The American peace movement has been celebrating what it sees as its victory on Syria. “The U.S. is not bombing Syria, as we certainly would have been if not for a huge mobilization of anti-war pressure on the president and especially on Congress,” writes Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). This represents “an extraordinary, unforeseen victory for the global anti-war movement,” she goes on, one that “we should be savoring.” Robert Naiman of the organization Just Foreign Policy vaunts “How We Stopped the U.S. Bombing of Syria”.
This turn of events is “something extraordinary – even historic,” writes my good friend Stephen Kinzer, coming from a different but overlapping perspective. “Never in modern history have Americans been so doubtful about the wisdom of bombing, invading or occupying another country,” writes the author of the classic Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. “This is an exciting moment,” he rhapsodizes, “the start of a new, more realistic approach to foreign policy.”
The tireless progressive journalist David Sirota, whom I admire a lot, extols “How the Antiwar Majority Stopped Obama.” The opposition of “angry Americans” to the administration’s push for a military strike, he contends, proved “absolutely critical” and is “why there now seems to be a possibility of avoiding yet another war in the Middle East.”
I completely understand this jubilance. And yet it leaves me feeling uneasy.
Let me be clear: I too was against the Obama administration’s proposed military strike on Syria. I thought it strange that after two and a half years of doing essentially nothing about the deepening crisis in Syria, the White House suddenly decided to act with such a sense of urgency that it was unwilling to wait for the United Nations inspection team to complete its job. As if the world should just trust American claims about weapons of mass destruction. That went really well last time.
I also thought chemical weapons were exactly the wrong issue. To paraphrase Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center, why draw a “red line” at the use of chemical weapons but not at 100,000 dead? Or at two and a half years of crimes against humanity? The vast majority of the civilians killed since the Syrian uprising began in March of 2011 have died by means of conventional, not chemical weapons.
I agreed wholeheartedly with the International Crisis Group that the Obama administration’s case for action was based on “reasons largely divorced from the interests of the Syrian people,” who “have suffered from far deadlier mass atrocities during the course of the conflict without this prompting much collective action in their defence.”
Hinging its case on chemical weapons turned out to be a huge strategic mistake as well. Russia cleverly short-circuited the Obama administration, taking advantage of the thinness of its case. So Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles will be removed from the equation – then what? The Assad killing machine, which was overwhelmingly nonchemical to begin with, can continue unfettered on its rampage. Chemical weapons issue – solved. The killing fields of Syria – no end in sight.