On Obama’s attack on Syria: Donohue/ Bacevich

At Bill Moyers’ site, Phil Donohue interviews military historian Andrew Bacevich about President Obama’s plans to attack Syria:

From the transcript:

“PHIL DONAHUE: Welcome. I’m Phil Donahue.

Bill Moyers is away this week and I am pleased to be sitting in for him. Our subject is Syria.

What began there two and a half years ago as part of the Arab Spring has turned into an all-out civil war. Now has come the shocking evidence of poison gas attacks. A fatal escalation that has led President Obama to ask Congress to authorize the limited use of military force. And if we take action, where and when does it stop?

Historian and analyst Andrew Bacevich is here asking those questions. A graduate of West Point and Vietnam veteran, he served in the military for 23 years before becoming a professor at Boston University. His books include The Limits of Power and Washington Rules. His latest, Breach of Trust.

Andrew Bacevich, welcome…

ANDREW BACEVICH: Thank you very much.

PHIL DONAHUE: Well, I’m pleased to have this chance to chat with you for a lot of reasons. One, I don’t know who else has more cred than you.

What would a 23-year graduate of West Point offer us now regarding the dilemma in which Obama finds himself, regarding Syria?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, if I could have five minutes of the president’s time, I’d say, “Mr. President, the issue really is not Syria. I mean, you’re being told that it’s Syria. You’re being told you have to do something about Syria, that you have to make a decision about Syria. That somehow your credibility is on the line.”

But I’d say, “Mr. President, that’s not true. The issue really here is whether or not an effort over the course of several decades, dating back to the promulgation of the Carter Doctrine in 1980, an effort that extends over several decades to employ American power, military power, overt, covert military power exercise through proxies, an effort to use military power to somehow stabilize or fix or liberate or transform the greater Middle East hasn’t worked.

“And if you think back to 1980, and just sort of tick off the number of military enterprises that we have been engaged in that part of the world, large and small, you know, Beirut, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and on and on, and ask yourself, ‘What have we got done? What have we achieved? Is the region becoming more stable? Is it becoming more Democratic? Are we enhancing America’s standing in the eyes of the people of the Islamic world?’

“The answers are, ‘No, no, and no.’ So why, Mr. President, do you think that initiating yet another war, ’cause if we bomb Syria, it’s a war, why do you think that initiating yet another war in this protracted enterprise is going to produce a different outcome? Wouldn’t it be perhaps wise to ask ourselves if this militarized approach to the region maybe is a fool’s errand.

“Maybe it’s fundamentally misguided. Maybe the questions are not tactical and operational, but strategic and political.” You know, I have to say, I’m just struck by the fact that Secretary of State Kerry has become the leading proponent for war. It’s our secretary of state’s job apparently–

PHIL DONAHUE: He threw his medal– he threw his medals back.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, that’s why it’s doubly ironic. ‘Cause the Secretary of State is the war promoter. And that our secretary of state happens to be a guy who came into politics basically advertising himself as the guy who because of his–

PHIL DONAHUE: Understands war?

ANDREW BACEVICH: –Vietnam experiences, understands war, understands the lessons of Vietnam, and is therefore going to prevent us from doing dumb things. On the contrary, he’s the lead cheerleader to go through another dumb thing.

PHIL DONAHUE: President Obama would say to you, “These are children being grossly and painfully killed.”


PHIL DONAHUE: “How can you watch these videos with the foam coming out of the nostrils. And we’ve got to do something.”

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, the attack is a heinous act. Now does the fact that they were killed with chemicals make it more heinous than if they were killed with conventional ammunitions? I’m not persuaded.

I mean, I think the issue, one of the issues here, to the extent that moral considerations drive US policy, and I would say as a practical matter they don’t, but let’s pretend that they do to the extent that moral considerations drive US policy, there’s a couple of questions to ask. One would be, “Why here and not someplace else?”

I mean, just weeks earlier, the Egyptian Army killed many hundreds of innocent Egyptians. And we sort of shook our finger at Egypt a little bit, but didn’t do anything. So why act in Syria? Why not act in Egypt? I think that that needs to be sort of, that needs to be clarified.

And the other question will be, “Well, if our concerns are humanitarian, why is waging war the best means to advance a humanitarian agenda?” If indeed US policy is informed by concern for the people of Syria, let’s just pretend that’s the case even though I don’t think it is. If it’s informed by concern for the people of Syria, why is peppering Damascus with cruise missiles the best way to demonstrate that concern?

I mean, a little bit of creative statesmanship it seems to me might say that there are other things we could do that would actually benefit the people of Syria, who are suffering greatly, who are fleeing their country in the hundreds of thousands. Who are living in wretched refugee camps. Why don’t we do something about that? Why wouldn’t that be a better thing to do from a moral perspective than bombing Damascus?”

