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'To bomb or not to bomb?' Obama's Hamlet omnishambles

Tim Wall
Tim Wall

A British journalist and editor who commutes between northeast England and Moscow, Tim Wall is an editor at RT.com.

He has written extensively about Russian politics, business and society since 2003, serving as a member of the Valdai Club, an international group of Russia experts, journalists and academics, from 2009 to 2012. A former editor-in-chief of The Moscow News, Russia’s longest-running English language periodical, and business editor at The Moscow Times daily, he also writes about global economics, the growth of protest politics and the alienation of mainstream media from reality.

He has also lived and worked in Azerbaijan for four years, covering energy geopolitics and regional conflicts in the Caucasus and Central Asia for Caspian Business News, The Baku Sun and The Azeri Times.

In a previous life, he was editor of British Chess Magazine, an expert chess coach and British under 16 chess champion.

A British journalist and editor who commutes between northeast England and Moscow, Tim Wall is an editor at RT.com.

He has written extensively about Russian politics, business and society since 2003, serving as a member of the Valdai Club, an international group of Russia experts, journalists and academics, from 2009 to 2012. A former editor-in-chief of The Moscow News, Russia’s longest-running English language periodical, and business editor at The Moscow Times daily, he also writes about global economics, the growth of protest politics and the alienation of mainstream media from reality.

He has also lived and worked in Azerbaijan for four years, covering energy geopolitics and regional conflicts in the Caucasus and Central Asia for Caspian Business News, The Baku Sun and The Azeri Times.

In a previous life, he was editor of British Chess Magazine, an expert chess coach and British under 16 chess champion.

'To bomb or not to bomb?' Obama's Hamlet omnishambles
On the face of it, Barack Obama’s agonized “To bomb or not to bomb?” speech to the American people looked a class act, lacking only Hamlet’s skull and a Shakespearean costume. The reality? He’s lost the argument for strikes on Syria, and he knows it.

The decision by the US president to postpone a vote in Congress on military intervention in Syria led to some commentators, such as CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, dubbing Obama a modern-day “Hamlet” for being indecisive, and thus weakening American power around the world. “To go through this Hamlet-like performance on the world stage can’t be good for American power and prestige,” Zakaria said in an interview on CNN’s sister channel in India, IBN.

In fact, when making the case for a limited strike against Syria President Bashar Assad’s regime, to “degrade” his ability to launch any future chemical weapons attacks, both the US president’s moral rhetoric and realpolitik were hopelessly flawed.

Obama’s ‘sea of troubles’

First, the moral argument: far from being able to claim, as Obama did, that the US “has worked with allies to provide humanitarian support, to help the moderate opposition, and to shape a political settlement,” his administration has in fact “stood idly by” for two years while 100,000 people have been killed, more than 4 million people have been made homeless refugees and the country has been sucked into a sectarian bloodbath.

While Obama played up the rhetoric with harrowing descriptions of the video footage from the August 21 chemical gas attack in a Damascus suburb that killed up to 1,400 men, women and children, it’s disingenuous to claim, as he did, that “the situation profoundly changed” with that attack. The reality is much different: While at the beginning of the civil war, triggered by a popular uprising against Assad’s regime in the Arab Spring of 2011, it was Assad’s forces brutally targeting civilians, the rebels (funded and armed from the Gulf states, in particular) soon caught up in atrocities.

A girl stands in front of a building damaged by what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the northern town of Ariha in Idlib Province September 8, 2013.(Reuters / Houssam Abo Dabak)

The pro- and anti-Assad armed forces that are savaging the country, threatening to make this sectarian conflict even worse than Bosnia or Iraq, in reality only have the support of small sections of the population – about 10 percent on either side. The remaining 80 percent or so of ordinary Syrians support neither side in the conflict, and simply want an end to the suffering.

And as Russian President Vladimir Putin pointed out in an Op-Ed for The New York Times on Thursday, calling for Obama’s administration to exercise caution in Syria, it’s not a war being fought for any principle, but simply along ethnic and religious lines, and to avenge sectarian killing.

“Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multi-religious country,” Putin wrote. “There are few champions of democracy in Syria.”

