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Now He's Bombing Syria: Obama’s “Stupid Shit”
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<http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/10/17/obamas-stupid-shit/>CounterPunch
October 17-19, 2014Now He's Bombing SyriaObama’s “Stupid Shit”“Don’t
do stupid shit” is good advice. Too bad Obama doesn’t follow it, and worse
still that, in defying his own dictum, he goes to such irrational
extremes.by Andrew Levine*

Returning from his trip to Asia last April, Barack Obama told reporters
aboard Air Force One that the guiding principle of his foreign policy is
“don’t do stupid shit.” Really? Since Day One he has been doing nothing
but.

Future historians will debate how much of this Obama did on his own
initiative. At the very least, he is culpable for opting for continuity,
not change.

The dead weight of the past is, of course, a powerful constraint. But it
is not all-powerful. An audacious leader with the political capital Obama
once enjoyed could have gone up against it, and done a lot better.

Instead, Obama chose to work with, rather than clean up, the messes his
predecessors had let drop – the mother lode left by Bill Clinton, and the
still standing remains of earlier administrations, extending back to even
before the days of Henry Kissinger.

And then there was the torrent let loose after 9/11.

This was mainly George Bush and Dick Cheney’s doing, but, for the past six
years, it has been Obama’s too. His first and now second term might as
well have been Bush and Cheney’s third and fourth. Obama also added a few
wrinkles of his own; new guys do that.

So far, though, his contributions have been minimal compared to theirs.
Nevertheless, it will fall to Obama, not his predecessors, to reap the
havoc they sowed.

So much for the principle “if you break it, you own it.” Bush and Cheney
no longer own their wars; Obama does.

He continued their domestic policies too, especially their assaults on
basic rights and liberties. In some areas – going after investigative
reporters, for example, and shielding banksters from prosecution – his
administration has been even worse.

But Obama’s foreign policy is in a class by itself.

That it would come to this was plain from the day he announced that Hillary
Clinton, the doyenne of stupid shit, would be his Secretary of State. It
didn’t get any better either when we finally got to see the back of her –
most likely, only temporarily.

In her place, Obama let loose the likes of John Kerry, Susan Rice and
Samantha Power. They have given Clinton’s inchoate but vaguely
neoconservative foreign policy a “humanitarian” patina, making it, if
anything, even more pernicious.

“Don’t do stupid shit?” Obama’s actual principle has been just the opposite.

Had he been a one term President, future generations would probably think
first, when his name is mentioned, of that moment in September 2009 when
Joe Wilson, an otherwise unremarkable South Carolina Tea Party Republican,
shouted out “you lie,” while Obama was addressing a joint session of
Congress.

Although the evidence had yet to pour in, Wilson’s outburst was enough on
track to mark a revealing contrast with the familiar fable about George
Washington and the cherry tree. Their juxtaposition says something about
the moral trajectory of American politics.

But now in his second term, Obama has ratcheted up America’s involvement in
the Syrian civil war. He will therefore more likely be remembered for the
stupid shit he did in foreign affairs – in Syria especially.

* * *

In the months preceding Obama’s declaration of principle aboard Air Force
One, he actually seemed to be getting better.

Perhaps it was his chronic irresolution shining through. But at least he
did back off from getting the United States more directly involved in Syria.

And though Russia and China were still in his crosshairs, Obama did cause
American provocations to taper off. Perhaps he realized the likely
consequences of his meddling in Ukraine, and what he saw frightened him.

An optimist might even have supposed that his intent that day in April was
to signal a change of course – towards common sense.

With midterm elections just months away, and the American public sick of
endless wars, that would have made sense. But it didn’t happen. Change
course, he did; but not in a good way.

Was Hillary Clinton’s needling responsible? In a vain effort to
differentiate her foreign policy from Obama’s, she faulted his – i.e. her –
timidity in dealing with foreign governments, implying that, when she is
fully in charge, she will be even more reckless. One shudders to think
what she has in mind.

As if to preempt her, Obama then took off up shit’s creek, leaving the
proverbial paddle at home. But why would he think it opportune to
out-macho Hillary? The plain fact that there is no good answer is
revealing.

In any case, while continuing his on-going wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan,
Yemen, Somalia and who knows where else, the Nobel laureate set about on a
course in Iraq and Syria that the words “stupid shit” hardly begin to
describe.

Ratcheting up the war in Iraq that he had taken credit for winding down is
the least of it.