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22 Responses

  1. Bacevich: I mean, a little bit of creative statesmanship it seems to me might say that there are other things we could do that would actually benefit the people of Syria, who are suffering greatly, who are fleeing their country in the hundreds of thousands. Who are living in wretched refugee camps. Why don’t we do something about that? Why wouldn’t that be a better thing to do from a moral perspective than bombing Damascus?”

    I screamed “WE ARE!” at the TV last night. We can do both. We can stop Assad from killing Syrians like so many cockroaches and care for his victims.

    We can do both…thanks for letting me vent the steam over Bacevich’s dissembling.

    Yelling at the TV, somehow inadequte

  2. The guy’s questions are good, but the answers are simple and tragic: we can’t do anything diplomatically without the support of the international community, which our rivals for geo-political world power, China and Russia, will not permit. We CAN do something militarily to deter the use and proliferation of chemical weapons. Whether the peaceniks like this professor are pleased by it or not, American diplomatic clout has ALWAYS depended upon that overwhelming military superiority, which we still enjoy. It’s meant to be used not just in the narrow geo-political interests of the nation, but also, historically, in defense of the civilized values of the West. If someone can persuade me that Obama is advocating striking Syria for some kind of narrow, “business” interest–something to do with America’s selfish, strictly economic interests–then I’ll oppose what Obama wants to do. I know that, generally speaking, he’s a tool of the banksters. But, right now, in this case, I believe that he is standing up for the values of civilization, and in defense of innocents.

  3. If Andrew Bacevich had five minutes to talk to the President of the United States about the situation in Syria, he wouldn’t say anything on the subject of chemical warfare?

    When he opened up with, “This isn’t about Syria…,” I assumed that’s where he was going, but instead of getting into the actually important, relevant issue (which is, indeed, larger than the outcome of the Syrian Civil War), he went into general theorizing about geopolitics and an agenda for the Middle East, and didn’t even touch on chemical warfare.

    That’s pretty astounding.

  4. I like this. I find transcript had a kernel of logic that was very good. I pray for the day when people would quit arguing politics and find an ability for logical reasoning. I truly wish our Congressmen, Senators and President could think things through with the clarity of thought I see in Bacevich’s material here.

  5. Now does the fact that they were killed with chemicals make it more heinous than if they were killed with conventional ammunitions? I’m not persuaded.

    You know what I’m not persuaded by? People who started believing that chemical weapons are not different from conventional weapons, and that chemical warfare isn’t really a unique problem, only after the fascist dictator massacred 1500 people with sarin bombs.

    Chemical warfare has been treated as a special horror, a war crime above and beyond ordinary means of war, for 90 years. Suddenly, people like Andrew Bacevich decide that it’s really nothing special, a genuine and heart-feld belief they’ve held since, oh, last Wednesday.

    Funny how none of them ever gave any indication of feeling this way, despite that being international law for their entire lives, until it became a useful thing to say when arguing for the policy they want at this particular moment in time.

    • Mr. Joe,

      I don’t think the USA would agree with you about there being this huge difference between killing civilians with artillery fire or aerial bomardment, on the one hand, and killing them with chem weapons on the other.
      I live 40 miles from a US military stockpile of 800,000 rounds of artillery that are loaded with mustard gas.
      The USA has more chem weapons than any other country.

      If Americans really considered chem weapons so horrible, maybe we wouldn’t have been one of the last nations to agree to the Chem Weapons Conventtion. But we were.

      Cluster munitions are more horrible than poison gas, because they mostly kill children. The USA is the #1 manufacturer of cluster bombs, so we don’t agree to the treaty banning cluster bombs that almost the rest of the world has agreed to.

      Small arms (handguns and rifles) kill way more innocent civilians than any other type of military weapon. The rest of the world has a treaty on banning these weapons, but the USA won’t sign on, because we are the largesty or one of the largest manufacturers.

      Same story on landmines.

      Chem weapons are scary, no denying it. But a victim of poison gas is no more dead than a gunshot victim. The pain of death by Sarin has not been shown to be any more excruciating than death by artillery fire.

      Maybe the larger point is that killing civilians, by any method, is bad.
      If that is stipulated, then the Syrian invasion is immoral.

      • Brian, if the USA, and the rest of the world, didn’t feel that way, why did they sign the Geneva Protocols of 1925? Why did they sign the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993?

        This is not remotely an open question – or, at least, isn’t wasn’t until last Wednesday.

        I live 40 miles from a US military stockpile of 800,000 rounds of artillery that are loaded with mustard gas.
        The USA has more chem weapons than any other country.

