Rania Masri and Chris Hedges on Obama’s Syria Address

Scholar Rania Masri and writer Chris Hedges respond to President Obama’s major Syria address.


JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

President Obama took to the airwaves Tuesday night for a major televised address about his plans in Syria.


BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when with modest effort and risk we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.


NOOR: Now joining us to discuss his speech and give their response are two guests.

We’re joined by Rania Masri. She’s an Arab-American human rights activist, environmental scientist, and professor in Lebanon.

And we’re also joined by Chris Hedges. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, senior fellow at the Nation Institute, and former Middle East Bureau chief for The New York Times.

Thank you so much both for joining us.



NOOR: So, Rania, let’s start with you. As an activist that’s been speaking out against this possible intervention, against U.S. involvement in Syria, what’s your response to this speech? Obama asked Congress to delay a possible vote authorizing intervention in Syria.

MASRI: It really was what we had expected. I mean, those of us who’ve been spending time at the Hill and following the news, President Obama’s speech was what we had expected. The postponement was expected. And [incompr.] that he postponed it not only because the Russians provided him with a really strong political way out, a political possibility for chemical weapons deterrence in Syria, but also because he simply didn’t have the votes in Congress. Were this to go to the House, it would have failed. It might even have failed in the Senate.

NOOR: And, Chris, I want to pose that question to you. It seems like within the past few weeks and days, this war has become or this possible intervention in Syria has become increasingly unpopular. At least that’s how it’s been reported in the press. What’s your response to his speech and the fact also that he had to delay this vote in Congress?

HEDGES: Well, Rania is right. He didn’t have the votes, so he had no choice.

But I think this is really symptomatic of an exhaustion on the part of the American public after 12 years of war, 12 years in Afghanistan, ten years in Iraq. They have seen this scenario before. The clips of atrocities, the appealing to American exceptionalism, the high-blown rhetoric of patriotism. Kerry even trotted out once again World War II, calling this the Munich moment and referring to the graves, Normandy. And none of it worked.

It didn’t work because at this point people have been lied to so many times. The excuses and propaganda that is pushed forth and has been pushed forth year after year just fall flat. It doesn’t work anymore. And I think people understand that when you drop Tomahawk missiles, each Tomahawk missile carries a 1,000-pound iron fragmentation bomb or 166 cluster bombs. And they’re talking about dropping hundreds of them.

You know, this circular logic whereby we go in and kill civilians—and Dempsey, the chief of staff, said there would be, quote-unquote, collateral damage to stop the Assad stopping regime from killing civilians, it just—it doesn’t work anymore after Iraq and Afghanistan. I think we’re really seeing a kind of implosion of the myth of war, which has sustained these imperial adventures. And I think Obama just got cornered. You know, left, right, it didn’t make any difference. The [incompr.] sick of it.

And let’s not forget that internally, we are, like all dying empires, being hollowed out from the inside in terms of infrastructure. I live near Philly, I live in Princeton. The school system is shattered with closings and layoffs. Libraries are being shuttered. Head Start is being cut back. Unemployment benefits are not being extended. You know, we’ve reached a point of both physical and emotional exhaustion.

NOOR: And, Rania, I wanted to ask you, as someone who’s been speaking out against this, what do you think—and as someone who’s from the region, what do you think the response will be in the Middle East to the Obama speech? And something you’ve pointed out is that many Syrians working with the U.S. or working with Saudi Arabia have been proponents of the strike. What’s your response?

MASRI: Well, I mean, your question has several different layers. I think the intellectual pundits in the region, in the Middle East themselves would not be surprised, because they have been expecting this kind of statement coming from President Obama from even before the Russian declaration recently. So from the journalistic perspective in the Arab world, this would come as no surprise.

As for the position of the so-called external Syrian opposition leaders, the Syrian National Council or others, those that have been paid and supported by the Saudis, particularly by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, they have gone on the record several times as to not wanting a limited strike against their country, but actually wanting an open-ended bombing campaign that would cause a regime change, so that they can then walk in and seize control of Syria, as Ahmed Chalabi wanted to do in Iraq. None of them are actually concerned with the people of Syria themselves. It’s a power struggle, and they’re willing to risk their country and further destruction of lives and livelihoods in Syria to achieve their own gain.

Now, for myself as an Arab American from the region, as somebody who’s been working on peace and social justice issues both here in the United States and in Lebanon, I have to say that although President Obama’s final conclusion was not surprising, his prelude to it was deeply, deeply offensive, deeply offensive, unethical, and a historic for him to sit there and to go on at length about these images of the children that have been gassed and how images of children that have been gassed have moved him to action was just repulsive, because the level of hypocrisy in that statement cannot be tolerated—the fact that it is the United States government also under his leadership that have funded and supported the Israeli use of white phosphorus against Palestinians in Gaza, the fact that it is the U.S. government that has themselves directly used white phosphorus against the Iraqis in Falluja. And it is the toxic legacy of the use of white phosphorus in Iraq that is actually greater than the toxic legacy of both the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as report that was published several years ago proved.

And yet here he is talking to us about how moved he is by the sight of children being gassed. And the way it reads is that he is only appalled when children are gassed by weapons that are not his or by allies that are not his or, as he claims, by dictators, because if democratic presidents kill children, we don’t have a problem with that; we only have problem if dictators kill children, particularly if those dictators are not our friends. So when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons in Iraq that was provided to him by the Americans, that was perfectly legitimate. When the United States used chemical weapons and biological weapons and numerous other weapons with only the exception of nuclear weapons against the people of Vieques in Puerto Rico for decades to test them—to test them—that is completely acceptable. I mean, this level of hypocrisy, it was just too much. It was really just too much to bear.

And I think it’s really critical that we poke holes in this. And there is an understanding of amongst a significant segment of the American public that recognizes the lack of credibility the United States has in complaining about chemical weapons when we have not only used chemical weapons, but we’re the only country to have used nuclear weapons twice against civilian communities.

But nevertheless, there is this desire that is perpetuated by the mainstream media and accepted by too many Americans that we are exceptional in our morality and in our legitimacy and in our desire to do good. And, unfortunately, the words of Martin Luther King still hold true today. The United States does remain the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.

NOOR: And, Chris, you alluded to the decline of American Empire. Can you put this moment in historical perspective for us? Has there ever been a case where a president has, you know, kind of pushed back a vote for war or a war has become more—the idea of a war has become more unpopular, that the Congress wouldn’t even vote to authorize it? Has this ever happened before?

HEDGES: Well, I think you can look at the end of the Vietnam War. After a decade of war in Vietnam you had a similar kind of exhaustion. The government was once again exposed for the lies that it told to justify war. The social and economic cost of the Vietnam War essentially obliterated Johnson’s attempt to eradicate poverty. And King is, as Rania points out, made direct ties between the perpetuation of war and the impoverishment of the working class and the poor at home. And I think that we reached a similar kind of moment, where all the myths and lies and rhetoric and jingoism and flag-waving just doesn’t work. So we’ve moved from a kind of mythic narrative about war to a sensory narrative. We’re just sick of it.

And I think while most Americans probably don’t have the historical perspective that Rania correctly points out is true—we aided and abetted Saddam Hussein as an ally in the region when he gassed Kurds in Halabja and when he dropped poison gas on Iranian troops, starting the Iran-Iraq War. Indeed, we provided the satellite imagery for it. We of course have turned our heads while the Israelis in another war crime littered southern Lebanon with cluster bombs, used 200 white phosphorus rockets during their 22-day bombing campaign of Gaza, which in itself was a war crime. And then, of course, we spread defoliant Agent Orange all over Vietnam.

It is a kind of selective morality that is deeply repugnant to those on the outside, especially those in the Middle East, who are quite well aware of our complicity with the Iraqi regime during the war in Iraq and Iran and during the war Saddam Hussein waged against the Kurds, and of course our backing of Israel, which has carried out war crime after work crime, including the whole collective imprisonment of the population of Gaza, which is a war crime.

So, yeah, it stinks. But it sells. I mean, that kind of stuff sells. I think that the American public is less introspective about our virtue and more just sick of the whole thing, because they’re paying the cost of it. I mean, the infrastructure of this country, its most basic social programs, not to mention the other eradication of our civil liberties, and all caused by the, quote-unquote, war on terror in the name of the national security. We’ve become the most eavesdropped, monitored, spied on, photographed population in human history, dwarfing anything that was done by the Stasi state and East Germany. And that’s all been—you know, these are all the sacrifices that we supposedly have to make to make ourselves safe.

And I think what we’re really watching is a kind of revulsion at this whole process. And while it may be naive—and I think Rania is correct in saying that it probably is—at the same time, it’s very, very real. And I think Obama is going to have a very tough time pushing this through, and I think we’ve really reached a kind of endpoint where we just had enough.

NOOR: Rania Masri, let’s end this first part of this discussion with you. What impact will President Obama’s speech have for the future of Syria?

MASRI: What is next is further dangerous situations. I mean, we have not reached the end goal. We have not achieved peace and stability in Syria, nor are we completely safe from a bombing campaign, be it launched by the United States or by other allies that may arise.