The bigger problem is that he brought Syria into the fold, after all. He
should have known better – not long ago, he did know better — and yet he
did it anyway.

There was no “shock and awe” this time, and very little fanfare. No doubt,
his team concluded that it is too close to the November elections for
that. They decided instead to proceed by small increments, Vietnam-style.

That shock and awe is a stupid way to start a Middle Eastern war was
conclusively demonstrated in Iraq eleven years ago. But the way Kennedy
and Johnson deployed in Vietnam, death by a thousand escalations, is
stupidity on stilts.

There is probably no one in the Pentagon – probably no minimally informed
observer anywhere – who thinks that Obama’s bombs will do the Islamic State
(IS) in. Everybody agrees that even to make a start on that, those “boots
on the ground” that we have lately been hearing so much about are
indispensible.

The boots will come from somewhere where labor is cheap, but where will the
soldiers who wear them come from?

This is a complicated question inasmuch as the several constituents of “the
coalition of the willing” that Team Obama has cobbled together have
different, sometimes incompatible, objectives.

Turkey, for example, is wary of empowering Kurdish militias. But then who
else can Obama get to do the dirty work for him – not that Syrian Kurds,
joined by Iraqi Kurds, could do it all in any case.

The plain fact is that there are no proxy armies, adequate to the task, at
hand.

Therefore, expect American troops to be on their way again soon. No matter
how often he denies it, Obama knows that this will happen.

He ought to know too that events will then spin out of control, compounding
the mess already there many times over.

The state system established by the British and the French after World War
I has few virtues, but at least it helped secure regional stability. It
will probably be a casualty of this latest American adventure.

And as regional instability increases, it will be harder to keep the Middle
East’s only nuclear power out of the fray, especially inasmuch as Israel is
also the Middle East’s most bellicose state and the conflict now goes right
up to its borders.

The widespread view there — that the whole world is against them and that
they have nothing to lose by throwing their American-sustained and
American-enabled weight around — is fast becoming a self-fulfilling
prophecy.

Israeli intransigence and brutality are only part of the problem. Western
public opinion is also, finally, taking notice of the injustices
Palestinians suffer at Israel’s hands. In just the past few weeks, Sweden
recognized the state of Palestine, and the British parliament passed a
(non-binding) resolution to that effect!

Does Obama really want to introduce Israel into his wars in Syria and
Iraq? That would be like throwing a super-flammable liquid into an already
raging fire.

And, for that matter, does he really want to encourage the recruitment of
yet more “terrorists” — more young men and women willing, even eager, to
die as martyrs – by intensifying the murder and mayhem in Syria and Iraq?

It sure looks like he does. Or is he just not thinking?

* * *

It is natural to assume that people do what they do for a reason;
typically, a compelling reason.

And for as long as economics has been a recognized discipline, economists
have found it useful – and explanatory – to suppose that economic agents
adapt means to ends in the most efficient way possible, given the
constraints they face; in other words, that they are rational and therefore
that their reasons are rationally compelling.

On some philosophically important accounts, rationality involves more than
this, but, on all accounts, it involves at least this much.

Nowadays, means-ends rationality figures in explanations of a wide array of
non-economic human activities. In academic political science, the idea is
almost axiomatic.

Needless to say, even the most ardent defenders of rational choice
explanations know that people are not always rational. Rationality often
fails; in the extreme, it can fail completely — people sometimes go berserk.

But not, we like to think, in politics; when we reflect on that sphere of
human life, the berserk hypothesis is ruled out. Instead, rationality is
imputed to the people whose behavior one is trying to make sense of, even
when it is hard to imagine what they could possibly be thinking.

The working assumption is that there are always reasons, putative
justifications, for what people do. The reasons may be, and often are,
defective; people in politics, as elsewhere, can be just plain nuts. But,
even when they are, their actions make sense in light of what their reasons
are.

The more powerful a political figure is, the harder this assumption is to
dislodge. It is as if people suppose that the incumbents of political
offices must be clever to have gotten where they are, and that the people
who land at the top must be very clever indeed.

Of course, everyone knows that there are many ways to come out on top.
Nearly all of them involve brute luck; many of them involve being to the
manor born. People seldom make it on their wits alone.

But there is a will to believe that political leaders know what they are
doing, even when an abundance of evidence suggests that they do not. It
is a comforting assumption. No one wants clueless dullards running the
show, especially when means of violence capable of destroying the world a
thousand times over are involved.

