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Wednesday, 25 September 2013

America's Double Standards

President Barack Obama's speech at the United Nations yesterday, statements in regard to Iran's alleged nuclear weapons programmes and Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons, pointedly raised the issue of international law and the norms of global behaviour, for its official enemies, while continuing to violate international law itself.

Mr Obama positioned the United States squarely in the rule of law camp by continued reference to the horrific character of chemical warfare and the dangers of nuclear proliferation. And woe betide any power that violates those norms or laws because America's word is backed by a simmering threat of military force.

Hence, Mr Obama calls for a "strong" UN security council resolution that will have lethal military consequences for Syria should its chemical weapons remain intact in a year's time. And he calls upon Iran to take concrete steps to convince the US, Israel, and the west of its peaceful intentions or, rather, to give up its nuclear programmes altogether. In the New York Times recently, warhawk Kenneth Pollack, spelt out the necessity to continue to contain Iran, including via crippling economic sanctions, but retain the threat of lethal force.

Yet, both Israel and the US have in past few years been guilty of deploying white phosphorous in conflicts against Palestinians, in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. White phosphorous is an incendiary chemical and causes severe burns to the body and buildings. Indeed, it continues to burn until deprived of oxygen. It is against international law to deploy white phosphorous against civilians, something the Us has done in Iraq and previously listed as one of the major crimes of the ousted Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.

The Hindu newspaper in India revealed recently that the NSA spied on the Indian embassy in Washington, DC, and on the UN office of the Indian mission in New York. Both acts are illegal under international law. The embassy of a nation is sovereign territory; its UN offices are protected by specific legislation to prevent them from being spied upon by the US.

We already know that, under the cover of fighting terrorism, the NSA spied on the Brazilian president's office. President Dilma Rousseff rejected claims that NSA had the right to spy on all and sundry, including the leaders of nations and heads of state, because it was illegal.

Earlier this year, the airplane carrying president of Bolivia, Eva Morales, was forced to land in Vienna after being denied overflight on Italian, Portugese and other territories on the basis that NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, might have been on board. This was a violation of international law that was orchestrated by the United States.

One final note that shoud have caused laughter but was met with silence by the mainstream media yesterday during President Obama's UN general assembly address: he noted that, apart from its chemical weapons, its internal war, the security of the region, and the security of Syria's people - the United States had no interest in Syria. And because of that, the US would wage war, given the opportunity, on that hapless country (and we know how the US can lay waste to countries because of its enormous stocks of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, not to mention its vast arsenal of conventional weapons, drones, etc.. funded by the largest military budget in history).

I wonder how that remark would have gone down had any other leader spoken of the United States that way.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Anti-War Resistance Played Key Role in Obama Climbdown

The legacy of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars clearly haunts US opinion at all levels but we must also acknowledge the role of anti-war campaign organisations across America for harnessing and crystallising mass opinion against military aggression against Syria.

The extract below is from the website of USLAW, an organisation that has played a leading role in lobbying the US Congress and galvanising the anti-war movement. But, it is clear, that USLAW is wary of the continued threats of US aerial bombardment - in violation of international law - of civil war-torn Syria.

This past week we’ve witnessed and participated in something amazing and inspiring: people all across the United States saying they are tired of war and speaking up to oppose yet another military intervention. And remarkably, this mobilization was so sudden and so powerful that members of Congress actually listened to the concerns of their constituents.
These developments pressured President Obama to go to Congress, slowing down the process long enough for the Russian proposal to emerge as something positive to explore, rather than an insincere initiative to be dismissed.
But this Syrian crisis is far from over. At any moment, the proposed deal could fall apart, and the Obama Administration may go back to drawing more “red lines.” The administration, despite Russia’s demand, is not yet willing to eliminate the threat of a military attack.
We need to ramp up the pressure even more. It is vitally important that our mobilizations continue and that we continue to send a clear message to the White House and to Congress:
  •  A military strike by the United States will not resolve the problem of chemical weapons,  will violate international law, and will risk igniting a wider war.

  • Any Congressional resolution that authorizes the use of military force by the President as a response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria is unacceptable, no matter how many qualifiers or conditions are tacked on.
  • No more “red lines.” Support Russia’s plan in the UN Security Council for Syria to relinquish its chemical weapon stocks to international control and join the Chemical Weapons Convention, without imposing arbitrary or artificial deadlines.
  • Work to convene an international conference of all interested parties (including Iran) to seek a political solution to the civil war in Syria.

Obama's Climbdown

After threatening imminent military action against Syria just two weeks ago, President Obama's climbdown can only be described as humiliating for his presidency and for American power. The penchant for military violence and the hubris of the 'victory' in Libya in 2011 encouraged the Obama administration to arm anti-government rebels in Syria and then, after the chemical weapons' attack in August, to threaten direct military intervention. In last night's televised address to the nation, and the rest of the world, Obama climbed down from even asking a deeply sceptical US congress and public opinion for a resolution authorising so-called limited military strikes on Syria.

Unusually kindly, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona told CNN on Tuesday."There's a degree of incoherence that I have never seen the likes of."

There are a number of questions that are raised by the remarks President Obama made on TV last night:

Why didn't the US come up with a diplomatic alternative to its belligerent and threatening posture over Syria's chemical weapons? If Russia could come up with an alternative, why did the US follow a single-track policy of threatening military violence and bloodshed?

When speaking of the terrible character of chemical weapons and citing WWI and WWII deployments of them, why did Obama omit mention of America's usage of chemical and even atomic weapons in past conflicts - in Korea, Vietnam, and in both Gulf wars, and over Japan in the case of the A-bomb?

In demanding Syria 'hand-over' its chemical weapons, and throw open its chemical warfare facilities to international supervision, why doesn't America also agree to do exactly the same in regard to its own such arsenals? After all, the US is a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, while Syria is not.

And if Obama is permitting genuine diplomacy a chance peacefully to resolve the matter, why are US military forces still adopting an aggressive posture in the Syria region? This is especially an issue given that Obama admitted that Syria represents no "direct or imminent threat to our security".

Yet, he retreated to the usual language of American power double-speak when he noted: "Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used."

Diplomacy might have edged out, for now, American bombing of Syria. Yet, it would be foolish to ignore the words of secretary of state, John Kerry, at a congressional hearing on Tuesday, when he stated that "nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a hanging."

President Obama may on one hand appear to accept that the US should not attempt to be the world's policeman, but his overall posture is that the United States has the right and moral duty to act as the world's self-appointed militarised conscience because America's exceptional, different and, basically superior.

And forgetful, even on recent history. Obama's memory of the past few years is that he's been, for "four-and-a-half years working to end wars, not to start them."

Monday, 9 September 2013

US Hypocrisy Over WMD

One of the unintended consequences of major international crises is to suggest to those who are critical and independent minded that they turn their attention to those whose voices are loudest and to compare their words with their past and present practices. Yet, this still takes some effort of mind as there is surrounding any great power layer upon layer of obfuscation and amnesia.

Take, for example, the otherwise critical open letter by Harvard's Professor Stephen Walt to his congressman. In it, Walt noted that the United States has not historically been too concerned by Syria's chemical weapons stockpile and should not be overly concerned now. Here was an opportunity also to go further and add that the US supported the Saddam Hussein regime's use of chemical weapons - supplied by US corporations, licensed by the Department of Commerce - in the war on Iran in the 1980s, killing thousands of people. Further, it should have been pointed out that the USA has been the world's greatest producer and disseminator of toxic liquids, sprays, incendiary powders, and the deployer of such weapons in wars, from napalm in WWII and Korea and especially in Vietnam. Indeed, the legacy of of America's use of Agent Orange in Indochina continues to this day.

