You’d need a team of linguists to tease out the internal contradictions, brazen hypocrisies and verbal contortions in President Barack Obama’s call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power.
“The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but …”
The “but” belies the preceding phrase – particularly since its speaker controls the ability and possible willingness to enforce his desires at the point of a depleted uranium warhead.
“The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing and slaughtering his own people,” Obama continued. One might say the same thing of Obama’s own calls for dialogue and reform in Iraq and Afghanistan. Except, perhaps, for the fact that the Iraqis and Afghans being killed are not Obama’s “own people”. As you no doubt remember from Bush’s statements about Saddam Hussein, American leaders keep returning to that phrase: “killing his own people”.
Now the Euros are doing it. “Our three countries believe that President Assad, who is resorting to brutal military force against his own people and who is responsible for the situation, has lost all legitimacy and can no longer claim to lead the country,” British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a joint statement.
If you think about this phrase, it doesn’t make sense. Who are “your” own people? Was Hitler exempt because he didn’t consider his victims to be “his” people? Surely Saddam shed few tears for those gassed Kurds. Anyway, it must have focus-grouped well back in 2002.
“We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way,” Obama went on. “He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Here is US foreign policy summed up in 39 words: demanding the improbable and the impossible, followed by the arrogant presumption that the president of the United States has the right to demand regime change in a nation other than the United States.
US hypocrisy on Syria
Assad deserves no pity. He has killed tens of thousands even during his tenure. Political prisoners in Syria languish in secret prisons. But the same is true in Obama’s American gulags, which span the globe from Guantanamo to Bagram to Diego Garcia to the Californian state prison system, where inmates go insane after years in solitary confinement. Where is Obama’s moral standing? Who tells Obama it’s his time to scoot?
Assad is a dictator, and always has been, as was his father. As Obama knows, Assad’s regime was once convenient, not least for Israel, which appreciated the fact that Assad’s primary motivation was not the retrieval of the Golan Heights but rather the suppression of internal dissent. Obama’s phony request that Assad lead Syria to democracy is like asking a tiger to lead a lamb to safety. It’s nothing but bluster that reflects the simple fact that this Syrian thug has outlived his usefulness to the US and its allies.
What’s interesting about the US war of words against Assad is its “here we go again” quality. No matter which side of the Rubik’s cube of regime change one examines, the United States repeatedly deploys tactics without strategy – tactics proven counterproductive time after time after time.
In a world with one superpower, it’s almost as though, in order to guarantee order in the universe, the gods have given the United States one undefeatable enemy: its own incompetence.
The “global squeeze play” against Assad, as the Associated Press wire service characterised it, marks Obama’s fifth-and-a-halfth war (in addition to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Somalia) – a conflict of words and economic sanctions rather than the usual drone planes and missiles. (As Obama and his European puppets have made clear, there will be no hot war against Syria. The US is too overextended, not to mention broke. Besides, there’s an election next year – and the old wars are unpopular enough as it is.) In other respects, however, this is a dismal reprise of many of the same screw-ups the Bush Administration committed during the (lack of) planning for and subsequent occupation of Iraq.
So many questions remain unanswered. They all boil down to: What next?
Ex-dictators need a way out
In the good old days of American regime change (Duvalier, Ferdinand Marcos, etc.) a dictator past his expiration date could count on a military chopper on the roof of the presidential palace, an expansive villa on the French Riviera and a generous Swiss bank account full of looted retirement funds. It was corrupt arrangement to be sure, but it had two advantages from the American perspective: it was easier to convince tyrants to go and it made it easier for the CIA to recruit client states in the future.
Such sweet deals are no longer to be had in a world where all worker bees, even those wearing medals and epaulettes, with secret police at their disposal, get discarded like used tissue paper after their cost-benefit balance tips to the former. Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega languished in an American prison on trumped-up drug charges for 20 years before being extradited to France; Saddam got dropped down a trap door to the howling jeers of his rivals.
One can easily imagine a call from North Korean tyrant Kim Jung-Il to Libya’s Colonel Gadhafi a few years back: “Don’t disarm, Muammar. Just you wait! The second you give up your nukes the Americans will take you out. Saddam disarmed in 1991; now he’s in a tacky grave in Tikrit. What did Milosevic get for attending the Dayton peace conference? A war crimes trial. Look at me. I don’t cooperate. I don’t give in. Sure, they hate me. But I’m holding tight. Living large. Cooperation with the Americans is a mug’s game!”
Assad is brutal. Assad is tyrannical. Politicians follow their Machiavellian political imperatives, the first of these being survival and keeping power.
Leftist American political activists plan to recreate Egypt’s Tahrir Square in Washington, DC this coming September and October. They plan to occupy downtown Washington until their demands, including immediate withdrawal from the wars in the Middle East, are met. How long before Obama’s patience wears thin? How many protesters will get shot or beaten by security forces? National Public Radio paraphrases a cynical retired Lebanese general, Amin Hotait: “He says it’s no surprise that Syria is using tanks against its own people, saying that’s how forces around the world deal with terrorists and other armed opponents.”
