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Tomgram: Peter Van Buren, What If Congress Says No on Syria?

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(Article changed on September 12, 2013 at 11:18)

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Looked at one way at least, the president's Syrian war proposal -- itself an ever shifting target -- couldn't be more brain-dead.  The idea that one country, on its own, has the right to missile and bomb another to resolve the question of a chemical attack and war crime should, on the face of it, seem strange to us, like the most random death-dealing response to an already horrific act.  Certainly, if done, it would have an effect; it's just that no one has any idea what that would be, though as with so many military-first acts of the U.S. government in recent years, it already has "This Can't Turn Out Well" scrawled all over it.

If you believe in the cycles of history, the Obama administration's Syrian policy should seem eerily cyclic.  Last Sunday, after all, Secretary of State John Kerry proudly announced that the Saudis were "backing" an American strike plan (and might even be willing to pay for it).  Shouldn't this have fired some residual brain cells in Washington and produced a bit of a memory buzz?  After all, in some twisted way, the present plan developed at the Pentagon, the White House, and an ever more militarized State Department brings us full circle to the moment in the early 1980s when this all began.

In the Syrian nightmare, we see an old alliance being reconstituted. Back then, the Reagan administration (spearheaded by the CIA) and the Saudis, as well as the Pakistanis, supported with money, training, and weaponry the most extreme and fundamentalist of the Afghan mujahedeen in their struggle against the Soviet Union. They were then called "freedom fighters" by the president. Their job, as Washington saw it, was to give the Soviets a bloody nose in their own special Vietnam (and so indeed they did). We know, of course, just where that propitious plan ended.

Now, the Saudis are, it seems, doing the same thing in Syria, once more funding and arming extreme fundamentalist forces and, however reluctantly, the U.S. is backing and being backed by them. As a result, if the Obama administration, with or without congressional agreement, were to launch an attack on Syria, it would functionally be fighting on the same side as, and advancing the fortunes of, al-Qaeda-cloned forces. It's not exactly an ad man's -- more a Mad Men's -- dream and, if you think about it for a moment, can you doubt that the whole crazed project has "This Can't Turn Out Well" scrawled all over it?

In the tragicomedy that is now American policy, it may be the president's good fortune that a seemingly inadvertent comment by his secretary of state (who seems to be a paid staff member of The Daily Show) about how the Assad government could save itself by handing over its chemical weaponry within a week may provide him with an exit ramp.  A funny thing happened on the labyrinthine road to Damascus: the Syrians quickly assented and Russian president Putin (clearly playing a smart hand and evidently having the time of his life) offered to help out. 

It seems the American people are pitching in as well.  Unlike the Obama administration and its congressional backers, opinion polls clearly show that, decades later, as another grim 9/11 of endless war planning passes, Americans have gotten the message.  They don't want to see Washington loose the missiles and drop the bombs. As TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren, the former State Department whistleblower and author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, notes, the question is whether, at this late date, Congress is finally capable of responding as well -- or whether it will even have the chance. Tom   

Giving New Meaning to the Day After 9/11 
Why Saying No to Syria Matters (and it's not about Syria) 
By Peter Van Buren

Once again, we find ourselves at the day after 9/11, and this time America stands alone. Alone not only in our abandonment even by our closest ally, Great Britain, but in facing a crossroads no less significant than the one we woke up to on September 12, 2001. The past 12 years have not been good ones.  Our leaders consistently let the missiles and bombs fly, resorting to military force and legal abominations in what passed for a foreign policy, and then acted surprised as they looked up at the sky from an ever-deeper hole.

At every significant moment in those years, our presidents opted for more, not less, violence, and our Congress agreed -- or simply sat on its hands -- as ever more moral isolation took the place of ever less diplomacy. Now, those same questions loom over Syria. Facing a likely defeat in Congress, Obama appears to be grasping -- without any sense of irony -- at the straw Russian President Vladimir Putin (backed by China and Iran) has held out in the wake of Secretary of State John Kerry's off-the-cuff proposal that put the White House into a corner. After claiming days ago that the U.N. was not an option, the White House now seems to be throwing its problem to that body to resolve. Gone, literally in the course of an afternoon, were the administration demands for immediate action, the shots across the Syrian bow, and all that. Congress, especially on the Democratic side of the aisle, seems to be breathing a collective sigh of relief that it may not be forced to take a stand. The Senate has put off  voting; perhaps a vote in the House will be delayed indefinitely, or maybe this will all blow over somehow and Congress can return to its usual partisan differences over health care and debt ceilings.

And yet a non-vote by Congress would be as wrong as the yes vote that seems no longer in the cards. What happens, in fact, if Congress doesn't say no?

A History Lesson

The "Global War on Terror" was upon us in an instant. Acting out of a sense that 9/11 threw open the doors to every neocon fantasy of a future Middle Eastern and global Pax Americana, the White House quickly sought an arena to lash out in. Congress, acting out of fear and anger, gave the executive what was essentially a blank check to do anything it cared to do. Though the perpetrators of 9/11 were mostly Saudis, as was Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda itself sought refuge in largely Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. So be it. The first shots of the War on Terror were fired there.

George W. Bush's top officials, sure that this was their moment of opportunity, quickly slid destroying al-Qaeda as an organization into a secondary slot, invaded Afghanistan, and turned the campaign into a crusade to replace the Taliban and control the Greater Middle East. Largely through passivity, Congress said yes as, even in its earliest stages, the imperial nature of America's global strategy revealed itself plain as day. The escape of Osama bin-Laden and much of al-Qaeda into Pakistan became little more than an afterthought as Washington set up what was essentially a puppet government in post-Taliban Afghanistan, occupied the country, and began to build permanent military bases there as staging grounds for more of the same.

Some two years later, a series of administration fantasies and lies that, in retrospect, seem at best tragicomic ushered the United States into an invasion and occupation of Iraq. Its autocratic leader and our former staunch ally in the region, Saddam Hussein, ruled a country that would have been geopolitically meaningless had it not sat on what Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz called "a sea of oil" -- and next to that future target of neocon dreams of conquest, Iran. Once again, Congress set off on a frenzied rush to yes, and a second war commenced out of the ashes of 9/11.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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