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Kaiser Obama - From WWI to WWIII

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published originally on CounterPunch


Obama in Air Force One by Wikimedia Commons

When Barack Obama was an inexperienced presidential candidate back in 2008, one question that was repeatedly raised was whether he was qualified to competently carry out the duties required of the executive. Upon announcing that - contrary to Bush's belligerent approach - he favored negotiating with foreign leaders, Obama invoked John F. Kennedy's failed attempt to negotiate with then Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev in Vienna in 1961. Confirming the suspicions of many, Obama's example betrayed a profound lack of knowledge of US history. For, among other things, Kennedy was famously out of his depths in that 1961 summit. Not only did Khruschev bully and belittle Kennedy, in Kennedy's own words Khruschev treated him "like a little boy." Telling New York Times reporter James Reston that Khruschev "beat the hell out of me," and "savaged me," Kennedy added that his dealings with Khruschev at that 1961 summit amounted to one "of the worst experiences of my life." 

Needless to say, John F. Kennedy's foreign relations debacle would not seem a very strong precedent to invoke if one wanted to encourage confidence in one's capacity to handle international affairs. 

Five years later, as Obama trains his tomahawk missiles on Syria -- pursuing a war path certain to lead to further horror for untold Syrians, and the region in general -- one cannot help but wonder whether President Obama is as ignorant of early 20th century history as candidate Obama was of the Cold War. 

Though Obama seems confident that a strike against Syria would amount to a "limited", controlled, conflict, it is hardly arcane knowledge that unpredictability and dissimulation are not only the most elementary of warfare tactics, but invariables of military conflict. As that master militarist Napoleon Bonaparte put it, "War is a lottery, and one should risk only small amounts." In spite of this maxim, however, and Obama's assurances to the contrary, a war with Syria risks very large amounts. Not only does it carry the potential to fuel a long, drawn out conflict in the already destabilized region, anyone paying attention to the Middle East over the past few years must recognize that such a strike could easily lead to thermonuclear war as well. Though this may sound sensationalistic, the probability of such a catastrophic outcome is so real that it should not be dismissed out of hand. As is well known, Israel is not only in possession of nuclear weaponry, the US ally (and the US itself for that matter) has been gunning for war with Iran - one of Syria's most important allies - for years. Pakistan, another nuclear power, has meanwhile stated that it would oppose the US should the latter attack Iran, potentially dragging India, another US ally (and nuclear power) into the fray as well. Seen from this perspective, it is beyond foolhardy to predict a quick, easy outcome - not that that is what Obama actually wants.

By all accounts, a quick outcome was never the Obama Administration's top goal. Rather than preventing a humanitarian crisis, until recently Obama et al. were primarily interested in keeping the war going as long as possible, encouraging the belligerents to bleed themselves dry. According to the Wall Street Journal, "The Obama administration [didn't] want to tip the balance in favor of the opposition for fear the outcome may be even worse for U.S. interests than the current stalemate." It seems a prolonged war, rather than peace, would, ironically, have created the most stable situation - at least as far US interests are concerned. 

As conditions shifted, however, and insofar as Obama seems to be following the George H. W. Bush, post-Cold War "New World Order" associated with the Cheney, Wolfowitz, et al., Project for the New American Century (one major aim of which is the initiation of war against Iraq, Iran, and Syria, among other nations), there are plenty of reasons to suspect that the US would not shrink from taking advantage of an opening in the fluctuating Syria situation - allowing the US to not only shore up its control of the Middle East, with its vast resources, but to contribute to its encirclement of China to boot.

Notwithstanding such grand designs vis-a-vis Syria, and with the caveat that one can never really know what is being planned, as the pitch for war intensifies it seems safe to presume that the Obama team does not necessarily plan to restrict US involvement to the "limited scope" heretofore discussed. To be sure, as the New York Times reported, when Saudi and Syrian opposition leaders complained about the potential lack of forcefulness implied by the pledge to deliver limited strikes, John Kerry assured them that language involving limitations was only designed to mollify the US public

Additionally, instead of the delay attached to Obama's decision to wait for congressional approval for a US strike leading to cooler, more pacific heads, the delay appears to be producing a predictably contrary effect; instead of cooling down, feelings are heating up. As retired US General Jack Keane told the BBC, goals are being reassessed. Rather than simply talking about restoring a chemical weapon-free norm, talk has turned to not only "deterring" but "degrading" Assad's military capabilities. At the same time that the military is discussing degrading Assad's forces, talk has turned as well to "upgrading" the opposition - all of which sounds far closer to advocating the "regime change" that, just days ago, was dismissed as being outside the "limited scope" of the intended strike.

