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Iran, The Syrian Civil War, the Prevention of Genocide Act, Chemical Weapons, the Fate of the America Republic & the Struggle for Global Peace & Justice

The American republic and worldwide republicanism, not to mention global peace and justice, once again hangs in the balance.

For Charles Sellers, in honor of his 90th birthday.

“If fully implemented in dozens of sites throughout Syria, this effort to secure the chemical weapons would amount to a cease-fire, with a large U.N. peacekeeping force deployed. In the best of circumstances, this could lead to convening the Geneva peace conference, perhaps including Iran, that could end the conflict.” —Jimmy Carter, “The World Now Has a Chance to End War in Syria,” Washington Post, September 11, 2013

“[1813 and] 1815 opened with the fate of the American republic – and worldwide republicanism – hanging in the balance. A pall of chill, ashes, and gloom lay over muddy little Washington. Burned out of the Capital, congressmen found standing room in a patent office spared by British invaders’ reverence for technology. Amid blackened rubble, they dreaded news from every direction.

Four days’ travel to the north, the elders of New England were thought to be plotting secession behind closed doors at Hartford. A month away to the south, Sir Edward Pakenham’s seasoned British army, fresh from victory over Napoleon Bonaparte, advanced through the swamps of the lower Mississippi toward New Orleans….

Only forty years before, the American Revolution has loosed republicanism on the modern world. Within a generation, the French revolution and Bonaparte’s legions broadcast the contagion across Europe. Through twenty years of unparalleled bloodshed, British-led coalitions of European autocracy made war on revolutionary Bonapartism. When the United States rashly joined the fray against the preoccupied British, it brought upon itself a train of left-handed humiliations even as the British right hand crushed Napoleon. And now Britain’s mighty fleets and armies redeployed to choke off the republican infection at its new world source.” from Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846, Oxford University Press, 1991.

Some 200 years later the fate of the American republic and worldwide republicanism, not to mention global peace and justice, once again hangs in the balance, as Congress takes up the question of war and peace and as President Obama gets ready to once again address the nation and the world. Just a little over a week ago, on Saturday, August 31, the world came perilously close to a vast widening of an already internationalized Syrian civil war, as the Obama administration prepared for an imminent US military strike against Syria, right after the British parliamentary vote defeating the British executive’s drive for war and the departure of the UN chemical weapons inspection team from Syria. Such an act could have, and could still, plunge the world into an ever expanding regional/global conflagration and systemic chaos. Yet at the last minute, US President Barack Obama, having started off his Saturday address to the nation and the world by noting that he had decided the US should launch a military strike against Syria and asserting his authority to do so on his own without Congressional or public approval – this despite his former job teaching Constitutional law – ended the speech in a most astonishing fashion, surprising all observers. President Obama noted that, mindful of his role as President of the world’s oldest Constitutional democracy, he was going to ask Congress to approve his request to go to militarily attack Syria, bowing to a wave of demands from Congress and the public to do exactly that and perhaps mindful too that under international law, such an act would be considered a war of aggression under the UN Charter, in contravention of Article 51, which allows for war only in self-defense or with the approval of the UN Security Council. Thus, the great experiment that was almost wiped off the face of the earth some 200 years ago during the war of 1812, appears to have one more chance at redemption and with it the world; for a unique aspect of the young republic was the studied care with which its founding fathers, fearful of the wars of tyrannical European monarchs, placed the decision for war not in the Executive branch, which they wisely realized was most prone to war, but instead in the hands of the legislative branch of government, the US Congress, as Louis Fisher and other leading analysts have noted.

The current moment is historic in many other ways as well. As the US and the world commemorate the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the US-orchestrated overthrow of Chilean democracy on September 11, 1973, we would do well to remember another important anniversary (see also Reifer, 2008, 2011). On September 9, 1988, some 25 years ago – a little over a year after the US ratified the Genocide Convention in March 1987 – the US Senate, unanimously passed S.2763, the Prevention of Genocide Act, while the same bill was introduced in the House of Representatives. The act would have essentially cut off most US and international assistance to the Iraqi dictatorship under Saddam Hussein. The passage was a belated response to Iraq’s genocidal war against the Kurds in 1988, including Iraq’s use of chemical weapons at Halabja, which killed thousands of people, at a time when Saddam Hussein was America’s and Saudi Arabia’s leading ally in the Middle East. Under then President Reagan, the US supported the brutal Iraqi dictator in his war with Iran, a policy tilt first embraced by President Carter after the Iranian revolution that overthrew the Shah and which was later embraced as well by the first Bush administration, as expressed in the latter’s National Security Decision Memorandum 26, signed on October 2, 1989. After all, the enemy of my enemy – in this instance Iraq under Saddam in the 1980s – so the philosophy went, is my friend. This Faustian devil’s bargain lasted until Saddam invaded the US client state of Kuwait and became public enemy number 1, replacing Iran, in a series of foreign policy reversals that would culminate in the 2003 invasion of and aggressive war against Iraq, the tenth anniversary of which just passed this March of 2013. This enemy of the enemy is my friend philosophy and the consequences for the world, is something to contemplate as the US considers military strikes against and war with Syria, with an opposition arguably dominated by, or at least with the massive and significant presence of Al Qaeda, as has been widely reported, including in leading journals of the American Establishment, notably the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations (see Andrew J. Tabler’s article “Syria’s Collapse & How Washington Can Stop It,” which hit the newsstands on June 29, 2013 and which forcefully argued for US military intervention in the conflict, stating that “Only by getting involved can the United States shape the opposition and support its moderate forces.”).

The Senate’s unanimous passage of the Prevention of Genocide Act 25 some years ago on September 9, 2013, passed in the US with little to no comment, as it was largely down the memory hole in what Gore Vidal used to refer to as the United States of Amnesia; not surprisingly, because the Reagan administration threatened to veto the Prevention of Genocide Act at the time as it was then essentially supporting Iraqi genocide. Indeed, according to a 1994 Human Rights Watch Report, co-published with Yale University Press, Iraq’s 1988 “Anfal campaign of extermination against the Kurdish people living within its borders resulted in the death of at least 50,000 and as many as 100,000 people, many of them women and children.” Following this, the US State Department’s legal advisor belatedly concluded in 1995 that Iraq’s Anfal campaign against the Kurds in 1988 did in fact constitute genocide. Not surprisingly then, the Prevention of Genocide Act, despite having unanimously passed in the Senate, died unceremoniously soon thereafter on October 21, 1988. In the end, the US continued its support of Iraq under Saddam, not even withdrawing the US Ambassador.

To be sure, there are current members of the Obama administration who know this story well, notably Samantha Power, the leading liberal humanist dove turned hawk in the Obama administration, along with Secretary of State John Kerry, the latter playing essentially the same role in selling the Syrian war as Secretary of State Colin Powell played in garnering support for the US invasion of Iraq in 2002 and 2003. In fact, Power has a generally fine chapter on the subject, entitled, “Iraq: “Human Rights & Chemical Weapons Use Aside’,” in her book, “A Problem from Hell”: America & the Age of Genocideand a blurb on the back of the leading book on the subject of Halabja, that of Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group, A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, & the Gassing of Halabja (Cambridge University Press, 2007). Here, Power notes that Hiltermann:

reveals the degree to which America’s support for Saddam while he was gassing his own people bred fierce and lasting skepticism about whether Washington could be trusted in the region…[demonstrating] how America’s indifference to Saddam’s chemical attacks on Iran helped convince Iran to go it alone, and to acquire its own weapons of mass destruction…a necessary book about a ghastly crime, the legacy of which we will be managing for decades to come.

Power certainly is managing or at least trying to do so. At a press conference on September 9, 2013, Power mentioned the Iraq use of chemical weapons, including against the Iranians, but left out US support for it at the time and, moreover, failed to note the Senate’s passage of the Prevention of Genocide Act some 25 years earlier, before its demise. September 9, 2013 was historic in many other ways as well. In what appeared to be offhand remarks at a London press conference, Secretary of State John Kerry stated that the Syrian regime could end the crisis by giving up every single bit of its chemical weapons to the international community “in the next week; turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow a full and total accounting for that, but he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done obviously,” remarks that were later clarified as being merely “rhetorical.” But, with military action pending on the horizon and worldwide pressure for forceful diplomacy rather than the use of US military force and the prospect an ever wider war and even greater humanitarian catastrophe and increasing crimes against humanity and other war crimes and human rights violations, there appeared to be a firebreak, at least potentially, once again surprising all observers. The Russians, heretofore totally obstructionist in supporting the murderous Syrian regime, having stopped with others any and all UN Security Council Resolutions criticized and condemning Syria – therefore giving them a heavy burden of responsibility for the current crisis and what by most accounts, now appears to be the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own population, though doubts remain in many quarters – leapt at the opportunity provided however unintentionally by Secretary of State Kerry. Almost immediately thereafter, Russia came out in favor of Syria handing its weapons over to international control, a proposal that Iran and the Syrian regime appear to have accepted, at least in principle, as the time of this writing on September 10, while in a “global television exclusive,” PBS aired an exclusive interview by Charlie Rose with Syrian President Assad.

