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Chris Hedges and Paul Jay discuss President Obama’s statement that he has decided to attack Syria and seek authorization from Congress . . . Even though he says he doesn’t need it

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

On Saturday afternoon, President Obama issued a statement from the White House. He said he had decided to authorize a military attack on Syria to, in his words, punish the Syrian administration and regime for its use of chemical weapons. He also said he was going to give American Congress a voice.

Here is a segment from his statement.


BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: Our intelligence shows the Assad regime and its forces preparing to use chemical weapons, launching rockets into highly populated suburbs of Damascus, and acknowledging that a chemical weapons attack took place. All told, well over 1,000 people were murdered. Several hundred of them were children–young girls and boys gassed to death by their own government.

After careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets.

I’ve made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress. I’m comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable.

Yet, while I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective.

Make no mistake–this has implications beyond chemical warfare. If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorists who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?


JAY: Now joining us to analyze the significance of President Obama’s statement is Chris Hedges. Chris is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and senior fellow at the Nation Institute. His latest book is Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. He was The New York Times‘ Middle East Bureau chief.

Thanks for joining us again, Chris.


JAY: So what do you make of President Obama’s statement? He’s authorizing the attack, except he’s kind of not authorizing the attack, ’cause he’s kind of going to give Congress a vote, except he made it clear in a statement he was only doing that sort of because he thought it would be a more effective message to Syria, not because he actually thinks he’s actually bound by such a vote.

HEDGES: Well, I mean, that’s the first disturbing point of the rise of our imperial presidency, where the executive branch abrogates to itself the right to declare war, which is, of course, traditionally the role of Congress.

But more importantly, we’re talking about a military strike which will have consequences that will ripple outside of the boundaries of Syria itself.

These explosive devices–cruise missiles–are never used surgically. I’ve been around them on the receiving ends when they are fired. So we’re talking about inevitable what they will euphemistically call collateral damage. We’re talking about civilian dead. That’s without question.

I believe that, you know, one of the primary lessons of the Holocaust is that when you have the capacity to stop genocide and you do not, you are culpable. But there has to be an active campaign of genocide. So we are culpable by not intervening during the genocide in Rwanda, in Cambodia, when Saddam Hussein was wiping out the Kurds in northern Iraq. But to respond after that genocide is complete as a kind of punishment is for me very shortsighted, because it essentially involves the United States not in an act of preventing an ongoing or current act of genocide, but in essence taking sides in this civil war.

The consequences of that: empowering Hezbollah to go after Israel. It of course will anger Iran. Syria is an Iranian ally, and I think much of this decision to attack Syria is a kind of backdoor attempt to punish Iran within the region.

And let’s not forget that we may not be aware of this as Americans, but within the Middle East there is a widespread remembrance that, for instance, Israel used over 200 white phosphorus rockets when they did their 22-day aerial bombardment of Gaza, that we as a country used chemical agents–Agent Orange in Vietnam, and we have littered the Middle East–Afghanistan, Iraq–with depleted uranium.

So the notion that we have a right to act as the world’s policeman, that we have a right to use these kinds of weapons to shift a balance of power, you would think we would have learned our lesson in Iraq or we would have learned our lesson in Afghanistan, but apparently we have not.

And let me finally say that in the end, you know, there are weapons contractors for whom, once again, this is about profit. They don’t really care what the consequences are. For them it’s about how to swell their bank account.

JAY: Now, the so-called evidence that these chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime seems to be paper-thin. In fact, there really hasn’t been any evidence shown to the public. It certainly didn’t persuade British parliamentarians.

I mean, this smells so much of a pre-Iraq situation. You would think they must have something. I mean, it seems so stupid that Obama and Biden, who both were fairly clear on the Iraq situation–certainly Obama was–that they wouldn’t proceed.

On the other hand, he seemed to have painted himself in the corner. He so stuck his neck out on this so quickly, he seemed to have nowhere to go. So it almost seems like this now letting Congress have a vote is really a way to buy himself some time because he was in such an isolated position. I mean, it’s really rather crazy. Instead of all the world’s attention being on, in theory, if this was Assad, on Assad for using chemical weapons, the attention of the world is now on Obama for violating international law.

HEDGES: Right. And, you know, in the past it’s kind of selective enforcement. If the Israelis are using white phosphorus, which is incinerating–white phosphorus–I’ve been around white phosphorus attacks. The Salvadoran military used them when I covered the war. And when bits of white phosphorus fall on your body, they burn right through your body. There’s no way to stop it, in essence. It’ll literally burn a swath right through the core of your body.

The fact that we were complicit, in essence, with the use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War–we gave them satellite imagery so that they knew where to drop it–that we stood by and did nothing when Saddam Hussein was dropping poison gas on places like Halabja, this is not lost to people in the Middle East. So there’s no kind of uniformity at all to our response. When those who are our purported allies (and in the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq was tacitly our ally) do these kinds of things, we ignore it. When the Israelis do it, we ignore it. And when it happens in Syria, you know, supposedly we respond.

I think morally the United States has no case to make unless they were actively stopping a delivery system of these chemical agents, i.e. intercepting the planes that were dropping them or, if they used artillery shells, which is what Saddam Hussein had, you know, the 155 howitzers or the units that were delivering those shells.

