Leafing through The Economist can be a disorienting journey for the garden variety leftist. As you enter the sanctified space of the week’s leaders, you are confronted with a pastiche of fulminant one-pagers by anonymous staffers exasperated with either the Western world’s reluctance to bomb somebody, or the Eastern world’s reluctance to immediately relinquish all forms of economic protectionism. This week’s spotlight was devoted to the former. But first, a word from our sponsor. Across the two-page spread from the leader is an image of Liam Neeson, the tenured international actor who has lately reinvented himself rather convincingly as a brutal killer in a string of Hollywood action flicks. This in his early sixties. The header beneath his tasteful pose—turtlenecked against the reddish slats of what appears to be a New England barn—proclaims, “He’s a fan.” A fan of the Mandarin Oriental, a luxury hotel chain which profits by a steady traffic of neoliberal jetsetters, who settle into their lavish suites from Guangzhou to Prague.
It is in environments like these, and at luxuriant G20 dinners, that the doyens of geopolitics debate whether to remove this regime or that as they refashion the character of continents in the interest of institutional wealth. Once you have been soothed by Neeson’s muscular health and cajoled into believing you, too, might be part of that globetrotting set of enlightened modernists, you turn to the lead. It’s crude header, “Hit him hard” is a tad unsettling. But this is what we’ve come to, two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union removed all constraints to the hubris of American empire and its parasitic breed of economists, profiteering philanthropists, and arms lobbyists—steady subscribers of The Economist.
Punishment Before Proof
As the leader opens, we are instantly transported from the realm of healthy skepticism into the land of impatient humanitarianism. The author, protected from scrutiny by the clever editorial policy of removing bylines (like the absence of last names on certain team jerseys in an effort to erase individualism from the collective sporting mind). The subhead offers this petulant opening: “Present the proof, deliver an ultimatum and punish Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons.”
Rather quickly we are beset by contradictions, namely the rush to judgment about a claim that has not been proven. The existence of evidence is assumed and the journalistic lens trained on the punishment, which the article them proceeds to debate.
In order to annex the moral authority required to insist on bombing the innocent, it is claimed that the “grim spectacle of suffering in Syria…will haunt the world for a long time.” Nice writing, to be sure. Yet I doubt this is true. It will haunt the families of the dead, and the Assad loyalists who yearn to return to glory days of Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father. The rest of the world will move on to the next flashpoint in the march of militarized hegemony across the planet. As Paul Craig Roberts notes, we are about to launch our seventh war in 12 years, an unprecedented scale of activity for American imperialism. Syria will soon be forgotten, at least for a few years until, as with Afghanistan, the natives are blamed for not getting their act together and taking over the capitalist Elysium the West has fashioned for them (as conflicts rage among the seething militias). After all, our troops are needed elsewhere—other Mesopotamian capitals are now on fire.
The article bashes President Obama for being slow-footed. He is blamed for not bombing Assad more than a year ago, “when this newspaper argued for military intervention” (one of my all-time favorite journalistic clichés, endlessly trotted out with righteous indignation). Surprisingly, the word “apparent” is added before “use of chemical weapons.” But this admission of the lack of confirming evidence is swiftly set aside.
A Menu of Mayhem
Three options are presented: do nothing, stage a full-scale intervention, or strike Assad “grievously,” all as “punishment for his use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD),” a claim earlier conceded to be unproven. The potential for mass casualties is conceded, but this is rationalized beneath the subhead “No option is perfect.” Sacrifices must be made, the author thinks as he sips his aperitif at London’s Mandarin Oriental hotel bar. There’s nothing quite so heady as a posture of moral rectitude.
