Wednesday, September 18, 2013

David Bromwich again on Obama and the Syrian crisis

David Bromwich is a close scholarly observer of Obama and pays attention to his words and habits. He seems to have a dislike of the man that seeps into his writing and makes me wonder if he may not be trying a bit too hard to give a harsh reading to Obama's words and actions.

In Putin to the Rescue London Review of Books 35:18 (09/26/2013 issue; accessed 0918/2013), he discusses Obama's actions in the recent Syrian crisis. If the track to resolving the Syrian chemical weapons issue without war continues, the following will quickly drop into the memory hole. But the Obama Administration's case for what happened in the sarin gas attack of August 21 of this year was "dodgy," to recall a notorious word from the Iraq War buildup:

The unclassified four-page intelligence summary he released to the public – according to Congressman Alan Grayson, the 12-page classified document is no different in this respect – speaks from the position of 'We [the US government]'. The reason for the unusual grammar is that the document does not come from the American intelligence community. The Inter Press Service journalist Gareth Porter, piecing together the vague and generic evidence, the omissions and the grammar delivered by Kerry, reported on 9 September that the absence of the signature of James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, from the Kerry document was a significant detail. Clapper evidently had refused to sign off because the data had been cherry-picked (as Colin Powell’s had been for his UN presentation in February 2003). Kerry gave 1429 as a sure figure for the number of deaths in the August attack, but the figure is unexplained and at variance with first-hand reports: French intelligence estimated 281 deaths and Médecins Sans Frontières 355. The Kerry document was effectively discredited in less than a week, but only below the radar of the mainstream press and policy establishment. On the basis of a tissue of far-fetched inferences and assumptions, in which the most solid datum is a single radio intercept – a recording of a disturbed commander of Syrian forces given to the US by Israeli intelligence – Obama declared his intention to order an attack, and then asked Congress to authorise the use of force under wide discretion: he would be empowered to act in any way he deemed necessary to ‘respond to’, 'deter' and 'degrade' the military and defensive capabilities of the Syrian government. These are all words without a settled meaning, and they were chosen for that reason. To an amazing degree Obama's request for authorisation of September 2013 resembles Bush's request of October 2002. [my emphasis]
Bromwich notices that what Obama had proposed to do would have been a clear violation of international law:

The talk of 'punishing' Assad affected a stance of parental discipline and avoided the language of international law. This was not an accident. An attack on a sovereign state by another state that has not been attacked is a violation of international law. As for punishment, it is something a country may legally enforce on its own citizens, but it does not express a possible relation of one country to another.
He also notices what Charlie Pierce caught in Today in the March to Semi-War Esquire Politics Blog 09/06/2013, that Obama was saying we needed to attack Syria to prevent the erosion of international norms. Pierce: "Apparently, 'Norms' -- even ones about which the United States has been considerably blithe in the past -- are the latest dominoes over which to theorize."

The new Norm-ino Theory. Bromwich:

Early in the crisis, he tried to work around the law by a rhetorical stratagem: the United States and its allies, in punishing a gas attack on Syrians which had surely been ordered by Assad, would be ‘enforcing international norms’. ‘International norms’ is a phrase we are hearing a lot. A world without norms (the implication seems to be) is a world in chaos. Given the refusal of Russia to shelve its veto at the UN and take on trust French, British and American assurances that Assad ordered the attack, who will enforce such norms? Who if not the United States?
Cheney and Bush made a similar argument to invade Iraq without UN authorization, saying that we were enforcing the UN's own resolutions that the UN itself wasn't willing to enforce.

Bromwich also believes the British Parliamentary vote against war was an especially important moment in Obama's trajectory toward war: "It was only when the House of Commons voted against war that American war policy was made to hesitate. The president and his team were deeply discouraged by that vote."

And Bromwich also notes that the Administration offered very different notions to the public of what kind of military action he would be undertaking:

Even so, in the first week of September, Obama and Kerry appeared to stand behind both the ambitious and the minimal versions of their meditated attack. A decisive and damaging strike lasting many days: that was the version apparently offered by the president to Graham and McCain. On the other hand, the strike envisaged by Kerry, in remarks to the British press on 9 September, would encompass 'a very limited, very targeted, short-term effort ... That is exactly what we are talking about doing – unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.' The confusion didn't rest there; as recently as his speech to the nation on 10 September, Obama contradicted Kerry and said the attack would not be only a pinprick, adding gravely: 'The United States military doesn't do pinpricks.' (emphasis in original)
He does not mention the Syria war resolution that cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which authorized a more expansive kind of action that what most people would think of as "a very limited, very targeted, short-term effort."

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