We could add to all this the American production and deployment of biological weapons - deliberate unleashing of diseases such as small pox, cholera and so on in the Korean War. And we have not even mentioned America's overwhelming nuclear arsenal - and the US remains the only power to have deployed those weapons and, thereafter, frequently threatened to use them again. Today, the B6-11 - an earth-penetrating bunker-buster - is a tactical nuclear weapon that can deliver from one-third to 3 times the power of the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

According to Carl Boggs, the US production and use of WMD has led to greater proliferation as weaker states seek to protect themselves from aggression. Instead, therefore, of decreasing WMD proliferation, America's aggressive attitude has unwittingly achieved the precise opposite. 

The Iraq Syndrome Haunts John Kerry

US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has inadvertently made the strongest case yet for the power of the 'Iraq Syndrome' in US foreign policy. This is the current equivalent and heir to the better known Vietnam syndrome that American militarists had hoped been eradicated by the 'good wars' in Serbia and Bosnia back in the 1990s and more recently through 'successful' regime change via warfare in Libya.

Kerry's London press conference today, flanked by the equally helpless UK foreign secretary, smarting from parliament's recent rejection of illegal British military strikes on Syria, displayed an almost ridiculous attempt to justify US aggression by suggesting that America's aggression would be an "unbelievably small, limited kind of effort." And that's what most people clearly do not believe will be the case.

Kerry's remarks showed up a level of Orwellian doublespeak that is the hallmark of a desperate power under a desperate administration. America's global credibility is at an all time low.

"We will be able to hold Bashar al-Assad accountable without engaging in troops on the ground or any other prolonged kind of effort in a very limited, very targeted, short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria's civil war."

Kerry demanded that the Assad regime give up to the US its entire chemical weapons stock in 7 days or face attack. The state department later retracted the threat by suggesting that it was entirely rhetorical and not a real deadline at all.

The bigger concern, the state department said, was that Assad's was a regime that  had "a history of playing fast and loose with the facts" - with no irony intended given the manipulated intelligence produced to justify war on Iraq by Britain and the United States in 2003.

According to the Guardian, Kerry stated that "the entire US intelligence community was united in believing Assad was responsible," a claim denied in a report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence which acknowledged, according to the AP news agency, "that the U.S. intelligence community no longer has the certainty it did six months ago of where the regime's chemical weapons are stored, nor does it have proof Assad ordered chemical weapons use, according to two intelligence officials and two more U.S. officials." (

With US public opinion - across both main political parties - ranged against military aggression against Syria, albeit for a variety of pragmatic rather than principled reasons, the Obama administration's attempts to drum up war fever is back-firing. Hence, the attempts to fall back on rhetoric suggesting that US strikes will be incredibly, unbelievably miniscule, that you won't even notice them.

This is a welcome low moment for US power.. and probably a very dangerous one too. But the specter of Iraq now haunts American foreign policy.

Friday, 6 September 2013

US ambassador to UN: You're Not Fit For OUR Purpose

Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, accused Russia of holding the Security Council "hostage" by vetoing resolutions supporting Anglo-American-French military intervention in Syria (something that the US has done with casual frequency in regard to Israel for decades). Ms Power told a news conference in New York: "Even in the wake of the flagrant shattering of the international norm against chemical weapons use, Russia continues to hold the council hostage and shirk its international responsibilities.... What we have learned, what the Syrian people have learned, is that the Security Council the world needs to deal with this crisis is not the Security Council we have."

When the US fails to get its own way in global fora, it exercises its self-awarded right to work beyond the law. But this is hardly anything new for the self-proclaimed "indispensable nation", an "exceptional" power not tied by international norms or laws. Even before 9-11, then-secretary of state, Colin Powell, declared the "special" character of American power to which conventional rules did not apply: "The U.S. has a special role in the world and should not adhere to every international agreement and convention that someone thinks to propose." That the UN was proposed by Anglo-American leaders at the end of WWII appears to have been missed by Powell, even though, even in 1945, the UN was an exercise in power politics to promote Anglo-American power.

"We are going to show," Powell continued, "a vision to the world of the value system of America." This was January 2001. Since then, the war on Iraq, extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay and other torture facilities outside the laws of war, etc.. have really shown the world the coercive values of American power.

