As the Obama administration manufactures its “case” for military aggression against Syria in the coming days or weeks, we want to highlight an interview that Hillary did with Zeinab al-Saffar when we were in Beirut earlier this summer; the interview is now available on Al Mayadeen’s Web site, see here. Hillary’s account of how the United States self-servingly demonizes non-Western countries that get in its way seems highly applicable to the current discussion—it hardly merits the label “debate”—about attacking something in Syria, ostensibly because of claims that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against civilians last week in Ghouta, an eastern suburb of Damascus. The frame for such demonization, Hillary notes, is inevitably driven by and bound up with
“the United States’ way of going to war. The United States doesn’t go to war, it says, to protect its interests. The United States says it’s going to war to ‘liberate’ peoples—whether they’re liberating people in Cuba, Vietnam, Iraq, and prospectively Iran. And the way the American people is conditioned to accept it (and, essentially, world opinion as well) is that American experts put out a narrative about these various countries—whether it’s Cuba, Vietnam, Iraq, or now Iran—they put out a narrative about how repressive that society is, how illegitimate its government is in terms of its domestic politics, and how irrational it is in its foreign policy. We’ve seen this in country after country that the United States has invaded or tried to invade to overthrow its government.”
Of course, no one anticipates that President Obama is about to order a U.S.-led invasion of Syria. But, since Obama’s foolish declaration in August 2011 that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “must go,” the United States has been committed to the Syrian government’s overthrow. And the demonization of Syria’s government as repressive, illegitimate, and irrational has proceeded apace, exactly along the lines described by Hillary. Now the demonization focuses on unsubstantiated allegations of the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons as a justification for the United States to use military force against it—just as concocted claims about Saddam Husayn’s weapons of mass destruction were central to building the case for invading Iraq in 2003.
Make no mistake, U.S. military action against Syria will be fragrantly illegal (not that President Obama’s senior advisors, most members of Congress, or much of the American public will care). Nevertheless, the Obama administration is gearing up for precisely such action—and for entirely self-generated reasons. It was Obama who declared that Assad “must go.” It was Obama who declared that chemical weapons use was a “red line.” It was Obama who put himself in a position where he can’t entertain the possibility that Syrian oppositionists used chemical weapons, because that would destroy his administration’s Syria policy. And because Obama took these ill-considered and illegal positions, he must now use American military power to preserve his “credibility.”
Obama took these positions, the “credibility” of which he must now defend by engaging in overt aggression, in no small part because American foreign policy elites believe that bringing down the Assad government will undermine the Islamic Republic of Iran. In her interview for Al Mayadeen, Hillary discusses the evolution of our own thinking about the Islamic Republic, how America should engage it, and what are the real obstacles to a more realistic and effective American posture toward Tehran.
In particular, she charts the progress from our earlier advocacy of a U.S.-Iranian “grand bargain” (whereby America would “talk Iran into agreeing with American positions on Hizballah, on the nuclear issue, on the Palestinian issue, on a range of things”) to our recognition that “something much more profound and deep” is required—that the United States needs “to come to terms with and accept” a fiercely independent Islamic Republic, in much the same way that President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger came to terms with and accepted the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s. She also recounts the attacks we have faced—first from the right, when we were criticizing President George W. Bush’s handling of Iran policy, followed by much of the left, when we began making the same criticisms of Obama’s posture toward Iran. In this context, Hillary argues that our biggest offense has been to challenge the deeply held American myth “that Iranians were demanding to be liberated by the United States, but not liberated by an American tank, but by the great American ideas and great American values, that everyone wants, deep in their heart, to be secular liberals…if you questioned that in the United States, as we did, you really were vilified.”
Our experience strongly suggests that the biggest obstacles to genuine revision of U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic are some fundamental aspects of American political culture. As Hillary points out, “to accept an Islamist political order, [the United States] would have to give up the pursuit of hegemony, the pursuit of dominance. This idea that we can use the excuse of what’s called American exceptionalism—that the United States is a unique force for good in the world—to invade other countries to ‘liberate’ them, we’d have to give that up, because we’d have to recognize that there is some legitimacy to other political orders, particularly ones that are Islamist. And that’s especially relevant in the Middle East that is so important in geostrategic terms.”
The problem, though, is that “hegemony may be nice in theory—if you could get it, if you could rule the world, that might be a nice idea for some Americans in theory—but you cannot get it in the Middle East, because you are up against Islam. You cannot do it; you cannot defeat that. For the United States to have any strategic influence in this vital part of the world, we argue in our book, we have to come to terms with that—just as we could not defeat one billion people in China who wanted to have their independence. It’s a very similar situation.”
But it seems that United States is not yet ready to come to terms with this reality. And so, in another vain attempt to get at the Islamic Republic of Iran, America is about to engage in illegal aggression against one of the Middle East’s most avowedly secular governments—a government that, like the Islamic Republic, actually fights the kind of violent (and anti-American), al Qaida-affiliated extremism that some U.S. “allies” work so hard to promote.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett