Pushing for War with Syria

Exclusive: The dam holding back pressure for U.S. war in Syria is giving way with President Obama – like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike – seeming unable to stop the inevitable. Cheering on the impending flood are many of the same big-name pundits from the Iraq War, Robert Parry notes.

By Robert Parry

Israel’s bombing raids into Syria appear to have shattered whatever restraint remained in Official Washington toward the United States entering the civil war on the side of rebel forces that include radical jihadist elements. On Monday, the Washington Post’s neocon editors weighed in for U.S. intervention as did former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller.

Both the Post’s editors and Keller also were key advocates for invading Iraq in 2003 – and their continued influence reflects the danger of not imposing any accountability on prominent journalists who were wrong on Iraq. Those tough-guy pundits now want much the same interventionism toward Syria and Iran, which always were on the neocon hit list as follow-ons to Iraq.

Former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller.

The Post’s lead editorial  on Monday urged U.S. intervention in Syria as part of a response to a growing regional crisis that one could argue was touched off – or made far worse – by President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.

However, rather than trace the crisis back to Bush’s invasion of Iraq – which the Post eagerly supported – the editors lament the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq and President Barack Obama’s hesitancy to intervene in Syria. Noting the renewed sectarian violence in Iraq, the Post’s editors write “it also makes intervention aimed at ending the war in Syria that much more urgent.”

Meanwhile, across the top half of Monday’s Op-Ed page in the New York Times, Keller urged any pundit chastened by the disastrous Iraq War to shake off those doubts and get behind U.S. military intervention in Syria. His article, entitled “Syria Is Not Iraq,” is presented in the same “reluctantly hawkish” tone as his influential endorsement of aggressive war against Iraq in 2003.

Keller’s special twist now is that he is citing his misjudgment on Iraq as part of his qualifications for urging President Obama to cast aside doubts about the use of military force in Syria’s chaotic civil war and to jump into the campaign for regime change by helping the rebels overthrow Bashar al-Assad.

“Frankly I’ve shared his [Obama’s] hesitation about Syria, in part because, during an earlier column-writing interlude at the outset of the Iraq invasion, I found myself a reluctant hawk. That turned out to be a humbling error of judgment, and it left me gun-shy,” Keller wrote. “But in Syria, I fear prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged tragedy.”

For the rest of the lengthy article, Keller baited Obama by presenting him as something of a terrified deer frozen in mindless inaction because of the Iraq experience. Keller quoted hawkish former State Department official Vali Nasr as declaring that “We’re paralyzed like a deer in the headlights, and everybody keeps relitigating the Iraq war.”

Keller then added: “Whatever we decide, getting Syria right starts with getting over Iraq.”

No Lessons Learned

But Keller doesn’t seem to have learned anything significant from the Iraq catastrophe. Much as he and other pundits did on Iraq, they are putting themselves into the minds of Syria’s leaders and assuming that every dastardly deed is carefully calibrated when the reality is that Assad, like Saddam Hussein, has often behaved in a reactive manner to perceived threats.

Assad and many other Alawites (a branch of Shiite Islam) – along with many Christian Armenians who remain loyal to Assad – are terrified of what might follow a military victory by the Sunni majority, whose fighting forces are now dominated by Islamic extremists, many with close ties to al-Qaeda.

As the New York Times reported in its news page last month, the black flags of Islamist rule are spreading across “liberated” sectors of Syria.

“Across Syria, rebel-held areas are dotted with Islamic courts staffed by lawyers and clerics, and by fighting brigades led by extremists,” wrote Times correspondent Ben Hubbard. “Even the Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization whose formation the West had hoped would sideline radical groups, is stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government.

“Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.”

So, it might not be surprising that the Alawite (or Shiite) minority – not to mention Armenians whose ancestors fled south a century ago to escape a Turkish genocide – might be acting, to some degree, out of fear and panic. But to Keller and likeminded pundits, the “enemy” is always cruel, cunning and calculating while the American side is committed to peace and slow to take up the military option.

Keller wrote, “our reluctance to arm the rebels or defend the civilians being slaughtered in their homes has convinced the Assad regime (and the world) that we are not serious. … Assad has been sly about escalating his savagery by degrees — artillery, then aerial bombardment, then Scud missiles and now, apparently, chemical weapons — while staying just below whatever threshold of horror might shame us into responding.”

But does Keller really know this? Or is he speculating much as U.S. pundits did in their erroneous efforts to divine why Saddam Hussein insisted on hiding his WMD stockpiles and daring President Bush to launch an invasion? (Oh, that’s right, Hussein didn’t have any WMD stockpiles and indeed had truthfully admitted as much.)

