Washington's War-a-Thon Takes a Beating

By Greg Hom
September, 2013

Greg Hom analyzes the dizzying events that halted U.S. plans to bomb Syria, reports on the police state apparatus targeting Muslims in New York City, and ends with some thoughts on the possibilities for a breakthrough in U.S.-Iran diplomacy.

Washington's post-9/11 Middle East War-a-Thon hit some big roadblocks this month.

A global surge of antiwar opposition forced the Obama administration to back off plans to bomb Syria. Analysts like Juan Cole called this a turning point in global politics, where the U.S. was forced to respond to the international community as well as recognize that the public at home is sick of war.

In the wake of embarrassment for the United States on Syria, the new Iranian President's peace offensive has led to diplomatic contact between Iran and the U.S. at levels unseen since 1979.  The heat of war rhetoric from Washington (but not from Israel and its most zealous U.S. backers) has lowered.  

These welcome developments don't guarantee peaceful and just solutions to conflicts in the Middle East. But they offer hope of dramatically reducing the suffering of peoples in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

War is one horrible way to “play” with lives. Another is the way the current right-wing Congress keeps threatening to shut down the government if their slash-everything-but-the-military-budget program isn't accepted. The hostage-takers' agenda would hit people of color and the poor hardest, as well as wreak havoc on the already endangered environment. This is a wake-up call for all those who believe we need a budget and politics that prioritize not just avoidance of war, but the health and safety of the most vulnerable people in our society.


The prospect of the U.S. bombing Syria was the focus of news at the beginning of September. Based on inconclusive evidence that the Assad government had used chemical weapons in in the country's civil war on August 21, Obama was ready to act on the "red line" he'd casually drawn last year.

But then the world said no.

Importantly for the U.S., Britain said no. The British public was overwhelmingly against military action. Feeling the heat, parliament voted against involvement in any military action. Britain has been Washington's closest ally in recent U.S. wars, and this took much wind out of the war hawks' sails.

Then Obama said the U.S. people should have a voice, via a Congressional vote, on whether military force should be used. The President still stated that in the case of a "no" vote, he would still have the authority to order a military strike. This waffling over the line between democracy and being “the most powerful man in the entire world” contained at least some hope that U.S. involvement in another Middle East war could be averted before it began. (Involvement being a relative term here, as the U.S. has already provided communications equipment to Syrian rebels, and the CIA has provided light arms to the Free Syrian Army.)

Antiwar activists quickly mobilized massive campaigns for a 'no' vote. Polls showed the U.S. majority (including conservatives) were weary of resource-wasting wars. (Many on the right also opposed the idea out of racism, simply because Obama was for it.) Segments of the military (like former Defense Secretary Robert Gates) also argued that becoming more involved in the Syrian civil war would only lead to a quagmire.  News also grew that the Islamist factions of the Free Syrian Army are stronger than acknowledged by government reports, further complicating U.S. involvement. And while the U.S. refuses to acknowledge the fact, the growth of Islamist military groups is assuredly related to the last decade-plus of war in the region.

Under pressure, Secretary of State John Kerry, in an off-the-cuff statement, said that the Syrian government giving up chemical weapons would prevent U.S. military action. Russia immediately got Syria's leader to agree to sign the international treaty banning chemical weapons and to give up his stockpiles. Within a short time diplomacy took hold and a resolution on how to proceed was passed by the U.N. Security Council. The bloody war in Syria continues, but the U.S. and Russia may now try to go beyond the agreement on Assad's chemical weapons to get the warring sides to have a cease-fire and begin settlement negotiations in Geneva.

The outbreak of diplomacy showed that in today's world the U.S. can't always get its way. Failures in illegal and immoral wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have weakened the U.S.  Other powers like Russia and China are now pushing to have a bigger say in world affairs.


The breadth and depth of opposition to a Syria strike shown by the U.S. public is a good sign for the future. But the fast-moving struggle also revealed several troubling aspects of this country's political culture:

*The extreme war-hawks don't believe that Obama should have opened up bombing Syria to any discussion. This is a call for a presidential office that's not accountable to any other branch of government, not to mention residents of the country. While we can criticize government structures for being imperfect, the concept of checks and balances is a form of accountability we should not wish to go away.

*There were a significant number of Republicans, especially in the 'Tea Party' camp, who opposed military strikes mainly because they hate Obama. This New York Times report was typical: "Republican Tim Murphy said his office had received a few hundred calls and messages: 'generally, the calls are like this: ‘I can’t stand President Obama; don’t you dare go along with him.’" This kind of opposition to Obama's warmongering is a false kind of populism, intended to build political capital with groups who oppose Obama on racist grounds.

*A number of liberal figures in Congress and elsewhere welcomed the debate and said we should have it for its own sake (whatever the outcome and whether or not Obama decided to bomb anyway). These politicians are not ready to stand firm against imperial wars that break international law, much less committed to the anti-militarist principles of the peace movement. Our own movements need to be stronger so we have the clout with members of Congress to ensure that they demand accountability from any President and take on the military-industrial complex. 


