Never Mind Whether Obama’s Red Line Has Been Crossed—Is It Even Legitimate?
By Stephen Gowans
US officials say they’re convinced that the Syrian government gassed its own people. This might mean something, if US officials weren’t notoriously bad at getting the facts straight. In 1998, the Pentagon flattened a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant with a cruise missile, because US officials said they were convinced it was a site for manufacturing chemical weapons (CW). In turns out the plant made pills. In 1999, Serbia and parts of Montenegro were bombed by US and NATO warplanes for 78 days because US officials said they were convinced the Milosevic government was carrying out a genocide in Kosovo. They were wrong. Over a million Iraqis were sanctioned, bombed and invaded into early graves by the United States and its British subaltern because the officials of both countries said they were convinced the Iraqi government was hiding weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Wrong again. The weapons Iraq was said to be hiding, but had destroyed, had only a tiny fraction of the mass destructive power of the weapons in the arsenals of the US and UK militaries, which didn’t call their weapons WMD, but “deterrents” and “guarantors of our national security.” The Libyan government was ultimately toppled by NATO warplanes because US, French and British officials said they were convinced Libyan leader Muamar Gaddafi was about to commit genocide. Gaddafi had neither the means nor intention to do so. Yet another spectacular error.
In making the point that Washington has waged unprovoked wars on the basis of faulty intelligence at best, but far more likely contrived intelligence and sheer deception, we mustn’t implicitly accept the idea that the United States has the right and obligation to outrage the sovereignty of any country it wishes because the country’s government has crossed a red line the United States has unilaterally established. In doing so, we become locked in a framework of the US ruling class’s making, accepting its claim to have a moral right to assume the role of global rule-maker, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner—in other words, the planet’s autocrat.
Accepting this framework could limit the questions we ask, making us miss important ones. When is an intervention legitimate, and when is it not? Is intervention to punish a country for using a class of weapons in a civil war legitimate? If not, why even talk about whether the trigger for intervention has been pulled if the trigger is invalid? Why talk about whether Obama’s red line has been crossed, rather than whether Obama’s red line is even legitimate? Why are the United States’ massively destructive weapons not called WMD while Syria’s not so massively destructive weapons are? If the Americans, British, French, Russians, Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis, and Israelis have a right (de jure or de facto) to have nuclear weapons as a deterrent, why not the North Koreans?
Diana Johnstone eloquently pointed out in Counterpunch yesterday that, “There are many ways of killing people in a civil war. Selecting one as a trigger for US intervention serves primarily to give rebels an excellent reason to carry out a ‘false flag’ operation that will bring NATO into the war they are losing.”  True. But we could also note, There are many ways of killing people in a civil war. Why single out CW? It can’t be because they’re uniquely destructive or gruesome. All the deaths due to reported use of chemical agents in Syria are dwarfed by the number of deaths due to other weapons. And dying by gas is no more gruesome than evisceration by an al-Qaeda rebel or having your head blown off by a Saudi-supplied RPG.
Part of the answer, I think, for why CW have been singled out is because Washington can’t single out the Syrian government for using violence to put down a rebellion. That’s because the United States’ satellites, the ruling generals in Egypt, and the Arab royal dictators, are using violence in Egypt and Bahrain to put down rebellions there. To punish the Syrian government for using violence to defend itself against a rebellion is a tough sell, given that Washington’s friends are doing the same in their own countries. UK leader David Cameron says that the plan to use US WMD (cruise missiles) against Syria “is about chemical weapons. Their use is wrong and the world shouldn’t stand idly by.” So, what has the Syrian government done (or said to have done), that the military dictatorship in Egypt and royal dictatorship in Bahrain haven’t done? The answer is: been accused of deploying CW. Hence, CW have been singled out as one of many ways of killing people in a civil war, that will provoke an intervention. The motivation is purely political, and the singling out of CW has been customized to the Syrians to provide a pretext to attack them.
If we’re to use the term WMD descriptively, then WMD cannot be limited to nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, or be something that only countries that insist on safeguarding their political and economic independence have. It must include all weapons that can create mass destruction, no matter who has them. Incendiary bombs are WMD. The destruction of Dresden, Tokyo, Hamburg and other cities by US and British firebombing raids, attests to that. A Tomahawk cruise missile is a WMD. Nuclear weapons have become less attractive to the US military, as it develops conventional bombs that have near-nuclear destructive power, without the radioactive mess. Are these not WMD?
