Karl Marx said that war was equivalent to dumping a portion of the nation’s wealth into the sea. Absolutely true. Trump got it right about the waste of the USA in the wars in the Middle East.
Trump’s Antiwar Speech Deserved a Better Reception
This article originally appeared at TruthDig.
That’s right, sandwiched between Trump’s standard braggadocio about how he single-handedly secured “a better future for Syria and for the Middle East,” and his cynical pivot to decry his opponents’ supposed desire to accept “unlimited migration from war-torn regions” across the U.S. border, was one of the strongest blasts of antiwar rhetoric delivered by a sitting U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower.
If any other president—think Obama—or major liberal political figure had spoken so clearly against endless war and so poignantly diagnosed the current American disease of military hyper-interventionism, CNN and MSNBC would’ve gushed about Nobel Peace Prizes. It must be said, of course, that Trump has hardly governed according to these peacenik proclamations—he has, after all added more troops in the region, especially in Saudi Arabia, and merely reshuffled the soldiers from Syria across the border to Iraq. Nevertheless, even if the president’s actions don’t match his words, the words themselves remain important, especially from a 21st century, post-9/11 commander in chief.
No doubt, Trump’s partial withdrawal from Syria was initially clumsy, and it’s extremely difficult to parse out any sort of coherent doctrine in his muddled Mideast policy. Reducing troop levels in Syria isn’t much of an accomplishment if it’s followed, as it might be, by a shift toward drumming up or executing a Saudi/Israeli-pressured war with Iran. Still, the speech, though problematic in several areas, deserved a fairer reception from the corporate media establishment.
Beyond the intellectual dishonesty of some press outlets’ displays of reflexive anti-Trumpism, there’s the salient fact that none of the president’s critics have proposed a practical, long-term alternative strategy for the U.S. military in Northeast Syria. Crocodile tears for the Kurds are naught but a cynical cudgel with which to attack the president; there was never any established plan to permanently carve out a viable Kurdish statelet in Syria, or serious weighing of the military, diplomatic and economic costs of such an endeavor.
So, since none of the mainstream networks were willing to do it, let’s review some of the sensible things Trump said in the meat of his speech, nuggets of earthy wisdom that this forever war veteran, for one, wishes Trump would follow through on:
The same people that I watched and read – giving me and the United States advice – were the people that I have been watching and reading for many years. They are the ones that got us into the Middle East mess but never had the vision or the courage to get us out. They just talk.
This is demonstrably true. The politicians (Democrat and Republican), failed retired generals, and Bush/Obama era intelligence community retreads are the very people who crafted the failed, counterproductive interventionist policies that Trump inherited. They never had answers to the tough questions regarding why their countless military missions never stabilized the region, what the endgame of these endless wars would be, or how, exactly, the U.S. would or could extricate its troops from the Greater Middle East. Why does anyone still listen to these establishment clowns?
How many Americans must die in the Middle East in the midst of these ancient sectarian and tribal conflicts?
That’s a hell of a good question, Mr. President. If the term is, indeed, “must,” then the logical and ethical answer should be zero. And that should preclude any absurd, future war with Iran—if only Trump would follow through with his still-unfulfilled campaign promises.
Across the Middle East, we have seen anguish on a colossal scale. We have spent $8 trillion on wars in the Middle East, never really wanting to win those wars. But after all that money was spent and all of those lives lost, the young men and women gravely wounded – so many – the Middle East is less safe, less stable, and less secure than before these conflicts began.
That’s the rub, now, isn’t it? Though the $8 trillion figure might be a tad high, Trump isn’t far off. The Cost of War Project at Brown University came to the same general conclusions after an exhausting and ongoing study of the outlays and outcomes of America’s post-9/11 wars. In fact, the reality is even worse than Trump claimed in the speech. By a lowball estimate, researchers at Brown demonstrate that these region-shattering wars have killed 244,000 civilians and 6,950 U.S. soldiers, and they have created 21 million refugees. For all that, Trump is correct to note that, even by State Department global terrorism statistics, the region is less safe, less stable and infused with more Islamist “terrorists,” who’ve multiplied faster than America’s beloved troopers could ever hope to kill them.