        Weapons they are in the process of destroying. The initial estimate would be that they would be gone by 2012, but they process is behind schedule. Nonetheless, the US is the world leader in chemical weapons destruction, including the arsenals of other countries, who ship them here because the US has the largest and most advanced facilities.

        “a victim of poison gas is no more dead than a gunshot victim.”

        Thank you for your opinion. The people who lived through World War I, and who knew more every kind of death in wartime than you or I ever will, didn’t agree with you. What do you think you know that they didn’t?

    • If Chemical Warfare has been treated as a special horror, a war crime above and beyond ordinary means of war, for 90 years, where was the condemnation when Iraq gassed Iranian teenage transcripts thirty years ago? The evidence then was the West was assisting in providing information on troop concentrations to aid the attack. In Fallujah, the US used White Phosphorus not as a smoke screen but for its ability to chemically burn – an accusation it initially denied.

      Strange also how a claimed breach on International Law on chemical weapons justifies a breach of the International Law on waging war without a Security Council Resolution or a credible claim for self defence.

    • Maybe it is time to take a look at the endless stream of weapons that have been developed since 1913 to see if they might cause as much or more misery to human victims than chemical weapons.

      The entire cold war was based on using nuclear weapons if it ever turned hot. Has there been some authoritative study that determined the the suffering caused by a nuclear, or atomic, weapon is more benign that the suffering from a chemical weapon?

      How about one of our favorite Vietnam weapons, napalm bombs. Has it been determined the suffering from napalm is more benign than the suffering from chemical weapons.

      I’m not saying that chemical weapons should not be banned. But we might have a few weapons in our arsenal that, by the standards of 1913, deserve the same treatment.

    • Where was American and British outrage at illegal chemical weapons use at Halabja in March of 1988 where over 3,200 Kurds died?

      Neither was there any American support in the United nations to punish Israel for illicit use of white phosphorus in Gaza in 2008-09 during Operation Cast Lead or of other war crimes and crimes against humanity that the U.N. Goldstone Commission found credible proof of?

      • Yes, Ronald Reagan was a terrible person.

        I suggest we not follow his lead in turning a bling eye towards chemical warfare; how about you?

        Pro-Reagan position, or anti-Reagan position?

    • Ironically the US has a rather checkered past when it comes to chemical warfare.

      The WP had an article several weeks ago on the use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. It was called Operation Ranch Hand (1962 – 1971), and it was an extensive and widespread spraying from converted cargo planes over South Vietnam. The planes dumped around 20 million gallons indiscriminately on the Vietnamese civilians and crop lands, rice paddies, forests and jungles surrounding the air bases along the coast.
      The clinical study noted this program effected the health and longevity of 3 million Vietnamese civilians and caused 150,000 children to be born with birth defects, because the toxin is passed genetically to the children through the DNA of the infected parents’ during conception. Joint teams of American and Vietnamese officials are supervising the clean-up right now of the worst sites.

      More recently. in 2004 in the Iraq War, American and British troops used white phosphorus mortar and artillery rounds in the Battle of Fallujah, a densely populated city, against the insurgents that was reported by journalists embedded with the soldiers. Of course, the insurgents were in close proximity to the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.

      And having served as a medical corpsman in Vietnam, I know how nasty and horrific “Willy Peter,” slang used by the wounded grunts, can be. It burns down to the bone because the chemical reaction is fueled by the oxygen in the air. It also creates a toxic white cloud after it explodes that drifts through the breeze. That’s why many innocent Iraqi civilians, who were killed, in Fallujah had no visible shrapnel wounds. They inhaled the cloud, it burnt their lungs, and as the body reacts to it, it sends bodily fluid to the lungs and the civilians literally drowned in their own body fluids.

      In fact, here’s another bitter irony, photos of those dead Iraqi civilians in Fallujah reminded me of the photos of those dead Syrian civilians in Damascus – they seem just sleeping in their death – that Obama and Kerry have cited with self-righteous indignation as a crime against humanity. But, of course, it’s just a cynical manipulation in their propaganda campaign to emotionally tug at the heartstrings of Americans to justify an intervention in the Syrian civil war.

      “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” – the Creed of the Assassins that William Burroughs loved to quote in his writings to wise up the marks how the world really works.

      • We must remember the Rules:

        Agent Orange and depleted uranium and white phosphorus and such things are not “chemical weapons.”

        Under Drone Rules, there are no “innocent civilians.” Their bad, for being stupid or unfortunate enough to be “in proximity to Unlawful Enema Combatants.”

        “Everything is also sui generis,” whatever Bad was done has nothing to do with Bad that is about to be done.

