Syria isn’t Iraq, but the similarities outweigh the differences

The US public has a firmer grasp of history than does Washington’s elites.

Women supporters wave Iraqi flags at a c
After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, US politicians are using strikingly similar rhetoric with regards Syria [AFP]

In today’s world, a tweet can tell you everything you need to know, given the proper context. Such was the case when former Bush administration spokesman Ari Fleisher tweeted on September 1: “Once again, I support POTUS. Drone strikes, indefinite detention, NSA program and on the limited Syria strike, I’d vote yes.”

Fleisher’s tweet shows just how faithfully Obama has continued Bush’s defining policy agenda. On the domestic side, one could easily add that making all but a tiny fraction of Bush’s tax cuts permanent was a prime indication that the continuity is not just limited to foreign affairs.

This is not how Obama is widely seen within the US, of course. But it is objectively true. The sharp differences between Obama and the Republican Party are largely due to the GOP’s retrospective rejection of Bush, even as Obama has tried to be bipartisan by embracing Bush-era policies. At the same time, Obama has tried to keep his own base on board by stressing differences with Bush that are ultimately far less important than the similarities.

Attacking Syria is not the same as invading Iraq, we are told. And of course, that’s right. First, there’s no doubt this time about the presence of chemical weapons. We’re not telling UN inspectors to get out because they can’t find any. Second, there really is a vital international norm at stake – the prohibition on using chemical weapons, which dates back to the aftermath of World War I. Third, we’re talking about a “limited strike”, not an invasion.

But these differences – which loom so large in the minds of Washington’s political elites – seem entirely secondary to most of the rest of the world, even most of the people of the United States, following more than a decade of war, post-9/11. There are two things that attacking Syria and invading Iraq have in common, which US elites utterly ignore. First is the sheer frequency with which the US attacks other countries. Second is the casual disregard for dire and deadly negative consequences, so long as US elites convince themselves their motives are pure.

While those living outside the US are much more likely to notice how often the US bombs or invades people, within the US there is a surprisingly healthy concern for consequences – outside of elite circles – as revealed in a recent Pew Poll.  Responses showed that the public opposed air strikes against Syria by 48-29. This was supported by attitudes towards three important consequences. First, Americans, by a margin of 74-15, thought that airstrikes were likely to create a backlash in the region against the US and its allies. They also thought, by 61-26, that airstrikes were likely to lead to a long-term military commitment. And they doubted airstrikes would be effective in discouraging future chemical weapons use, by 51-33. Tellingly, on all these points, Republicans were slightly more sceptical than Democrats, yet Democrats were more opposed to the airstrikes overall.  Democratic elites may have forgotten the Bush years, but their voters have not.

It’s remarkable that the American people seem so concerned about the consequences that seem to play such a little role in elite discourse. It’s not that these consequences are never discussed by elites; they most certainly are. But such discussions are largely fragmentary and episodic. Often they are only discussed in order to be minimised or dismissed. They do not disrupt the larger context of discussion, which remains focused on the evil of Syria’s chemical weapons attack, and Washington’s moral obligation to punish. This is the same discussion we always get whenever the US sets out to bomb, invade, or overthrow someone – or, more commonly, when we suddenly, belatedly, notice that America has already set out to bomb, invade or overthrow someone.

This is the great difference between US elite views and foreign public opinion, as pointed out by David Paul Waldman at the American Prospect, who put together a succinct list of the major military actions over the past 50 years, There 15 entries – one every 40 months, on average. And it was only “a partial list”, Waldman noted, “excluding the dozens of times we’ve shot down a jet or sent a small number of troops somewhere to help an ally put down a rebellion”.

Nor did it include proxy wars, like those Reagan fought in Central America. But Waldman then linked to Wikipedia’s far more comprehensive list, which has 11 listings just since 2010. “If you’re wondering why people all over the world view the United States as an arrogant bully, reserving for itself the right to rain down death from above on anyone it pleases whenever it pleases, well there you go,” Waldman wrote.

It’s an aspect of our history that we in the United States are remarkably adept at glossing over – or at least our elites are. Throughout this period, none of these military actions were the result of Congress declaring war – the prescribed mechanism in the US Constitution. There were a few highly ambiguous “fudge factor” votes in Congress. But the fact that these stopped well short of declaring war – and that members of Congress later accused the president of profoundly deceiving them on two such occassions (regarding Vietnam in 1964, and Iraq in 2002) – only underscores how far such war-fighting departed from the restrained, deliberative model America’s founders had devised. 

The result is a much lower threshold for going to war – a tendency towards knee-jerk militarism, which is one of the things the founders feared and abhored. From this lowered threshold, we think more impulsively, less profoundly, and less systematically about what we are doing; or as Waldman notes: “From here, we tend to look at each of these engagements in isolation, asking whether there are good reasons to go in and whether we can accomplish important goals for ourselves and others. But when a new American military campaign begins, people in the rest of the world see it in this broader historical context.”

They see how far the United States has strayed from its founding vision, even if America’s own political leaders do not.

In more basic terms, US elites are fixated on their own intentions, while the rest of the world judges them by their actions. “We meant well. Sorry we left your country in ruins. We’ll do better with the next country we save from unspeakable evil. Scouts’ honour.”

For all appearances, such is the full extent of “learning” that goes on in US elite circles. Each case is considered in splendid isolation from all others, the better not to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of carnage we have wrought in the name of fighting one form of evil incarnate or another. Except, of course, when making comparisons helps to strengthen the case for going to war. This is why the Munich pact of 1938 is discussed so excessively, most recently by Secretary of State John Kerry, sounding like a refugee from the Bush Administration circa 2002/3.

This is what it means to be an empire. The players change endlessly. The folly never does. It only grows darker and more dire over time.

Meanwhile, the strikingly different views of the American people from their leaders, as revealed by Pew, remind us, annoyingly, just what it means to destroy a democracy at home in the name of fighting for democracy abroad.

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer, senior editor for Random Lengths News, where he’s worked since 2002. He’s also written for Publishers Weekly, Christian Science Monitor, LA Times, LA Weekly and Denver Post. In 2000/2001, he was a principal editor/writer at Indymedia LA. He was a front-page blogger at Open Left from 2007 to 2011.

Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg