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Kaiser Obama - From WWI to WWIII

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Yet in spite of the massive arms race leading up to it, and the unprecedented toll the Great War would ultimately take, many initially predicted that it would be a short war. Though it is unclear as to whether Kaiser Wilhelm II truly believed that it would be a brief fight, or whether he was merely attempting to raise morale among his subjects, he reputedly told his troops - in a phrase reminiscent of Obama's assurances concerning the limited scope of war with Syria - that the troops would be "home before the leaves have fallen from the trees." 

In another echo from WWI, in a recent interview with Le Figaro, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad described the war torn region as "a powder keg." Though it has arguably become a cliche, the expression "powder keg" is most famous for designating the Balkans on the eve of WWI. And though these correspondences, not to mention competition over resources, may be germane to most military engagements, the case with Syria shares an analogous complex of highly volatile alliances that could, with minimal provocation, lead to a metastasization of violence comparable to, or even surpassing, that of WWI. 

For instance, since Syria is allied with Iran - a nation nearly as populous as Egypt - an attack on Syria could very easily drag that pivotal nation into the war. The fact that the US has been ratcheting up pressure on Iran for the past few years only increases the likelihood of war with one of Syria's principal allies. Indeed, one of the reasons the Obama Administration appealed to congress to authorize attacks on Syria in the first place was that, according to the New York Times' Mark Landler, they feared that a unilateral strike could potentially destroy their chances for obtaining permission to launch a later war with Iran. Beyond the US, however, one of the United States' closest allies -  Israel - is also itching for war with Iran.  

Although it seems likely that Israel will stay out of a war with Syria, as it stayed out of the 1991 Gulf War, it is hardly a stretch to imagine that Israel - whose leadership is far more bellicose now than it was in 1991 - and has been pressing for war with Iran for years - would take advantage of the "legality" that the opportunity of war provides and attack Iran. Indeed, as of the morning of September 3rd, Israel and the US confirmed that the two just concluded joint military exercises, testing Sparrow target missiles in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

While this in itself may not be unusual, the extremely hawkish rhetoric of Netanyahu, among others in the Israeli government, may be indicative of plans for attacking Iran. And while recent studies have cast doubts as to Germany's unilateral belligerence back in 1914, few would be surprised if Israel were to mimic Germany's World War I invasion of France - invading Iran, Syria, or Lebanon (where Hezbollah, whose effective 2006 military performance against Israel caused no small degree of embarrassment for Israel, is ensconced) all under the legalistic cover provided by a state of war. 

Russia, meanwhile, whose power is arguably stronger than it's been since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, is another longtime partner of Syria. Having supported Syria throughout the Cold War, political, economic, and military ties between the two nations are still close. And while Russia has not indicated that it would enter the war, according to Bloomberg Russia has moved several warships - including two destroyers, an anti-submarine ship, and a missile cruiser - into the eastern Mediterranean in a show of force.  

Of all the alliances, however, the strangest is arguably that of the US and the Syrian opposition. Among others in the coalition of Syrian rebel forces, the Al Nusra Front - which is among the strongest of the rebel forces - is allied with al Qaeda. Since al Qaeda happens to be the US' principal enemy in its so-called War on Terror, by aligning with the Syrian opposition, the US will place itself in the peculiar position of being - in some respects - at war with itself. What makes this alliance all the more strange, however, is that rather than the Assad government, evidence suggests that it may be the rebels who are responsible for launching the August 21st chemical weapons attacks that Obama and Kerry argue require a punitive response.

To be sure, despite Obama's humanitarian rationale for bombing Syria, there is in fact no credible evidence to support the finding that the horrors Obama saw in a series of YouTube videos were launched by the Assad regime. As was the case with the lead up to the Iraq War, instead of strong, persuasive evidence, the US government has been building its case for war on contradictory and incomplete evidence, filling the gaps with conjecture. In spite of these shortcomings, Obama is proceeding with his case anyway. Arguing that, in addition to stopping a humanitarian disaster, US involvement is necessary to maintain Obama's and US credibility. Of course, in putting forth such an argument, Obama and his supporters have missed the fact that they cannot lose what they never possessed in the first place. For, in addition to the flimsiness of their evidence, the US has lost nearly all of its credibility already. Preemptively dismissing a UN weapons inspection report on the matter, maintaining that the time lapse of five days would preclude the UN team from collecting unadulterated evidence (contrary to the claims of experts who note that, though evidence may lose some of its freshness, highly relevant information can be collected months and even years after an event), did little to bolster US credibility either.  To be sure, rather than engaging in a good faith analysis of what is actually happening vis-a-vis chemical weapons in Syria, and who is actually to blame, and where the attacks in fact occurred, and which faction indeed controlled the area at the time, repeating Bush II's arguments regarding weapons of mass destruction Obama is rushing into another war. 

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Yet even if the Assad regime did use chemical weapons, as Obama claims, as horrifying as such an attack may be, it would still not suffice to provide the US with legal justification for an attack on Syria. That is, if the US Congress sanctions Obama's use of force, that may lend legitimacy to Obama's war; but because the US is proceeding without  UN Security Council consent, and is not acting in self-defense, a US strike itself would constitute an extra-legal - criminal - act of war.

