On September 10, 2013, President Barack Obama postponed the nonbinding congressional vote on whether to authorize the use of military force against Syria. Obama acceded to the diplomatic efforts, outlined by Russia, to secure and destroy the chemical weapons arsenal of the Assad regime.
Against the backdrop of Obama’s failure to mobilize the international community as well as international and US domestic public opinion behind a military assault on Syria, the Russian proposal, immediately accepted by Assad, provides the Obama administration with a way to avert strategic disaster.
However, Obama made it explicit that the US military will “maintain their current posture – to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails.” The threat of force in international relations is a flagrant violation of the UN Charter.
The officially presented reason for the US threat of military action against Syria is the alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians by the Assad regime. Thus far, credible evidence supporting this claim has not been presented. Also, US condemnation and outrage over the use of chemical weapons by Assad seems rather peculiar, given Washington’s history of systematic practice of large-scale chemical warfare against civilians.
During the Vietnam War, the US dropped nearly 80 million liters of toxic chemicals on Vietnam. Roughly 50 percent of these chemicals consisted of Agent Orange, which contains “perhaps the most toxic molecule ever synthesized by man,” in the words of Arthur Galston, Professor Emeritus at Yale University.
It is estimated that US chemical warfare, authorized by John F. Kennedy in 1961, killed or maimed 400,000 Vietnamese and caused birth defects to 150,000 to 500,000 children. Between 2 million and 5 million Vietnamese were exposed directly to Agent Orange. In 1977, when asked to comment on whether the US has a moral responsibility to help rebuild Vietnam after the war, then then-President Jimmy Carter maintained, that “the destruction was mutual” and that the US should not “apologize,” “castigate” itself or “assume the status of culpability.”
In Afghanistan and Iraq, the US military used white phosphorous and depleted uranium. In Iraqi Fallujah, which was assaulted by the US Marines in 2004, the increased rates of cancer, leukemia and infant mortality are reported to be higher than among survivors of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.
When looking at this track record, it seems reasonable to conclude that the reasons for the US military threats against Syria are unlikely to be principled US opposition to the use of chemical weapons against civilians. Buried beneath lofty rhetoric of humanitarianism and responsibility to protect is, primarily, concern for the credibility of US diktat.
Dr. Hans Blix, former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), commenting on the reasons for US military threats against Syria, emphasizes that “the credibility of the US presidential threats is the heavier element. Key point – not so much highlighted – is the threat to Iran of US action.”
Blix served as the head of the IAEA from 1981 to 1997. He was also the executive chairman of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission in Iraq between 2000 and 2003.
“A punitive action in Syria would be a signal to Iran that the US would shoot at Iran, too, and not undertaking a punitive action in Syria would – in the US view – send the signal that US threats are empty,” Blix asserts.
Noam Chomsky, institute professor and professor emeritus at MIT, argues similarly that it has been widely conceded that the crucial issue for the US in Syria is “credibility.”
“Others must understand that when the Master of the World pronounces an edict, they must obey, or else. It is one of the major principles of international affairs, with many variants.”
“It’s sometimes called ‘the domino theory,’ ” Chomsky continues. “If one place gets out of control, others will get the message and follow, and the whole system of domination will erode. I have sometimes called it ‘the Mafia Doctrine.’ “
“When the Godfather gives an order, no disobedience can be tolerated, even some minor storekeeper who fails to pay pennies in protection money, or ‘the rot will spread,’ in the terminology of high-level US government planners,” Chomsky elaborates. “A great deal of imperial history falls under this doctrine. In this case, Obama declared that use of chemical weapons is Verboten.”
Blix compares the US readiness to ignore UN inspections in Syria to the US dismissal of the UN investigations, led by Blix himself, to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003. Blix is deeply troubled by the “shocking arrogance” of the US in its “readiness to also ignore the Security Council and act as a self-appointed world police.”
Blix underlines that “the world did not appoint the US or any other state to ensure the reaction. It created the UN and the Security Council to be the central organ for action. The ban on the use of force in Article 2:4 and 51 of the UN Charter is another red line drawn by the world community. Erosion of these principles through Kosovo, Iraq 2003 and now perhaps Syria would be grave,” Blix concludes.
Marjorie Cohn, professor of law at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, elaborates on these grave consequences. “A Western military attack will serve to further weaken the United Nations and international law. It would also reinforce the view of many around the world that the United States is once again asserting illegal unilateralism based on the double standard of ‘American exceptionalism,’ in which the US elevates it own perceived ‘national security interests’ above international law, yet expects other countries to abide by international law.”
In case of a US attack, Cohn continues, “the consequences are unpredictable, but many civilians will likely be killed and the number of refugees – already more than one million – will increase. The infrastructure of Syria will be devastated and sectarian slaughter will intensify.” Cohn asserts, “A Western military attack could also disrupt the fragile peace in Lebanon and lead to a regional war.”
Chomsky likewise maintains that a military attack will probably have severe immediate consequences and raise the confrontation to a higher level of violence. “For the region, it is likely to induce Iran to proceed to develop nuclear weapons, as a deterrent against a threatening rogue state that is ready to use force at will, without regard to international law or opinion.”