Guest Commentary: The Syrian War and America’s Moral Authority

It’s my pleasure to introduce the first of several guest commentaries The Red Fury will be running during my hiatus. In this post, author Navid Zarrinnal examines the proposal for Western military intervention in Syria, showing how the liberal case for war is deeply entrenched in the logic of empire.

– KS

A young Tunisian man, paralyzed by economic hardship, set himself on fire to protest the wretched condition in which he toiled, and in his martyrdom, he echoed the plight of millions of youth across the world, who, caught up in for-profit capitalism and a global recession suffer from unemployment, underemployment, or are forced to work what an anthropologist, David Graeber, calls “bullshit jobs.”[1] The courageous act of the young Tunisian man, Mohamad Bouazizi, became the catalyst for the Arab Spring. After his self-immolation, peoples in Tunisia and across the Arab world took to the streets to challenge the political-economic order that colonial geopolitics had left behind.

As the Arab Spring unfolded, I was enrolled at an American law school. In international law courses in particular, the struggle of Arab reformers and revolutionaries became a topic for discussion. Aside from me, my international human rights law class was an all white classroom. A few among my colleagues had a basic familiarity with the Arab world, but most knew almost nothing about it. Nonetheless, the proliferation of information around the Arab Spring had sparked some interest in every fellow classmate. Raised for class discussion was the proposed military intervention in Libya; students grappled with 1) Whether based on the rules of international law the U.S. has a legal basis to intervene in Libya; and 2) Assuming such a legal basis exists, should the U.S. militarily intervene in Libya?

Students seemed to agree that based on international legal rules, specifically Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, there is a strong legal argument for intervention.[2] Moreover, the U.N. Security Council had already authorized member states “to take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.”[3] The more pressing question was—assuming that there indeed was a legal basis for military intervention—should the U.S. militarily intervene?

The response was overwhelmingly positive. Except from one student who took a conservative approach—that intervention will be too costly and “we” do not have the moral obligation to help everyone—the rest of my colleagues called for intervention. “We” cannot sit and watch as an evil dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, slaughters his own population, the pro-intervention students claimed, so “we” have the moral obligation to act and militarily intervene to stop him. Today, a similar way of thinking is being repeated with Syria. The Obama administration is now telling the American public that the U.S. has a moral obligation to stop Bashar al-Assad, based on the allegation that Assad has targeted his own population with chemical weapons.

What my colleagues failed to account for in the case of Libya, and what the Obama administration ignores in the case of Syria, is the utter absence of American moral authority to intervene. Concerning bloody conflicts and military interventions, the U.S. has not been a benign actor, and worse, it acts with a high degree of hypocrisy, something the Obama administration and the U.S. propaganda machinery—from NPR to Fox News— are careful not to point out.

Even if we accept the Obama administration’s allegation that Assad used chemical weapons, the U.S. should be one of the last states to assert the moral high ground for an intervention—from chemical weapons used against civilians during Iraq’s occupation, with their resulting birth defects [4], to an American-assisted Saddam who, with U.S. knowledge and aid, used chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers [5], to many other instances, the U.S. has used and aided other actors’ use of chemical weapons. John Kerry would have been more honest with the American public, then, if instead of saying that “the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity,”[6] he had said: “the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity [except when we are the killers].”

The hypocrisy of the United States government and its not so benign motivation for intervention should be rather obvious and uncontroversial. Nonetheless, U.S. government and propaganda machinery do an excellent job to conceal the obvious. With the obvious out of sight, the American people— including my law school colleagues— fall into the trap of thinking that U.S. interventions in the Middle East and the Arab Spring are benign, for the good of the people.

Western imperialism, mistook for benign intervention, is a major cause for violence in the contemporary Middle East. Western imperialism did not merely inflict the Middle East with economic poverty and psychological insecurity, but also with a debilitating dichotomy between secularism and Islamism; a divisive political dichotomy, which is primarily the product of Western domination, with disastrous consequences for peace and unity in the Middle East in general and in Syria in particular. The secular/Islamist divide, which serves as the underlying ideological reason behind Syria’s civil war fueled by neoliberal economic reforms, is a colonial legacy and its violence is still being played out. And, add to that the legacy of American imperialism in Iraq: Al Qaeda-inspired Islamists who are now moving into Syria in their attempt to overthrow Assad’s government.[7]

The Obama administration then should give up the moral high ground and hold its head in humility while it contemplates the ill effects of past interventions. This, it will not do. But future generations will, insha’allah.

Navid Zarrinnal is a reluctant commentator on Western-Islamic relations and the contemporary Middle East. In his free time, he attempts to make sense of where he falls ideologically. You can connect with him via Facebook.

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