Now that the "red line" of chemical weapons has been crossed in the eyes of the White House, on the heels of some choice Obama-taunting from the ever-present Clinton family, U.S. military intervention into the Syrian civil/proxy war is now a done deal. Since it will be portrayed in explicitly moral terms as a "humanitarian intervention," it's worth pointing out at least four reasons why this supposed expression of high American ideals will inevitably subvert them.
1) John McCain's lousy choice of friends.
When the doggedly interventionist senator posed with a suspected kidnapper during his surprise Syria trip to whip up domestic support for the rebels, it wasn't some random case of ol' Grandpa Walnuts getting confused. It was a textbook example of how even the most sophisticated of American foreign policy hands can have a devil of a time finding virtuous partners in a cross-border fight against a regional dictator.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) summed up the problem succinctly in a CNN Opinion piece worth bookmarking: "It is very clear that any attempt to aid the Syrian rebels would be complicated and dangerous, precisely because we don't know who these people are."
As has been shown repeatedly, from Iraq to Libya to Afghanistan to Beirut, there are limits to American knowledge and omnipotence, and entire universes of unintended consequences that planners are likely not even contemplating. Choosing a side in a regional civil war in the name of humanitarian intervention will guarantee that America will be providing lethal support to committed anti-humanitarians, including those that the John McCains of the world will be beating the war-drums against in the semi-near future.
2) Barack Obama's authoritarianism toward foreign journalists.
As author Jeremy Scahill documents in Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, the president of the United States made a remarkable phone call in February 2011 to then-Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, urging him to keep journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye in prison. (See Scahill's interview with me on the subject here.) Shaye, whose work has been published in the Washington Post and elsewhere, was convicted of using "his work as a journalist to publicize the views of Al Qaeda," in a trial regarded by international free-press groups as a sham. According to The Huffington Post, Shaye would be released by the new Yemeni government if Washington would just give the green light.
The story that made Shaye famous (and, he and his supporters say, a target of the Yemeni government)? Documenting that what had been billed as a successful Yemeni government attack against Islamic extremists was actually a U.S. air strike that killed 35 women and children. The White House, however, insists that his reporting was unconnected with Obama's phone call:
President Obama expressed concern last February about Sha'i's possible early release from prison on the basis of his involvement with AQAP-a group that had twice launched attacks on the United States. The President's comments had absolutely nothing to do with Sha'i's reporting or his criticism of the United States or Yemen. A Yemeni court, not a U.S. court, convicted Sha'i. We refer you to the Yemeni government for details on Sha'i's arrest, conviction, and the status of his detention.
What does this have to do with Syria? Plenty. Former Yemeni president Saleh is precisely the type of bloody-handed authoritarian the U.S. government feels obligated to do business with as a consequence of making the world a battlefield. The more the Pentagon is involved militarily in the world, particularly in the unfree, post-colonial, sectarian-wracked regions of the Middle East and North Africa, the more deals Washington will be forced to make with various devils, while exploiting anti-democratic conditions to either outsource punishment to perceived obstacles, or carry it out directly in shadowy sites on foreign soil.
3) Samantha Powers's elastic and unreflective truth-telling.
Samantha Power, America's new ambassador to the United Nations and one of Obama's most influential foreign policy advisors, created the modern intellectual template for humanitarian military intervention with her 2002 treatise A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide. That book hinged on the primacy of calling genocide and other dictatorial slaughters by their proper names, lest we use evasive language to slip off the moral hook.
In practical application, however, this approach undermines and flat-out abuses the truth-telling means to arrive at the interventionist ends.
On one hand, as in the previous Yemeni case, the necessity of constant vigorous engagement with the Middle East and North Africa requires doing power-politics business with governments and countries that can't handle the truth. The prime example of this is Obama's flagrantly broken campaign promise to call the century-old Armenian genocide a "genocide" once in office. This was a crucial example in Powers's book, and she was sent out by the Obama campaign in early 2008 to underline that vow to the Armenian-American community. Turns out that calling things by their proper names is more important—or at least easier—in academia than in the messy realities of interventionist foreign policy.
The other trap that a language-based humanitarian interventionism creates is the eternal temptation to over-inflate threats, while turning a blind eye to how the latest causus belli yet again lowers the bar for future military actions. This is how the United States ended up going to war against Muammar Qadaffi: to prevent a possible "massacre" in a single Libyan city. Named Behnghazi. (See #1.)
4) James Clapper's least-most untruthfulness.
National Intelligence Director James Clapper is currently under fire for lying under oath three months ago when denying to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) that the National Security Agency collects "any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans." Especially brazen was Clapper's recent justification for his prevarication: "I responded in what I thought was the most truthful or least most untruthful manner by saying no."
This is what happens when whole swaths of America's war-making and war-preventing apparatus operates without effective oversight from Congress, the judiciary, or the public. Those who are unaccustomed to democratic accountability will behave unaccountably, and unapologetically.
Think of how poorly everyone near the levers of power behaved when tasked with explaining to the American people just why four U.S. servicemen were killed at a diplomatic posting in Benghazi. It was easier to pin blame on an amateur YouTube movie-trailer made by some dodgy weirdo in Cerritos, California, than it was to steadfastly confront the mismanagment that led to the deadly attack, or even to say "we don't really know yet." Those who spread around the administration's B.S. were promoted. Meanwhile, we still don't have any real idea of what the CIA was doing in the "annex" that came under attack.
Unless accompanied by the kind of reform the military-intelligence complex hasn't seen since the 1970s, increasing the Pentagon's footprint in global conflicts should be considered as expansions of the surveillance and black-ops state that Americans have rightly been recoiling from these past weeks.
In 1985, a young senator gave The Los Angeles Times his recipe for reluctant interventionism:
The American people and Congress now appreciate that we are neither omniscient nor omnipotent, and they are not prepared to commit U.S. troops to combat unless there is a clear U.S. national security interest involved. […]
If we do become involved in combat, that involvement must be of relatively short duration and must be readily explained to the man in the street in one or two sentences.
That senator's name was John McCain. He was right then. The Obama administration is wrong now.