Chemical weapons ‘still part of modern warfare’

But the moral flaws in Obama’s arguments against chemical weapons go much deeper. Yes, he is correct in saying all except seven countries around the world have ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). But chemical and biological agents are still part and parcel of modern warfare, contrary to the simplistic picture he and his Secretary of State John Kerry, have painted.

Those seven countries include not just Syria, but also staunch US ally Israel, not to mention military-run Egypt. As a recently discovered CIA document shows, the US believes Israel to have had its own active chemical weapons program, including sarin and other nerve gases, since the 1960s.

In his White House speech, Obama said how, in “World War I, American GIs were among the many thousands killed by deadly gas in the trenches of Europe,” but he failed to mention how the US itself was manufacturing massive quantities of mustard gas as soon as it joined the war, and how it would have unleashed the biggest attacks of the war on German soldiers if the armistice had not been signed in November 1918.

In Obama’s version, “the civilized world has spent a century working to ban” chemical weapons, culminating in the CWC. This specifies that signatory countries must not only not use chemical and biological weapons in warfare, but also cease production of these weapons and destroy all their stockpiles. But the dirty truth about chemical warfare – ever since its use in World War I by first the Germans, then the British and the Americans – is that if one side has chemical weapons, the very first reaction of rival armies is to produce their own, deadlier weapons in even greater quantities, and to retaliate in kind. For more on the genesis and use of chemical warfare, see Robert Harris’s and Jeremy Paxman’s comprehensive 1982 book, “A Higher Form of Killing”:

Although the vast majority of the world’s nations have signed up to the CWC, the US, Russia and China are among those countries who failed to complete the destruction of their chemical weapons stocks by the deadline of April 2012. (The US still has two active chemical weapons depots, in Colorado and Kentucky, for example, and is due to destroy its last stockpiles as late as 2021.)

From Agent Orange to white phosphorous

Obama’s rendering of the US’s own chemical weapons history is also highly selective, not to say downright suspect. Has he somehow forgotten the US military’s use of millions of gallons of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War?

The highly toxic cocktail of chemical herbicide, defoliant and jet fuel sprayed from warplanes left 400,000 Vietnamese people killed or maimed, and 500,000 children born with defects. Even today, decades later, the Red Cross estimates up to 1 million people are disabled or have health problems due to Agent Orange. (Just three days after the Aug. 21 chemical attack in Damascus, Britain’s Daily Mail posted a photo essay by New York photographer Brian Dricscoll, showing how Vietnamese children born in the 21st century are still suffering from horrific birth defects from its use.

Then there is the use of white phosphorous, an incendiary weapon similar to napalm, in the November 2004 attack by US forces on Fallujah in Iraq, in which some 6,000 civilians, including many women and children, were killed.

An Iraqi security officer walks past headstones in the "Martyr's Cemetery" in the city of Fallujah.(AFP Photo / Ali Al-Saadi)

While white phosphorus is not on the CWC list of banned chemical weapons, its use in close proximity to civilians or civilian property (i.e. in urban areas, such as Fallujah) is considered a war crime.

While Obama opposed the Iraq war and criticized the Bush administration’s prosecution of it as a senator, after he became president he praised the US military for their conduct in the attack on Fallujah.

In a speech to US troops at Fort Bragg, Texas, in December 2011, Obama said:

“Never forget that you are part of an unbroken line of heroes spanning two centuries - from the colonists who overthrew an empire, to your grandparents and parents who faced down fascism and communism, to you - men and women who fought for the same principles in Fallujah and Kandahar and delivered justice to those who attacked us on 9/11.” 

The US is not alone in using white phosphorous against civilians in recent years, either. Israel also used the weapon in its attacks on Gaza in January 2009, which indiscriminately hit civilian facilities such as schools, homes and hospitals.

Kerry’s controversial record

As a side note to Obama’s flawed moral arguments on chemical weapons, we should also consider Kerry’s own. In several televised speeches and testimony to Congress since the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, the Secretary of State has also focused largely on the moral arguments, rather than presenting definitive proof of the Assad regime’s guilt. Neither has he seriously considered the possibility that Syrian jihadist rebels were supplied with sarin gas by Saudi Arabian intelligence, an allegation reported by Dale Gavlak, an AP writer in Jordan. 

