9 Sep 2013

Syria debate: a dangerous moment in history

Waking up in Washington DC I flip the TV on. “Call Congress” screams the ‘Move On’ anti-war ad. “Say no to War on Syria”.

The ad rapidly adds the gruesome statistics – 7,000 US soldiers killed in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and $2 trillion spent on the effort. No mention of gas, or red lines.

The mood in America, as senators start to debate attacking Assad’s sector of Syria is that ‘We the People’ are none too keen on any further Middle East military adventures.

None of us who covered Barack Obama’s extraordinary runs for the presidency can have thought that his remarkable powers of persuasion would end up in a passionate enterprise of going to war against yet another Muslim entity in the Middle East.


In truth, Obama has demonstrated himself more than reluctant to get involved with Syria for the two years since the civil war began.

He’s been under enormous pressure to attack before. It has been that way this time too – military, political, and industrial.

The vast defence element of America’s industrial base sees orders beginning to dry up in the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Iraq and amid the draw down in Afghanistan. But on the other side of the equation are US stocks. The stock market hates the uncertainty of war. Financial reports airing this morning here speak of investors pulling out of riskier stocks in favour of Treasury bonds.

All this before a single word has been uttered on the floor of the Senate. Most politicians admit their mailbags and calls are heavily weighted against more war. Some speak of the ‘higher calling’ of considering America’s ‘national security’.

‘Most dangerous’

I came here first as a correspondent thirty years ago this month. I cannot remember a more contentious debate, nor one in which the stakes have ever been higher. Senators know much more about war – thanks to the actions in Iraq and Afghanistan – than they did when they inaugurated those attacks.

For the third time in twelve years an American President wants to attack a predominantly Muslim country. But this time he runs the risk of strengthening al-Qaeda and the extreme jihadists who flock daily to the war zone ostensibly bidding to unseat President Assad.

The attack ads talk of ‘World War 3’. That may be an exaggeration, but most certainly this is a most dangerous moment in modern world history.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the issue in Obama’s mind – Assad’s alleged use of poison gas – is rarely touched upon in the wider debate in the country.

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