The possibility of retaliation is then broached. It is noted that Assad has friends, including Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, and others. A regional conflagration may ensue. But then no option is perfect. Among Assad’s friends, no mention is made of the majority of the population that supports him. Rule One of power politics: the fate of the mob must not be left to the mob. Hezbollah is mentioned with a shuddering nod to the “dark arts of international terror” and which “threatens Israel with 50,000 rockets and missiles.” No mention is made of Israel threatening Lebanon with 200 nuclear warheads, or its perpetual warmongering behavior around the immediate region, including not infrequent invasions of Lebanon. The author then shiveringly wonders what would happen if chemical weapons wound up in the hands of militants close to al-Qaeda. No note is made of the fact that much of the circumstantial evidence on hand points to the likelihood that “militants close to al-Qaeda” already have chemical weapons, and have used them twice on the Syrian people. One understands why this troubling possibility is omitted, as it would quickly lead to a disorienting conclusion: that if the United States wanted to be consistent, it should first bomb the rebels who used the WMDs, and then attack itself for associating with al-Qaeda. Clearly, this won’t do.
Red lines. North Korea. Credibility. The author stirs up the usual fen of counterfactual drivel. The conclusion is then made that option three, a limited but “grievous” war crime, would be best. Hesitatingly, the author worries that he didn’t select the more destructive option two—the thoroughly satisfying notion of a full-scale war of aggression which used “the pretext of the chemical strike to pursue…regime change.” Sometimes the imperial press momentarily forgets to uphold its faith in empire’s ethical justifications for war. Sometimes it simply admits that the moral arguments are merely a pretext, as all but the most ardent and purblind imperialists already know.
The “limited” crime of aggression is advocated to ensure that “Mr Assad is deterred from ever using WMD again.” Again, the premise of guilt is assumed, the conclusion assured in advance. Excellent advice is then offered by the militarily savvy Economist: don’t bomb the chemical weapons stores themselves, as that might lead to more chemically induced deaths. No mention is made of the likely deaths that will result from the American use of depleted uranium, and perhaps white phosphorous or napalm. Still, this is welcome advice. The authors—I’m now of the opinion that it required several Economist staffers to cobble together this gem—call for a week of bunker busting, demolishing “command-and-control centres, including his palaces.” I must disagree with this latter recommendation. If palaces are leveled, where will our latter-day Paul Bremer be housed, to lift his jackbooted feet onto the imperial desk as he peers through his Cimmerian shades across the Barada River, a “golden stream” now polluted with uranium wastes?
International Law Dismissed
The article has little to say about engaging international diplomacy to scale back the threat of violence in the region. America has refused to engage Iran, Hezbollah, or the Arab League in an effort to bring Assad to the table. Surely, this should be the first option on the table? Not if your goal is to refashion the Middle East after your own image.
Nor do the authors appear cognizant of the fact that there is no legal basis for a flagrant war of aggression by the United States. One must be under imminent threat or have suffered an attack, as is spelled out in the United Nations charter, to which the U.S. is a party, which makes it the law of the land in America. But these marginal matters merit no mention in The Economist. Perhaps because they are unknown.
Finally, just to launch one last falsehood into the media sphere, the “newspaper” insists that “Syria’s refusal to let the UN’s team of inspectors visit the poison-gas sites for five days after the attack was tantamount to the admission of guilt.” This is sheer falsehood. Syria agreed to allow access to the site of the chemical “attack” one day after the U.N. request was made. Naturally, two other lies are smuggled into the debate under cover of this one, namely the question of whether there was an “attack” at all. There is no such proof, only proof that chemical weapons had contaminated the suburb of Ghouta. Residents claim weapons may have been mishandled by rebels. Secondly, the area where the attack occurred was under government control, suggesting the regime attacked itself. Another counterintuitive feature of the White House storyline, which seems to assign blame to an actor that has no motive, but rather antithetical motives.
Thankfully, the authors begin to come to their senses in the final paragraph, suggesting Obama provide one last opportunity for Syria to hand over its chemical stores. As it happens, it was “increasingly hostile” Russia that proposed this sensible solution. Obama, seeing an opportunity to climb down from his warmongering perch, seemed to initially agree. Should this apparent breakthrough succeed, it will be a decided triumph for the power of internationalism and global skepticism in the wake of the Iraq War. But it will be no thanks to hawkish magazines like The Economist. But then, it is just as George Orwell said, “It is the same in all wars; the soldiers do the fighting, the journalists do the shouting, and no true patriot ever gets near a front line trench.”