliatory strike of a year ago was just a “signal” and this time there has to be “long-time destruction,” he says. Crocker was echoed by UK General Sir Richard Barrons on BBC today, saying that the strikes by the U.S. a year ago were “small tokens.”
We need “significant military resources” in Syria, says the Clintonite Center for a New American Security. Ilan Goldenberg of CNAS rips Trump’s notion of last week to get out of Syria, by citing the wisdom of the “mainstream.”
“It’s insane, there’s no one who supports [abrupt withdrawal] in the mainstream, absolutely zero support across the foreign policy spectrum.”
Lauren Fish, another CNAS expert– who formerly worked for neoconservative hero Tom Cotton– advocates for readying forces for “multi-domain conflict” and saber-rattles us about Chinese and Russian “revisionist ideas,” whatever that means.
As China and Russia begin to aggressively project their military might and revisionist ideas, the Pentagon must develop operational concepts aimed at outpacing technologically sophisticated nation-states.
These thinkers actually seem to visualize world war. Though Ryan Crocker warned on NPR today that the array of world powers gathered in Syria is reminiscent of the onset of World War I.
More from the hawkish center. The Times op-ed page published a piece by Janine di Giovanni: “Is Trump Sowing the Seeds for ISIS 2.0?” She called for U.S troops to stay in Syria, and echoed the Israeli mantra, oft-stated at AIPAC, that if the U.S. doesn’t fill the power vacuum, the Iranians will gain a “land-bridge” from Iran all the way to Lebanon.
In parts of Damascus, I was told, Iranian military officials are buying up real estate using Syrian businessmen as their front, turning it into an Iranian mini-fief within Syria. Their dream of an Iranian “land bridge” that allows them access to the Mediterranean is not quite there, but their influence will surely grow, as it has in neighboring Iraq.
As for the Russians, the withdrawal of American troops is a huge victory. Without them, the war will come to a faster, more brutal end, a win for Mr. Assad and his patrons
di Giovanni is vague about how much war is needed, but the piece hints at bombing. Kassam Eid, a Syrian friend, tells di Giovanni: “But after seven years of atrocities, do you know what my friends and people around the Middle East are saying? That America is the enemy again. Because they see the Russians bombing us and the United States doing nothing. Now they pull out — when they could have been our friend or ally.”
Of course the Russians are saying that an attack on Russian assets will be met with retaliation. Haaretz:
Vladimir Shamanov, a retired general who heads the defense affairs committee in the lower house of parliament, said in televised remarks Tuesday that a U.S. strike in Syria could hurt Russian servicemen and trigger Russian retaliation.
He said that Russia has “the necessary means for that and the Americans and their allies know that quite well.”
Another part of the runup to war with Iran is the mainstream whitewash and celebration of Iranian foe Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, now touring France after his successful tour of US media. “America is fawning over Saudi Arabia’s repressive dictator. A man presiding over a brutal war is being received like a celebrity,” observes Zack Beauchamp at Vox.
In his interview with the prince, Jeffrey Goldberg did not demur when bin Salman made the extraordinary claim that Iran is worse than Hitler because its supreme leader wants to conquer the entire world.
About his bête noir, the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Prince Mohammed said, “I believe the Iranian supreme leader makes Hitler look good. Hitler didn’t do what the supreme leader is trying to do. Hitler tried to conquer Europe. … The supreme leader is trying to conquer the world.”
“We are pushing back on these Iranian moves. We’ve done this in Africa, Asia, in Malaysia, in Sudan, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon. We believe that after we push back, the problems will move inside Iran. We don’t know if the regime will collapse or not—it’s not the target, but if it collapses, great, it’s their problem.”
Goldberg brought up the US-Saudi destruction of Yemen, but allowed the prince’s self-serving falsehoods a free pass:
We had a coup d’état in 2015 against a legitimate government in Yemen. And from the other side al-Qaeda tried to use this move for its own sake and to promote its own ideas. We fought to get rid of extremists in Syria and Iraq and then they started to create a haven in Yemen. It would be much harder to get rid of extremists in Yemen than Iraq or Syria. Our campaign is focused on helping the legitimate government and bringing stability. Saudi Arabia is trying to help the people of Yemen. ..
What I want to say here, to make it simple, is that sometimes in the Middle East you don’t have good decisions and bad decisions. Sometimes you have bad decisions and worse decisions. Sometimes we have to choose the bad option.
“The cause of war is preparation for war,” (writes a friend) “and, by this legitimating interview, Goldberg again is proving serviceable to the policy faction that is preparing a disastrous Middle East war.”