Samantha Power's words signal America's intent to pursue a most dangerous and aggressive course regardless of what the rest of the world, including US domestic opinion, thinks.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

US Public Opposes War on Syria on Pragmatic Grounds

A Pew poll of US opinion has found that 48% of Americans oppose US military intervention in Syria's civil war while just 29% support intervention. Even among Republicans, who are considered more hardline, only 35% support while 40% oppose military intervention. While this will come as a relief to war opponents the world over, it will certainly rile the Obama administration given the degree of opinion-mobilisation activity that has taken place over the past weeks. The military-political credibility of the administration is on the line and Obama's (patently false) 'ditherer' image appears to be gaining ground again.

What is really worrying, however, are the grounds upon which, according to the Pew poll, the American public remains sceptical about another American war on a Middle eastern state: that any intervention is unlikely to be successful in stopping further chemical warfare and, secondly, that intervention is likely to lead to blowback against US interests.

Why should this be worrying? Pragmatically, of course, a sceptical public diminishes (though does not eliminate) the chances of large-scale US military aggression against Syria. This is an advance on the position prior to the Iraq War when the mendacious WMD argument gained traction and around 50-60% of Americans supported attacking Iraq. Nevertheless, once the WMD argument was destroyed by subsequent failure to find such weapons in Iraq, and the war there did not achieve 'victory', support in the US pretty much collapsed. Around two-thirds of Americans then believed the US war on Iraq to have been a costly mistake.

Worryingly, however, when things seemed to be going well for US military forces in Iraq - in the initial couple of months after the invasion - a Gallup poll concluded that 79% of Americans thought the Iraq War was justified, with or without conclusive evidence of illegal weapons.

Winning a war of aggression is fundamental to public support of it - losing one, or getting into a quagmire - loses public support rapidly.

And that's what so worrying about such a pragmatic calculation as lies behind the latest Pew poll: it belies a mindset among the US public that does not even question the right of the United States to intervene despite lack of UN support and in violation of international law. Syria is neither threatening nor planning military strikes on the US, yet the administration's and US public's positions are based on fundamentally shared assumptions - of the American right to intervene in the internal affairs of other sovereign nations.

In his excellent book (Imperial Delusions: American Militarism and Endless War), Carl Boggs argues that "U.S. leaders see themselves as uniquely entitled to carry out warfare and imperial agendas..." The power elite or military-industrial complex that remains so fundamental to US domestic and global power, Boggs suggests, has so infected the nation with imperial hubris, xenophobia, superpatriotism and militarism, that even mass public calculate the costs and benefits of military aggression in a manner identical to that of the masters of war at the Pentagon and White House.

According to C. Wright Mills, writing over 50 years ago, "the American elite does not have any real image of peace... The only seriously accepted plan for 'peace' is the fully loaded pistol. In short war or a high state of war preparedness is felt to be the normal and seemingly permanent condition of the U.S."

It would now appear we should add a militarised public to Mills's formulation.  

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

War on Syria Would be Illegal under International Law

The article below outlines the legal basis for any non-belligerent state to intervene in the Syrian conflict following the use of chemical weapons. The case made and approach suggested are both rational and sober and tend towards doing something credible rather than violating the rule of law proposed by the most bellicose elements of western power - especially in the US, France and Britain. 


by Jaqueline CabassoWestern States Legal Foundation
September 2013

The Rush to Bomb Syria: Undermining International Law and Risking Wider War


Once again, the President of the United States is leading a rush towards war without regard for the United Nations Charter and the international legal regime intended to control prohibited weapons and to respond to threats to peace and security.  Even before United Nations inspectors were on the ground in Syria to determine whether a chemical weapons attack had occurred, the U.S. and its allies began moving ships into attack position in a manner that, in the context of public statements by the leaders of the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, constituted an undeniable military threat to Syria. 

