That is how J.R.R Tolkien described the approach of the orcs and the Balrog as they converged on the intrepid heroes of the Fellowship of the Ring in Moria, beating their war drums, weapons to the fore.
We have a new Fellowship, and it’s being beset by drums of war, too. There are those who want the US to take action for the alleged use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. There are those who oppose that action, and there are many who are militantly indifferent. There hasn’t been as much vocal protest to intervention in Syria as there was in 2003, but that is due partly to the fact that the same groups that opposed the Bush buildup to war have lost both funding and impetus in the Obama years and that the buildup over Iraq was a dog and pony show months in the making, offering lots of time and opportunity to respond.
It turns out that the drums that were being beaten during the buildup over Iraq weren’t the Doom, doom of which Tolkien wrote, but more like the comparable lines from Bored of the Rings1, Henry Beard and Doug Kenney’s brilliant 1969 parody of that tale: Dribble. Dribble. Fake. Dribble Fake Shoot. In that book, as in 2003, the intrepid heroes were not being chased by orcs and a balrog, but by narcs and a ballhog. The lies were dribbled in day by day, week by week until finally, ten years ago on 19 March, the ballhog , aided by Goodgulf the Wizard, fired the first shots in the War of the Dirty Dingus.
You won’t have to go far ten years later to find someone who agrees that the Iraq war was a mistake. Ill-conceived, poorly justified and badly conducted, by the end of its third year, the war in Iraq caused as many fatalities among the US military as had the attacks of 11 September 2001. The point at which the death toll abroad exceeded the homefront losses also marked the turn of public opinion against the war effort. Of course, that change of heart was aided by tales of contractor profiteering, the abuse of prisoners, the loss of untold amounts of cash, defective armor, extraordinary renditions, enhanced interrogation and abuse of the PATRIOT ACT. It was Lord of the Jingoism, and if you wurn’t fur ‘Merica, you wuz agin’ it.
People got tired of that, and tired of the legacy of Iraq. The ambiguousness of executive authority under the authorization for the Second Gulf War, something the right wingers were more than happy to have, is now under the control of a Democratic president whose loyalties, if you are a Republican or a teabagger, are equally ambiguous. Questionable powers of surveillance joyously unleashed under Bush are still running full tilt (and gathering steam, even). The Department of Homeland Security, in addition to having a name that sounds like something out of William L. Shirer2 or a Cold War melodrama, is a swamp of red tape with a money pit at its heart. Reasonable people are now pretty sure that there were no WMDs, no Iraqi hijackers and no imminent danger to the US from Saddam Hussein (Fake. Shoot).
Now one of the strongest justifications for taking action in Syria is the reported use of chemical weapons, a practice that has been banned since World War I, but on which enforcement has been inconsistent. Little outrage was heard when Saddam Hussein used gas both against Iran and his own citizens, the Iraqi Kurds in his way. In Vietnam, Operation Ranch Hand and Operation Trail Dust were justified on the grounds that they were directed against forests and crops, but nearly a million cases of death, maiming and birth defects have been attributed to those programs. It’s not as easy for people to answer the clarion call for moral outrage in the present circumstances as it once was. Furthermore, it can’t be absolutely certain that chemicals were used until a detailed examination is conducted, including analysis of soil samples from the area and blood samples from the victims. Some segments of the US intelligence community seem confident that the attacks were chemical in nature and were launched by pro-government forces, but US intelligence argued doggedly that Iraqi had Niger yellowcake (Dribble. Fake. Shoot.).
The political landscape and timescape are quite different. David Cameron is no Tony Blair – he finds more comfortable seating in the lap of the British public than that of the US president; meanwhile, France is on our side this time. I guess that means that former Representative Bob Ney (R-Ex-Con) will be calling for bringing back French fries and French toast and for Kathryn Meany Wilson3 to put down her English horn and pick up a tenor oboe.
The political map in Syria is also different than that of 2003 Iraq. It looks a little like the US red state/blue state map, with the rebels in control of the suburbs, small towns and hinterlands and the government holding the urban and more populated coastal region. Without absolute precision, collateral damage from air or drone strikes could have heavy political consequences. Any government-held targets are likely to be in disputed areas where rebel troops and civilians could be affected (indeed, Senator Rand Paul’s chief concern is that American weapons and air strikes could kill Christians; the lives of Muslims are, apparently, worthless). The civil war and government actions against civilians have alienated the country from most of its neighbors. It has been suspended from the Arab League, maintaining diplomatic relations with only four of the remaining 21 members (Yemen, Lebanon, Sudan, and Iraq).