No White Hats

The reality is that both sides in the Syrian conflict share the blame for atrocities. The murky moral situation was underscored again this weekend when a United Nations investigation found evidence that rebel forces used the nerve agent sarin on civilian targets but the UN team has not discovered evidence of chemical agents deployed by the government.

Also, though you wouldn’t know it from reading Keller and most other U.S. journalists, Assad has offered electoral and negotiated routes to resolve the conflict. The Russians, who support Assad, also have pushed for peace talks. Yet, given the long history of the dictatorial Assad dynasty, the opposition understandably has doubts about any offer of negotiations and some see no real option except a fight to the death.

However, as happened in Iraq, the U.S. press corps has opted largely for a black-and-white rendition of the Syrian civil war, with virtually all American pundits siding with the rebels and blaming the Assad regime for the tens of thousands of deaths. Much like during the stampede to war with Iraq, objectivity has largely disappeared from the mainstream American news media.

Today’s double standards regarding international law are another striking reminder of the Iraq War. In 2003, the U.S. news media rarely, if ever, mentioned how Bush’s invasion of Iraq was illegal, much as there is now almost no criticism of Israel for mounting a series of aerial attacks against Syrian targets.

One could only imagine the U.S. press reaction if Syria had been the one conducting bombing raids against Israel. Then, suddenly, international law would be picked up from the dustbin of history, dusted off and put on a pedestal. American pundits would immediately become experts on the universality of international law and how it forbids cross-border bombing raids. Indeed, such attacks might be deemed “terrorism.”

The Same Guiding Hands

In another unnerving similarity with the Iraq War, Keller and the Washington Post editors are back serving as the guiding hands to lead the American people to war. While the Post mostly beats the war drums loudly, Keller presents a quieter and more reasonable demeanor only grudgingly concluding that war is necessary.

That, of course, was exactly Keller’s role prior to the invasion of Iraq when he wrote an influential article entitled “I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club,” which counted himself among supposedly peace-loving American thinkers and writers who had clambered onto George W. Bush’s bandwagon to war.

On the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Keller reflected on his mistaken support of the Iraq War in a handwringing article. In it, he admitted that Iraq “had in the literal sense, almost nothing to do with 9/11” and recognized that the war had resulted in untold death and misery of its own.

The article, “My Unfinished 9/11 Business,” was filled with rationalizations about his post-9/11 feelings and those of other pro-Iraq-War pundits. Yet what was perhaps most striking about Keller’s article was that it lacked even a single reference to international law, or to the fact that Bush undertook the invasion in defiance of a majority on the UN Security Council and in violation of longstanding U.S.-enunciated principles against aggressive war.

At the Nuremberg Tribunals after World War II, the chief U.S. prosecutor, Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, called a war of aggression “not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

Jackson also vowed that the tribunals, in condemning Nazi officials and their propagandists for engaging in aggressive war and other crimes, were not simply acting out victor’s justice but that the same rules would apply to the nations sitting in judgment.

That, however, has turned out not to be the case. Though Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair undertook the invasion of Iraq without UN approval and under false pretenses, there has been no serious attempt to hold the invaders and their subordinates accountable.

Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other former U.S. officials have even admitted to ordering acts of torture (such as water-boarding prisoners), again in violation of international law, with little or no expectation that they will be punished. Nor presumably do Keller and other pro-invasion pundits foresee any adverse consequences from their own propagandistic support for the war.

If the Nuremberg principles were to be fully applied to the United States and Great Britain, the propagandists would share the dock with the political and military leaders. But Keller and his fellow “club” members apparently believe their worst punishment should be writing self-obsessed articles about how distraught they were over the war’s unintended consequences.

Excuses for War

For Keller’s part, his article on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 offered excuses for his Iraq War support ranging from his desire to protect his daughter who was born “almost exactly nine months after the attacks” on 9/11 to his accompaniment in his pro-war propaganda by “a large and estimable” group of fellow liberal hawks.

His list included “among others, Thomas Friedman of The Times; Fareed Zakaria, of Newsweek; George Packer and Jeffrey Goldberg of The New Yorker; Richard Cohen of The Washington Post; the blogger Andrew Sullivan; Paul Berman of Dissent; Christopher Hitchens of just about everywhere; and Kenneth Pollack, the former C.I.A. analyst whose book, The Threatening Storm, became the liberal manual on the Iraqi threat.”

These “club” members expressed various caveats and concerns about their hawkishness, but their broad support for invading Iraq provided a powerful argument for the Bush administration which, as Keller noted, “was clearly pleased to cite the liberal hawks as evidence that invading Iraq was not just the impetuous act of cowboy neocons.”

