Syria and the myth of humanitarian intervention

4 May

If you watched the news recently, you will have noticed the ongoing drumbeat in favor of military intervention in Syria. From Fox News to MSNBC to CNN there is a singular voice that intervention is the right action. Many politicians from both sides of the aisle also endors action against the Assad regime. What the media and politicians don’t seem to care about is that a mere 9% of Americans – 25% if chemical weapons have been used which is not a shut case as of yet – are in favor of a military intervention in Syria compared to 60% who oppose it outright. Those inside the beltway keep telling you it’s in our “national interest.”

In order to understand US intervention in Syria we must first understand the term “national interest” because it is often the justification for military action. And let’s get it straight that our primary reason for intervention is certainly not for the Syrian people. To believe that, you would have to overlook a vast history of American interventions and how nations – especially superpowers – operate. Indeed, it is political science 101 that nations act in accordance with their own “national interest.”

 

So this brings us to defining the term. When those in power talk about “national interest” or “American interests”, whose interests are they referring to? Is it yours or mine? Not likely. Nobody is claiming that Syria poses any kind of national security threat to our country, so what are we gaining? The answer: nothing. The people who do gain, however, are the war profiteers. In the case of Syria, tomahawk cruise missile makers Raytheon could see a huge payday if military action is initiated. “National interest” almost invariably boils down to business, economic, and strategic interests. You might be saying, “No, that’s too cynical, we must act in the interests of others sometimes.” Maybe, but those cases are few and far between. Here are some examples of past intervention on behalf of corporate interests. In 1953, the CIA and Britain worked in unison to help overthrow the democratically elected leader of Iran because he wanted to nationalize the country’s oil industry. The CIA also helped overthrow the elected president of Guatemala on behalf of United Fruit Company in 1954. During the Iraq War, private companies were able to rack up a profit of $138 billion with Halliburton alone making $39.5 billion. There are dozens of these cases and we shouldn’t be surprised. US companies wield an enormous amount of influence over the government and routinely get rewarded with favorable domestic policy. It would be naive to believe this doesn’t also extend to foreign policy.

 

The simple point is that our government rarely, if ever, acts with humanitarian goals in mind. If we are “The World’s Police Force,” it is a force corrupted to the core. In 1933, General Smedley Butler had this to say on intervention and his career in the marines:

“I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

 

During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”

 

Conor Friedersdorf also points out that if our intentions are truly humanitarian then we could find many better ways to intervene rather than dropping bombs:

“The U.S. government could spend millions helping Syrian refugees. It could help pay for tsunami-warning systems across the Indian Ocean, or spend more funding the development of a malaria vaccine, or stop dumping agricultural commodities on poor countries in a way that stunts their economic development. There is no shortage of humanitarian suffering for us to address, if that’s how we want to spend our money, and I am fine with spending more of it helping people. But injecting bombs and cruise missiles into a civil war probably isn’t the most cost effective way to help people. It is certainly the sort of humanitarian assistance most likely to make us bitter enemies, which inevitably happens when you pick a side and start killing some of the people on it.”

 

A piece in Mcclatchy also notes the moral opportunism and hypocrisy behind American foreign policy. The article describes how using American intelligence, Saddam Hussein used mustard gas and sarin against Iran in 1988. Mcclatchy explains the reactions at the time from the US:

“Members of Congress, too, would publicly chide Iraq over chemical weapons, while fighting against more vigorous action that might impinge on U.S. businesses, as when farm-state lawmakers in 1990 challenged efforts to stop Iraq’s use of U.S. credit guarantees to buy U.S. farm products. ‘I understand the blood pressure behind this,’ Republican Pat Roberts, now a Kansas senator but then a member of the House of Representatives, said during one 1990 House debate. But he added, ‘we do sell to Iraq about a million tons of wheat and 450,000 tons of rice, (so) I wonder who we’re hurting here.’”

The Reagan and Bush Administrations denounced Iraq’s use of chemical weapons as well but still viewed Saddam as someone they could use and work with so they did nothing else. The Mcclatchy piece sums up this moral selectivity perfectly:

“History, though, offers a harsher perspective. From Iraq and Syria, to Rwanda and Armenia, morality as a motive in U.S. foreign policy is more contingent than absolute. ‘It’s quite selective. The government knew of the fact that Iraq was using chemical weapons, and did not deter them,’ Joyce Battle, an analyst at the National Security Archive, a nonpartisan research center, said in an interview Tuesday. ‘But when it’s thought to be in U.S. interests, the government will adopt a moralistic stand when it wants to justify its policies.’”

 

Our hypocrisy also comes to the fore when you take into account that we used both white phosphorus and depleted uranium heavily in Iraq. Many people see this as the cause of Iraq’s abnormally high cancer rates and birth defects.

 

So to be in favor of intervention in Syria as a humanitarian effort is utterly misguided. Humanitarian intervention might be argued for as some conceptual goalpost but in current reality it doesn’t exist. Yes, Bashar al-Assad is a negative force in the world and I am most certainly not defending him. But any action taken by our military will not be a pure humanitarian endeavor. It never is.

This is not to mention all the other caveats that we should be concerned about. That support from the international community will be tough to come by. That any strike will also antagonize relations between Israel and Iran as well as our relations with China and Russia. And that it will almost inevitably serve to destabilize the Middle East even more than it already has. Simply put, there is a lot that could go wrong. And judging by past bombing campaigns, it almost always does.

 

And as a side note, we just sold Saudi Arabia $641 million worth of cluster bombs which we and 105 other countries just condemned Syria for using in May.

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