Fear of a Black Chamberlain

In some ways, the Obama administration’s attempt to engineer an attack on Syria fits an established political and rhetorical pattern. Last weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry brought out the M-word – Munich – and by doing so, implicitly used the H-word. A fourth-rate power that can barely hold itself together became a great menace to the world, requiring preemptive military action by another old fraud, the Free World. In America, nobody laughed – nobody in Washington or in the respectable media, at any rate. This is, after all, a known script that we dust off and read to each other every few years. Gaddafi was Hitler, Saddam was Hitler, bin Laden was Hitler, now it’s Assad’s turn. And where there’s a Hitler, there might be a Chamberlain. The ritual has a certain solemnity to it, like handling a flag, and in this corniest of political cultures, playing along is the key to respectability. Bill Keller of the New York Times – a most respectable courtier – dutifully wrote an editorial announcing that Americans reluctant to attack Syria were being ‘isolationist.’ (Never mind the hundreds of foreign bases, Afghanistan, and the ongoing drone wars in at least three countries. This is 1938, so we must be isolationist.)

Playing along with rituals, however absurd, is the stuff of historical continuity. And what continuity! One of the most astonishing revelations of the Snowden files is that classified NSA documents were meant to be read only by American, British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand spies. Not even the French or the Germans had access, never mind their willingness to cooperate with the NSA. Ah, the intimacy of the 'special relationship.' The French might be eager to bomb Syria – it’s excellent advertising for Dassault, and a new Syrian regime might buy Rafales to replace their destroyed inventory – but when it comes to that iconic creature, ‘the Allies,’ there is no wavering from a stubbornly, romantically, Anglophone fantasy. Empire evidently never graduated from the class of ’45, and everybody knows that the French, Russians and Chinese never really belonged in that class. But who knew that New Zealand has spies? (Who do they spy on? Fiji?) Or that Canada is so important, eh? Or Britain, for that matter? Not even Putin knew, to the embarassment of David Cameron, who began sputtering unconvincingly about a great past. What is this ‘special relationship,’ anyway? Could something as matter-of-fact as intelligence-sharing and strategic cooperation really boil down to the sentimentality of a shared language? Then again, no language, not even French, is as enmeshed in the culture of empire as English. But why should New Zealand be ‘in’ and Jamaica be ‘out’? They speak English too, don’t they? Oh wait…

Then there is Israel. Another special relationship, but differently special, in which the dog has accepted the power of the tail in a way that would confound Gramsci. One of the less reported aspects of this Syrian crisis is the frantic lobbying for war being done by AIPAC. It would be impolite to report such things, and Abe Foxman might make unpleasant insinuations. But why would Israel want the US to attack Syria? Well, it would weaken Hezbollah and isolate Iran. But the Israeli government has indicated in the past that it is not keen to see the Assad regime – which is barely a nuisance – replaced by something unknown, unpredictable and chaotic, especially since the anti-Assad rebels are unlikely to be friendly to Israel. The neo-con calculation that applied in Iraq is discernible in Syria but not very strong. But the rhetoric of gas and Munich is irresistible all the same, in exactly the same way that the rhetoric of saving-the-world is irresistible in American politics. It sustains a national consensus on why-we-exist, why-we-do-the-things-we-do, and why-our-priorities-are-so-incredibly-fucked-up. It soothes and reassures even as it frightens people into letting the government into their pants and email accounts.

There is, nevertheless, a pattern of diminishing returns. And this time around, it has become apparent, even Americans are not buying it. Congress may yet buy it, but it looks shockingly uncertain. The British clearly did not buy it. (When was the last time you wanted to stand on your chair tipsily and sing God Save the Old Bag? Well done, Parliament.) The Germans are being rather hostile, which is not surprising if people are going to bring up Munich. And so we have the utterly pathetic spectacle of the American president going around literally begging people to please, please, let him drop just a few bombs, just for a few days. He cannot really explain why. He cannot say that it is about saving face, although he comes close. He insists that ‘the world’ drew the ‘red lines’ behind which he is trapped, but doesn’t dare go before the UN General Assembly. He insists that chemical weapons are heinous, but won’t talk about what a Hellfire missile or white phosphorus does to a child. He cannot say why a massacre in Syria is intolerable and one in Egypt acceptable. The press is doing its best to help by refraining from asking rude questions, but in the end, it may be the Russians who save his face by conjuring up a diplomatic solution. That would make Putin the winner in this sorry affair.

Meanwhile, I find myself marveling at the farce that Barack Obama has become. It cannot be called a tragedy; there is no nobility here. But at one time, this man knew people like Rashid Khalidi and Bill Ayers: thoughtful, honorable men, men with ideals to which they were committed. It is reasonable to think that they really were friends; Barry probably inhaled. It is difficult now to imagine them in the same room together. Could Obama look them in the eye? The people who would still want to have a beer with him are AIPAC lobbyists, Wall Street cronies and thugs like Keith Alexander. It may very well be depressing for Obama to realize that being president has brought about this startling inversion of his social and moral circle. It certainly raises the question whether he understood, in 2008, that this was going to happen, and if he would still have run for president had he understood. Perhaps it makes no difference to him. The more depressing thing is that we – who voted for him, made phone calls for him, donated to his campaign and cheered his election – now realize that no matter who Obama was in 2008, it was always going to end in farce.

September 9, 2013