And so, the belief persists — no matter how stupid or inept or both the
people calling the shots actually are.

This is why there is now a frantic search on for explanations for Obama’s
latest move into Syria. No one wants to think that he and his advisors
aren’t acting for reasons that they, at least, somehow find compelling.

* * *

Proposed explanations fall into three categories: those that take what
Obama and his people say at face value, those that blame forces trying to
undo his presidency or otherwise to lead the country astray for political
or commercial gain, and those that discern a geopolitical objective behind
Obama’s flagrant lapse of common sense.

The word the administration has put out, and that corporate media have
bought into, is that the United States had to revive the Iraq War and then
to extend it into Syria because there was no other way to fight “terrorism.”

In their view, the IS is the problem; or rather ISIS or ISIL is. The Obama
administration and Hillary Clinton call it by one or another of its older,
discarded names because, they say, it is neither Islamic nor a state.

No doubt, Muslims around the world await the judgments of these learned
scholars with rapt anticipation. If only for the sake of consistency, they
ought also to declare that Torquemada wasn’t really a Catholic, and that,
whatever else Netanyahu may be, he is certainly not a Jew.

However it is called, the IS is currently ensconced in Syria as well as
Iraq, and is scoring impressive military victories in both countries.
Because it is zealous, barbaric, and militarily adept, it poses an
unprecedented danger. It must therefore be attacked, degraded and, as far
as possible, obliterated. QED.

George W. Bush would have had America do the job all by itself, if need
be. Obama took pains, like Bush the father, to cobble together a coalition
of the willing – though, in this case, it is far from clear how helpful any
of the partners he has brought in will be.

On the other hand, Obama didn’t bother even to ask for authorization from
any competent international body, or from the United States Congress.
Evidently, with allies in name only signing on for their own reasons, he
thinks that he can do without it. Bombs away!

That this bombing campaign of his is therefore manifestly illegal under
international law is of no consequence. Just as only the little people
need obey the law in the Age of Obama – banksters, for example, are exempt
and so are most polluters — international law only applies when and where
the United States wants it to apply.

This may be reprehensible, but, in view of how awful the IS is, the
administration’s there-is-no-alternative rationale for bombing Syria does
make sense; or rather it would, but for the plain fact, confirmed countless
times, that, in the real world, fighting terrorism militarily, the way
America does, makes for more terrorists and terrorism, not less.

Wiser leaders than ours would have realized this even before the evidence
began to accumulate. When the United States, or any foreign power, invades
another country and occupies it, there is bound to be resistance.

In most cases, this will not involve army-to-army combat.

Typically, the resistance has no army at all. Its only resort, therefore,
is to launch a protracted and “asymmetrical” war of attrition, a guerilla
war – waged not with a view to doing the impossible, defeating the
occupier’s forces outright, but to inflicting costs on the occupying power.

This can go on for as long as need be — until war weariness in the
aggressors’ home country forces the hostilities to end. In Afghanistan, it
has been going on for nearly fourteen years.

When an occupation is also an intervention into an on-going civil war, it
is inevitable that civilian populations and infrastructure will suffer even
more egregiously than otherwise, and that terror will become a more than
usually commonplace instrument of war.

Add religious zealotry to the mix and the situation becomes more harrowing
by orders of magnitude. Martyrs to a transcendent cause are far more
willing than ordinary soldiers – especially, the economic conscripts
America puts in harm’s way — to take casualties and to inflict them.

The United States has been fostering militant Islamism ever since Jimmy
Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski decided that it would be a good idea to get
the Soviet Union bogged down in Afghanistan. And at least since the first
Bush’s Iraq War in 1991, American military interventions in historically
Muslim regions have been stirring the pot.

The process continued on from there; it has finally come to a head with the
IS’s conquests of large swathes of Syria and Iraq.

In this sense, the IS was made in the USA. It is a product of the
never-ending violence the United States unleashed in Afghanistan and
throughout the Middle East, especially in Iraq and now in Syria as well.

The IS is inspired by and effectively funded by reactionary forces in the
Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states are longstanding
American allies. Their ruling elites owe their wealth and their very
survival to Uncle Sam. In this sense, indirectly too, the US made the IS
what it is today.