        Let Reagan be Reagan — Obama is Different, the MIIC is filled with beneficent do-gooders just aching to “retaliate” for evil done to and by somebody or other.

        The function of the world economy is to build out the entirety of the Grand Global Interoperable Network-Centric Panopticonal Battlespace, which actually has no determinate function or end point except More of Itself. And is always Under Construction, Addition, Design Revision, and Repair.

        See how pleasingly simple it all can be, if you just let yourself be carried by the flow of false logic?

  6. Bacevich has great clarity, and a way of exposing the false military logic that seems to always come up in these situations. The institutional desire to play cop/bully has to be recognized and tamped down. We also need to be open about our own involvement in ‘assistance’ over the years.

  7. I understand a lot of Great Gamers are also inveterate bridge players. One thing an inveterate and masterful bridge player hates is when someone else at the table asks to “review the bidding.”

    But the world of humans is so complex, and there’s so much going on, and the lies are so difficult to sort from the truths and of course since “We” are at perpetual war now, and as Churchill famously observed, that crap about how “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies,” maybe it would be helpful to review the bidding on chemical weaponry bidding by the US of A, about whom one is not supposed to make Random Bad Observatons, and other players, Here’s one interesting source, that kind of gives the lie to all that noise about 90 years of “norms:”

    link to dailykos.com

    It’s part of a series, here’s page 2:

    link to dailykos.com

    For those who are so exercised about chemical weapons, you got any idea about what pathogen warfare, and its successors that the MIIC is so diligently moving toward deployability, might be like? Want to lose some sleep, even over a somewhat dated (2004) observation of potential uses and “legalities” that surround them? Lookie here (.pdf):

    link to scholarship.law.berkeley.edu

    Smart people are bringing incredible death to you, behind the promise of “incredible benefits,” by the playing of their close-to-the-vest cards, according to the rules of their idiot Game… Is that the future we are paying for?

  8. Prof. Cole, let me congratulate you and your commenters for your fresh approach and your openness.
    US policy in the Middle East has succeeded to a large extent. The apparent goals of fostering peace and democracy are just window dressing, the real goals are protecting dollar hegemony by ensuring oil is traded in US$ that cost next to nothing to print and allow the US to get away with a large trade deficit that would wreck any other economy, as well as deriving other significant benefits, and protecting Israel even if that means dismantling the social and economic fabric of neighboring and close nations. With those goals in mind US policies make sense. It is about defending and extending an Empire. Many other Empires before have concealed their real goals under ideologies and religions, nothing new there.

      • Not clear which you want:

        This, link to nytimes.com

        or this: link to washingtonsblog.com

        or this: link to en.wikipedia.org,

        which latter text includes this snippet:

        On November 15, 2005, U.S. Department of Defense spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Barry Venable confirmed to the BBC that white phosphorus had been used as an incendiary antipersonnel weapon in Fallujah. Venable stated “When you have enemy forces that are in covered positions that your high explosive artillery rounds are not having an impact on and you wish to get them out of those positions, one technique is to fire a white phosphorus round into the position because the combined effects of the fire and smoke – and in some case the terror brought about by the explosion on the ground – will drive them out of the holes so that you can kill them with high explosives.”

        No emphasis added, or needed…

  9. Professor Bacevich correctly indicates that America cannot rely on a solely moral basis to invade another nation.

    In Hama, Syria in February of 1982, the Syrian army encircled that city and killed as many of 30,000 civilians in attempting to suppress a Muslim Brotherhood insurgency. There were reports of hydrogen cyanide gas being deployed by the Baath regime.

    Despite this, and the fact the siege rivalled the Black September events in Jordan in 1970 for cruelty of an Arab government against its own citizens, the massacre was virtually ignored by the American media and the U.S. Department of State.

    This anomaly between U.S. government attitudes in 1982 and today suggest that these recent poison gas deaths and the supposed “moral justification” are being used as a pretext for military action where the actual motivation is to further destabilize the Assad regime due to its alliances with both Russia and Iran.

  10. Donahue/Bacevich a royal flush.

    The question I keep asking is similar to some of the things Bacevich is saying. Who the hell does the U.S. think they are lecturing others about killing innocent people? Atomic bombs on Japan, Napalm in Vietnam, support for Saddam when he used chemical weapons on Iranians, U.S.invasion of Iraq hundreds of thousands died,injured, millions displaced(ever hear Andrea Mitchell, Melissa Harris Perry talking about that fact?), support for Israel when they used white phosphorus on Palestinians. Who do we think we are? Do our leaders think people around the world are as blind to these atrocities as some Americans? Let the international community deal with this.

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