The job of our military is not to police the world. Other nations must step up and do their fair share. That hasn’t taken place.
Also true, or at least it ought to be. Unfortunately, “policing” the world is precisely what Bush II and Obama (and Trump himself) has had me and my fellow soldiers doing since at least October 2001. And it hasn’t worked, hasn’t made America safer, hasn’t made the world a better place. Quite the opposite.
As for Syria, at least now—much to the chagrin of the bipartisan establishment elite—Russia, Turkey, the Assad regime and the Kurds are negotiating an admittedly messy settlement in their near abroad. And if it is truly a mess, as it’s all but certain to be, then what’s so bad about having Putin mired in it? All this talk of “surrendering” Syria to Putin is so much exaggerated malarkey. Syria has always been a Soviet, and then Russian, client state, home to a longstanding naval base at Tartus, and clearly in Moscow’s orbit. In that sense nothing has changed, and as before, Syria—even if ruled by an Assad and backed by a Putin——presents no tangible, let alone existential, threat to the United States, unless, that is, Islamic State does reconstitute. However, Russia and Assad, at least, have a distinct interest in avoiding that outcome.
Taken as a whole, Trump’s remarks included some profound and piercing antiwar material, along with the usual nonsense one expects from this president. As such, accompanying the quite appropriate criticism of the speech, an honest media doing its job ought to have cheered the parts of value and generated a national conversation about Trump’s appraisal of the woes of American forever war. Then, a functioning press should’ve held the president’s feet to the proverbial fire and asked him why his practical actions so rarely cohere with his, in this case, sensible words. That the media has not, and will not, take antiwar rhetoric seriously and grapple with real questions of militarist policy is further proof that it, along with Congress and the generals, was bought and sold long ago by the military-industrial complex.
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen
The Pentagon intends to retain control of Syria’s oilfields going forward, and says they will repel anyone else trying to take that oil with “overwhelming force.” This has become the chief, and materially only, military goal of the US military operation in Syria.
Since President Trump announced his intention to control the oil, and conceivably to try to take some of it on behalf of the US, the Pentagon has been revising the Syria mission around controlling the oil. This has included sending more troops and tanks.
Pentagon officials have tried to build this narrative around keeping ISIS from reclaiming the oilfields, since they held them once. With ISIS barely existing anymore, that’s not a realistic threat, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper conceded on Monday that the deployments of US forces are meant to “deny access” to the oil to either Russia or the Syrian government.
Keeping Syria’s oil away from Syria is a potential problem, but Esper says the goal is to give some of the money to the Kurdish SDF to keep themselves armed, and to keep supporting the US military mission in Syria.
Giving the Kurds money to help with the US mission would sound a lot better if the US mission wasn’t to keep the oil for itself, and with the US increasingly cutting its ties to the Kurds, and Trump increasingly ripping into the Kurds on social media, it seems like that ship has already sailed.
Which doesn’t mean any necessarily substantial changes in the US plan, beyond cutting the Kurds out of the equation of who gets money out of an oil scheme, assuming one ever actually happens.
Having sent growing numbers of troops into eastern Syria explicitly to control the oil, President Trump now says he is seeking a deal with Exxon Mobil or “one of our great companies” to go into occupied Syria and take the oil.
Trump has long suggested that in his view, the US should be able to just take oil from countries it is involved in militarily, as a way to recover some of the costs of his various wars. Trump said on Sunday that the oil is valuable and “we should be able to take some also.”
That Trump is sold on this idea is one thing, but convincing a US Oil and Gas Major to go along with the operation is another thing. The legal basis, particularly internationally, of taking Syrian oil without Syrian permission, and keeping US military forces there to keep Syria from stopping them, is going to be complicated, to say the least.
Trump’s conviction that legally it’s probably fine, after all, doesn’t mean the US company, whichever it turns out to be, wouldn’t get sued in the US or internationally for looting Syria’s oil.
These huge multinational companies are notoriously risk-averse about conflict, and would likely be so about joining the president in an oil-taking scheme of this sort. That means while Trump continues to war to keep the oil, he’s going to face a big job selling the idea to any company.
The sectarian and ethnic civil wars that have ravaged a large part of the Middle Eastover the past 40 years are coming to an end. Replacing them is a new type of conflict in which protests akin to popular uprisings rock kleptocratic elites that justify their power by claiming to be the defenders of communities menaced by extreme violence or extinction.
I was sitting in my hotel room in Baghdad earlier in October thinking about writing an article about the return of peace to the Iraqi capital after the defeat of Isis. It has been three years since the last big bomb had exploded in its streets killing great numbers, something that used to happen with appalling frequency.
I was about to set to work when I heard a distant “pop-pop” sound that I identified as shots, but I thought it might be people celebrating a wedding or a football match. But the ripple of gunfire seemed to go on too long for this explanation to be true and I took the lift down to the lobby with the intention of finding out what was happening in the street outside the hotel. Before I got there, a man told me that the security forces were shooting protesters in nearby Tahrir Square: “There are 10 dead already.”
The death toll was to get a great deal worse than that: the official toll is 157 dead and 6,100 wounded, but doctors told me at the time that the real number of fatalities was far higher. The protesters, initially small in numbers, had wanted jobs, an end to corruption and improved essential services such as a better water and electricity. But somebody in government security, supplemented by pro-Iranian paramilitaries, had considered these demands for social and economic justice as a threat to the political status quo to be suppressed with live rifle fire, a curfew on the seven million inhabitants of Baghdad, and a shutdown of the internet.
Repression worked briefly, but such is the depth of rage against the theft of $450bn from Iraq’s oil revenues since 2003 that the protests were bound to break out again, as they have done this week.
I thought this was exactly what was happening a couple of weeks later when, back in the UK, I switched on the TV and saw masses of protesters in what was evidently a Middle East city. But it turned out to be Beirut not Baghdad, though the motivation is similar: anger against a ruling class saturated by corruption while failing to provide the basic services to the population. Encouragingly, in both Lebanon and Iraq, the leaders of different communities are finding that their followers increasingly view them as mafiosi and ignore appeals for communal solidarity.
It is a period of transition and one should never underestimate the ability of embattled communal leaders to press the right sectarian buttons in order to divide opposition to their predatory misrule.
I first went to the region in 1975, fresh from sectarian warfare in Northern Ireland, in order to report on the beginning of the Lebanese civil war between a mosaic of communities defined by religion and ethnicity. In later years in Iraq, I watched divisions between Sunni and Shia grow and produce sectarian bloodbaths after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Popular protests in Syria in 2011 swiftly turned into a sectarian and ethnic civil war of extraordinary ferocity that may now be coming to an end.
This is not because combatants on all sides have come to see the error of their ways or that they have suddenly noticed for the first time that their leaders are for the most part criminalised plutocrats. It is rather because winners and losers have emerged in these conflicts, so those in power can no longer divert attention from their all-embracing corruption by claiming that their community is in danger of attack from merciless foes.
Victors and vanquished has long been identifiable in Lebanon and became clear in Iraq with the capture of Mosul and the defeat of Isis in 2017. The winners and losers in the Syrian civil war have become ever more apparent over the last month as Bashar al-Assad, Russia and Iran take control of almost the whole country.
The Iraqi and Syrian Kurds had been able to create and expand their own quasi-states when central governments in Baghdad and Damascus were weak and under assault by Isis. The statelets were never going to survive the defeat of the Isis caliphate: the Iraqi Kurds lost the oil province of Kirkuk to the Iraqi army in 2017 and the Syrian Kurds have just seen their quasi-state of Rojava squeezed to extinction by the Turks on one side and the Syrian government on the other after Donald Trump withdrew US military protection.
The fate of the Kurds is a tragedy but an inevitable one. Once Isis had been defeated in the siege of Raqqa in 2017 there was no way that the US was going to maintain a Kurdish statelet beset by enemies on every side. For all their accusations of American treachery, the Kurdish leaders knew this, but they did not have an alternative protector to turn to, aside from Russia and Assad, who were never going to underwrite a semi-independent Kurdish state.
A problem in explaining developments in the Middle East over the last three years is that the US foreign policy establishment supported by most of the US and European media blame all negative developments on President Trump. This is a gross over-simplification when it is not wholly misleading. His abrupt and cynical abandonment of the Kurds to Turkey may have multiplied their troubles, but extracting the small US military from eastern Syria was sensible enough because it was over-matched by four dangerous and determined opponents: Turkey, Iran, Russia and the Assad government.
The final outcome of the multiple Syrian wars is now in sight: Turkey will keep a small, unstable enclave in Syria but the rest of the Syrian-Turkish border will be policed by Russian and Syrian government troops who will oversee the YPG withdrawal 21 miles to the south. The most important question is how far the Kurdish civilian population, who have fled the fighting, will find it safe enough to return. A crucial point to emerge from the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi last Tuesday is that Turkey is tiptoeing towards implicitly recognising the Assad government backed by Russia as the protector of its southern border against the YPG. This makes it unlikely that Ankara will do much to stop a Russian-Syrian government offensive to take, probably a slice at a time, the last stronghold of the Syrian armed opposition in Idlib.
The ingredient that made communal religious and sectarian hatreds so destructive in the past in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq is that they opened the door to foreign intervention. Local factions became the proxies of outside countries pursuing their own interests which armed and financed them. For the moment at least, no foreign power has an interest in stirring the pot in this northern tier of the Middle East, the zone of war for 44 years, and there is just a fleeting chance of a durable peace.
I was deeply shaken while witnessing yesterday’s events in Westminster Magistrates Court. Every decision was railroaded through over the scarcely heard arguments and objections of Assange’s legal team, by a magistrate who barely pretended to be listening.
Before I get on to the blatant lack of fair process, the first thing I must note was Julian’s condition. I was badly shocked by just how much weight my friend has lost, by the speed his hair has receded and by the appearance of premature and vastly accelerated aging. He has a pronounced limp I have never seen before. Since his arrest he has lost over 15 kg in weight.
But his physical appearance was not as shocking as his mental deterioration. When asked to give his name and date of birth, he struggled visibly over several seconds to recall both. I will come to the important content of his statement at the end of proceedings in due course, but his difficulty in making it was very evident; it was a real struggle for him to articulate the words and focus his train of thought.
Until yesterday I had always been quietly skeptical of those who claimed that Julian’s treatment amounted to torture – even of Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture – and skeptical of those who suggested he may be subject to debilitating drug treatments. But having attended the trials in Uzbekistan of several victims of extreme torture, and having worked with survivors from Sierra Leone and elsewhere, I can tell you that yesterday changed my mind entirely and Julian exhibited exactly the symptoms of a torture victim brought blinking into the light, particularly in terms of disorientation, confusion, and the real struggle to assert free will through the fog of learned helplessness.
I had been even more skeptical of those who claimed, as a senior member of his legal team did to me on Sunday night, that they were worried that Julian might not live to the end of the extradition process. I now find myself not only believing it, but haunted by the thought. Everybody in that court yesterday saw that one of the greatest journalists and most important dissidents of our times is being tortured to death by the state, before our eyes. To see my friend, the most articulate man, the fastest thinker, I have ever known, reduced to that shambling and incoherent wreck, was unbearable. Yet the agents of the state, particularly the callous magistrate Vanessa Baraitser, were not just prepared but eager to be a part of this bloodsport. She actually told him that if he were incapable of following proceedings, then his lawyers could explain what had happened to him later. The question of why a man who, by the very charges against him, was acknowledged to be highly intelligent and competent, had been reduced by the state to somebody incapable of following court proceedings, gave her not a millisecond of concern.
The charge against Julian is very specific; conspiring with Chelsea Manning to publish the Iraq War logs, the Afghanistan war logs and the State Department cables. The charges are nothing to do with Sweden, nothing to do with sex, and nothing to do with the 2016 US election; a simple clarification the mainstream media appears incapable of understanding.
The purpose of yesterday’s hearing was case management; to determine the timetable for the extradition proceedings. The key points at issue were that Julian’s defense was requesting more time to prepare their evidence; and arguing that political offenses were specifically excluded from the extradition treaty. There should, they argued, therefore be a preliminary hearing to determine whether the extradition treaty applied at all.
The reasons given by Assange’s defense team for more time to prepare were both compelling and startling. They had very limited access to their client in jail and had not been permitted to hand him any documents about the case until one week ago. He had also only just been given limited computer access, and all his relevant records and materials had been seized from the Ecuadorean Embassy by the US Government; he had no access to his own materials for the purpose of preparing his defense.
Furthermore, the defense argued, they were in touch with the Spanish courts about a very important and relevant legal case in Madrid which would provide vital evidence. It showed that the CIA had been directly ordering spying on Julian in the Embassy through a Spanish company, UC Global, contracted to provide security there. Crucially this included spying on privileged conversations between Assange and his lawyers discussing his defense against these extradition proceedings, which had been in train in the USA since 2010. In any normal process, that fact would in itself be sufficient to have the extradition proceedings dismissed. Incidentally I learnt on Sunday that the Spanish material produced in court, which had been commissioned by the CIA, specifically includes high resolution video coverage of Julian and I discussing various matters.
The evidence to the Spanish court also included a CIA plot to kidnap Assange, which went to the US authorities’ attitude to lawfulness in his case and the treatment he might expect in the United States. Julian’s team explained that the Spanish legal process was happening now and the evidence from it would be extremely important, but it might not be finished and thus the evidence not fully validated and available in time for the current proposed timetable for the Assange extradition hearings.
For the prosecution, James Lewis QC stated that the government strongly opposed any delay being given for the defense to prepare, and strongly opposed any separate consideration of the question of whether the charge was a political offense excluded by the extradition treaty. Baraitser took her cue from Lewis and stated categorically that the date for the extradition hearing, 25 February, could not be changed. She was open to changes in dates for submission of evidence and responses before this, and called a ten minute recess for the prosecution and defense to agree these steps.
What happened next was very instructive. There were five representatives of the US government present (initially three, and two more arrived in the course of the hearing), seated at desks behind the lawyers in court. The prosecution lawyers immediately went into huddle with the US representatives, then went outside the courtroom with them, to decide how to respond on the dates.
After the recess the defense team stated they could not, in their professional opinion, adequately prepare if the hearing date were kept to February, but within Baraitser’s instruction to do so they nevertheless outlined a proposed timetable on delivery of evidence. In responding to this, Lewis’ junior counsel scurried to the back of the court to consult the Americans again while Lewis actually told the judge he was “taking instructions from those behind”. It is important to note that as he said this, it was not the UK Attorney-General’s office who were being consulted but the US Embassy. Lewis received his American instructions and agreed that the defense might have two months to prepare their evidence (they had said they needed an absolute minimum of three) but the February hearing date may not be moved. Baraitser gave a ruling agreeing everything Lewis had said.
At this stage it was unclear why we were sitting through this farce. The US government was dictating its instructions to Lewis, who was relaying those instructions to Baraitser, who was ruling them as her legal decision. The charade might as well have been cut and the US government simply sat on the bench to control the whole process. Nobody could sit there and believe they were in any part of a genuine legal process or that Baraitser was giving a moment’s consideration to the arguments of the defense. Her facial expressions on the few occasions she looked at the defense ranged from contempt through boredom to sarcasm. When she looked at Lewis she was attentive, open and warm.
The extradition is plainly being rushed through in accordance with a Washington dictated timetable. Apart from a desire to pre-empt the Spanish court providing evidence on CIA activity in sabotaging the defense, what makes the February date so important to the USA? I would welcome any thoughts.
Baraitser dismissed the defense’s request for a separate prior hearing to consider whether the extradition treaty applied at all, without bothering to give any reason why (possibly she had not properly memorized what Lewis had been instructing her to agree with). Yet this is Article 4 of the UK/US Extradition Treaty 2007 in full:
On the face of it, what Assange is accused of is the very definition of a political offense– if this is not, then what is? It is not covered by any of the exceptions from that listed. There is every reason to consider whether this charge is excluded by the extradition treaty, and to do so before the long and very costly process of considering all the evidence should the treaty apply. But Baraitser simply dismissed the argument out of hand.
Just in case anybody was left in any doubt as to what was happening here, Lewis then stood up and suggested that the defense should not be allowed to waste the court’s time with a lot of arguments. All arguments for the substantive hearing should be given in writing in advance and a “guillotine should be applied” (his exact words) to arguments and witnesses in court, perhaps of five hours for the defense. The defense had suggested they would need more than the scheduled five days to present their case. Lewis countered that the entire hearing should be over in two days. Baraitser said this was not procedurally the correct moment to agree this but she will consider it once she had received the evidence bundles.
(SPOILER: Baraitser is going to do as Lewis instructs and cut the substantive hearing short).
Baraitser then capped it all by saying the February hearing will be held, not at the comparatively open and accessible Westminster Magistrates Court where we were, but at Belmarsh Magistrates Court, the grim high security facility used for preliminary legal processing of terrorists, attached to the maximum security prison where Assange is being held. There are only six seats for the public in even the largest court at Belmarsh, and the object is plainly to evade public scrutiny and make sure that Baraitser is not exposed in public again to a genuine account of her proceedings, like this one you are reading. I will probably be unable to get in to the substantive hearing at Belmarsh.
Plainly the authorities were disconcerted by the hundreds of good people who had turned up to support Julian. They hope that far fewer will get to the much less accessible Belmarsh. I am fairly certain (and recall I had a long career as a diplomat) that the two extra American government officials who arrived halfway through proceedings were armed security personnel, brought in because of alarm at the number of protesters around a hearing in which were present senior US officials. The move to Belmarsh may be an American initiative.
Assange’s defense team objected strenuously to the move to Belmarsh, in particular on the grounds that there are no conference rooms available there to consult their client and they have very inadequate access to him in the jail. Baraitser dismissed their objection offhand and with a very definite smirk.
Finally, Baraitser turned to Julian and ordered him to stand, and asked him if he had understood the proceedings. He replied in the negative, said that he could not think, and gave every appearance of disorientation. Then he seemed to find an inner strength, drew himself up a little, and said:
I do not understand how this process is equitable. This superpower had 10 years to prepare for this case and I can’t even access my writings. It is very difficult, where I am, to do anything. These people have unlimited resources.
The effort then seemed to become too much, his voice dropped and he became increasingly confused and incoherent. He spoke of whistleblowers and publishers being labeled enemies of the people, then spoke about his children’s DNA being stolen and of being spied on in his meetings with his psychologist. I am not suggesting at all that Julian was wrong about these points, but he could not properly frame nor articulate them. He was plainly not himself, very ill and it was just horribly painful to watch. Baraitser showed neither sympathy nor the least concern. She tartly observed that if he could not understand what had happened, his lawyers could explain it to him, and she swept out of court.
The whole experience was profoundly upsetting. It was very plain that there was no genuine process of legal consideration happening here. What we had was a naked demonstration of the power of the state, and a naked dictation of proceedings by the Americans. Julian was in a box behind bulletproof glass, and I and the thirty odd other members of the public who had squeezed in were in a different box behind more bulletproof glass. I do not know if he could see me or his other friends in the court, or if he was capable of recognizing anybody. He gave no indication that he did.
In Belmarsh he is kept in complete isolation for 23 hours a day. He is permitted 45 minutes exercise. If he has to be moved, they clear the corridors before he walks down them and they lock all cell doors to ensure he has no contact with any other prisoner outside the short and strictly supervised exercise period. There is no possible justification for this inhuman regime, used on major terrorists, being imposed on a publisher who is a remand prisoner.
I have been both cataloguing and protesting for years the increasingly authoritarian powers of the UK state, but that the most gross abuse could be so open and undisguised is still a shock. The campaign of demonization and dehumanization against Julian, based on government and media lie after government and media lie, has led to a situation where he can be slowly killed in public sight, and arraigned on a charge of publishing the truth about government wrongdoing, while receiving no assistance from “liberal” society.
Unless Julian is released shortly he will be destroyed. If the state can do this, then who is next?
Craig Murray is an author, broadcaster, human rights activist, and former diplomat. He was British Ambassador to Uzbekistan from August 2002 to October 2004 and Rector of the University of Dundee from 2007 to 2010. The article is reprinted with permission from his website.
We are through the looking glass, Alice. For years now I’ve lambasted the U.S. Congress for shirking it’s constitutionally mandated duty to actually declare and oversee America’s wars. Now, in a cruel joke of sorts, it has finally decided to do so, symbolically voting to condemn the president for pulling troops out of a Syrian war it never sanctioned in the first place. In a rare, bipartisan vote this past week, the House overwhelmingly approved H.J. Res. 77, “Opposing the decision to end certain United States efforts to prevent Turkish military operations against Syrian Kurdish forces in Northeast Syria.”