Since World War I, use of chemical weapons has been viewed almost universally as monstrous, and as a violation of treaty-based and customary standards of international humanitarian law.  If they were used in Syria by any party, that action should be condemned, and all states should cooperate in identifying the perpetrators and in pursuing their apprehension and prosecution by all legal means.  There is no provision of international law, however, that allows ad hoc coalitions of countries to determine for themselves who they believe the guilty parties to be, and to punish them by acts of war against the territory of a sovereign state.  The United Nations Charter allows unilateral military action only where a country is under attack or imminent threat of attack.  None of the countries proposing the use of force against Syria can make any claim that Syria has attacked them, or that they are under imminent threat of attack.  International treaties outlawing chemical weapons and prohibiting their use provide no special exception for such ad hoc use of military force.  To the contrary, the Chemical Weapons Convention, the most comprehensive instrument concerning chemical weapons, provides for investigation of alleged violations by specialist bodies constituted by the Convention and recourse to the United Nations to authorize any use of force.

In this instance, it is especially important that transparent, credible procedures be followed for investigation of the allegations of chemical weapons use and a determination of the responsible party or parties, as well as for actions to prevent further use and to punish those culpable.

Key Findings and Recommendations
  • Chemical weapons are viewed almost universally as abhorrent, and their use as a crime.  All states should cooperate in identifying the perpetrators of the apparent use of chemical weapons in Syria and in pursuing their apprehension and prosecution.
  • Under the current circumstances there is no basis in the United Nations Charter, the Chemical Weapons Convention, or other international law for the United States to launch strikes against
Syria absent authorization by the UN Security Council or, if the Council is deadlocked, the UN General Assembly under its Uniting for Peace procedure.
  • International law provides no exception for the ad hoc use of force by states in cases involving the actual or possible use of prohibited weapons, such as chemical weapons, by states with which they are not at war. Standing alone, the allegations of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government do not provide a legal basis for military action by any non-party to the conflict.
  • Unilateral punitive strikes justified as a defense of the global norm against chemical weapons are unlikely to actually protect Syrians or others against use of chemical weapons and other attacks, may do little to reinforce the norm or even undermine it, and could lead to a significant increase in the level of violence throughout the region.
  • There are viable international ways and means to respond to the apparent use of chemical weapons in Syria that should be vigorously pursued before the use of force is considered.
  • The U.S. should present its evidence regarding use of chemical weapons in Syria to the Security Council. The Security Council should condemn any use of chemical weapons, forbid further use of chemical weapons, expand the scope of the UN investigation to include the issue of responsibility for attacks, refer the Syrian situation to the International Criminal Court for further investigation and adjudication, and call for convening of a peace conference.
  • If the Security Council remains unable to act, the General Assembly should assume responsibility under the Uniting for Peace procedure.
  • The U.S.-Russian effort to hold a conference to bring the Syrian conflict to an end should be reinvigorated.  The U.S., Russia, and other powers that provide direct or indirect military and logistical support to the warring parties in Syria should use all available means, including cessation of support, to bring about an immediate cease-fire and a negotiated peace. 
  • The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the most comprehensive instrument concerning chemical weapons, provides for investigation of alleged violations by specialist bodies constituted by the Convention, collective measures by states parties in response to activities prohibited by the Convention, recourse to the UN General Assembly and Security Council in cases of particular gravity, and referral of disputes to the International Court of Justice. Almost all states, 189, are party to the CWC. Syria is among the handful that are not. The agreement governing the relationship between the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, however, makes provision for instances where chemical weapons are used by actors other that CWC parties.  Pursuant to CWC procedures, the Executive Council or the Conference of States Parties of the CWC should convene a special meeting to consider the situation in Syria and recommend appropriate responses by states parties and the United Nations.
  • For U.S. elected officials, saying no to the easy, violent options offered by a national security and military industrial complex too long ascendant would be the hard choice, the courageous choice, and the right choice.

-- Jacqueline Cabasso Executive Director Western States Legal Foundation Working for Peace & Justice in a Nuclear Free World Twitter@JackieCabasso 510-839-5877