After East Ghouta 4: Inconvenient Empathies

Now, after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets. This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground. Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope. But I’m confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out.1

As matters now stand, a military response to the East Ghouta atrocity, the response that the President determined we  – the U.S.A., on behalf of all – “should” offer, has been effectively cancelled; the norm against mass-annihilative murder is to be enforced with a plan for confiscatory disarmament only; and, according to opinion polls, the people overwhelmingly approve. Yet a fracture within the American system, and therefore within the global security system, has been revealed. The President’s surprising anti-maneuver maneuver of August 31 said that our doing what we “should” was not beyond him, but that it or sustaining it might well prove beyond us. He estimated that his unitary “should” would too easily have turned into a fragmentary “should not have,” and the abortiveness of the succeeding effort to re-join executive prerogative to popular consent seemed to remove any doubt about that calculation, if not about his rhetoric.

We cannot know what might have happened after the missile strikes that everyone had expected, but we do know, because we have revealed or confirmed, that we were prepared to make bad matters worse, to turn on the President and ourselves, and to fail him and ourselves and anyone foolish enough to depend on us. He and we may join together again sooner rather than later, but his words cannot be unsaid, his will was plain, and his inability to move the nation or its political representatives, even from his own party, became obvious, even if things never came to roll call votes in the House and Senate. (Was there a single public “no” moved to public “yes”?) The democracy of whose character the President said he had become “mindful” was disinclined to follow his lead, except in the opposite direction, or any lead at all except nowhere. Of course, the President already ought to have fully appreciated this syndrome of willed paralysis of the will, as should we, in the non-state of his Second Term domestic agenda, and in the three-year, very evidently very ongoing onanistic romance of the national legislature with self-nullification: We who know we cannot do right as a nation prefer, for now, to be the ones for whom no one, least of all our wrong-way leader, would be well-advised to wait.

Our posture of defensive indolence was prohibited for the victors as well as the vanquished sixty or seventy years ago, at the creation, when law beyond law against crime beyond crime was a matter of present and palpable necessity. The destruction of nations had become a capacity and therefore an option, known in some sense firsthand by all, as something in which all individuals and peoples were implicated, and by which all or any individuals and peoples would soon be directly threatened. Today, on the other end of an era, for us or most of us in the West, certainly for the vast majority of those chatting on the internet, the pulverized city is a science fiction cliché, a color-bled movie sequence, one day’s smoke and dust, or, dimly, a non-actualizable but determinative technical capacity: anything but the daily reality of a task at hand, or the result of real work by our own hands. Shattered landscapes and armies of the undead, are, for us or most of us, refracted memories and imported images pleasurably administered as games, TV shows, and twitter-fodder, over and over again, endlessly re-internalized extinction. Not so for, say, the Syrians, of course, but, in our separate and, as far as we have known, secure experience, such is the order of things: perpetual peace informed by thrilling collective nightmares that sometimes also happen to be other people’s real worlds, but that cannot ever be our own, nor anything that we, who consume everything but would never presume to will anything, would initiate.

We consign to vacuous regions of speculation and voyeurism what once existed for us as memory. For how long this mechanism can continue to function, along with the order it helps to support and that enables it, is impossible to say, but that the President or history has produced a test is not the same as America or the world or the Americanized world facing and failing a last one. The material conditions for our self-compromising American pre-eminence remain intact, and its moral negation in all-enveloping skepticism must eventually envelop itself, re-liberating intention and re-imprisoning doubt. Soon, in whatever state or state of states or unstate we are found, today’s neo-isolationists of left and right may find themselves exposed to ironies mirroring those now felt by the neo-conservatives of just the other day, who thought they were advancing a needed heightening, deepening, and expansion of engagement, but instead reinforced an older impulse to wash one’s hands of it all. That the deterrent we most desperately need to enforce is not against future “first use” by others, but against eventual use again by us, does not occur to us, and that it does not occur to us is why it ought to, unless all the gaming, watching, and tweeting are rehearsal, a deadening in advance of inconvenient empathies.


  1. TRANSCRIPT: President Obama’s Aug. 31 statement on Syria []

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10 comments on “After East Ghouta 4: Inconvenient Empathies

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  1. …am I tripping, or are you trying to say that if not for maintaining global hegemony the U.S. would eventually “have to*” use WMDs again in that last part?