If ever proof was needed that Congress is inextricably linked to the military industrial complex and the forever warfare state, it’d have to be this bill. It demonstrates that the people’s representatives in Washington, normally asleep at the war-making wheel, will only weigh in to continue the nation’s endless wars. Their hypocrisy, it seems, knows no bounds. When a president (Obama, in this case) unilaterally sent American soldiers to combat in a new theater (Syria), Congress looked the other way. The same was true in Yemen, Libya, Iraq 3.0, and across West Africa. However, should a president (Trump) dare try end one of the plethora of endless wars, well that same Congress will assert itself in a New York minute. The lesson: true antiwar activists now know, once and for all, not to look to Capitol Hill for salvation…ever.
Nevertheless, this vote was historic and instructive, worthy of a far more detailed analysis than any mainstream media outlet has dared attempt. First of all, it passed by a landslide, 354-60. Remarkably, a majority of both Democrats and Republicans voted for it, proving that forever war is the only truly bipartisan issue in tribally divided Washington. Furthermore, not a single Democrat opposed the legislation, yet another demonstration of the stark reality that this is about Donald Trump, at its root, and the Dems can’t claim any sort of antiwar bonafides. Even three-quarters of the “squad” of celebrity progressive Democrats – including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – voted to prolong the US military deployment in the Syrian Civil War (Rep. Ilan Omar didn’t vote), a rather abrupt about face from their normally sensible antiwar rhetoric. I suppose even they bowed to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the hyper-interventionist mainstream of the Democratic Party that veritably defines itself in opposition to Trump.
In yet another baffling turnabout, all 60 of the representatives that stood by the president’s – admittedly imperfect – attempt to end an unsanctioned and thus illegal war were Republicans. Sure, they were most likely motivated by loyalty to their president, but this still illustrates that the old rules of the game, where Democrats are the, at least vaguely, antiwar party, no longer apply. One thing remains constant, however. Congress, at least since the end of the Second World War, overwhelmingly tends to roll over and support ill-advised presidential war-making, even under false pretenses.
After all, the House voted 414-0 to support President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that essentially green-lighted America’s tragic war in Vietnam. And this week, in a particularly bizarre and ahistoric analogy, Obama’s former National Security Adviser Susan Rice claimed that the decision to pull a handful of troops out of Northeast Syria constituted “Trump’s Saigon.” Yes, Susan, and like failed American intervention in South Vietnam, the war in Syria was from the start illegal, unsanctioned, and unwinnable. No matter, no one in the corporate media bothered to critique Rice’s absurd and uninformed assertion. That’s because she’s one of them, a polite, “respectable” Washington war hawk in the most classic sense.
Just as predictably, no one in the mainstream press, and hardly anyone in Congress, questioned the wisdom or practicality of indefinitely securing and protecting a Kurdish mini-state in Northeast Syria, or whether that was really Washington’s motive in the first place. No, crocodile tears for the Kurds was and is nothing more than a convenient tool to maintain perpetual military presence in an Arab state and bash Trump’s foreign policy. Here, too, all sense of historical context was absent. In a exasperated note this week, my former interpreter in Iraq – a holder of two relevant Master’s degrees who now drives a truck in New York City – reminded me that the US has a long history of supporting ethnic and religious minority separatism in the Arab World. As such, Uncle Sam has backed Jewish Israelis, Lebanese Christians, and now the Kurds in order to maintain a military foothold in the Mideast.
So, to truly dig into the motives and stunning cynicism of the US House of Representatives, I thought it prudent to compare the only two recent examples in which it officially – if symbolically – criticized this president’s war policies. Which brings us to Yemen, more specifically H.J. Res. 37 in February of this year, which “Directed the removal of United States Armed Forces from hostilities in the Republic of Yemen that have not been authorized by Congress.” In other words, a bill to end US support for a devastating Saudi terror war that has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and starved at least 85,000 children to death.
Leave aside for the moment the glaring irony that in the latest Syria vote the House called for continuing a war there that was itself, “not authorized by Congress.” The two bills provide an instructive comparison precisely because they each dealt with undeclared American wars involving the actual or ostensibly potential genocide against a minority group, the Houthis in Yemen and the Kurds in Syria.
If our representatives’ sincere motive was to halt human rights abuses or a massacre, then one would expect consistency in voting patterns. So too if the motivation was to truly end US involvement in any unsanctioned Mideast wars. Even a cursory look demonstrates, indisputably, that neither was the case. With respect to Yemen, every voting Democrat called for a halt to US support for the Saudi terror war, while all but 18 Republicans stuck with the president and backed continued intervention there.
That time the “squad” stood tall and voted as a bloc to end the war. On the other hand, more than 100 Republicans voted to continue atrocities against the Houthis but protect against potential or predicted genocide against the Kurds by maintaining a US military presence in Syria. The point is that actions speak louder than words, and the actions of most congressmen indicate not just inconsistency, but the paramountcy of partisan politics, even when it comes to matters of life and death.
Finally, let us drill down and look at one highly adulated and illustrative subgroup in the House – post 9/11 combat veterans. There are a paltry 28 such representatives currently serving in that chamber, 20 Republicans and 8 Democrats. After all, Americans love veterans, or so they say, and there’s a prominent myth that more vets in Congress would solve all the problems on Capitol Hill. Unfortunately, the voting habits of this small group – particularly on Yemen and Syria – put that fantasy to rest. In reality, these congressional veterans are not only out of step with the American people, but – by overwhelmingly supporting perpetual war – not reflective of the military rank and file, two-thirds of whom believe the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the military engagement in Syria were “not worth it.” It seems even wildly venerated congressional combat veterans are themselves rather partisan creatures.
So here we are, by the numbers: On Yemen, 19 of 20 Republicans voted to continue US support for the genocidal war (one abstained), while all eight Democrats condemned that war, and by extension President Trump. In Syria, on the other hand, 23 of 28 congressional vets backed continued US military presence in the country’s northeast, with only five Republicans sticking with the president on both counts. Democratic presidential contender, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, interestingly, did not vote.
All that esoteric analysis leads to a few rather salient conclusions. First off, combat veterans in Congress aren’t particularly antiwar by any measure. Not a single one (Tulsi came closest) voted against US war-making in both instances, i.e. a Yea vote on the Yemen resolution and a Nay vote on the Syria resolution. And 14 of 20 Republicans, even willing to break with their president on the Syria decision, supported more war in both cases. Those 14, apparently, have sympathy for Kurdish victims but not Yemeni bomb-targets – a macabre reminder that, so far as Uncle Sam is concerned, some foreigners’ lives are worth more than others. So hawkish are these Republican vets that they’ll risk continuing ceaseless war in Syria, despite polling that indicates 56% of their conservative base approves of Trump’s withdrawal.
Most disturbingly, if altogether predictably, the supposedly – and repeatedly self-touted – “apolitical” military veterans in Congress are anything but, and regularly choose party over country through their wildly inconsistent voting habits. Twelve of these folks are even nakedly so, always voting for (five Republicans) or against (7 of 8 Democrats) a person – a polarizing Donald Trump – over policy. Indeed, all the Democratic veterans besides Tulsi Gabbard are apparently only against wars that The Donald supports. Wars this president doesn’t seem to like, well, those ought to rage on and on, even if these congressmen’s former comrades-in-arms will continue to die in hopeless combat in faraway lands.
Maybe consistency is just too much to ask for from 21st century American legislators. Maybe these folks – even the “best and brightest” young combat vets – are already bought and sold by the national security power apparatus, and far too busy “dialing-for-dollars” in campaign contributions to craft dependable and prudent foreign policies for the nation they once served. If all that is true, and I fear it is, than the entire legislative branch of this republic cannot be trusted or relied upon to preserve the lives of the beloved American soldiers these veteran congressmen once commanded.
When I was a young army officer, we used to joke that once a superior was promoted to the rank of major he’d receive a mandatory “field-grade lobotomy,” and transform into a sycophantic monster. When it comes to the sacred choice to send American troopers to kill and die in nearly two decade old, unwinnable wars in the Middle East, it seems that even elected combat veterans have long since received their “congressional lobotomies…”
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen