President Obama just made a statement about the courses of military action that he is committed to taking against Syria. The president stated that he is authorizing the use of force in Syria, and will go to the Congress to “have a debate” before the deployment of force that he is prepared to carry out regardless.
Furthermore, Obama identified the publicized use of chemical weapons in Syria as both “an assault on human dignity” and “a serious danger to national security.”
The situation in Syria is dire, and has been dire for two years.
To go over the obvious painful tragedy: over 100,000 human beings have been killed in this fighting.
Over a million Syrian children have been made refugees.
And last week, about 1400 people were killed in a suburb of Damascus through what’s widely suspected of being a chemical weapons attack.
We speak of the human tragedy of the 1400 dead from chemical weapons last week. Indeed, each and every one of them was a precious child of God, whose death stands as a condemnation of the great addiction of humanity to violence. But if the death of 1400 people leads the United States to take unilateral actions for war, where was the action when 100,000 human beings were being slaughtered in Syria? How many more tens of thousands have to die before there is not a military but a humanitarian intervention? Why the lives of 1400, but not the lives of 100,000?
Let me go through Obama’s statements, and offer a few rebuttals from the perspective of a person of faith passionately committed to a peace rooted in justice, and the innate dignity of all of God’s creation:
1) America’s own usage of Chemical Weapons
The President identified Syria’s usage of chemical weapons as “worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st century.” Yet left unstated was the worst chemical weapons attack in the 20th century, namely Iraq’s usage of chemical weapons against its own citizens and thousands of Iranians— was directly encouraged and supported by the United States. The latest reports reveal how the United States knowingly supplied Iraq with targets for their chemical weapons knowing that these weapons would be used against Iran.
More recently, both the United States (in Falluja, Iraq) and its closest ally in the region (Israel, against Palestinians in Gaza) have used white phosphorus as well. White Phosphorous is a destructive compound with a devastating impact. Though not officially classified as a “chemical weapon”, Human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch have condemned its usage. We should come to terms with the fact that our usage of chemical weapons in Fallujah has left a worse legacy than Hiroshima, according to the Independent.
“Dramatic increases in infant mortality, cancer and leukaemia in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, which was bombarded by US Marines in 2004, exceed those reported by survivors of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, according to a new study.”*
If we are to portray ourselves as oppositional to the usage of chemical weapons and horrific attacks, we should come to terms with our own past and present usage of them.
2) Lack of transparency in “intelligence” reports
The President once, and in passing, referred to “Our intelligence shows” that the chemical weapons used were traceable to the regime of the blood-thirsty dictator Bashar al-Assad. We speak of “intelligence” and “reports”, but the United States carries zero moral credibility on issues related to starting another military operations against a Muslim country. We remember the false reports against Iraq, we remember the fabricated presentations at the United Nations.
The truth of the matter is that almost all the intelligence is that provided by the Israeli regime, which is neither trustworthy nor impartial when it comes to its animosity towards Syria (and by definition, Syria’s ally, Iran). Whatever “intelligence” and “reports” do exist that connect the horrific atrocities have to be made public and transparent, debated and analyzed, and put side-by-side with the reports of the United Nations.
3) Obama’s isolationist (& Bush-like) war decision
The president made two startling statements that reveal the depth of the isolationist and hegemonic policy of the United States. These statements provide yet another confirmation that in terms of our international policy of militarism, there is hardly any difference between the policies of Dubya and those of Obama.
The president spoke about going to “seek authorization from American people’s representatives” and that he is “comfortable the case our government has made without waiting for United Nations Report.”
The arrogance of this statement is almost confounding. Obama sees authorization for war against Syria as emanating not from the international community and their representatives at the United Nations, but simply from the American people. Even that is putting aside Obama’s smug statement that he has the “power” to move forward even in lieu of congressional authorization. To all of the Presidents supporters (and ex-supporters, including myself), one simply has to ask this question: is this precisely not what we objected to in the persons of George W. Bush and Cheney, who insisted that the United States did not require United Nations authority to engage in a war against Iraq, only a “coalition of the willing?” Why treat Obama differently? Somewhere we remember Christ saying: “By their fruits you shall know them.”