We should ask, Why is it not wrong for the United States and the United Kingdom to use sanctions of mass destruction to kill over a million Iraqis, and conventional bombs and missiles of mass destruction, along with depleted uranium, to invade Iraq, when it is wrong to use CW to kill a few hundred people (which, for reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere, there is no proof, open to examination, that the Syrian government used, and cogent reasons to believe it didn’t)? We should also ask, Is there not something morally grotesque about the United States and the United Kingdom planning to use their own WMD to punish Syria for the deaths of a few hundred people through CW, when the Anglo-American alliance used sanctions of mass destruction and weapons of mass destruction against Iraq, on contrived grounds, producing vastly more deaths and engendering a humanitarian catastrophe on an immense scale? Isn’t this even more grotesque considering that the evidence points more strongly to the alleged gassing incident being the work of the opposition, allied to the United States, than the Syrian government?
Meanwhile, one of Washington’s servile friends, the royal dictator, King Abdullah of Jordan, has called for a peaceful settlement of Syria’s civil war. Abdullah’s hypocrisy is stunning. He has turned Jordanian territory over to the CIA and Saudis as a center for training Syrian rebels and distributing weapons to the Syrian opposition. Hardly a contribution to a peaceful settlement. 
Turkey, which once maintained a vast prison house of nations that included the Arabs, says it will join other former colonial powers, France and Britain, in the campaign to punish Syria. The Syrian government, it should be stressed, remains part of a movement of Arab national emancipation and colonial liberation. Unlike the US Communist Party and other leftists who make conspicuous displays of turning up their noses at the Syrian government, I’m happy to recognize the role it plays in the movement for Arab emancipation, and regard it as progressive. I measure no movement for emancipation against utopian standards, and acknowledge that the Syrian government, as every other organization in the movement for liberation, whether of race, class or gender, also falls short by utopian standards. The question is not whether the Syrian government is inerrant and beyond reproach, but whether it is advancing the cause of emancipation. The servile Arab League, from which the legitimate government of Syria has been ejected, and which has settled comfortably into the role of US puppet, is not so concerned about emancipation, and the same leftists who publicly revile the Syrian government are not so concerned about showing their distaste for the reactionary Arab regimes, all friends of the West.
Finally, the Wall Street Journal reported today that according to a June poll it sponsored with NBC News, US public opinion is opposed to a military intervention to respond to “the Syrian government’s killing of protesters and civilians.” Only 15 percent of respondents backed a US military intervention. The newspaper didn’t say whether respondents were asked if they favored US military intervention in response to the Egyptian military’s killing of protesters and civilians in Egypt, or Bahrain’s royal dictatorship killing of protesters and civilians in Bahrain, although we can be pretty certain they weren’t. Within the ruling class framework of acceptable thought, punishing allies for doing what enemies are punished for, is unthinkable. It could be said that the poll results are irrelevant, because the survey question didn’t ask about CW. That’s true, but even if the CW question had been posed, the poll results would still be irrelevant. US state officials don’t make decisions on the basis of public opinion, and aren’t particularly swayed by it. The taking and presenting of public opinion polls simply create the illusion that public opinion matters in the formulation of US foreign policy. It doesn’t. What matters are the interests of major investors, bankers and the top executives of America’s largest corporations, and the opinions of the members of the power elite that represent them. And what matters to them is securing more markets, labor and natural resources for US capital to exploit and plunder by toppling governments that insist on using these for their own country’s development and people’s welfare, rather than for the enrichment of Wall Street investment bankers and the expansion of corporate America’s profit margins. The red line Syria crossed had nothing to do with CW, and everything to do with its insisting on preserving its political and economic independence.
1. Diana Johnstone, “US uses past crimes to legalize future ones”, http://www.counterpunch.com, August 26, 2013.
2. Michael R. Gordon and Thom Shanker, “U.S. to keep warplanes in Jordan, pressing Syria”, The New York times, June 15, 2013; Adam Entous, Julian E. Barnes and Siobhan Gorman, “U.S. begins shipping arms for Syrian rebels”, The Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2013; Adam Entous, Nour Malas and Margaret Coker, “A veteran Saudi power player works to build support to topple Assad”, The Wall Street Journal, August 25, 2013.