None of the above, however, should distract attention from what ought to be the topmost concern - the human crisis unfolding in the Middle East. With over one hundred thousand casualties in two years of fighting, and over two million refugees (and over triple that amount displaced within Syria) the Syrian people are no doubt suffering the depredations of not only the brutal Assad dictatorship but the persistent, deadly attacks committed by the rebel forces. As the former attempt to hold onto power, and as the latter attempt to assume it, not only are the belligerents killing thousands of innocent people; held hostage to the Assad dynasty for generations, the Syrian people are now held hostage by the rebel opposition as well. 

While concerned people argue that something must be done, those expecting US strikes to initiate human rights in Syria may find themselves as disappointed as enlightened Prussians were when Napoleon's defeat of the Prussians in the first few years of the 19th century failed to initiate human rights there. Instead of bringing liberte, egalite and the other universalistic ideals of the French Revolution, Napoleon brought brutal occupation. Similarly, the US does not extend the ideals suspended in its Declaration of Independence to the lands it divides and conquers. One needn't point to the atrocities committed in Vietnam or the war crimes - revealed by Chelsea Manning, among other imprisoned whistleblowers - committed in Iraq and elsewhere to demonstrate this; one need merely refer to the US justice system, or the ongoing Snowden affair to see that the US doesn't realize these ideals, or its very own laws, within its very own borders. As Global Cop, the US' principal function is the dissemination of Global Order - a function which, insofar as it simply maintains order (as opposed to justice), amounts as well to a mere semblance of politics. With such a conflation of politics and war in play, one can expect the Syrian people - along with so many others throughout the world today - to be held hostage by the US, as well as by Assad and the rebels.  

Among its other attributes, and contrary to Carl von Clausewitz's formulation that war is the continuation of politics by other means, war (which is fundamentally force) is qualitatively distinct from politics. For though politics may often be conducted dishonestly and manipulatively, politics differs from war to the extent that it relies on some measure of consent and participation. As such, rather than the continuation of politics, war marks politics' failure. In spite of this, though, this conflation of war and politics tends to pass for our very notion of politics.  Not only is war regarded as the continuation of the political, in many respects politics (and economics) has become indistinct from a variety of war. 

Not only have normalized hostility and competitiveness become pervasive aspects of everyday life, to the degree that these are taken as natural, what pass for conditions of peace in the US, and elsewhere, are often indistinct from a variety of slow-burning cold war - a class war in which social classes (and so-called races) regard one another not as neighbors, but more or less as enemies competing for the same "scarce" resources - from vital resources, including water, homes, and food, to completely arbitrary resources, like jobs. Popular say in how these resources are distributed is taken for granted as being outside the scope of the political. 

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Because the internalization of these norms involves conceiving of (not only the natural world, but) the poor, the working class, and organized labor, among others, as enemies to be dismissed, such groups tend to be regarded as obstacles to be removed rather than as political partners with whom to negotiate a shared existence. As opposed to an actually egalitarian politics, then, which would attempt to collectively rectify collective problems, contemporary ideological hostility not only rationalizes the attack on labor and the poor, but leads in turn to its complementary egalitarianism - a regressive egalitarianism in which all are dragged to the same impoverished level. 

An actual politics, on the other hand, is distinct from war. And insofar as this is the case, an actual politics - in which all are equal partners - is anathema to Global Order. Indeed, to the extent that an actual politics  e mphasizes inclusion (as opposed to exclusion), and justice (which requires constant adjustment -as opposed to order and stability), rather than a pseudo-political regressive egalitarianism, an actual, egalitarian politics would champion a critical egalitarianism in which global resources would be equitably distributed. This, in turn, would necessitate a  disruption and adjustment of the existing Global Order .  Not only did something akin to this type of critical egalitarianism arise with the Arab Spring (among other popular, emancipatory, political movements), somewhat ironically it provided the Syrian opposition a veneer of political legitimacy in the first place. And though  the initial Syrian uprising may have been related to the emancipatory political movement that swept through North Africa and the Middle East, the  opposition in Syria very quickly turned into a force at odds with the universal, emancipatory ambitions characteristic of the Arab Spring.  Much like the Morsi government in Egypt (which was less a deviation from the old game of neoliberal political economics than a new party to it, that merely wanted a seat at the old game of exploitation) the Syrian opposition, like Assad's regime, along with the US, are but facets of the existing Global Order.

As recent events in Egypt have demonstrated, this Hostage-Order relation is a  systemic problem that cannot be simply reversed, or inverted. Indeed, any such inversion still maintains the principal relation - i.e., though they may be different, it still continues to hold hostages. While it cannot be reversed, however, this does not mean that it cannot be neutralized altogether. Neutralization, though, only ever acts as a type of political defibrillator, momentarily pausing pathological rhythms. That is, after a defibrillation, a new rhythm of life must proceed. And in order for a salutary rhythm to emerge, among other things those national, international, and economic institutions that perpetuate rhythms of coercion and exploitation, and preclude salutary modes of life from arising, must be dismantled . I n a political landscape dominated and determined by the institutional and physical parameters of the nation state, these determinants must be dismantled as well.

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Elliot Sperber is an attorney, teacher, and researcher/writer focusing on legal theory, political theory, and human rights.

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