Our culture should also be able to recognize the hypocrisy of this country going to war on the basis of opposition to the use of “chemical weapons.”  The U.S. has used depleted uranium and white phosphorous – a chemical weapon - in Iraq. Washington supplied intelligence information to Saddam Hussein while his government was using chemical weapons against Iran in the 1980s Iraq-Iran war. And Israel, the U.S.'s closest ally in the region, has not ratified the chemical weapons treaty and is known to possess nuclear weapons. U.S. acceptance that Israel is the only Middle East nation that can have weapons of mass destruction is tied to the racism and Islamophobia of U.S. policy.

Meanwhile, another issue of great importance goes under-recognized: the welfare of millions of Syrian people in peril. Two million refugees have fled to other countries. Internally, four million people are displaced from their homes. This means that almost one-third of the Syrian population have become refugees, a massive human catastrophe. Long after the civil war in Syria is over, these people will be rebuilding their lives. Large-scale assistance and international collaboration in supporting these people is sorely needed. 


For now, the U.S. isn't upping military involvement in Syria. But there remain links in the bloody chain that goes back to Washington's response to 9/11 and passes through the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. That chain is built on racism toward Muslims and Arabs (and those assumed to be in those groups, i.e., Sikhs). And the recent release of the book Enemies Within by AP writers Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman has shown just how deeply that racism manifested in the Demographics Unit of the New York Police Department.

In that local intelligence unit, started by ex-CIA operatives, the NYPD considered any Muslim in New York City and parts of New Jersey a potential terrorist. Even the most benign activities, from praying to playing soccer, were regarded as possibly subversive because they embody collective activity. While the recent revelations from Edward Snowden show how all-pervasive and atrocious NSA spying has been, the specific focus of the NYPD on Muslim and Arab communities is all the more disgusting for its obvious racism.

Democracy Now! reported that arguments in a lawsuit against the NYPD began in the first weeks of September. The lawsuit is being handled by the National ACLU, New York's ACLU (NYCLU), and CLEAR (Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility) - a project out of the CUNY law school. Profiles of the plaintiffs in the suit can be found here.

The Demographics Unit has been denounced in mainstream outlets at this point, but racism against Arabs/Muslims holds sway in our country. The NYPD continues to claim that the program was necessary. While U.S. culture is decidedly open to explicit anti-Muslim and anti-Arab ideas, the space for having a serious conversations about the harm the U.S. has inflicted on peoples in the Muslim and Arab worlds (or for that matter the entire global south) is tragically limited.  

The reality is that the U.S. public's opposition to more Middle East wars remains vulnerable to racist and jingoist appeals. The public is war-weary, but anti-militarism and anti-racism are not yet at the heart of the country's value system. Doing everything we can to change that – to bring about what Dr. Martin Luther King called a "revolution of values" – is necessary for turning war-weariness into powerful and durable blockade against war.


In the meanwhile, it is important that new fissures have appeared in the U.S. elite's approach to matters of war and peace, specifically in regard to relations with Iran. Obama and important layers of the "realist" foreign policy establishment seem determined to explore negotiations with the new Iranian leadership. Even a few Neocons are shifting a bit. For example, Ken Pollack, who was a big advocate of the Iraq war – has urged serious negotiations with Iran and even argued that, should Iran obtain a nuclear weapon (which the Iranians deny they want)  "containment" is a better option for the U.S. than a military strike.

This "containment" view is ultimately not a much more humanitarian approach - it relies heavily on sanctions that are horrible for everyday people in Iranian society. But since the fissure in elite approaches is public, it opens up space for other views to be aired and gain traction.

Israel's role in trying to prevent any U.S.-Iran agreement – and instead drag the U.S. toward war – is also increasingly exposed. Netanyahu and his AIPAC supporters are up front that they want to snip the tightrope of diplomacy that Washington and Tehran are starting to walk. Israel's expansionist policies to render any kind of future Palestinian state null are threatened by more peaceful Iranian relationships with the West.  While Israel maintains conflicts with its neighbors, it can continue to justify (cover) its displacement of Palestinians due to the alleged need for “security.” Even establishment pundits in Foreign Policy Journal are now writing openly of Netanyahu's sabotage-peace role:

"The current standoff is an extremely useful way of distracting attention from the Palestinian issue, and a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran would likely shine more of a spotlight on Israel's own nuclear weapons capacity…. While Obama has put aside changing the nature of the Islamic Republic's political system, Israel's leader is all about a commitment to regime change -- or failing that, regime isolation -- in Tehran. And he will pursue that goal even at the expense of a workable deal on the nuclear file."

But there is a huge opening to isolate Israeli intransigence on this point. The Middle East – and the majority of U.S. people – are much worse off after more than ten years of U.S. war-making and nation-crushing. As result, a lessening of tensions and the danger of military rampage may be more in tune with U.S. public sentiment than Netanyahu's war-mongering.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Greg has written book reviews for Left Turn Magazine, and volunteered with Prison Radio.

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