Daily in the US, the opposition to the US war with Syria is increasing, crossing all party lines, demographic and age groups, as was widely reported with new polls coming out just in the last few days. . Though many in the US and the world want a strong response to the use of chemical weapons, they do not want an ever expanding war from which few may escape. The opportunity now exists for the permanent five members of the UN Security Council to meet and to pass a resolution demanding that Syria immediately hand over all its chemical weapon stockpiles to international control – with no preconditions – and to allow for related inspections. If a resolution can be passed and the Syrians comply, the US administration’s key public reasons for going to war, to prevent further chemical weapons use and reaffirm the crucial norm against their use, would appear to have been met, as President Obama himself has now stated. The question of whether any and all parties are simply playing for time and stalling and/or cynical about their stated aims may be irrelevant in an important sense. For what now exists is a situation in which it is just possible that peace might break out, as the US, global public and Syria’s key allies, Russian and Iran, demand a peaceful resolution to the violation of a key global norm.

If these efforts succeed, it could be the beginning of the de-escalation of the bloody Syrian civil war, in which well over 100,000 people have been killed, with over 2 million refugees created and some 5 million internally displaced. This momentum could spur an international peace conference called for by leading global players with the cooperation of the UN, the great powers and their regional allies that could lead to a negotiated solution to this tragic conflict fueled by many bloody hands. Yet in what is a dramatically unfolding, dire and tense situation, a peaceful and just resolution, rather than the catastrophic expansion of the conflict, is an uphill battle. Today, however, with the support of what theNew York Times once called the second superpower – the global public – there is now a chance for peace, much greater than appeared yesterday. One way or another, global citizens would do well to remember September 2013 as a critical turning point, or possible one, in US and world history, like earlier critical turning points for the American republic and worldwide republicanism some 200 years ago. 25 years ago the US Senate acted to respond to crimes against humanity and the use of chemical weapons by one of America’s leading allies, Iraq under Saddam Hussein. But a month later this courageous move, which would have stopped most US aid for Saddam’s murderous regime, was consigned to the dustbin of history. Sometimes, however, the world gets a second chance, though whether we can individually and collectively rise to the challenge remains to be seen. President Obama, facing a crushing defeat on his resolution to Congress to go to war against Syria – and despite persistent denials by the President and Secretary of State Kerry that US military air strikes constitute going to war – was forced to postpone the vote of US Congress on the question of war and peace. This movement is likely designed to stop the gathering momentum against war, taking the wind out of the sails of the peace movement. Yet now is not the time to slow opposition, for the danger of an even more catastrophic wide war still remains very real. So far the best proposal to come forward has been that of former US President Jimmy Carter, on September 10, 2013, in a peace entitled “The World Now Has a Chance To End War in Syria,” (quoted above) where he states:

If fully implemented in dozens of sites throughout Syria, this effort to secure the chemical weapons would amount to a cease-fire, with a large U.N. peacekeeping force deployed. In the best of circumstances, this could lead to convening the Geneva peace conference, perhaps including Iran, that could end the conflict.

