Syria and the Art of Moral Imperialism

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The conflict in Syria has been going on for over two years now, and President Obama has been doing everything he can to stay out of it, but now there is talk in the media of an attack, possibly this week. Confronted by growing evidence that the Assad government has used poison gas against civilians, President Obama now has to make good on all his talk about red lines. (Barry Crimmins recently said, “If we’re prepared to use force on people who commit chemical warfare, when do we attack Monsanto?”) He is reportedly studying different options that have been presented to him by the military. However, a White House spokesman, Jay Carney, has said, “The options that we are considering are not about regime change.” So what are Obama’s aims then? My guess is that he is going to carry out a one-off attack, similar to Clinton’s missile strike in Khartoum or Reagan’s bombing of Libya. Obama can then say that the U.S. has shown zero tolerance towards the use of chemical weapons, to the applause of his supporters. The attack will increase tensions with Russia and with Iran, but it will be a small price to pay so that the U.S. can maintain its facade of moral high-mindedness.

We have come a long way since the giddy days following the invasion of Iraq, when there was delirious talk about the prospect of U.S. troops marching through the streets of Damascus and Teheran. I argued in an earlier post that the U.S. empire is not in decline, and I still hold that view. What has happened is that the Iraq War and its aftermath has taught the U.S. ruling class to take a more realistic view of what it can and cannot do, as well as to take a more realistic view of the internal politics of other countries. (Contrast Gen. Dempsey’s sober assessment of the Syrian opposition with the neoconservatives’ love affair with the convicted embezzler, Ahmad Chalabi.) In that respect, it can be argued that the U.S. empire is actually in better shape today than it was under George W. Bush.

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