Thursday, September 05, 2013

On Mission Creep and Strength


Yesterday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations voted 10-7 to approve a resolution authorizing military action against Syria.  The language was a bit narrower than what the president would have liked, but the resolution (which you can read for yourself here) gives the president wide latitude and also includes amended language insisted upon by Senator McCain that significantly changes the policy from what the public was initially promised.  The president spoke only of sending a message, a "shot across the bow," that would not determine the end of the civil war, target Assad, or aim at regime change.

The resolution coming out of that committee, the resolution the Senate will vote on, says: "It is the policy of the United States to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria so as to create favourable conditions for a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict and leads to a democratic government in Syria."

In other words, regime change. 

Sure enough, mission creep: a policy that, once in motion, expands beyond the original scope proposed in defense of that policy. In foreign policy, it is all too common.

Just so we're clear:  not only are we unable to calculate the consequences of military action in Syria, we are getting contradictory messages about the scope of the mission itself.

Because it might not be mission creep after all.  Maybe this has really been the point.  In the spirit of "compromise" we get the real policy, in the guise of a representative process.

If this was sincerely about upholding international law, it would be more appropriate for this to be a diplomatic struggle, isolating Russia and China, highlighting the abuse of the Security Council veto, and calling for a multilateral and accountable process.  Wouldn't that be interesting?  

Every poll indicates that the public does not favor unilateral military action in Syria, and things are not looking good in the House of Representatives.  Some of this, no doubt, is craven: there are many in the majority Republican Party who are opposed to anything Barack Obama supports, no matter what.  There also seems to be an inter-party argument between neoconservatives who never see a problem they can't solve with cruise missiles, and those with a more isolationist pose.  (As I suspect it is mostly a pose.)

Is it significant that the policy being debated and voted on is significantly different than what the president proposed to the public?  Is there any point in tearing apart the Secretary of State's ridiculous claim that bombing a country that has not attacked us would not be "war in a classic sense?"  Was Senator Rand Paul basically right when he suggested this debate in Congress was simply theatre?   A lot of us on this side of the power gulf feel like it is theatre, and that the political establishment is just doing what it wants with respect to trade agreements, military action, monetary policy, labor laws, and the general expansion of neoliberal capitalism.

Now we get into popular ideas about weakness and strength.

When asked directly if the president would proceed to launch Tomahawks even if Congress rebukes his policy, and public opinion remains lopsidedly opposed, the Secretary of State does not answer directly, nor does any White House spokesman. Some members are openly calling for the president to act regardless of how Congress votes lest he seem "weak" -- and there are even claims that opening this up to a deliberative process was already a sign of weakness. 

The gulf between our political establishment and the public interest is not news to anyone.  What is the new is the extent to which that establishment openly disparages a deliberative process that involves listening.  Working in cooperation with other countries is weak.  Respecting international law instead of using force at will, is weak.  We are prompted to celebrate certainty and despise contemplation.  We have candidate debates that are not really debates.  We have a president in Russia right now who refuses to meet with the Russian president, the very man preventing a truly international response the president claims to want -- because talking is held to be weak.

Maybe it falls on cultural workers, in whatever part of the media spectrum we can influence, to uphold different ideas about strength.  

This morning, Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico -- one of my U.S. senators, as a matter of fact, and a member of that foreign relations committee -- was interviewed on National Public Radio.  Senator Udall voted "no" on the resolution. Asked about non-military options, he stammered a bit, but he also presented a rare contradiction of the rhetoric we're hearing about "America's credibility" and this idea about strength and leadership:

I think we gain credibility when we work with our international allies, when we build international support, when we focus in on Russia and China and shame them and say these two countries are supporting the use of chemical weapons, and we all need to unite and come up with a solution that brings this despicable war criminal to justice and moves us towards a more peaceful region.

History during my lifetime leaves me skeptical that the political establishment is interested in the public interest or "justice" in any accountable sense, but here on our side of the power gulf maybe we can resist -- with letters, tweets, our art, our conversation, and even our industry if and when they start sending our young people off to another unnecessary war -- and consciously uphold a culture that esteems knowledge, debate, and cooperation.

Because in a culture that considers those things "weak" and encourages leaving the difficult choices up for strong and willful leaders, fewer and fewer people can hold the idea that a different kind of power structure is even possible.

And THAT, dear friends, is a sentiment the political establishment hates.



[Image:  "You.....complete me."]

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