    (* – It didn’t have to the first time!)

    • “Global hegemony” is a term I’ll be trying to avoid, since I don’t think it really fits the neo-imperial model, though the logic of hegemony does come into play. As for your question, as a purely pragmatic issue we can achieve via conventional weapons most of the effects we currently consider potentially militarily necessary. However, the often-heard argument in recent weeks, made by many people with whom I sympathize, that the difference between one type of weapon and another is artificial, works both ways. In the last post we observed a popular defense intellectual advocating terrorism and other unconventional modes of warfare in response to perceived resource constraints. In a world where using WMDs gets a pass, or yields benefits, or becomes relatively commonplace, it’s easy to imagine the remnant taboo falling away, just as our taboo or norm against anti-civilian warfare gradually eroded during WW2, in the aftermath of multiple violations by our enemies.

      As I’ve been saying, it such a spiral of mutual mass annihilation that our evidently fracturing global security system was or is supposed to prevent. I’m not making forecasts, I’m just observing risks and patterns. Last I heard, the Russian Federation maintains “tactical” nuclear forces to protect its otherwise too difficult to defend borders. Up until the ’90s, the U.S. maintained a large CW stockpile – still not completely eliminated, it has been reported – because our potential adversaries did, just as we still maintain a large nuclear deterrent.

      If, subsequent to 9/11 and the conversion of airliners into WMDs by Al Qaeda, if W had gone to the nation on 9/14 or so, and had said that the only way to prevent many more 9/11s was to use nuclear weapons in the Afghan mountains – very surgically, of course – what do you think the next day’s polls would have said?

      • Probably that we should nuke Afghanistan over the actions of a bunch of Saudis. Because for a sadly large portion of the populace, the concept of blowback doesn’t exist & there are no differences between brown people significant enough to consider at least trying not to kill those that did nothing to us while attacking the guilty. That “they’re all crazy bloodthirsty ragheads” is just mirror image of what OBL’s crew saw in Americans is lost on us.

        I wonder what Pakistan would’ve thought about that?

        • Doesn’t matter. what Pakistan would have thought, since W never ordered it. Same goes for all of that stuff about brown people, and “ragheads,” and the rest. And I think lots of people are pretty smart about “blowback,” whether or not they use the word. Nowadays, people are very conscious about it. At other times, they may have other priorities, or it may even seem to them that being the blowbackee beats being the blowbacker 999 times out of 1000.

  2. What is more likely, specially considering Rouhani has been fooling Obama with crib notes, re the nuclear program, if Islamists seize portions of Assad’s arsenals?

  3. Yes, WMD got a pass, for two years after Halabja, then many of the same figures who support action against Assad now, Kerry, Biden, Pelosi, were opposed back then,

    The question is which circumstance is more likely to bring about an WMD release in a major US city,
    I would posit an incursion in favor of a predominantly Islamist faction, btw, has Baghdadi’s death, been confirmed like the last two times.

  4. The timing of the Halabja attack was, in its way, very shrewd, and it is, of course, rarely recalled in full context – not to excuse it, but to understand how it happened. Considering the use we eventually made of it, in the Gulf War, throughout the ’90s, and then again approaching OIF, and considering also the extent to which we supported, protected, and enabled the Kurds subsequently, it’s not clear that Halabja really went unavenged – which is why it’s also too early to draw conclusions about East Ghouta. But blaming Kerry, Biden, Pelosi for being softies for voting against the Gulf War Resolution 2+ years later, when it was not about Halabja or the Kurds but about Kuwait, seems a little unfair when you recall that Ronnie was still Prez when Halabja happened and went right on supporting Saddam until the war finally ended.

    You ever run into a good history of the Iran-Iraq war?

    I’m not sure that WMD in a U.S. city is “the” question. Probly a major WMD use in any Western city, maybe some types of attack in any city at all, would be epochal. I do suspect our response to 9/11 has had a deterrent effect on actors who might otherwise be more likely to help facilitate attacks, whether or not it made an impression on hardcore AQ.

    Not sure about Baghdadi.

  5. The Kurds were more pro Iranian then not, considering their history going back to 1958, The Shah didn’t treat them greatly in ’75 but on balance, they didn’t persecute them to the same extent,

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