I want us all to be very—to remember quite clearly what happened in Iraq. And if we remember how the weapons inspectors were used many, many times, many times during the whole 13 years of sanctions in Iraq to justify, quote-unquote, a bombing campaign, that there were accusations being made against the Iraqi government that it had not provided access to the weapons inspectors or provided them with enough information to the weapons inspectors, information that we later discovered by the weapons inspectors themselves was actually unable to be provided. I mean, there was lots of difficulty that the weapons inspectors themselves created for themselves to create those difficulties for the Iraqi government so that they could then have these justifications for the bombing campaign. So myself, as somebody who’s very familiar with what’s happening in Iraq, I’ve become a bit worried now when we’re talking about Syria and weapons inspectors getting in there and possibly having legitimacy to be able to justify for a bombing campaign.

We also need to remember that it’s not only the Syrian government that has access to chemical weapons, but according to statements from the United Nations dating several months ago, dating actually from early this year, that these so-called moderate rebel forces in Syria also have access to sarin gas, if not that they themselves may have used sarin gas. So the fact that the chemical weapons, you know, cachet under the Syrian government would be placed under international supervision does not necessarily mean that there will not be any more chemical weapons attacks in Syria, because we also need to look at what the rebels have, what they have access to, and how they can create chemical weapons.

And this is a very serious threat, because even Secretary of State John Kerry claims that 15 to 20 percent of the armed opposition in Syria are actually terrorists, some of whom are to the right, some of whom are worse than—and that’s a direct quote—worse than al-Nusra Front, which is a recognized terrorist organization with affiliates to al-Qaeda.

And yet we also know that the so-called Free Syrian Army, which is not a hierarchy organization, which is actually a loose organization of independent rebel battalions that simply use the name, we also know that this so-called Free Syrian Army has numerous times worked with elements of al-Qaeda in the battlefield. And so this kind of division between good rebel and bad rebel does not exist. And that has also been confirmed by United Nations leaders themselves, who recognize that there is [incompr.] there’s no such thing as a good armed rebel and a bad armed rebel in Syria. They’re all extraordinarily problematic actors. So we also need to recognize what they could do and where they can go.

The third aspect is, I think, yes, the fact that a bombing campaign has now been tabled, that it is not going to be used increases the political capital for a political negotiation of for a diplomatic settlement. And we have seen the power of the political negotiation by what the Russians and Syrians have managed to do just so quickly in the past few days. And I think here is where we need to be putting a lot more energy and not simply calling for a political settlement, but also really calling for a halt to the flow of weapons into Syria. We’re all very familiar with the flow of weapons that the Syrian government is getting through Iran and through Russia through a number of other factors, but we may not be as familiar with the flow of weapons that is supplied by Prince Bandar bin Sultan to the rebels using either Libyan weapons or Sudani weapons being brought into Syria via Lebanon, Turkey, or Jordan.

And it’s important to recognize who Prince Bandar bin Sultan is. This is the same man who supplied the mujahideen in Afghanistan with weapons when the U.S. government felt uncomfortable doing so. This is the same man who supplied the Contras in Nicaragua with weapons when the U.S. Congress prohibited Ronald Reagan from supplying them directly. So this is a man with a noted track record in providing weapons to known terrorists on the ground and not a man with any track record of human rights or democracy. And this is the main financier right now for these so-called rebel brigades in Syria.

So we still have a very, very difficult situation for the Syrian population themselves and for the more than one-third of Syrians who are displaced. And that means that we all need to amplify our efforts to push for a political settlement, to push for increased humanitarian aid, and to push for halts to the arms trade that is being flooded into Syria.

As for the quotes that you highlighted from President Obama, again, I mean, they’re ahistoric. They’re extraordinarily naive. And I long for the day when the vast majority of Americans will recognize the fallacies in those statements. We can only be exceptional as a country if we truly live according to the values of our constitution, all our constitution, inclusive of the amendments, of course, and recognize that exceptionalism can only be obtained through morality, through legality, through legitimacy, and not through hypocrisy and not through violence.

The same with a statement when the president said that we have been an anchor for global security for more than seven decades. We have been the complete opposite. We have been the anchor for global demise, the anchor for environmental destruction, the anchor for the destruction of numerous countries. Just name one country that the United States has gotten involved in militarily that has actually benefited from our involvement, and not only that country there, but go to the military bases that litter the United States and asked the soldiers that have gone and served in those countries how they themselves have benefited or if their bodies are still wracked with post-dramatic stress disorder.

So in no way, shape, or form have we been a global anchor for security. I long for the day when we may be become that. But I believe we will only become that if, again, we remember the words of Martin Luther King, who recognized that this country continues to suffer from the vices of militarism, materialism, and racism.

NOOR: And that wraps up part one of our discussion. Go to TheRealNews.com for our continuing discussion with Rania Masri and Chris Hedges. Thank you so much for joining us.