Lessons from Today’s Senate Hearing on Syria

Lesson #1: We’re going to war so we don’t lose some friends

John Kerry twice said that if we don’t bomb Assad we’ll lose friends and/or allies. “If we fail to act we’ll have fewer allies.”

That admitted something that has been acknowledged — usually not in print — in DC. We’re doing this not to retain our general credibility, but to retain “credibility” with Saudi Arabia and Israel. Credibility with Saudi Arabia is important, I presume, because they continue to sell oil in dollars and buy lots of military toys — including $640 million of cluster bombs that undermine everything the Administration says about humanity.

Credibility is important with Israel because if they don’t believe we’ll attack Iran if they need us to, they’ll just attack on their own. Here’s confirmation of something that had already been confirmed but somehow is getting trotted out again today: the US had to stop Israel from unilaterally attacking Iran last year. (Update: As Max Blumenthal notes, AIPAC’s statement in favor of war mentions Iran more than Syria.)

Lesson #2: The friends we do have don’t want anyone to know they are our friends

At one point, when Kerry was asked who in the region support us, he deferred to closed session.

He won’t tell us who supports this!

This is likely about protecting Jordan, where we’re staging covert operations, which would make an easy target for Assad. Kerry implied Jordan supported this action, though was pretty coy about it.

Still, back when we attacked Saddam in 1991, he still had WMD. His neighbors knew that. But they were willing to openly support our attack on him. Not this war.

Lesson #3: Bombing another country unilaterally is not war in the “classic sense”

Because the Administration plans not to have boots on the ground and will instead bomb from outside Syria, and even though Kerry seems to readily admit that we may need boots on the ground, he says this is not war “in the classic sense.”

Lesson #4: The Administration promises no boots on the ground except insofar as it anticipates boots on the ground

Kerry was asked specifically about how he felt about explicitly prohibiting boots on the ground. He answered by saying the Administration didn’t want boots on the ground but might need them if Syria imploded and we needed to put people on the ground to secure the CW. He also said, with respect to securing CW, he didn’t want to take any tools away from General Dempsey.

Lesson #5: Whatever comes out of this resolution is separate from effort to oust Assad

Kerry and Obama have both said these attacks will be limited and don’t aim to oust Assad. But it became clear over the course of the hearing (as witnesses tried to balance those, like McCain and Ron Johnson, who wanted more war, and those, like Tom Udall, who wanted limits) that in addition to this strike there’s the pre-existing policy of increasing our support to the rebels, effectively to oust Assad. So while this strike is not about regime change, it exists on top of a strategy that is about regime change.

Lesson # 6: A map showing alleged attacks is physical evidence

No. I don’t understand this one.

Lesson #7: The Administration claims it has evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt” against Assad

Both Menendez and Kerry both claimed we have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt against Assad. Kerry even noted that’s the standard we use to send people away to prison.

Neither one, of course, explained why we weren’t referring (or trying to — it would take a Security Council referral) Assad’s crimes to the International Criminal Court.

But as they did with Anwar al-Awlaki, they believe that declaring something “beyond a reasonable doubt” (though honestly, they never voiced their case against Awlaki that strongly) is sufficient and they don’t need to wait for UN inspectors or real juries.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

21 replies
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Regime change it is then.

    Doing something stupid in order to make other people like you, or, in diplomatic parlance used today, to keep them as “friends”? I thought that went out with junior high. Should we try, instead, “Friends don’t let friends start wars while drunk on power?”

    If going to war is all that will keep the hard right-wing Israelis and ultra-conservative Saudis as friends, perhaps we are encouraging regime change in the wrong place.

  2. emptywheel says:

    @earlofhuntingdon: Right. Given that our Arab friends won’t admit they’re our friends, I’m calling Operation Ballsack the Coalition of the Friends Who Won’t Sit Next To You in the Lunch Room.

    Or maybe the Coalition of the Secret Friends.

  3. Charles D says:

    And I suppose that the people’s representatives on that committee did not blow holes in any of these ridiculous arguments. When Congress approves this illegal and unconstitutional aggression against Syria in spite of the fact that only 8% of Americans believe it is the right thing to do, it will be time for us to realize that our political system is completely broken. Continuing to argue Republican vs Democrat and continuing to petition Congress or the White House is a waste of time. If we want to have a government of the people, by the people and for the people, we will need to get rid of this one first.

  4. orionATL says:

    “… Lesson #4: …

    Kerry was asked specifically about how he felt about explicitly prohibiting boots on the ground. He answered by saying the Administration didn’t want boots on the ground but might need them if Syria imploded and we needed to put people on the ground to secure the CW…”

    where has this secretary dude been?

    the cia just landed in syria a day or so ago (“first contingent of cia-trained troops arrives in syria”)

    “from the halls of e-rye-annn
    to the shores of syr-i-ee

    we will fight our country’s battles
    so no citizens can see…

    first to fight for right and freeedom
    and to keep our honor clean… (scrub that)

    we are proud to claim the honor
    of being cia marines.”

    yahoo!

    war in the cia is fun and profit!

    where else can you kill people and get paid $200k a year to do it?

