What would it look like if a government really knew what it was doing?
Lacking a comprehensive, coherent account of rational beings acting in rational ways to work towards peaceful and reliable solutions to difficult questions, we offer here a fragmentary highlight reel of one day in the life of an American government spinning in all directions toward no known goal in Syria.
But first a note about the context of the current public debate about Syria: we’re getting conned by the White House on intelligence assessments. Again. As reported by Gareth Porter for IPS on September 9:
Contrary to the general impression in Congress and the news media, the Syria chemical warfare intelligence summary released by the Barack Obama administration August 30 did not represent an intelligence community assessment….
The evidence indicates that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper culled intelligence analyses from various agencies and by the White House itself, but that the White House itself had the final say in the contents of the document.
In other words, the political document one might expect from the Director of National Intelligence was replaced by an even more politicized document created in the White House to justify acts of war. This suggests that the phrase “American credibility” is an oxymoron and the political vaudeville that played out publicly early this week is a pretty accurate reflection of an administration doing handstands and backflips to distract the audience from the glaring contradictions of its Syria policy.
Kerry: when I say something it’s likely I mean something else
Monday madness began early for Americans on September 9, when Secretary of State John Kerry gave a news conference in London while most of his fellow citizens were still asleep, literally. At that news conference, Kerry set off a tizzy by saying this about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad:
Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week – turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting, but he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done.
Reporters promptly spun this as the U.S. giving Syria a one-week deadline. Reports mostly ignored the possibility that Kerry’s assertion (“it can’t be done”) could mean that it’s logistically impossible, or that the U.S. will attack anyway, or anything else.
Also Monday morning, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called a news conference in Moscow to announce that Russia was urging Syria to put its chemical weapons under international control in order to head off an act of war by the United States.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, in Moscow for talks, said that:
The Syrian Arab Republic welcomes the Russian initiative, motivated by the Syrian leadership’s concern for the lives of our citizens and the security of our country, and motivated by our confidence in the wisdom of the Russian leadership, which is attempting to prevent American aggression.
The Russian and Syrian foreign ministers also call for UN inspections now.
Late Monday morning at 11:47 a.m., Agence France-Presse (AFP) tweeted: BREAKING Syrian foreign minister welcomes Russia’s Syria chemical handover initiative” (Reuters had tweeted similarly six minutes earlier).
The other side is welcoming our offer, that’s good news, right? Wrong.
Before there could be any official acceptance of the proposal by Syria, the State Department was contradicting the Secretary’s proposed solution. An official Foggy Bottom email-of-clarification argued that Kerry was denying his “proposal” was actually a serious proposal at all:
Secretary Kerry was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used.
His point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons, otherwise he would have done so long ago.
At more or less the same time in Geneva, the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, was telling the UN human rights council:
The use of chemical weapons has long been identified as one of the gravest crimes that can be committed, yet their use in Syria seems now to be in little doubt, even if all the circumstances and responsibilities remain to be clarified… This appalling situation cries out for international action, yet a military response or the continued supply of arms risk igniting a regional conflagration, possibly resulting in many more deaths and even more widespread misery. [emphasis added]
Syria has a research nuclear reactor in Damascus and the government has asked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to assess the likely consequences if the Americans bomb the reactor. The Russians are pressing the IAEA to make the assessment. According to Reuters, an anonymous U.S. official saying that “requests for comprehensive risk analyses of hypothetical scenarios are beyond the IAEA’s statutory authority”.
Arizona Senator John McCain takes offense at Kerry’s news conference promise that any strike on Syria would be “unbelievably small.” McCain tweets: “Kerry says #Syria strike would be “unbelievably small” – that is unbelievably unhelpful”
White House National Security Advisor tries to head off possible settlement
Early Monday afternoon in Washington, the president’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice gave a scheduled speech at the New America Foundation, founded in 1999 as a non-profit, public policy institute whose stated mission is to “invest in new thinkers and new ideas to address the next generation of challenges facing the United States.”