Britain’s Daily Telegraph also reported that at a meeting this summer with President Putin, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, offered to strike a deal to keep world oil prices stable if the Kremlin would abandon Assad.

Yet Kerry’s record on the use of chemical weapons is also highly controversial. As writer Sean Thomas argues in the Daily Telegraph Kerry, a decorated former Vietnam vet, campaigned as a US senator for the right of US soldiers who suffered from the effects of Agent Orange to receive full compensation from the US government. Yet at the same time, Kerry is also “part of the US Establishment which refuses to compensate the Vietnamese for the same chemical poisoning by America’s Agent Orange,” Thomas says.

Kerry’s condemnation of Assad (whom he now compares to Hitler) is also something of a volte face.

In February 2009, as chairman of the Senate Foreign relations Committee, Kerry and his wife, billionaire heiress Teresa Heinz Kerry, enjoyed a lavish dinner with the Assads at one of Damascus’s top restaurants. It was just one of six meetings between Kerry and the Syrian dictator, and in January 2011 Kerry pushed for the US to reopen diplomatic relations with Damascus, even while the US officially considered Syria a “state that sponsors terrorism.”

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (L) meeting with US Senator John Kerry.(AFP Photo / HO)

For all of these reasons, the efforts by Obama and Kerry to convince the American people, the US Congress or international public opinion of the moral case for military strikes against Assad fall short.

Zakaria’s criticisms of Obama’s Hamlet-like indecisiveness are right, in a sense. Yet Obama’s real dilemma over Syria is not a personal moral one, but it epitomizes the existential crisis facing American foreign policy as a whole. If a “red line” is crossed in Syria, how will Washington keep Iran or anyone else in line on other issues? After all, even though Obama insisted twice in his Tuesday address that America is not “the world’s policeman,” in fact that is exactly the role that Obama’s sponsors in the Pentagon and Wall Street insist that he must play.

‘Spreading the conflict’

On the practical arguments for intervention, Obama has also failed to convince either centrist Democrats or rightwing Republicans in Congress, as both parties are split down the middle. Many Democrats, while seeking to support him, know all too well that their voters are tired of the US fighting yet another war of conquest.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (3rd L) testifies at a U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Syria, alongside U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey (L), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Capitol Hill in Washington, September 4, 2013.(Reuters / Jason Reed)

Meanwhile, Republicans are split between the NeoCon interventionists led by John McCain, who want to see a full-blooded Iraq-style war with the aim of overthrowing Assad, and the isolationists such as Rand Paul. His Tea Party faction – like the anti-interventionist wing of the Democrats – fears that another Middle East war will not only cost American lives, but also strip federal government finances even further, leading to an even greater collapse in essential health, education and social services in many parts of the US.

In his White House speech, Obama tried to address the concerns of Congress about regional fallout, arguing that not striking Assad over chemical weapons would lead to fighting spilling “beyond Syria’s borders, these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan, and Israel.”

But the problem is, a US strike would make things far worse. For a start, it would not mean the end of the Assad regime, and if anything it would prompt hard-liners in the Syrian Army and security services to step up, not reduce, their use of brutal methods of warfare such as chemical weapons. For another, it would increase sectarian barbarity on all sides, not bring the situation under control.

Fear of Jihadist regime

As Putin pointed out in his New York Times article, a US strike “will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa.”

However, Putin’s article does not give a full (or perhaps completely accurate) exposition of the Russian government position on Syria. While the Kremlin has offered varying degrees of support for Assad during the two years of the conflict, it has clearly done so to counteract Western influence and to prevent radical Jihadists coming to power. Many believe that Putin’s real position is that he sees an Assad regime, however bloody and brutal, as a lesser evil than these “bad guys” (to quote Kerry’s phrase).