Goldberg did this for the Iraq war, you’ll remember, with bogus intelligence gleaned who knows where. It strains belief that to be taken seriously in Washington you have to have been for the Iraq war, which was the biggest blunder in US foreign policy in more than a generation. But that’s how establishments work, they’re a protection racket. “Welcome to the Dick Cheney administration,” Stephen Walt writes at Foreign Policy:
True, Bolton was a vocal supporter of the Iraq War, but that hardly makes him a weirdo. As I’m sure he’d be the first to point out, a lot of other people drank that particular Kool-Aid, including Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, James Steinberg, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Susan Rice, Robert Gates, and a long, long list of other “respectable” figures. And don’t forget that the other geniuses who dreamed up and sold that disaster — people such as William Kristol, James Woolsey, Robert Kagan, Bret Stephens, Max Boot, Eliot Cohen, David Frum, Paul Wolfowitz, etc. — are still respected figures in the foreign-policy establishment despite having never admitted they were wrong or expressed any public regret for launching a disastrous war in which hundreds of thousands of people died.
As it was in Iraq, it’s the outs — the left, conservatives, and realists– who are strenuously opposed to US militarism. Though joined by some in the middle. Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia is trying to restrain the rush toward war. What about U.S. interests, Chuck Todd pressed him on Meet the Press.
We don’t want a president any president, being able to start a war… I don’t think the US policy toward any country should be, we get to change out your leaders…. That’s for Syrians to decide.
Kaine says Obama’s Libyan intervention was illegal. “I said then I agreed with the Republicans in the House that rebuked President Obama and said that he had exceeded his authority.”
The environmentalist Jeffrey Sachs is again a leading voice against war. He writes at the Sanders Institute– and Boston Globe— on the illegal and dangerous nature of U.S. intervention in Middle East wars.
This naive approach to foreign policy — overthrow the governments we don’t like and replace them with ones we do like — is the crux of the US foreign policy problem. As a result of this approach, the United States has been enmeshed in nonstop wars of regime change in the Middle East and North Africa, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Trump once talked about quitting Afghanistan, but the United States remains there too since the security state wants it that way.
The US wars of regime change violate international law, cost trillions of dollars, undermine US democracy as the wars are conducted with secrecy and non-stop lies, and almost always fail in their aims. Either they overthrow the government only to be followed by violence and instability (as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) or they fail to overthrow the government, and instead provoke an ongoing bloody war (as in Syria).
Here is Sachs’s analysis of the causes of the Syrian war, in geopolitical struggle.
It’s time for the US public to understand the Syrian war. The mainstream media have antiseptically described it as a civil war. It has been nothing of the sort. Since its start in 2011, it has been a war pushed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and others, to topple Assad and force Iran and Russia out of Syria.
Since a direct US-led war on Syria would have been a violation of international law, Obama unleashed the CIA to operate covertly with Saudi Arabia and other countries. The CIA and Saudi Arabia teamed up in an operation code-named Timber Sycamore to back anti-Assad Syrian forces and jihadists from outside Syria. There was, of course, no vote by Congress, no honest leveling with the American people, and no UN vote.
The US-Saudi efforts were effectively countered by Syria, Iran, and Russia. In 2014, some of the jihadists broke away to form ISIS and declare a caliphate, after which the United States began to fight ISIS too. The United States backed Kurdish fighters to combat ISIS, eventually driving an irate anti-Kurdish Turkey into an implicit alliance with Russia.
After six years of war, destruction, and failure in Syria, it’s time for the Syrian bloodletting to end, most importantly by ending US support for anti-Assad forces. Yet the security state remains fixated on the presence of Iran and Russia in Syria.
Daniel Larison is also prudent at the American Conservative, commenting on Donald Trump’s open-ended promise to make Syria and Russia pay for the images of the evident chemical attack:
The U.S. is once again about to commit acts of war against another state on the whim of one man, and he probably isn’t even going to explain the reason for that illegal action before he takes it.
There is a real chance that U.S. strikes on the Syrian government could provoke retaliation from Russia, Iran, and Syria. Depending on how extensive the attack is, there is a decent chance that it will kill Iranian and Russian military personnel. That could potentially put the U.S. in a state of war with as many as three other states, one of which is a nuclear-armed major power.
Why would Putin, with the prestige of hosting the World Cup in June on the line, perpetrate an atrocity that might have killed hundreds and caused nations not only to pull out of the games, but to break diplomatic relations with Russia?
U.S. foreign policy elites claim Putin wanted Trump to win the 2016 election. But if Putin indeed wanted to deal with Trump, why abort all such prospects with a poison gas murder of a has-been KGB agent in Britain, America’s foremost ally?
Tucker Carlson of Fox News has also emerged as an antiwar voice, “Foreign Policy by Viral Video.”
Tucker Carlson blasted those who feel the latest gas attack targeting Syrian civilians is a call to declare war on Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
Carlson said “talk-show generals” and war hawk politicians like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have “no real idea what happened.”
To be continued.
Thanks to Donald Johnson, James North and Adam Horowitz.
Correction: this post originally said that Israel had bombed a base in Iran. It was Syria.