American support for those reactionary Gulf regimes has only grown in the
post-9/11 period. No matter that it was mainly Saudis, not Afghanis and
certainly not Iraqis or Syrians, who were involved in 9/11. The attacks
that day unleashed the spirit of revenge – somebody had to pay, even if the
actual perpetrators were too important to the empire to be the ones.

Obama knows this. He may have continued the policies of his predecessors
but, unlike them, he inhabits the real world, not the world
neoconservatives imagine.

What, then, could he be thinking?

In explaining political behavior, it is always hazardous to make inferences
to the best explanation. Down that road “conspiracy theories” lie. Of
course, some conspiracy theories are true, or partly true. Most often,
though, they are not.

In this case, the best explanation that can be inferred from the available
evidence is that Obama *et. al.* do not want what they call “terrorism” to
end; more likely, they want it to continue.

They are certainly doing their level best to augment the supply of ready
and willing terrorists. This is about the only thing, other than death and
destruction, that bombing Syria will achieve.

A conspiracy theorist could even identify a motive: that, consistent with
his dedication to serving corporate America, Obama wants to keep America’s
perpetual war regime flourishing.

It is wise, though, to resist this way of thinking. It gives Obama and his
underlings too much credit; they are not that clever. And there is a more
likely explanation available: that Team Obama is in over its head, and is
mindlessly flailing about. Obama and the others may not have gone berserk,
but they are hovering close to the line.

* * *

Another possibility is that there are political reasons that Obama and his
advisors find compelling, even if they risk disaster by doing so.

There are other examples of this phenomenon: for instance, the
administration is courting, indeed inviting, ecological catastrophes by
refusing to challenge defenders of the status quo. Corporate America is the
main culprit. But workers concerned about jobs also keep the government
from doing the right thing.

The Obama administration’s lackadaisical attitude towards providing
retraining and jobs for workers made worse off because of urgently needed
environmental regulations speaks volumes about how willing Obama and his
fellow Democrats are to take the line of least resistance – no matter how
damaging the consequences.

This penchant of theirs explains Obama’s ceaseless quest for
“bipartisanship.” It almost always fails because Republicans won’t play
along.

Apologists for Obama have made a fetish out of this state of affairs.
Their standard excuse is that, no matter how awful this or that Obama
misdeed is, Republicans made him do it.

This excuse is so widely invoked that even Obama’s critics, trying
desperately to discern a method to his madness, have taken it on board.
Their idea is that but for Republican pressure, the bombers would still be
in their hangars, and America would still be less engaged in Syria than it
now is.

A less flattering variant of this search for a rationale has it that Obama
opportunistically follows public opinion, and is therefore overly
susceptible to being influenced by corporate public relations operatives
and corporate media. In other words, the media made him do it.

These views are exaggerated at best. Obama does let Republicans shape the
political agenda; all Democrats do. But even the GOP’s most militaristic
stalwarts didn’t force Obama to embark on this latest phase of the
so-called war on terror.

Obama won two elections by rejecting – or rather appearing to reject –
Republican warmongering.

And although the case for the media’s untrammeled venality is beyond
dispute, the idea that their hyping the IS threat caused Obama to let loose
with his bombers strains credulity. Even if they had the power, which they
don’t, they don’t have a plausible incentive.

The claim that media jump at the opportunity to stir up war fever because
wars sell papers – or, these days, ads on websites — has been strained at
least since the William Randolph Hearst – *Citizen Kane* era.

Corporate media outlets don’t need to incite overseas wars, especially not
unwinnable ones, to peddle their wares. For that, they have Clooney
weddings and Kardashians.

And even if there were money to be made by selling a new bombing campaign
in Iraq and Syria, the media are too mindless to think of it, much less to
pull it off. They just go with whatever the political figures they report
on say and do. They are shamefully complicit, but they don’t instigate;
they follow.

On the other hand, the IS is able to shape events, not just reflect them.
It knows how to push America’s buttons.

It knows, for example, that beheadings spark fear, loathing and outrage,
and that drones, bombs, depleted uranium, and liquid phosphorus do not.
Why? Because Americans are crazy? Because they have no sense of
proportion? Maybe. But, whatever the reason, politicians pick up on this,
and the media dutifully follow along.

We are bombing Syria now not because media tycoons want us to or because it
somehow benefits their bottom line. We are doing it because this is what
the IS wants us to do. The IS wants America back in the quagmire; and it
knows how to get America’s Commander-in-Chief to bend to its will.

