Syria: the view from the homeland


From the Moral High Ground, invigorated by the glory of the sun on one’s back, one can see the Great Game being played down on the ground and render judgment on the outcome, without having to sort out the all the geopolitical ambiguities or be forced to flail around in the dust of combat.

It’s a familiar position for Americans to take, always alluding, if only obliquely, to American exceptionalism. From such a lofty vantage point, President Obama has declared his intention to punish the Syrian government for its alleged massacre of its own people with the illegal use of chemical weapons – genocidal weapons of mass destruction that were outlawed by the international community more than 100 years ago. Obama’s speech to the American public on September 10, for example, comes to its conclusion with these sentences: “ My fellow Americans, for nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements; it has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world’s a better place because we have borne them…. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”

Senator Tom Udall
Senator Tom Udall

From perhaps a lower mesa, but with similar moral intent, New Mexico Senator Tom Udall has challenged the administration’s call for military intervention. Saying that his heart broke when he saw the videos of those heinous events in Syria, and emphasizing that “I am appalled and horrified by Assad’s attack,” Udall has broken with the Democratic Party and even with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which he is a junior member, to staunchly oppose the call for war.

On September 10 Udall held a short telephone press conference with reporters back in his home state before he dashed to the floor of Congress in time to hear the President speak.

“I don’t feel we’ve exhausted the diplomatic options,” Udall told reporters from La Jicarita, The Albuquerque Journal, KSFR, KOIT, the Silver City Daily Press, and a few other venues.

Like others in Congress who have opposed the rush toward war, Udall did not appear to question the evidence the Administration has presented to support its charge that the Syrian government, not the rebels, is responsible for the chemical weapons attack on his own people. Some analysts have suggested that some of the 1200 rebel groups may have received such weapons from Saudi Arabia, a country that has an interest in destabilizing the Assad secular government in favor of installing a Shia regime.

Asked whether he feels certain of President Assad’s culpability, Udall said, “I would agree with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough who said this weekend that although the US doesn’t have irrefutable beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence, it’s pretty clear that Assad’s military is involved.”

The reporters, too, appeared to be convinced that Assad is a despicable character who is responsible for the atrocity.

In the hectic atmosphere of a short press conference, it was so difficult to ask probing questions that it’s easy to see how the media gets sucked into the prevailing government view. There were just a few moments to discuss the morning’s most exciting news, that Russia had suggested, and Assad had agreed, to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control. This extraordinary gesture could prevent war, and Udall said he would be following the developments with great interest.

“I believe it’s because we have held Russia’s feet to the fire,” he said, “such that Russia does not want to be associated with a regime that uses chemical weapons.”

In his evening talk, President Obama expressed a similar sentiment, claiming that this development occurred “in part because of the credible threat of U.S. military action, as well as constructive talks that I had with President Putin.”

From the top of that mountain where moral truths are self-evident, it’s easy, and may even be just, for the United States to take the credit, at least in part, for this near-miraculous initiative from Russia at the height of a crisis that threatened to invite a conflagration of global proportions.

Yet questions remain. What about Israel’s chemical weapons, asked Assad in Charlie Rose’s extraordinary TV interview with him. Why didn’t the United States pressure Israel to give them up and to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, asks Stephen Zunes, professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, and why did we “in 2007 . . . pressure Israel to reject peace overtures from the Syrian government in which the Syrians offered to recognize Israel and agree to strict security guarantees in return for a complete Israeli withdrawal from occupied Syrian territory”?

Knowing as we do that the record of the United States over the past seven decades has not always been stellar, that we have been the only country to use nuclear weapons of mass destruction, that we have started wars on several continents, that we have pursued a policy of domination by violent means in the Middle East and scattered radioactive depleted uranium across the landscape of half a dozen countries, that we have almost 1,000 military bases strategically located throughout the world, and that we are now employing drones both within and outside the US, we are left wondering when the conversation will turn from platitudes about our greatness to a deeper examination of national foreign policy especially in the Middle East, and ultimately to the question of whether this is the way we want to “rule” the world.

Until then, we’re grateful that one of our state’s senators has taken a stand against the attack on Syria (You can hear Udall’s position in his media conference call here).



  1. Very well said, important information added for a better understanding of the situation and the country’s responsibilities. But, I hope we are at the moment on the right track and Udall has proven he stands by his promise. Thank you.

  2. Tom Udall is a hero to me. I think the situation is even more complex than you have described but that complexity makes us committing murder even less appropriate. It is not clear who used those weapons. Whoever used them, it is unlikely that any attack by us would punish those specific individuals who used those weapons or ordered their use.

    We display quite a bit of arrogance when we declare that we have the right to murder people in any country that displeases us. And then we are appalled if they conclude that they also have the right to murder us when we displease them.

    There are always at least two sides to every issue often more, so one can justify murdering Syrians for some not yet identified Syrians using chemical weapons to murder other Syrians. It can be justified but it may not be wise and I doubt that it is wise. And if it proves to be necessary there is time. I did not hear Obama’s address nor do I wish to. The thought of listening to someone appealing for authority to commit murder is upsetting. It is not TV. It is not the Sopranos. When I hear someone planning a murder, I want to call 911 or the FBI but they are in on it. So there is no one to call.

    Re Israel, I strongly suspect the Druze living in the Golan Heights are very relieved that the Golan Heights are administered currently by Israel not Syria. They are also Shia and at grave risk in any Sunni/Shia extirpation campaign. It seems that many prefer to be outside of the borders of Syria right now.

    And that is where the U.S. needs to be including our boots that are on the ground in Syria. Syrians are dying but also truth is dying also.

  3. this is an excellent article as it points out so much. thanks for mentioning the depleted uranium, and of course in viet nam we used agent orange. On the MSNBC coverage of Obama’s talk. Rachel Maddow first showed photos of 1 of our chemical weapons plants in Kentucky, which apparently is being cleaned out but still has some. So much for our exceptionialism!!!

    maybe also send article to the Daily beast for wider coverage.

    • Our technology capability to inflict pain and bodily harm and death has gone way beyond Vietnam era technology. That cat is out of the bag. Man’s ability to be cruel to each other is advancing rapidly. We cannot prevent nations or individuals from possessing that capability. We cannot prevent them from using it either. But we can prevent ourselves from taking sides in a civil war and then lamenting the methods used by either side in such a war or I should say the various sides as there are more than two in Syria.

      There may be exceptions but generally stirring the pot leads to more people dying. Why should we be making situations around the world worse? We have our own divisions within our Nation. We certainly would not appreciate foreign governments intervening on behalf of any group in the U.S. I personally strongly support those who have lost land and water to the Federal Government dating back to 1848. But I would not appreciate some foreign government sending weapons to those attempting to regain their rights. To me it is a legal and political matter requiring a lot of effort and patience. I support the pre-1906 water rights claimants in Dona Ana County but I don’t want them armed by China.

      One has to be restrained when intervening in the internal matters of another nation. I think we all hope that the various factions in Syria learn how to live together in peace. If they conclude that partition is the best solution for them, I am ok with that. A civil war may not be the nicest way to resolve things but we had a civil war and foreign intervention would have complicated things and extended that horrible war rather than leading to a faster less deadly resolution.

      Obama has decided for the moment not to launch a military attack but we are in that civil war, we have boots on the ground, we are confronting Russia, and Americans will die. And for what reason? To build a President’s ego? To me that is not a good enough reason. And I don’t think it is in the best interests of Israel either or Jordan. It may be in the best interests of Raytheon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s