In spite of all this, even if the US could, hypothetically, simply and quickly "restore" the chemical weapon-free "norm" which was - in the words of National Security Adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes - the principal rationale for air strikes, and even if US forces could quickly withdraw from the war-zone, there is still no way to ensure that a military intensification of the sort involving missile strikes won't inadvertently widen the conflict.  

Indeed, while Obama's argument in favor of launching a military strike against Syria - specifically his position that his and US credibility is at stake - brings to mind JFK's Cuban Missile Crisis, the parallel is in fact far closer to an exponentially far more severe conflict, one that started nearly one hundred years ago: the first World War. This, however, should not lead one to dismiss all comparisons to the Cuban Missile Crisis; by launching an attack on Syria, Obama would not be merely potentially instigating a world war, he would be setting in motion what could very well amount to a world war fought with nuclear weapons. 

Though this may sound dramatic, it should not really be too contentious a claim. For, in addition to the likely involvement of Israel (and possibly Pakistan), the US - the only country to attack another with nuclear weaponry - has already been using low-grade nuclear weaponry in the region, in the form of depleted uranium, since the 1991 Gulf War. Moreover, in another - though less well-known - capacity that Obama shares with Kennedy, Obama has in fact already brought the world to the verge of nuclear war. Though not widely reported, Operation Neptune Spear - the 2011 invasion of Pakistan that resulted in the extralegal assassination of Osama bin Laden - involved violating Pakistan's sovereignty. Because the Pakistanis were unaware of the incursion into their territory, and had good reason to fear that their rivals the Indians (or the US even, in what are referred to as "snatch and grab" operations) could have been seizing nuclear weapons, the Pakistan government was nearly provoked into launching a nuclear strike,  precipitating nuclear war.

In spite of the potential for staggering human harm, like his predecessors Obama continues to assert US hegemony, selectively referencing and selectively enforcing international norms. As he vivifies a pivotal component of the US system of power, this should really not seem too out of the ordinary, nor should it seem strange that Obama should increasingly come across as a veritable pastiche of presidents past. Beyond his nods to Reagan and Lincoln, his Nixon-esque war crimes, and the aforementioned JFK resemblances, it has been widely noted that Obama's claim that Syria is using "weapons of mass destruction" echoes Bush II's similar, 2003 claim. Moreover, the legal argument for bombing Syria absent UN sanction is also remarkably similar to the argument Clinton - and NATO - put forward for bombing Kosovo absent UN approval in 1999. In that purportedly humanitarian mission, NATO forces attacked the Serbs, notoriously inflaming the conflict there as well as exacerbating harm to civilians. Yet while the present situation is indeed similar to the conflict involving Kosovo and Serbia, it may in fact be related less to the NATO bombing of Kosovo than to events that transpired in Serbia nearly a century earlier. For inasmuch as the present tangle of alliances creates an extremely volatile situation, Syria resembles Serbia in 1914, at the time of the Austro-Hungarian invasion that triggered World War I. 

Ninety-nine years ago, the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire ruled over not only a large expanse of Central Europe, but over a considerable portion of the Balkan Peninsula as well. Controlling much of this territory since the 16th century, by the early 20th the Austro Hungarian Empire was sandwiched between its ally, the German Empire, and its rivals, the Russian and Ottoman empires. When the nationalistic furor of the late 19th century infused its client-states with a desire for national autonomy, the Slavic Kingdom of Serbia - allied with their fellow Slavs, the Russian Empire - was not alone in agitating for political independence. And when the nationalist assassin Gavrilo Princip shot and killed the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, he set off a chain reaction of alliances and counter-alliances that brought all of the major powers to war with one another. 

When the Austro Hungarian Empire invaded Serbia to punish its regicidal transgression, the Russian Empire - a Serb ally - was drawn into war against the Austro Hungarians. And since the Russian Empire was allied with France and Great Britain in their Triple Entente as well, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its allies - the German Empire and the Ottoman Empire (from whose conquered territory Syria would be carved) found themselves at war with the French, British, and Russian empires. Fueled by nationalistic sentiment, and by imperialist competition for economic expansion, as well as for natural resources, like oil, the ensuing offensives quickly engulfed the world in one of the most devastating wars of human history. 

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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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