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Obama on Syria: The emperor has no policy

Incoherent foreign policy is not unique to this president - it's rooted in the DNA of US political culture.

Last Modified: 11 Sep 2013 13:34
Hamid Dabashi

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
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"We cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus," Obama said on August 31 [AFP]

So what happened to "the international community" and its "red line?"

Here is a quick review of Obama's key moments on the most recent attack on Syrian civilians in late August 2013 - for which Bashar al-Assad is responsible irrespective of who actually used the weapons, as the primary function of a head of state is to protect its citizens. Whether by the commission of ordering that attack or the omission of failing to protect innocent Syrians from it, Assad's regime is chiefly responsible for this mass murder.

On August 21, reports surfaced that the Syrian government had used chemical weapon against its own civilian population. The opposition accused the government, the Russians said it was actually perpetrated by the opposition, while President Obama on August 23 cautioned against a hasty assessment.

But by the following day, the US had moved warships to the Mediterranean Sea to prepare for a possible launch of cruise missiles against the Assad regime. (For a detailed chronology of events see here).

On August 26, Secretary of State John Kerry referred to Syria's chemical weapons as a "moral obscenity", blaming the Assad regime. The following day, Vice President Joe Biden also named Assad as the perpetrator of the attack.

On August 30, the Obama administration released an intelligence report claiming to find "with high confidence" that Assad was responsible for the attack. On August 31, Obama declared, "What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children and pay no price? We are the United States of America. We cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus."

Spotlight
In-depth coverage of escalating violence across Syria

But on August 29, the British parliament rejected a motion for the UK to join the US in a potential military strike against Syria. Shortly afterwards, Obama declared that he too would seek congressional approval. Since Congress would not be in session until September 9, the question was now effectively moot.

Yet his administration let it be known that he would attack Syria with or without congressional approval - and just for good measure, he threw in a bit of Iran nuclear bait so that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) would help Obama win congressional approval. AIPAC got the hint and its machinery was set in motion to get congressional approval for a US military strike against Assad.

Meanwhile, Russia's opposition to any military strike became well known during the G20 session in Saint Petersburg, and Iranians too let it be known that they had warned Americans "about chemical weapons in rebel hands for more than a year".

By September 10 we were back to square one - for now, Obama had decided to"put plans for a US military strike against Syria on hold if the country agrees to place its chemical weapons stockpile under international control".

The cat-and-mouse game is thus set to continue for a while, as the combined evil of the ruling Assad regime and the pestiferous elements within the opposition, backed by the US and its regional allies, are bound to perpetrate even more murderous acts in Syria - as the noble cause of the Syrian non-violent revolution progresses apace.

The emperor's new clothes

In Hans Christian Andersen's classic "The Emperor's New Clothes", we learn about two swindlers who offer an emperor a new suit that would become invisible to the corrupt and the incompetent among his courtiers. Duped by the swindlers, the emperor goes around naked thinking he was wearing a royal gown that only the righteous could see. His corrupt courtiers were so afraid of being exposed for what they are that they kept praising his fine clothing - until a child cried out: "But he isn't wearing anything at all!"

Those swindlers are AIPAC, the emperor is Obama, and his non-existent (invisible) clothes are his Syrian policy. We must muster that proverbial child's courage and intelligence to see that our emperor too has no vision, no conception, no understanding of what is happening around the Arab world. The only difference between that story and Obama is that these are not "new" clothes - they are actually quite old, and they are not tailored just for Obama - they have fit all US presidents before and will probably fit all those after him.

In this latest phase of the Syrian crisis, Obama has been blamed for his lack of policy, but criticised in entirely false and falsifying terms - first for being indifferent, then warlike, then reaching out to Congress, then saying he would go to war anyway, and then again getting entangled with the Russian president, and finally backing down as if those innocent lives had not perished in vain at all.

Obama is being blamed for his lack of a consistent Syrian policy - as if any other US president before him has had any other policy towards any other Arab or Muslim (or non-Arab or non-Muslim country for that matter) except the brute use of force, ranging from ruthless military intervention (Afghanistan and Iraq) to organising military coups (Iran and Chile, whose former President Salvador Allende was toppled 40 years ago this September 11).

Criticism of Obama has been partisan and categorically flawed. The Washington Post has declared that "Syria shows Obama's unsteadiness in conducting foreign policy." The staunchly pro-Israel Zionist magazine Commentary called the president's dillydallying towards bombing or not bombing Syria "bizarre". Fareed Zakaria stated: "Obama's Handling of Syria 'Case Study in How Not To Do Foreign Policy.'"

Obama's indecisive position is now evidently public knowledge. According to the Huffington Post:

President Barack Obama was ready to order a military strike against Syria, with or without Congress' blessing. But on Friday night, he suddenly changed his mind. Senior administration officials describing Obama's about-face Saturday offered a portrait of a president who began to wrestle with his own decision - at first internally, then confiding his views to his chief of staff, and finally summoning his aides for an evening session in the Oval Office to say he'd had a change of heart.

The fact is that Obama lacks any coherent policy on Syria - precisely the way that no other US president had any serious policy except habitually reaching for his gun. This habit has become second nature to US foreign policy, and it is deeply rooted in the very DNA of the US' political culture, exacerbated by the Arab revolutions towards which the US could not possibly have any constructive policy because they have no clue what it is.

So far as the ruling culture in Washington DC is concerned, these revolutions are "destabilising" the region and endangering US allies - ranging from the apartheid settler colony of Israel to the retrograde ruling class in Saudi Arabia - and that is not good.

The nature of American empire

The last time any US administration had any foreign policy, it was called the "Project for a New American Century" - led by a band of militant ideologues whose most intelligent theorist, Francis Fukuyama, thought world history had come to an end but soon discovered he was wrong, jumping ship after the Iraq debacle.  

Obama came to office to oppose the neoconservative project, but he soon ended up exacerbating its contorted logic. He did so not because Bush and his team were particularly evil or because Obama and his team are any less violent. He did so because this is in the nature of American empire - a world-conquering project that is confused by its own Christian morality, that wants to have its cake and eat it too - both rule the world with the most deadly military machinery in human history while doing so in the name of saving humanity from its own evil.

It's not just this administration: Americans in general know very little about the world, and they have projected this ignorance onto the tabula rasa of a "Manifest Destiny" that they are divinely ordained to a delusional "shining city" upon a fictive hill. The delusion has been deadly for generations of Americans and calamitous for the world at large - and until they snap out of it they will remain the most monumental obstacle to peace and sanity in this world, with their leaders always at the mercy of swindlers who can only serve their own immediate interests.

In the absence of any serious or enduring knowledge, the operation of this empire is at the mercy of ignorant think tanks like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and swindlers like AIPAC. The knowledge they produce and feed the elected officials of this land is based on the model of American fast food: easy to digest but dangerous for your health.

Old-fashioned Orientalism, as Edward Said had theorised it, was commensurate with European imperial interests, for at least it was a body of coherent and enduring knowledge. But what we see in the US case is a mode of what I called "dispensable" knowledge in my Post-Orientalism: Knowledge and Power in Time of Terror (2008). This knowledge has no theoretical or epistemic consistency - for by the time the catastrophic consequences of a policy (say in Afghanistan or Iraq) is discovered, the administration that had initiated it has changed, and a new war is on the horizon.

So do not expect any serious or consistent policy from this or any other US administration about anything vital to the perilous course of humanity ahead. For these emperors are too busy shooting from the hip to look down to see whether they are wearing any pants.   

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. The Arabic translation of his Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism (2012) is scheduled for publication later this year.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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