The evidence might even suggest to a conspiracy theorist who cannot imagine
that religious fanatics could be smart enough to figure it out on their
own, that they have been consulting with Brzezinski or someone similarly
devious.

It is certain, in any case, that there is no political advantage, even in
the short run, in going down the route Obama has taken.

He wrested the nomination away from Hillary Clinton in 2008 because he
could present himself as an opponent of the war in Iraq while she could
not. Unlike her, he had never voted to authorize it, and, ironically, he
had once called it “dumb.”

Moreover, at least part of the reason why Obama beat Mitt Romney in 2012 is
that he seemed, finally, to be ending that dumb war. Why would he think
that a complete about face would be politically beneficial now?

Obama surely knows that the American public is war weary; and if he
forgets, he has plenty of handlers around to remind him.

So what, then, if John McCain and Lindsey Graham do their saber rattling
routine, and if a few pundits echo their rants? In the very recent past,
Obama resisted similar pressures; he could easily do so again.

The impending midterm elections can hardly be the cause. Now that Obama
has crossed the line, McCain and Graham are saying that his moves against
the IS are too timid to accomplish much of anything. They may be right.
People who actually know a thing or two about military matters seem,
without exception, to agree.

Why then is Obama pulling his punches? The only plausible explanation is
that he fears the political consequences of punching even as much as he
already has; he fears that voters will punish Democrats on this account.

If that is not his reason, the only alternative is to concede that he has
no reason at all.

It looks increasingly like this is the case.

* * *

The idea that Republicans or media moguls are making him do it is, if
anything, even more of a non-starter than the idea that terror can be
fought by visiting death and destruction upon Syria and Iraq. A plausible
geopolitical explanation is similarly unlikely.

To be sure, the United States has a history of turning on formerly friendly
dictators in the region – Saddam Hussein is the most conspicuous example,
Hosni Mubarak is another. Now that Bashar al-Assad is damaged goods,
American planners would no doubt like to replace him too with a more
biddable strongman.

Among other things, this would tighten America’s control over world oil
supplies by making the semi-feudal rulers of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf
States more secure – more invulnerable to popular insurgencies and to
pressure from regional powers like Turkey and Iran.

And because America is currently on the lookout for ways to stick it to
Russia, Obama has yet another reason to opt now for “regime change” in
Syria. Since Assad is more or less an ally of Vladimir Putin’s, going
after him makes sense on that account.

Replacing Assad with someone more compliant would also harm two of
America’s – and Israel’s — longstanding enemies in the region, Iran and
Hezbollah.

Therefore, one might think that Obama decided to bomb Syria in order to
overthrow its government. This is plausible; for several years now,
replacing Assad has been one of America’s stated goals.

But for Obama to justify his bombing campaign against IS targets in Syria
and Iraq on these grounds, he would have to abandon either his opposition
to the Syrian government or the light of reason itself.

No matter how one tries to square the circle, the facts remain: the IS is
by far the greatest threat to Assad’s rule today, and his government, along
with Iran and Hezbollah, are America’s best, indeed only, hope for
defeating the IS militarily.

Therefore, to degrade the IS’s military capabilities is to strengthen
Assad’s hold over Syria, and vice versa.

Attacking the IS to undo Assad therefore makes no sense. The irrationality
is blatant, the policy incoherent. The Turks know this; it is why, despite
their membership in the collation of the willing and despite Obama’s
entreaties, they are still holding back. Why can’t the Obama
administration figure it out?

Obama has to face up to this problem soon, because he cannot remain in
denial about the efficacy of his bombs and drones for long.

Over the next few weeks, Obama could well find it impossible to hold off
sending in American troops without Assad’s help – and Hezbollah’s and
Iran’s too. With midterm elections just a few weeks off, this is not a
happy place for him to be.

And so, we are left with only one conclusion: that unless Obama’s aim
really is to keep the war on terror going indefinitely, there is no way to
account for what he has lately been doing. There are no reasons that can
justify it. It doesn’t make sense.

“Don’t do stupid shit” is good advice. Too bad Obama doesn’t follow it,
and worse still that, in defying his own dictum, he goes to such irrational
extremes.

ANDREW LEVINE *is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the
author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY
WORDS
<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1405150653/counterpunchmaga>
(Blackwell)
as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His
most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People
<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/161614470X/counterpunchmaga>. He
was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a
Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.
He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion
<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1849351104/counterpunchmaga> (AK
Press).*
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