Russia's President Vladimir Putin.(AFP Photo / Mikhail Klimentyev)

Underpinning the Kremlin’s position, although it has tended to avoid saying it very loudly, is the fear that a jihadist Sunni regime in Damascus could help to destabilize already fragile Russia’s North Caucasus, which has seen two nasty conflicts in Chechnya in the last two decades. Russia has a growing Sunni Muslim population, and the last thing the Kremlin wants is for radical Islamist ideas to gain a bigger foothold on its southern flank.

Yes, it’s realpolitik, but this is the real reason why Putin has been reluctant to abandon Assad’s regime to its fate. Does this “lesser evil-ism” make Putin any less (or more) “noble” a Machiavellian prince than Obama? Apply the same test to Obama’s drone strikes in Pakistan, and it’s hard to see any heroes, more like 50 shades of gray.

‘Play-acting’ by Kerry and Obama

Contrary to White House and State Department spin, Obama’s decision to postpone the Congress vote on cruise missile strikes (at least for now) and “focus on diplomacy” was necessitated by Machiavellian realpolitik, not the “moral argument” against Assad.

And Kerry’s so-called “off-the-cuff” comments about giving Assad time to decommission chemical weapons were nothing of the sort – they were merely a face-saving exercise for Obama.

It’s not clear exactly when Obama realized the ruse was called for, but it seems it was sometime after he flew into St. Petersburg for the G8 summit. The penny may have dropped when he turned up for dinner with the other G20 leaders an hour late, after fielding presumably difficult calls with members of Congress. Then, realizing that domestic support for a strike could not be relied upon, during the dinner and further into a long night of discussions, he also realized that no effective coalition for military action could be cobbled together internationally.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (L) welcomes US President Barack Obama at the start of the G20 summit on September 5, 2013 in Saint Petersburg. (AFP Photo / Yuri Kadobnov)

In Kerry’s comments at the London press conference Monday morning, he appeared to be making a disparaging, throwaway remark (much in the same way that George W. Bush and his administration did about Saddam Hussein in the build-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq):

"Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week - turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting, but he isn't about to do it and it can't be done."

As even the usually-supine, mainstream Western media started to realize that Kerry’s comments could open the way to a diplomatic solution to the crisis, State Department spokespeople were thrown into action – spinning the idea that Kerry had actually meant it “rhetorically.” Somehow, the plan was to throw the media off the scent, even if only for a day or two.


Whatever the intention, the impression given was a typical “omnishambles,” as fictional spin doctor Malcolm Tucker’s character would have had it, perhaps in a more splenetic way, in the British TV comedy, “The Thick of It.”  (Perhaps in this case, “Obama-shambles” would more accurately describe the angry reaction of the Washington elite to each new climb-down from the White House.)

The idea that somehow Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov could have “seized upon” Kerry’s comments, and – within a few hours – come up with a brand new plan for Assad to turn over Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles to international control was itself “seized upon” by the Western media. They seemed to swallow the idea hook, line and sinker – at least until after Obama’s speech Tuesday, and confirmation from Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, that the plan had in fact been discussed in some depth between Putin and Obama in St. Petersburg.

Then, as some of the US media started checking out the story, it became clear that the plan had been considered for a while – New York Times columnist Bill Keller wrote that a senior Obama administration official told him the plan was discussed by Kerry and Lavrov as far back as this spring.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Russian Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov ®.( AFP Photo / Philippe Desmazes)

And in Russia, Dmitry Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, said that the plan had in fact originated with former US Senator Richard Lugar, who was involved in the Nunn-Lugar program to dismantle WMD in post-Soviet countries.

So in fact, the "Russian" plan currently being discussed in Geneva (if, in fact, we should call it a purely "Russian" plan) came about as a result of diplomatic discussions between Russia and the US. It may well be that, as a favor to be cashed in later, Putin allowed Obama to pass it off as a Kremlin idea, so that Obama wouldn't have to suffer the humiliation of unilaterally admitting that his strikes plan wouldn't get through Congress anyway.

The real tragedy of the Syrian conflict, however, is not that Obama dropped the skull, or fluffed Hamlet’s lines. No outside military intervention will stop the sectarian slaughter. Peace can only come from ordinary Syrians standing up in solidarity together against the sectarian barbarians – and ridding themselves of all brutal tyrants and warlords, from Assad to Al-Qaeda.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.