By David Swanson, American Herald Tribune
We once again owe the great reporter Seymour Hersh a serious debt for his reporting, in this case for his London Review of Books articles on President Barack Obama’s war making, now published as a book called The Killing of Osama bin Laden. Despite the title, three of the four articles are about Syria.
But there is a shortcoming in how Hersh tells history, as in how many reporters do. I’ve watched Hersh do interviews about the topic on Democracy Now and never once heard him mention the U.S. public. In his book, the public gets one mention: “The proposed American missile attack on Syria never won public support, and Obama turned quickly to the UN and the Russian proposal for dismantling the Syrian chemical warfare complex.” Taken in isolation, that sentence suggests what I think is an important causal relationship. Taken in the context of a book that spends many pages offering other explanations for Obama’s decision, that one sentence seems to be simply stating two unrelated incidents in chronological order.
A few sentences later, Hersh writes that Obama had claimed to have evidence of Bashar al Assad’s guilt in a chemical weapons attack, but then turned to Congress for a vote and accepted Assad’s offer to give up chemical weapons. From this, Hersh concludes that Obama must have been made aware of evidence contradicting his claim. (In fact, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper supposedly rather pointedly told Obama that his claim was “not a slam dunk.”) Elsewhere Hersh credits Obama’s decision not to bomb Syria to “military leaders who thought that going to war was both unjustified and potentially dangerous.” Hersh writes that a report contradicting Obama’s chemical weapons claims led the joint chiefs of staff to warn Obama that attacking Syria could be “an unjustified act of aggression.”
You may be wondering which of the seven wars Obama is now engaged in isn’t an unjustified act of aggression, or how a chemical weapons attack would make a war into a justified act of aggression, but Hersh also cites a DIA assessment in 2013 that overthrowing Syria could create a Libya-like disaster — something that a 2012 DIA assessment also warned was in the making. But, one might ask, where is the public uproar or any other sort of consequence for the White House from the fact that Obama blatantly lied about a Libyan threat to massacre civilians in Benghazi and used that lie to create the current disaster in Libya? What has been the downside to the president of having lied about a mountaintop rescue in order to get into more warmaking in Iraq and Syria? How have endless lies about Ukraine or drone strikes come back to bite the prevaricator in chief? What would have been different about getting caught lying about a chemical weapons attack in Syria? And with those lies having in fact been told and being now well-exposed by Hersh and others, is it possible to find a dozen Americans and a dog who give a damn?
The difference was this. Public pressure had made the 2003 U.S. attack on Iraq illegal and shameful, powerful enough to toss out Congressional majorities in 2006 and to deny Hillary Clinton a nomination in 2008. Syria 2013 resembled Iraq 2003 in too many ways. WMD lies were still unstable ground. Other types of lies were much preferred. Secretive wars and slow buildups would be better tolerated. A new shock and awe over WMD lies, entering a new war on the side of al Qaeda, with the strongest supporters of such madness actually opposed in this case because the president was a Democrat — all of this was just too weak a proposal for the public. Once the question was made a public debate, with true war mongers screaming for Obama to uphold his “red line,” the public made more phone calls, sent more emails, and challenged more Congress members at public meetings over this question than over any other question ever before in history. And Congress members were heard saying they didn’t want to go on record as having voted for “another Iraq.”
Now, that may explain why Congress made clear it would vote No if forced to vote. But what determined the emperor’s decision to tell Congress to take a vote (a role not actually assigned to presidents in the U.S. Constitution)? Here’s where it helps to read Chapter 1 of Hersh’s bin Laden book, the chapter on the killing of bin Laden. This is a chapter largely dedicated to President Obama’s mad and reckless rush to violate various policies, outrage various bureaucrats, burn Pakistani relations, endanger sources, and generate various falsehoods that would have to be corrected, in order to as quickly as possible announce to the public that he had slain the terrible dragon. Obama falsely claimed that bin Laden was engaged in running a major terrorist organization and had been armed and killed in a shoot out. In fact, bin Laden was an irrelevant old invalid, unarmed, unguarded, and murdered in cold blood. Obama also lied about how bin Laden had been found, which facilitated lies to the effect that torture had accomplished something, a lie put into the movie Zero Dark Thirty by the CIA. Never directly mentioned in this saga is the looming presence of the U.S. public, the entity to which Obama went running head over heels to blurt out his news and plead for a triumphal arch to be built in his honor.
U.S. politicians have a very odd and corrupt relationship with the public, as has that public with itself. Numerous actions are taken on behalf of donors in stark opposition to the public will. But public opinion remains a major focus for politicians. Perhaps Hersh considers the point too obvious to mention, or perhaps he considers it false. He doesn’t say. But he should be aware that much of the public considers it false, that even peace activists who try to pressure politicians for peace often believe they have no impact. Hersh must also be aware that politicians go out of their way to pretend that the public has no impact.
