The timing couldn’t be more suspect. After months of accusations, suddenly, as the Obama administration sinks into the biggest intelligence scandal in American history, right when Hezbollah’s full court press in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime has shifted the balance of forces to the government’s advantage, Syria has officially “crossed the red line”. The US now has enough evidence of chemical weapons use to enter directly into the Syrian fray – which, needless to say, it’s already been clandestinely involved in for much of the last two years – and directly arm at least some of the rebel groups fighting the Assad regime.
It is certainly true that “there are no good choices” left in Syria, and that “reasonable people can disagree” on the wisdom of arming Syria’s fractious rebels groups and/or intervening militarily on their behalf (through the creation of a no-fly zone or similar actions involving American or European forces).
But it’s also true that the primary motivation for heightened American intervention is not the rising civilian death toll. If it were, the US and Europe would have intervened a year ago. Rather, with Russia drawing its own red line in support of the continuance of the current Syrian system, and Iran and Hezbollah having gone all in on behalf of Assad, the US faces the prospect of a diplomatically humiliating and strategically dangerous defeat should Assad decisively crush the rebels. Assad cannot be allowed to win. And yet for its patrons and supporters, the Assad regime, or at least the Ba’athist state it presently controls, can’t be allowed to fall.
And this is where the Snowden story intersects with the Syrian imbroglio.
Much of Syria lies in rubble and ashes today because of a world system that the great powers – the US, Europe and Russia (inheriting the mantle from the Soviet Union) – constructed and benefited from enormously during the last 60 years. The system is one based on lies, deceit and hypocrisy; human rights, democracy and development played little role outside of serving rhetorical flourishes or a convenient lever of diplomatic pressure. As long as the US has done nothing to stop the brutal policies of its clients like Saudi Arabia or Israel (never mind illegally invading Iraq), it’s had little leverage or even incentive to pressure Russia to force its own clients such as Syria to behave according to international norms.
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As long as the lies, deceit and hypocrisies could be kept offshore, most Americans were not going to lose too much sleep over this system. But the revelation of massive domestic surveillance operations changes the equation. As Edward Snowden pointed out in his Guardian interview, Americans are “not even aware of what is possible. The extent of the [government’s] capabilities is horrifying”.
Today, they stand increasingly aware; and as the story continues to grow and its implications become harder to ignore, the revelations will undermine not just the already frayed bonds of trust between citizens and their government, but between legislators on the one hand, and the Executive Branch and the military-intelligence bureaucracies on the other as well.
Imagine that untold thousands of private contractors – many of them, like Edward Snowden, young men and women with no particular training or history of service to their country – know more about the inner workings of the intelligence security system than all but the most senior elected representatives. What’s more, if a relatively minor functionary like Snowden has access to these kinds of practices, what kind of practices did he not have access to or know about?
If Representative Loretta Sanchez could emerge from a classified briefing and declare ominously that that what has so far been revealed is merely “the tip of the iceberg“, can we really imagine precisely how massive and misshapen is the still obscured majority of the “Total Information Awareness” government-corporate surveillance iceberg, where literally “everybody is a target” (as a former intelligence official put it in Wired).
Take equal parts “24” and the Bourne Identity, throw them in a blender and shake in Three Days of the Condor and the truth might still be farther out still, even if (and perhaps in good measure because) such films have in fact desensitised Americans as to the meaning of such surveillance, one which Chinese artists and dissident Ai Weiwei points out, increasingly resembles the kinds of “abusive use of government power” that used to be the purview of regimes like his native China.
As officials in allied countries like Australia and the United Kingdom scramble to explain their own surveillance policies, in the US senior officials veer from offering the “least untruthful possible” explanations of what they’re really up to (otherwise known, at least in White House-speak, as “straight and direct“) to claiming that the technology at the heart of the NSA scandal would have prevented 9/11.
All the while they warn that any disclosure of how deep the rabbit hole goes and who dug it would “harm national security”. That the programmes Snowden revealed are quite likely “legal” – that is, operate according to an interpretation of the laws that have been supported by the courts, rather than being a “rogue inside-the-government conspiracy” – doesn’t make them less dangerous, but rather more so. In fact, this reality is the surest evidence of a creeping coup d’etat in the US.
By coup d’etat I do not mean the kind we normally think of, where a group of military officers in colourful uniforms very publicly overthrows an existing government. Instead, what we are witnessing corresponds to a much older form of coup d’etat: a violent or at least extreme break in the normal process of governance initiated not by an outside force but by those at the heart of power, one initiated in the service of a fundamental “raison d’etat” – that is, the state’s self-preservation and enhancement (or at least the preservation and/or enhancement of certain groups within the state apparatus).
‘The tip of the iceberg’
The most successful coup would, of course, be the one that no one actually realises has happened, that is done not as an extra-legal act, but as one fully compliant with existing laws – or at least the government’s interpretation of those laws. However, the public’s ignorance about a fundamental shift in the mechanisms of government can only be maintained as long as no one points out the new realities to the public.
And this is what makes the Snowden affair so dangerous to the Washington power system; it allows Americans to glimpse, at least briefly, the reality of what they’ve lost and will further lose, of the reality that they are living in a national security state whose existence demands the ignorant compliance of citizens in its lies and deceit (a situation citizens of most of the other countries involved in the present conflict can no doubt relate to).
Which brings us back to Syria. President Obama has repeatedly declared that he does not want to involve the US directly in the war. But how much can Americans trust the administration’s intentions in Syria if it turns out it’s been so deceitful and, in its director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s own words, “untruthful” about what for Americans is a far more directly consequential issue? If the national security state is this out of control at home, what can we imagine it’s up to abroad, where there are no constraints on its activities?
How can citizens trust that its motivations are indeed benign and even humanitarian, and not much more Machiavellian and amoral than most Americans would support? Indeed, as this article was being prepared for publication, the Washington Post reported that contrary to the official claim that the confirmation of chemical weapons use led the President to authorise direct military aid, this decision was actually made weeks ago for the much more coldly strategic reasons I suggested at the start of this article.
With a cast of characters – Russia, Israel, Iran, Hezbollah, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Iraq, and who knows how many al-Qaeda franchises – that must make even John le Carré’s head spin (and would, in a different world order, keep the International Court of Justice backlogged for years), each of them angling for their piece of the Syrian pie, the situation is rife with opportunities for mischief and mayhem by all the parties to the conflict.
Thanks to Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning and other whistleblowers, Americans can no longer say they weren’t warned about their government’s malfeasance and malafide at home. Given the tip of the iceberg we’ve already seen, it’s hard to imagine better intentions abroad, which suggests that even if the Syrian opposition gets its long sought-after military help, the Syrian people will continue to suffer for the foreseeable future, no matter which sides ends up the victor.
Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on ‘rock and resistance and the struggle for soul’ in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.
Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming