Obama is asking a jury of safe spectators to press the yes or no button for military strikes. Will they vote for an end to empire?
Barack Obama still criticises the US-led attack on Iraq as a war of choice, not one of necessity – which he claims the attack on Afghanistan was. Now he has turned his own plan to attack Syria into a similar war of choice, but the choosers are going to be very different from when George W Bush took his disastrous decision a decade ago. No longer will it emerge from the bloodless bunker of the White House situation room with its steely computer lists of military hardware and images of projected targets. It will come from a raucous Congress and the number-crunchers of the opinion polls that will be taken from the American public over the next few days.
Some may see it as a huge video game, reality TV on a mass scale. Having ruled out boots on the ground and thereby guaranteed there will be no bodybags of US troops or pilots, Obama is asking a jury of safe spectators to press the yes or no buttons on missile strikes. More than that, he proudly declares he is challenging world leaders to get off the fence and approve his plans. He will make the case to the G20 countries at this week's summit in St Petersburg.
He is even calling on Arab leaders to stand up and be counted. They are in an especially difficult position because the Arab street remembers decades of western military intervention in their region and is deeply hostile to any more. Though the Arab League suspended Syria in November 2011, and many Arab monarchs are arming and financing Bashar al-Assad's opponents in the civil war, none has yet dared to come out publicly for an American attack. Obama says he has had private words of support, but he wants them to declare their allegiance in public.
It is a case of breathtaking arrogance, a call for recognition that the US is not only the world's policeman but the world's enforcer. Obama said he was asking "every member of the global community" to consider what message impotence and inaction in the face of the use of chemical weapons would send to dictators everywhere. With a half-sentence that brushed the United Nations weapons inspectors aside and dismissed the security council for being "completely paralysed", Obama was saying in effect: "We are the empire. Accept us."
The difference between the rival motions that David Cameron and Ed Miliband put to the House of Commons and the one that Obama's people have drafted for Congress is instructive. In Britain the tone was more good Samaritan than good cop, highlighting protection over punishment. Both motions in parliament talked of alleviating the suffering of Syrian civilians and emphasised the principle of humanitarian intervention. Although Cameron and Miliband used dubious legal grounds to try to justify bypassing a veto in the UN security council by saying western military strikes were needed to protect Syrians, Obama's draft resolution only talks of "protecting the United States and its allies and partners", as though there is suddenly a new threat to the wider world.
The president's promise that military strikes on Syria would be limited and narrow is of course welcome. There will be no Baghdad-style shock and awe. For that we can be grateful. But war is still war, and the dangers of unintended consequences, mission creep and cracking on for the sake of cracking on lurk behind every sandhill.
Obama's draft resolution has a short paragraph on the need for a political settlement in Syria and even calls on the Geneva talks process to be resumed urgently. Is it cynical or just naive? Syrian rebels' intransigence and their unwillingness to attend without preconditions are the main reason for the failure of Geneva so far. US military strikes will only embolden them to delay further. The hope of a ceasefire – by far the most reliable and principled mechanism to protect Syrian lives – will recede again.
The best hope lies with the American public. It is not just the futility of eight years of fighting in Iraq, frustration in Afghanistan, the loss of thousands of soldiers' lives and the maiming of tens of thousands more that are causing so much doubt over a US attack on Syria now. Nor is it only the financial cost of war in an era of austerity. There is a growing sense that the problem goes beyond imperial overstretch. The very concept of empire is under scrutiny. Twenty years ago, Americans were proud to be the world's hyper-power. They felt they had won a great victory in the cold war. Now they see the pit into which that end-of-history triumphalism has led them. The US military-industrial complex and the power elite in Washington are feeling unusually uncomfortable. Even as pilotless drones and missiles have the potential to usher in an age of US casualty-free interventions, Obama is trying to summon Americans to take up a punitive role yet again. The next few days of national debate will be crucial, and in a week's time we will see which button they press.
Source: The Guardian