For US involvement the looming question is cui bono? Syria does not figure prominently in the US economy; 99% of its oil exports go to Europe and other than specialty items, imports of other goods are negligible as well. Diplomatically, relations have varied widely over the past decade. Despite limited support against al-Qaeda and other terrorist activity, Syria did not support the Iraq war. Despite attempts at re-engagement, the government actions against civilians as well as repeated attacks against the US embassy and ambassador led to the ambassador’s recall in 2011 with interests now represented through the Czech Republic’s embassy. Diplomatic ties with many western countries other than the US have also been cut.
Perhaps the greatest value of Syria to the US is its position. Strategically, it is central to the Middle East, bordering Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Israel. Only Jordan is more centrally located, but it lacks a readily accessible coast and has only one port (Aqaba). Perhaps another nugget of value to the US is America’s strained relationship between the US and Syria’s foremost economic and military allies: Iran, China, Venezuela and Russia. Bringing down the Assad government would tweak their collective nose.
If there was any good that came out of the Iraq war, at least one is a raising of the bar regarding public acceptance of US military involvement abroad in general and in the middle east in particular. The promises of 2003 – greeted as liberators, a short cakewalk, financed by Iraqi oil – all failed fulfillment. The loudest voices calling for intervention are coming from the war profiteers in the military-industrial complex. It also doesn’t hurt that the last thing Republicans want is to offer a Democratic president a chance to become a war hero4 – that could interfere with their looting of the 99%, elimination of social programs and suppression of the vote. Maybe there is enough cynicism left over from the Shrub’s war to make people question the necessity for more military entanglements in places where the US is not exactly welcome. So what is the American public’s interest in Syria? Probably the most honest answer is not much.
I’m sure most Americans will agree that the loss of life is a tragedy and that the use of chemical weapons is an atrocity, but it’s hard to drum up empathy for people half a world away when there is no comparable homefront crisis to fuel the feeding frenzy (apparently, the Syrian Electronic Army isn’t enough of a provocation). The press isn’t joining the ballhog and the narcs, so there are no drums to march to and there isn’t much enthusiasm for US boots on the ground. No, the gains and losses are almost all political.
The not-so-loyal opposition has a lot to lose if they withhold support and intervention succeeds or if they lend support and it fails. There was a similar damned-if-you-do/don’t problem regarding Libya. There is no more motive to intervene on behalf of the victims any more than there was in Darfur. There is no “us” in this fight to be for or against. For the President, the stakes are even higher. He drew a line, and now is dealing with making sure whether or not that line has been crossed. None of his options are without their downsides, and the possibilities are endless. The US loses credibility if no action is taken and the evidence points to Assad. If the strikes go forth, what happens if the evidence clears the Syrian government, shows the attacks were something else or, in the worst case, prove to have been a rebel attempt to discredit their enemies? It’s getting close to that damned-if-you-do point for America. The clock is ticking and the Presidential rhetoric seems a bit too close to 2003 for comfort (Doom, doom).
Perhaps it’s time for politicians to realize that wars only benefit the rulers on the winning side and the people who profit from providing the tools of conflict – most others involved either die or suffer one way or another. Most wars, modern ones at any rate, end up with people sitting at a conference table negotiating a peace. I guess it hasn’t yet occurred to our leaders to bypass the killing and just head for the conference first thing. It has been nearly ninety-five years since the end of the “war to end all wars”. In that time, there have been (depending on your definition of what constitutes a war) over a hundred military actions, civil wars and genocides that number their dead in the thousands or more (total: about 150,000,000 dead). That should be ample proof that war not only does not end war, but it makes it harder to avoid future armed conflict5. Each trigger pulled or button pressed lowers the threshold, but the people who make the decisions don’t seem to be paying attention.
1: Bored of the Rings, Henry N. Beard and Douglas C. Kenney, New York: Signet Books, 1969
2: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William L Shirer, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1960
3: Kathryn Meany Wilson plays solo English horn and oboe in the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington DC.
4: It would be interesting to speculate on what a current President McCain or President Romney would be doing about Syria right now, but there’s a whole alternate history novel in that.
5: I am not going to go into whether any particular war could have been avoided by diplomacy alone. World War II was inevitable by almost all standards, as is any war that is unilaterally instigated. I would welcome the opportunity to update this post with an account of a conflict that was averted through negotiation. That’s what the comments are for.
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