Gary Younge writes: ‘I created Transjordan,” Winston Churchill once boasted, “with a stroke of a pen one Sunday afternoon in Cairo.” Take a look at what remains of Jordan 90 years later and you can see how. Straight borders drawn with a ruler carve indifferent frontiers through a complex region with the kind of callous colonial hubris that displayed scant regard for linguistic, ethnic or religious affiliation.
Much of the contemporary turmoil in the Middle East owes its origins to foreign powers drawing lines in the sand that were both arbitrary and consequential and guided more by their imperial standing than the interests of the region. The “red line” that president Barack Obama has set out as the trigger for US military intervention in Syria is no different.
He drew it unilaterally in August 2012 in response to a question about “whether [he envisioned] using US military” in Syria. “A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
On 21 August there was a chemical weapons attack outside Damascus believed to have been carried out by the Syrian government. That changed both Obama’s calculus and his memory. “I didn’t set a red line,” he claimed last week. I didn’t draw it, he insisted, everybody did. “The world set a red line”.
This was news to the world, which, over the weekend, sought to distance itself from his line, as the US president doubled-down on his double-speak.
“My credibility is not on the line,” he argued. “The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America and Congress’s credibility is on the line …. The US recognises that if the international community fails to maintain certain norms, standards, laws, governing how countries interact and how people are treated, that over time this world becomes less safe.”
The alleged urgency to bomb Syria at this moment is being driven almost entirely by the White House’s desire to assert both American power and moral authority as defined by a self-imposed ultimatum. It is to this beat that the drums of war are pounding. But thus far few are marching. The American public is against it by wide margins. As a result it is not clear that Congress, whose approval he has sought, will back him. The justification and the objectives for bombing keep changing and are unconvincing. He has written a rhetorical cheque his polity may not cash and the public is reluctant to honour. On Tuesday night he’ll make his case to a sceptical nation from the White House.
Before addressing why people are right to be sceptical, it is necessary to attend to some straw men lest they are crushed in the stampede to war. The use of chemical weapons is abhorrent and the Syrian regime is brutal (whether it used chemical weapons in this case or not). With more than 100,000 dead in the civil war, diplomatic efforts have clearly not been successful thus far. Those who claim the principles of human solidarity and internationalism should not sit idly by while the killing continues. Nobody can claim, with any integrity, that they have a plan that will stem the bloodshed.
But the insistence that a durable and effective solution to this crisis lies at the end of an American cruise missile beggars belief. It is borne from the circular sophistry that has guided most recent “humanitarian interventions”: (1) Something must be done now; (2) Bombing is something; (3) Therefore we must bomb. [Continue reading…]