Indeed, this “liberal-hawk” consensus further marginalized the few skeptics who tried to warn the American people that the WMD evidence was thin to non-existent and that occupying a hostile Arab nation was a fool’s errand that would start a new cycle of violence.

As the Iraq invasion was unleashed in March 2003 with all its “shock and awe” and the killing of young Iraqi soldiers and many civilians, Keller recalled his satisfaction in having taken the side of American military might.

When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was driven from power three weeks later, Keller said he and nearly all other “club” members were “a little drugged by testosterone. And maybe a little too pleased with ourselves for standing up to evil and defying the caricature of liberals as, to borrow a phrase from those days, brie-eating surrender monkeys.”

Keller did allow that he and his “club” under-estimated the difficulties of installing “democracy” in Iraq and over-estimated the competence of Bush’s team. In retrospect, given the costs in blood and treasure among Americans and Iraqis, he acknowledged that “Operation Iraqi Freedom was a monumental blunder.”

But Keller behaved as if his engagement in self-aggrandizing self-criticism was punishment enough, not only for him and his fellow “liberal hawks” but apparently for Bush, Cheney, Blair and others who waged this war of aggression.

The fact that Keller didn’t even mention international law suggested that he remains a member in good standing of the “We’re-So-Special-We-Can-Do-Anything Club.” You might note that most of the “estimable” members of Keller’s hawk club remain highly regarded opinion leaders and some – like Friedman and Zakaria – retain big-dollar perches in the major news media. Keller got promoted to Times executive editor, arguably the top job in American journalism, after the case for war in Iraq was debunked.

Given that many worthy journalists have seen their careers ruined simply because they were accused of failing to meet some perfect standard of journalism – for instance, the late Gary Webb and his heroic reporting on Nicaraguan Contra drug trafficking – it was all the more striking that almost none of Keller’s club members have suffered professionally at all.

Now, Keller is back, afforded the entire top half of the New York Times’ Op-Ed page to tell Americans that they should forget about Iraq when getting in line for another war in neighboring Syria.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).

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16 comments on “Pushing for War with Syria

  1. dahoit on said:

    Never,in the history of the planet,has so much power been entrusted to morons of the caliber of our neolibcon Ziomonsters.And unfortunately,it seems that the electorate has the same cognitive failure to see who the good guys and who the bad guys really are.

    • gregorylkruse on said:

      Never, in the history of the planet, has there been so much power to entrust to morons such as John McCane and Limpsey Graham.

  2. REDPILLED on said:

    If and when the Plundering Class wants war on Syria, or Iran, or both, the imperialists, militarists and Zionists in Congress, the White House, and corporate media will all work together to do it, ignoring what we, the people, actually want.

    International Laws such as the Kellog-Briand Pact, the U.N. Charter, the Geneva Conventions, and the Nuremberg Principles mean nothing to bullies such as the U.S., NATO, the U.K., and Israel. Neither do people’s lives and the planet’s climate.

    • Revo on said:

      Uttering countless times “American people, American people” is nothing but insult to American people. They don’t give a rat what American people think; they do whatever they want. Specially when, with some exception, American people hardly even watch their local news, let alone getting involved to see what crime this property of millionaires and billionaires, the state terrorist, trouble-making government IN the US commits in our name around the globe.

      In his book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Neil Postman said “Americans are the most entertained and least informed people in the world.” As a result, they know little or nothing about what they most need to know.

  3. Don Bacon on said:

    UN Security Council resolutions from April last year called “upon all parties in Syria, including the opposition, immediately to cease all armed violence in all its forms” in order to seek a diplomatic remedy.

    But the US and its petro-despot allies are not complying with the UN resolutions. Instead they are arming the rebels, the most powerful being the al-Qaeda faction, and continuing to call for the Syria president to leave office — which is NOT a UN requirement (nor should it be).

    So, faced with this US intransigence, the second UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has announced that he has failed and so he will quit at the end of the month. What choice did Brahimi have, given US lawlessness, its refusal to abide by UN resolutions?
    –Apr 21, 2013, US to boost military support, continues to call for Assad to leave office
    –May 2, 2013, Lakhdar Brahimi tells U.N. diplomats he plans to resign as Syria envoy
    –May 4, 2013, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel confirmed yesterday that the US was reexamining its consistent opposition to arming the Syrian rebels

    Now to call for US military intervention to correct an already illegal, unworkable policy is stupid illegal (against the UN Charter) warmongering. But that’s nothing new for the NY Times.