Without matching previous National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s fear-mongering on Iraq (“we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”), Susan Rice came close, taking a hard line in favor of attacking Syria and saying that:
• Syrians attacking Syrians with chemical weapons is a “serious threat to our national security” and that such attacks could “threaten our soldiers in the region and even potentially our citizens at home.”
• “We cannot allow terrorists bent on destruction, or a nuclear North Korea, or an aspiring nuclear Iran, to believe for one minute that we are shying away from our determination to back up our longstanding warnings. … Failing to respond to this brazen attack could indicate the United States is not prepared to use the full range of tools necessary to keep our nation secure.”
• “Leaders in Tehran must know the United States means what we say. If we do not respond when Iran’s close ally, Syria, uses weapons of mass destruction, what message does that send to Iran?”
• “Opening a door to their use anywhere threatens the United States and our personnel everywhere.”
Rice apparently did not talk about the United States helping Iraq to gas Iranian soldiers and civilians during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. She did scoff at any further attempts at a diplomatic solution.
State Dept. says we made no proposal, but we’ll see if they accept it
At an afternoon news conference at the State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf responded skeptically to questions about putting Syrian chemical weapons under international control, calling it a hypothetical idea that she can’t comment on. She reiterated the government’s position that Kerry was not making a proposal, that his morning comments were only “rhetorical and hypothetical.”
Harf also said:
We’re going to look at what’s on the table… We don’t want this to be another stalling exercise, and we have serious skepticism about the Assad regime [willingness] to get rid of their chemical weapons…. All we’ve heard today are statements from Russians and Syrians who’ve lied for the last two years.
Despite suspicion about the international control proposal, Harf did say: “We’ll take a hard look at it… but what we’re focused on … is working with Congress to get this [attack on Syria] authorized.”
At a White House briefing, deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinked said, without referring to the Iran-Iraq War: “If we don’t act, the international norm against the use of chemical weapons will be weakened.” But he also said: “we want to look hard at what the Russians have proposed.”
At a mid-afternoon forum on illegal wildlife trafficking, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she had just talked to President Obama about the Russian proposal on Syrian arms. She said the international community should make a “strong response” to events in Syria: “This is about protecting the Syrian people… and our friends in the regions… If the regime immediately surrendered its stockpiles to international control… that would be an important step. But this cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction.”
Toward the end of the day, Dan Roberts, bureau chief of the Guardian, tweets: “febrile mood down in White House press room as Obama tapes six interviews for tonight while US position shifting by the minute toward a deal”
In one of those interviews, the president said he would “absolutely” not attack Syria if the chemical weapons were secured. He told ABC News:
My objective here has always been to deal with a very specific problem. If we can do that without a military strike, that is overwhelmingly my preference.
By the end of the day the signs indicated that there was no growing support in Congress for an attack on Syria, and that public opinion remained overwhelmingly opposed to risking another war. But a determined government faction still wants to bomb somebody.
The weekend had highlights, too, including a CBS News interview with Assad
All this activity on Monday followed the weekend news that Senator McCain, the would-be Republican president from Arizona, had suggested that Obama should be impeached – if he went too far and put “boots on the ground” in Syria. (The U.S. already has boots on the ground in, at a minimum, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and Israel.)
Someone might ask McCain whether his proposed impeachment-for-a-boots-job should take effect in the event of any deployment of American troops as part of an international force to guard Syrian chemical weapons.
Also over the weekend, in a CBS News interview broadcast on Monday, Bashar al-Assad warned of retaliation for any U.S. attack, but did not make any specific threats, saying only:
It is difficult for anyone to tell you what is going to happen. It’s an area where everything is on the brink of explosion. You have to expect everything.
On Sunday, the Syrian state news agency reported that al-Queda-affiliated rebels had captured Maaloula, a Christian village 25 miles northeast of Damascus where the 3,000 residents mostly still speak ancient Aramaic. Some 1,500 Syrian rebels forced the Syrian Army to withdraw to the outskirts of the town.
Meanwhile in Yemen over the weekend, American drone strikes killed eleven people, all of whom may not have been innocent civilians.
And in Syria on Monday, another 49 people were killed, 25 of them in Damascus.