Hersh is clear that the decision to proceed with eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons came after the decision not to bomb. But he paints the decision not to bomb as an internal decision focused on picking the policy that would have the best results and be based on accurate information. He cannot be unaware that most U.S. government policies are not shaped around those criteria.
The general view of the U.S. public is that “democracy” should be spread around the globe and that any politician who changes their position in response to public demand is shameful and disreputable. Politicians in the United States are applauded for claiming to ignore opinion polls and to act on principle, which they universally claim. “There is probably a perverse pride in my administration,” said President Obama, “and I take responsibility for this; this was blowing from the top — that we were going to do the right thing, even if short-term it was unpopular.” The identical sentiment has been articulated by nearly every U.S. politician for many years.
In the late 1990s, Lawrence Wittner was researching the anti-nuclear movement of decades past. He interviewed Robert “Bud” McFarlane, President Ronald Reagan’s former national security advisor: “Other administration officials had claimed that they had barely noticed the nuclear freeze movement. But when I asked McFarlane about it, he lit up and began outlining a massive administration campaign to counter and discredit the freeze — one that he had directed. . . . A month later, I interviewed Edwin Meese, a top White House staffer and U.S. attorney general during the Reagan administration. When I asked him about the administration’s response to the freeze campaign, he followed the usual line by saying that there was little official notice taken of it. In response, I recounted what McFarlane had revealed. A sheepish grin now spread across this former government official’s face, and I knew that I had caught him. ‘If Bud says that,’ he remarked tactfully, ‘it must be true.'”
Admitting to public influence is usually the last thing an elected official wants to do. It’s viewed by them and by the public alike as the exact equivalent of admitting to the influence of campaign bribery, . . . er, I mean, contributions. Even well-meaning activists see elections as exactly as corrupting a factor of pure principled politics as lobbyist meetings, proposing as a result such “reforms” as longer terms in office and term limits. And yet, when it comes to the decision not to bomb Syria in 2013 (and instead merely to keep arming and training proxies and searching for other means of more slowly making a bad situation worse), the White House admits to public influence.
This was not merely reading polls, in which the U.S. public opposed arming proxies even more than dropping bombs. But neither was it “doing the right” wonky thing, and the public be damned. Remember, Obama asked the CIA for a report on whether arming proxies had ever “worked,” and the report said no it hadn’t — except for that time in Afghanistan (blowback not included). Obama was intent on doing what both the public and the military warned against. But he wouldn’t do it in too big and dramatic a manner under a public spotlight with the words “Iraq Part II” flashing on the marquee. Here’s a bit of Obama’s self-portrait as Saint Francis in The Atlantic:
“But the president had grown queasy. In the days after the gassing of Ghouta, Obama would later tell me, he found himself recoiling from the idea of an attack unsanctioned by international law or by Congress. The American people seemed unenthusiastic about a Syria intervention; so too did one of the few foreign leaders Obama respects, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. She told him that her country would not participate in a Syria campaign. And in a stunning development, on Thursday, August 29, the British Parliament denied David Cameron its blessing for an attack. John Kerry later told me that when he heard that, ‘internally, I went, Oops.'”
Obama is also quoted as listing the House of Commons vote as one of the major factors in his own decision. And then there’s Joe blurt-it-out Biden, in the same article:
“When I spoke with Biden recently about the red-line decision, he made special note of this fact. ‘It matters to have Congress with you, in terms of your ability to sustain what you set out to do,’ he said. Obama ‘didn’t go to Congress to get himself off the hook. He had his doubts at that point, but he knew that if he was going to do anything, he better damn well have the public with him, or it would be a very short ride.’ Congress’s clear ambivalence convinced Biden that Obama was correct to fear the slippery slope. ‘What happens when we get a plane shot down? Do we not go in and rescue?,’ Biden asked. ‘You need the support of the American people.'”
Do you? Do these characters care about or want that support on corporate trade agreements or healthcare or climate destruction, on banker bailouts or super delegates or military spending? No, they’re happy to ignore minor levels of public activism disempowered by a belief in its own impotence, by the pretense of politicians that it is ignored, and by the partisanship that usually provides cover for roughly half of office holders on any given topic. But when the public is united and energized, when it feels empowered to hold somebody accountable, politicians do still sit up and pay attention.
The influence of the public on the 2013 Syria decision began with the 2003 public uprising that made the United Nations refuse legal cover to attacking Iraq. After Russia and China went along with the pretense of UN cover for attacking Libya in 2011, they refused to do the same on Syria in 2013. This was going to have to be an Iraq-like war without any UN fig leaf.
Public pressure came through the governments of the UK and Germany, and it came principally through Congress. It also poured into the White House directly. It also came through the views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and others in the military machinery of Washington who knew what the public response to Iraq had been. None of these people operate in a vacuum. None of them even aspire to be good representatives of majority opinion, either. But it shapes their actions nonetheless, and we should be aware of how it does so. And good reporting, reporting so good that it can no longer even be published in the United States and must find an outlet in London, should not neglect to include mention of the U.S. public — even if the public’s actions are secrets that are by definition sitting right out in the open.