And as for the statement of the President’s “comfort”… I am frankly at a loss as how to respond to the “comfort” of a president in making the most serious decision a president can take, both in taking the lives of human beings on another part of the globe and also directing the resources of a nation to the war machine. Comfort? No. This should be an agony that would make rocks cry out and stones weep.
4) Turning a blind eye to our own atrocities against children and civilians
The President eloquently stated: “what message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death?” Yes, Mr. President, what message are we sending to the world community if the leader of a nation can send hundreds of children to death, as you have done through the hundreds of drones you have authorized in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen? Hundreds of children killed, Mr. President? Yes, this is a conservative estimate of children we have killed through the use of drones in Pakistan.
Children reported killed: 168-200 children we have killed in Pakistan.
What message are we sending to the world community Mr. President when we have killed hundreds of civilians through these drones, Mr. President?
Is it still a crime to kill civilians by drones Mr. President, or is it just a crime for a dictator to kill civilians?
5) Myth of “Ancient” enmity
The President repeated full hardline Israeli mythology in attributing the tensions in Syria to the fact that “in that part of the world there are ancient sectarian differences.” Yes Mr. President there are important sectarian difference, but people were not killing each other the way that they are now just a few years ago. And much of the blame should go to extremist groups in these countries that both perpetuate and appropriate these differences to further their own agenda. And yet how dare we leave out our own manipulation of these sectarian differences, as we repeatedly did in Iraq Mr. President? The manipulation of existing sectarian and ethnic differences is on old colonial trick mastered by the British and now perpetuated by the Americans.
Furthermore, the language of “ancient and eternal enmity” is part of the hardline pro-Israel mythology that refuses to admit that the political conflicts in the region (most emphatically the Arab-Israeli conflict) have a historical context, an earthly origin that is mired in both nationalism and colonialism, and instead seeks to relegate them to the “ancient and eternal” realm where we as human beings as simply bound to hate one another. No, we have to insist that we did not always hate each other, we did not always kill one another, and if those human beings who are committed to peace and justice reach out to one another, we will yet again live as brothers and sisters.
And in the meantime, the people of Syria, the ones who pay for this conflict with their bodies and blood, are caught between a egomaniac bloodthirsty dictator on one side and increasingly jihadist groups armed by the United States on the other.
6) United States and the hypocrisy of WMD manufacturing
Obama spoke of the danger posed by chemical weapons. And there are 1400 dead bodies, many children, whose unjust death is the most vivid testimony to this danger. Yet we have to be willing to ask: if chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons pose a special danger to humanity, why is the United States the greatest manufacturer of these weapons of mass destruction in the world? If the usage of chemical weapons is wrong, and it surely is, it is wrong no matter who produces and sells them.
If chemical weapons are immoral, and they indeed are, why are there companies in the West who continue to profit from manufacturing them?
If weapons of mass destruction are truly evil, and they are, why is the United States not leading the way on elimination of these weapons?
7) Obama’s domestication of Dr. King’s radical pacifism
Just a few days ago, President Obama stood where Dr. King stood in 1963, and pointed to the American society and his own office as something that would not have been had it not been for Martin’s legacy. Yet left unstated in the commemoration of Dr. King, and in Obama’s comments about Syria today, was actually an engagement with Dr. King’s approach to war.
Dr. King and his message continue to speak to us from the grave, even though his legacy is being appropriated, domesticated, and put in the service of the Empire. The King that we saw on display on Wednesday was a domesticated King, a King stripped of his most serious and passionate critique of the whole war machinery as a “demonic suction tube” that was a sign of the spiritual death of a country.
