Syria: the view from the homeland

Senator Tom Udall Senator Tom Udall


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).