    2, 4, 6, eight

    let’s all vote for escalate.

  5. Snoopdido says:

    My current prediction/sense of how the Congressional Attack Syria vote will go:

    1. The Senate approves, but watch how the game of chicken voting takes place. Various Republicans, including Mitch McConnell will stall and stall in casting their votes until the very last minute. When sufficient other Senators have voted to approve, McConnell & Company will vote No or Present.

    2. The House is still a known unknown with my sense that its leaning No. A sizable group of Democrats ideologically will have a really hard time voting Yes. A sizable group of Republicans with a pathological aversion to supporting anything Obama wants will have a really hard time voting Yes. My current prediction is that the vote fails in the House.

    Bottom line: Team Obama will still go ahead and attack Syria, and may even do so with an argument that they can do so because the Adults approve (the Senate) even though the spoiled unthinking and uncaring Children don’t (the House).

  6. prostratedragon says:

    #8-Though even the people in the cheap seats can see clearly that the child has ripped open the curtain behind which the naked emperor is making ghostly sounds into the bullhorn or however it goes, they refuse to notice. (“If they think we don’t see them, soon they’ll think they don’t see, right?”)

  7. Frank33 says:

    Cannot make this cluster frack up. John McCain is playing computer games, Poker. I hope the computer lets him win. This is during the Senate Hearings. The Hearings Grumpy McCain opposed. Hearings about going to war. Syria is so important that this Crazy Warmonger said the President was encouraging our enemies.

    Then he plays Poker. And loses. There is a metaphor here. McCain is a tweeter.

    John McCain ✔ @SenJohnMcCain

    Scandal! Caught playing iPhone game at 3+ hour Senate hearing – worst of all I lost!
    5:29 PM – 3 Sep 2013

    We should not take these people seriously. They do not take war seriously. What a bunch of fools.

  8. C says:

    @Snoopdido: I agree with the bottom line. That is why Kerry called it “not war in the classic sense.” He’s trying to find some, highly pathetic, fig leaf for the administration’s junk. Team Obama has already decided to do this and doesn’t want to have to ask permission and, more to the point, wants to establish a precedent for future, “neoclassical” wars. Or perhaps to retrospectively justify the ones we are already in but haven’t heard about.

  9. C says:

    The OED describes war as:

    a state of armed conflict between different countries or different groups within a country

    This would easily embrace the firing of missiles. As such Kerry’s comment may be vain blind search for a fig leaf or some legalistic excercise in dictionary-shopping like the arguments used in the NSA memos.

  10. emptywheel says:

    @Snoopdido: That’s about right. I’m more confident this might fail than I was Amash-Conyers (though it’s a similar coalition). But Pelosi will whip hard.

  11. greenbird says:

    marcy, i do hope you’re being given the attention you deserve, and that all the naked lying kings abandon this sickening folly. As you said:

    “Both Menendez and Kerry both claimed we have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt against Assad. Kerry even noted that’s the standard we use to send people away to prison.

    Neither one, of course, explained why we weren’t referring (or trying to — it would take a Security Council referral) Assad’s crimes to the International Criminal Court.

    But as they did with Anwar al-Awlaki, they believe that declaring something “beyond a reasonable doubt” (though honestly, they never voiced their case against Awlaki that strongly) is sufficient and they don’t need to wait for UN inspectors or real juries.”

  12. GulfCoastPirate says:

    I don’t believe for a minute the article on the Israelis attacking Iran. If Bibi thought it would be successful he would have already done it and the Saudis would have cheered him on. Then there wouldn’t have been a need for either of them to go through all this mess in Syria. I don’t think the Israelis can successfully attack Iran and both they and the Saudis know it. That’s why they had to drag in the US and why Kerry is worried about his new best friends forever.

    I can’t believe Obama is falling for this shit.

  13. klynn says:

    So we have a President, Congress and media disconnected from public opinion which is stating, “No to war.” Yet, we have leaders insisting we must listen to our friends the Saudis and Israel? Looks like we are being blackmailed by friends.

  14. klynn says:

    The question needs to be asked of the President and Kerry why “the evidence beyond resonable doubt” is not being given to the security council/international criminal court, as evidence and why we are not waiting for the UN investigation? Better yet, have Russia, China. Israel and the Saudis present when the evidence is submitted.

  15. SpanishInquisition says:

    @klynn: It’s not blackmail, it’s bribery. Look at Clinton with all the millions he got from the Saudis for his “Clinton Foundation.” I expect there will be a similar Obama Foundation where the Saudis also gives millions to it and then Obama post-Presidency will use the ‘charity’ to live it up tax free with these legal bribe payments.

  16. SpanishInquisition says:

    @Frank33: McCain knows it’s a dog-and-pony show and Obama is going for regime change regardless of what Congress does or doesn’t do. It’s not like the hearings matter, which Obama has alreadly publicly said as much that he can act without Congress.

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