It was this Riverside King, missing from Wednesday’s spectacle, who stood against the whole enterprise of bombing and “limited” targeting as a way to Peace, for King understood that peace is not merely a destination, but the very way that we are to get there. Here is what King had to say about Vietnam, and this King is one that Obama cannot and will not listen to as he goes about his policies of drones and expansion of war conflict:
And the leaders of the world today talk eloquently about peace.
Every time we drop our bombs in North Vietnam, President Johnson talks eloquently about peace.
What is the problem? They are talking about peace as a distant goal, as an end we seek, but one day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal.
We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means.
All of this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.
What would that Martin tell us?
What would this Martin tell Obama?
Martin would remind that it is the entire system that is broken and is in need of radical redemption.
This was Martin’s message of Martin in Riverside Church, his re-reading of the good Samaritan parable.
“One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
When are we going to realize that the whole system is broken? The United States has lost virtually all of its global allies, even the client state of Great Britain, who has voted against operations in Syria. Russia stands opposed to these military interventions. In other words, the humanitarian crises in Syria (and through the refugees, beyond Syria) continue at the mercy of both domestic violent groups and the inaction/ineffectiveness of international bodies that would have the power to intervene. Once and for all, we have to realize that what we need is not unilateral United States bombing, but a humanitarian international force that would intervene simply on the basis of humanitarian crises, not geopolitical interests.
What Dr. King would remind us is that we as a nation will never deal with our challenges of poverty, homelessness, education, healthcare, and care for elderly, until we remain addicted to the war machine that profits the very few at the expense of nearly the all. Yes, the stocks of all the companies that stand to benefit from the war machine are already soaring. This is blood money, no more and no less.
What we need is not an American Empire than intervenes when it suits our interests and purposes, not a coalition of Americans and Turks and Saudis (or for that matter, Iranians and others), but a global humanitarian force, a revitalized and rejuvenated United Nations that intervenes simply because human lives are at stake, because the blood of innocents is being shed, and not because there is oil involved, not because the national security of the United States or Israel is threatened, and not because it furthers the military industrial complex.
What would Dr. King tell President Obama?
This prophetic King, not the domesticated King, would tell Obama that we need a President who will wage peace rooted in justice even more eagerly than he wages war.
This prophetic King, not the domesticated King, would tell Obama that we need peace rooted in justice, that the way to peace cannot come through war, that the day is here now when we have to beat all the swords into plowshares.
This prophetic King, not the domesticated King, would tell Obama that that in the meantime we are to keep drinking from the poisoned well of warfare is going to keep creating more darkness in a night already devoid of stars, creating more sighs of the oppressed whose agony rises up all the way to God’s throne, shaking it to its very foundation.
The President said he wanted to have a debate. Let’s give him one. Let us start by reminding him of the real teachings of the same Dr. King on peace and justice that he and others have so thoroughly sought to appropriate. What is at stake is both the fate of the suffering citizens of Syria and the fate of our own democracy. We are, as King told us, caught in this inescapable network of mutuality.
Let me end on a practical note: Yes, I partially agree with President Obama. We as a world community can not stand by and allow the usage of chemical weapons to go without consequence. The question is what kind of response, on whose behalf, and in what way. The question is given the United States’ politics vis-a-vis the Middle East, given the United States’ own usage and manufacturing of chemical weapons, if we in the United States are in any moral position to be leading this effort. The question is whether it will be an international response or an American response. The question is whether it is a humanitarian intervention or American bombing. The question is whether it will alleviate suffering. The question is whether there will also be consistent responses to America’s own violations of sanctity of human life. Questioning the moral consistency, sanity and compassion of Obama’s statement should in no way be taken as a support for the blood-thirsty tyrant dictator Bashar al-Assad. Given the unfathomable suffering of the Syrian people, the dilemma is whether Obama’s steps will actually alleviate suffering, or whether they will only further deepen America succumbing to the Military-Industrial virus.
*note: The impact of White Phosphorous on Falluja was further clarified.