Bush demanded that Saddam leave Iraq before the 2003 invasion. The big question was: where would he have gone? Bush wanted war more than regime change so he never offered Saddam the old-fashioned cushy exile – or any escape at all. When Obama went to war against Libya earlier this year, he followed the same policy vis-a-vis Gadhafi: he asked him to leave without leaving him a way out.
For beleaguered dictators, the choice is clear: killing “your own people” makes good sense. Surely as he watches his trial through the bars enclosing his courtroom hospital bed Hosni Mubarak rues not the hundreds who died during the Arab Spring but rather the thousands he should have killed to remain in power.
Now the what-next question pertains to Bashar al-Assad. “Where does the Syrian leader go?” asked CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. Machiavelli advised his patron to allow his enemies a graceful exit strategy. Like his illiterate predecessor, Obama prefers to box them in. “I have no doubt that both Gadhafi and Assad will do whatever they can to make sure they don’t wind up like Mubarak or Milosevic. That means many more people will die,” predicts Blitzer.
In 2003 skeptics asked Bush’s neoconservatives: Who would run Iraq after deposing Saddam? If you’re going to remove a nation’s government by force, providing for a successor regime seems like the least you should do. A year and a half earlier in Afghanistan, the Bushists had a ready (though deeply flawed) answer in the form of Hamid Karzai. Not so much in Iraq, where major opposition figures had lived in exile for decades and thus were virtually unknown.
Like Bush, Obama is winging it in Libya. He is calling for President Assad to step down without having a clear (US-friendly, naturally) successor in mind. “It’s hard to argue with President Obama’s call for Bashar al-Assad, the bloodthirsty Syrian dictator, to step down. But it’s also hard to discern any logic or consistency in the administration’s handling of the ongoing tumult in the Arab world,” writes the liberal Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post.
As a right-winger David Ignatius, also a columnist for The Washington Post, reflects a more influential faction, the consensus view of most big-media print and broadcast outlets. Like Robinson, he acknowledges the incoherence of Obama’s policy. “This is a movement without clear leadership or an agenda beyond toppling Assad,” he wrote about the Syrian opposition. “It could bend toward the hard-line Sunni fundamentalists who have led the street fighting in Deraa and Homs, or to the sophisticated pro-democracy activists of Damascus.”
But Ignatius is a pro-war neo-con, whether his president is a Republican or Democrat.
“Despite these uncertainties, Obama is right to demand that Assad must go. Some commentators have chided the White House’s hyper-caution … But I think Obama has been wise to move carefully and avoid the facile embrace of a rebel movement whose trajectory is unknown.”
A big mistake in 2003, one rarely if ever debated in the US, is the United States’ tendency to overpersonalise its regional rivalries and military conflicts. In 2003 political cartoonists propagandised Saddam as a neo-Hitler complete with SS-style skull-and-crossbones badge on his black army beret. Dwelling on Saddam’s personality made it easy for the Americans to miss the fact that the Iraqi dictator had remained in power for decades because he represented a distinct political constituency dominated by Sunnis, embracing a post-socialist semi-secular brand of Islam embodied by the Baath Party. (Direct arms sales from the United States didn’t hurt either.) To Bush’s surprise, those disenfranchised constituencies, including many soldiers fired by proconsul Paul Bremer, took up arms and launched the first wave of the ongoing insurgency.
Here too, the age of Obama is much like that of Bush.
“Syria protesters defy Bashar Assad; Troops Kill 22” reported the Los Angeles Times. Most demonstrators quoted in such accounts took pains to say that they opposed the regime, not just the man. But the US media avoided such subtleties.
Cutting the head off Syria’s Baathist snake can no more create meaningful change within Syria’s political system than hanging Saddam did in Iraq or jailing Mubarak in Egypt. The underlying ideology remains in place, reinforced by years of propaganda in the schools and the media. The power brokers in the military, government ministries and major companies tend to retain their sinecures long after figureheads are removed. The Arab Spring has led to personnel changes in Tunisia and Egypt, not revolution. Revolution is the radical reallocation of power and wealth from one whole class of elites to another class or classes. Anything short of revolution is reform; reform isn’t enough to fix a broken government.
Finally, Obama is repeating yet another classic characteristic of US foreign policy, one we saw in sharp relief during the Bush era: militant ambivalence toward potential future successors. Despite having the set the stage for the ascension of, for example, the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, the US refuses to provide enough support to guarantee close ties down the road.
After the US-led call for Assad’s resignation the UK Guardian reported: “One veteran dissident in Damascus said: ‘I am jubilant. This came at the right time for the street.’ He said protesters were telling him they wanted to dance in the streets. A middle-aged woman in Homs said: ‘More protesters will go out now.'”
If so, they will learn what right-wing Cuban exiles learned when the CIA promised them air support for the Bay of Pigs invasion: US words aren’t always backed up by arms or money. If and when they come to power, the Syrian resistance won’t owe the US
Which, in the greater scheme of things, makes the gods happy.
Ted Rall is an American political cartoonist, columnist and author. His most recent book is The Anti-American Manifesto. His website is rall.com.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.