  4. Don Bacon on said:

    Footnote: Of course the Hagel bit about the US consistent opposition to arming the Syrian rebels is baloney. Even the NY Times has reported that the US is arming al-Qaeda. Arming the opposition was what US Ambassador Chris Stevens was engaged in when he was killed in Benghazi on September 11-12, 2012.

  5. Carl Franklin Firley on said:

    As the clouds of war grow larger every moment, a sense of despair has begun to settle among war weary observers such as most of us are. My hopes for peace arose with the appointments of Hagel and Kerry, two Vietnam veterans who have experienced the “thrill” of hot lead penetrating their skin. Such vets, I thought, would do all within their power to avoid warfare by substituting common sense, powerful diplomatic effort, and straight talk with all parties presently engulfed in this seemingly bottomless quagmire. So far this has not happened. Yet, there is still time for them to overcome the impossible situation that our overwhelmed President can no longer hope to manage. Let’s see if they can help. No one else seems likely to do so.

  6. ellie remore on said:

    I truly thought that after the debacle in Iraq, the US might have acquired the good sense to advise the country’s bloviating armchair warriors to simply sit down and shut up. Apparently, however, the power brokers who run what is purportedly a representative government must prove their collective insanity by repeatedly doing the same stupid thing and expecting a different result. (Consider a decade each of Vietnam and Iraq.) Perhaps, after such extravaganzas of failure, this country should relinquish the conviction that God has retired and left the job to the current POTUS (for whom death-by-drone seems to be just fine.) Perhaps, just for once, the US should actually give some passing consideration to minding its own damn business.

  7. Mike on said:

    The most powerful idea is if Syria had attacked Israel, the western media reaction would have been so different. Why does it matter which country does the attacking, why do we feel special and so ‘right’?

  8. elmerfudzie on said:

    The push for war with Syria or some other country seems to come down to this, the annual tax receipts are all in now and there isn’t enough in the kitty to roll over our unfathomable debt crisis,so the Goldman Sachs lackey Geithner, whispers in Obama’s ear to, go and tell the Israelis to start something. I seem to vaguely recall a quote from one of our past presidents? What we need is a war, any war.

  9. Rehmat on said:

    Israel has been working on a pro-USrael regime change in Damascus for years. Former Israeli military leaders admitted it in New York conference last month.

    Speaking at the Jerusalem Post conference in New york on Sunday, Gen. Meir Dagan, former head of Israeli Mossad, said that removal of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad from power “will be highly beneficial for Israel from a strategic point of view; weaking Hizbullah, Iran and Hamas in the process“, reported Israeli daily Ha’aretz on April 29, 2013.

    http://rehmat1.com/2013/04/30/dagan-syrias-assad-removal-is-good-for-israel/

  10. borat on said:

    the usual anti Israel crowd w/their nonsense. Israel has every right to defend themselves against iranian aggression when it comes to supplying arms to hizbollah through Syria, taking advantage of the chaos there. Why shouldn’t a sovereign nation defend itself against her enemies who are sworn to destroy her? Typical pro Arab doubletalk, especially when there are so many factions vying for control in Syria.

    • ellie remore on said:

      Most sovereign nations decline to respond to agression(s) that is merely an omnipresent chimera.

  11. BillB on said:

    “My hopes for peace arose with the appointments of Hagel and Kerry, two Vietnam veterans who have experienced the “thrill” of hot lead penetrating their skin.”

    Kerry sold out a long time ago, and any hope of an honorable position from Hagel ended with his joining the Obama cabinet and was sealed with his groveling during his confirmation hearing.

    Another point: If you can find a sucker to take you on, bet that none of these war proponents will be, nor will they have a close relative or friend at risk of being killed or maimed in any of these wars they promote.

  12. Linda McKim-Bell on said:

    How can Bill Keller hope to go out in public after this article! He and his summer home neighbor Judith Miller have a lot to answer for. Our family will never subscribe to the blood soaked NY Times again! I spent ten years of my life working against the wars, and this amoral monster wants us to start another one! My brother in law died in Vietnam for liars like Bill Keller! We the People have had ENOUGH!

  13. Paul G. on said:

    “Whatever we decide, getting Syria right starts with getting over Iraq.” Gee, that is very similar to what Bush the elder said after Iraq I. Something about finally getting over the “Vietnam Syndrome”. Shocking that allegedly intelligent people-”the very serious people”- can come out and say that one should not learn from history. Is the urge to go to war so imbedded in the psche of America’s ruling class and its pundacracy that it is impossible to resist the latest war d’jour?
    Of course, the Project for a New American Century, the guiding document behind the neo-conservative movement call for “perpetual war”. Though they later rephrased it somewhat more innocuously.