Carter’s proposal should be seriously explored by all those pursuing peaceful forceful diplomacy rather than military force as the only viable solution for the greatest humanitarian and human rights catastrophe in the world today. There is a famous saying, “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” Marx, of course, said, “First time tragedy, second time farce.” Whether tragedy or farce replays itself, however, is not preordained. It is up for us to choose. It is time for the world to act. Nothing less than the future of the world is at stake. The astonishing developments of the last month and few days, including the recent NBC interview just days ago with newly elected Iranian President Rouhani, who pledged Iran will never develop nuclear weapons, indicated flexibility and willingness to negotiate and when asked if Iran perceived Obama not militarily attacking Syria as a sign of weakness, stated: “We consider war a weakness. Any government or administration who decided in order to wage a war, we consider a weakness. And any government that decides on peace we look on it with respect to peace. Following this, the New York Times headline from Friday, September 20, 2013 stated: “Iran Said to Seek a Nuclear Accord to End Sanctions: Top Tehran Adviser Says Obama Letter, Showing Flexibility, Opens Ways,” indicates that there is perhaps ten best chance for peace on this issue in 10 to 30 years. The first line of the Times piece is: Iran’s leaders seized on perceived flexibility in a private letter from President Obama and have decided to gamble on forging a grand bargain over their nuclear program to end crippling sanctions, a prominent adviser to the Iranian leadership said on Thursday.” Thus for the first time, the newspaper of the American Establishment is using the language of a grand bargain long used by advocates of peace, negotiation and forceful diplomacy instead of military force, as the best route to end the tragic civil war in Syria, condemn and reinforce the norm against chemical weapons use by putting Syria’s weapons under international control and thus pave the way for a larger regional and global settlement based on mutual recognition and respect between peoples based on peace and justice. From the Iranian Green movement to the British, American and world’s peace, socio-ecological justice and democracy movements, the world has spoken. Soon, Iran’s newly elected President Rouhani will speak at the UN for the first time, this Tuesday, September 24, 2013, a few hours before President Obama and now, having staved off the war that the US was planning on initiating on Saturday, August 31, 2013, there is even talk that the two President’s might meet briefly at the UN. Though the Obama administration argues that it was the threat of military force that brought Syria, Russia and now Iran to the table, in reality, the Kerry-Russian proposal saved Obama from a humiliating defeat, as he could garner virtually no international or domestic support for a military attack against Syria, and thus faced a Congressional defeat on his proposal for war. This in turn, a product of the peace and justice movements, provided the time needed to pursue peace rather than war. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who warned about the dangers of the military industrial complex in his farewell address to the nation, stated on a different occasion in 1959: I like to believe that people in the long run are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.” We may be presently living in this long hoped for future. What will we make of the opportunities of the present? Only our collective efforts and answer to this question will determine the answer to this question, which in turn may go in no small way towards deciding whether the human species and other living creatures will have a future, worthy for our children and all the world’s beings, based on the principles of human dignity and the right to peace and justice.


BBC Witness, Iraq’s Chemical Attacks, Friday, September 20, 2013

Vanessa Bernick, (winner of the annual undergraduate award from the University of Chicago’s Human Rights Program and one time lead analyst for the Chicago Project on Suicide and Terrorism, University of Chicago, headed by Dr. Robert Pape), “The Anfal Campaign: A Politically Feasible Atrocity,” Posted by the Middle Eastern Studies Student Association, 2012 Conference Paper, posted on April 15, 2012

Eric Etheridge, Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Writers, New York: Atlas & Co., 2008.

Glenn Greenwald, How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amuk, Working Assets, 2006.

The Guardian, “John Kerry gives Syria week to hand over chemical weapons or face attack: US secretary of state tells London press conference with William Hague that US intelligence blames Assad regime for gas attack,” Patrick Wintour, Monday, September 9, 2013 (see link, which includes a video of Secretary of State John Kerry’s Press conference in which he makes these remarks)

Alma Harb, “Local Humanitarian Efforts Aim to Save Syrian Lives,” Op-ed, San Diego Union Tribune, Friday, September 22, 2013

Human Rights Watch/Middle East, Iraq’s Crime of Genocide: The Anfal Campaign Against The Kurds, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1995.

Rev Jesse Jackson Sr. and Phyllis BennisJoint Statement on the Syrian Crisis, “Forceful Diplomacy, Not Military Force,” September 11, 2013

Bruce W. Jentleson, With Friends Like These: Reagan, Bush, & Saddam, 1982-1990, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1994.

NBC, Iranian President Rouhani, “We Will Never Develop Nuclear Weapons,” September 18, 2013

KPBS, “Syrian Doctors in San Diego Launch Relief Effort,” with Dr. Alma Harb and Dr. Tom Reifer, September 10, 2013

Lokman I. Meho, ed., The Kurdish Question in United States Foreign Policy: A Documentary Sourcebook, Praeger, 2004.

Bruce Montgomery, “The Iraqi Secret Police Files: A Documentary Record of the Anfal Genocide,” Association of Canadian Archivists, Issue # 52, 2001

James P. Pfiffner & Mark Phythian, Intelligence & National Security Policymaking on Iraq, Manchester University Press, 2008.

Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the UN, at the Center for American Progress, September 9, 2013

Tom Reifer, “Ten Years Later, Who Have We Become,” San Diego Union Tribune, Saturday, September 10, 2011, p. B7

Tom Reifer, September 11th, Terrorism & the Globalization of Human Rights, September 2008, Transnational Institute News

Charlie Rose interviews Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, aired September 9, 2013

Joshua Rovner, Fixing the Facts: National Security & the Politics of Intelligence, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011.

Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846, Oxford University Press, 1991.

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