September 11, Santiago, Sarin, and Syria

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What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas, and we choose to look the other way? – President Obama

If only this rhetorical question were truly a contrafactual. In fact, not only do we know a world in which the US government looks the other way from dictators using chemical weapons, we live in a world shaped partly by the US government’s long history of actively supporting such dictators. For President Obama to make some of these claims about the exceptional moral authority of the United States on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the coup against President Allende in Chile struck me as especially hypocritical.

More thoughts on President Obama’s take on Syria from an article entitled “Hypocrite in Chief:”

Of the numberless hypocrisies of the administration, this one is particularly crude. The White House claims to need to punish Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime for the unproven use of chemical weapons (sarin) in Ghouta. Not only does this atrocity, committed by unidentified actors in a civil, ethnic, sectarian, and proxy conflict within Syria, somehow make Syria a national security threat to the United States, but it also suggests we deplore the use of chemical weapons. Neither is remotely true.

During the Pinochet Dictatorship in Chile, paid CIA contacts and graduates of the School of the Americas led DINA, the Chilean National Intelligence Directorate notorious for kidnapping and torture. In my trips to Chile, I have visited a number of the secret detention centers where DINA tortured and killed thousands during the dictatorship. In addition to perpetrating gruesome acts of torture, DINA agents also oversaw the manufacture and use of sarin, botulism, and other chemical agents.

This history makes recent claims about the US’s principled opposition to chemical weapons much less credible.

By now it’s hard to be astonished, but it should be astonishing that a president of the United States, who is furthermore a constitutional lawyer and a graduate of Harvard Law School, can say things like this, in the full knowledge that the facts are exactly the opposite, radically the opposite. And there are millions and millions of victims who can testify to that. Today happens to be an important date, the 40th anniversary of the overthrow of the parliamentary democracy of Chile, with substantial U.S. aid, because we insisted on having a vicious dictatorship, which became a major international terror center with our support, rather than allowing a Democratic Socialist government. These are some of the realities of the world. Now, the picture that the president presented doesn’t even merit the name fairy tale. – Noam Chomsky

The hypocrisy and double speak about principles thinly veils the domineering militarism of the US, which Chomsky goes on to compare to the mafia system:

The United States is a violent military state…The United States is self-immunized from international law, which bans the threat or use of force. And this is taken for granted here. So, for example, when President Obama repeatedly says all options are open with regard to Iran, that’s a violation of fundamental international law. It says we are using the threat of force, in violation of international law, to which we are self-immunized. There’s nothing new about this. Can you think of any other country that’s used military force internationally on anything remotely like the scale of the United States during these seven decades when, according to Obama, we’ve been the anchor of global security?…

Obama issued an edict, and it has to be enforced. That’s a familiar doctrine. It’s one of the leading doctrines of world affairs. Credibility of powerful, violent states must be maintained. It’s—occasionally called it the Mafia doctrine. It’s essentially the doctrine by which the godfather rules his domains within the Mafia system. That’s one of the leading principles of world order: Credibility has to be maintained.

But that has many variants. Sometimes it’s called the domino theory. If we don’t impose our will here, the dominoes will start to fall, others will begin to be disobedient. In the case of Chile 40 years ago, to go back to that, what Latin Americans called the first 9/11, Henry Kissinger explained that Chile, under Allende, he said, is a virus that might spread contagion elsewhere, all the way to southern Europe. And he wasn’t saying that Chilean troops were going to land in Rome. He was concerned, rightly, that the model of peaceful, parliamentary democracy might spread, in which case the contagion would spread beyond, and the U.S. system of domination would erode…

As a rogue state, we do what we like. – Noam Chomsky

While I was in Santiago, a group of Syrian-Chileans protested against US intervention in a convoy of honking cars. Some of the participants, driving expensive SUVs and waving Ba’ath Party flags, seemed to be Assad supporters. Their support of Assad’s regime aside, passersby observing the protest seemed to agree with the call to halt US interventionism, certainly an understandable sentiment given Chile’s history.

The humanitarian crisis in Syria is clearly horrendous. But there must be more creative and meaningful responses to the violence there than launching cruise missiles. While the civil war in Syria and international diplomacy surrounding it are highly complicated, the ongoing threats of military action from President Obama are all too predictable and, I fear, will only continue to undermine our image in the long run. Maybe we would earn more respect at the negotiating table if we stopped persisting in the exceptionalist (read rogue state) mentality.

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