But we have no legal, moral, as you pointed out, right to intervene at this point. Nor do we have the moral credibility to do it.

JAY: In President Obama’s statement today, he specifically says, I’m comfortable about going ahead with this without a UN resolution, which is more or less to say, I’m comfortable doing this violating international law.

HEDGES: Sure. Well, I mean, the whole invasion of Iraq, which Obama–you know, he wasn’t very clear. He made one speech that nobody could ever find opposing the Iraq War. A figure like Dennis Kucinich made literally hundreds. He was pretty silent in the buildup to Iraq, because, of course, it wasn’t politically astute at that point to challenge it.

Sure. I mean, this is just a continuation of the Bush shredding of both international and domestic law. And, you know, this capacity by the executive branch not only to wage war but draw up kill lists–and we haven’t even gotten into the shredding of privacy, and both at home and abroad. I mean, it’s a kind of terrifying development.

And I think that the response that we’re seeing–and, again, as you point out, we don’t have at this point credible evidence, although it would not, as somebody who covered Syria, it would not surprise me if they used it. But you’re right. We don’t know. And even if they did, at this point I don’t think we have a right to intervene.

JAY: Right. And there’s an interesting story out on Saturday as well by a Dale Gavlak, who’s been covering the Middle East for AP, apparently for quite a few years. He’s reporting in MintPress News–and it’s making its way around the internet–that he interviewed people in the area where the alleged chemical attack took place, although I don’t think it’s so alleged anymore there was a chemical attack. That seems to be–even Iran seems to acknowledge that there was one. But Gavlak apparently interviewed some people, and they say these weapons came from the Saudis. They actually mention Prince Bandar. And he interviewed, apparently, the parents of a young jihadist fighter who was handling the weapons, was killed when they went off. And they’re blaming the Saudis for handing these weapons over to people that didn’t know how to use them.

Who knows whether this is true or not true. But it does lead to the issue that there’s no clear line here who was responsible. And when you look at it on the face of it, the Saudis, who to my mind get away with murder in the American media, in the sense that no one ever talks about the Saudi role in any death in the American media, nor does the White House ever speak of it, and certainly they’ve been driving and fueling much of this war, but the Saudis and certainly the opposition on the face of it had way more to gain with some kind of use of chemical weapons than Assad did. I mean, I don’t agree with Mr. Putin on a lot of things, but I do on this one. This just makes no sense for the Assad regime to have done this.

HEDGES: Yeah, although, I mean, let’s be clear. I’ve covered lots of stories where it doesn’t make much sense for regimes to carry out acts of atrocity. It didn’t make much sense for the Bosnian Serbs to start massacring people at Srebrenica.

But I think, you know, the point that you’re making is that at this point we don’t really know definitively what happened, and (having been a reporter in those situations) we may not know for a few weeks. That’s number one.

And number two, after it’s over, I don’t think we have either a legal or a moral right to start dropping cruise missiles in Syria.

JAY: Now, one of the ideas I’ve heard proposed about why President Obama is doing this–because the way he’s acting so quickly, how far out ahead the was on this, has a lot more to do with the tide of the war shifting to Assad’s favor. There’s been this sort of prevailing view amongst many analysts that what was in the interest of Israel, and to a large extent in the interest of the United States, is a long-term low-level civil war where neither side gains the upper hand. And there was some thinking Assad was gaining the upper hand. And so what this is really about is trying to hammer Assad to, you know, equal the playing field again, as it were.

HEDGES: Well, and that is what I meant when I spoke about changing the balance of power, because clearly at this moment the Assad regime does have the upper hand. The rebel movement, which, you know, is fractious and spends a lot of time fighting each other, is reeling backwards. And what we are doing once again is using military force to insert ourselves into a conflict without understanding the repercussions or the consequences of that insertion.

JAY: And it’s a way to weaken Assad without putting more arms into opposition hands when they’re afraid, you know, al-Qaeda types are getting hold of these guns. So instead of arming the opposition at a higher level, they just directly hit Assad.

HEDGES: Right. And you can be sure that the Saudis and the Qataris and others are making sure that al-Qaeda types are getting these weapons. This goes all the way back to the war in Afghanistan. This has been the modus operandi of the Saudis for a very long time. [incompr.] you know, their intervention throughout the region has been so disastrous. We didn’t have to end up with the Taliban running Afghanistan after the war with the Soviets, but because we let the Saudis essentially direct our money that was provided to the opposition in Afghanistan, or funnel it through the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service, we starved those movements. And there were movements and figures that were not wedded to this radical Islamist ideology.

So once again we see the utter ineptitude on the part of the Saudis and the promotion of this jihadist movement throughout the region fueled by Saudi money and Saudi weapons.

JAY: And Saudi weapons purchased from the United States, on the whole.

HEDGES: There you go. Again, it gets back to the whole arms trade. You know, they’ll–and, of course, we are the largest seller of weapons and munitions on the planet, and these people don’t care as long as they make money. And I think that is a lot of what is fueling these conflicts in places like Afghanistan, that companies like Halliburton and Raytheon, Boeing, they don’t want to get out. They don’t ever want to get out. They don’t care how many Americans die, how many Afghans die. They don’t care what happens in Afghanistan. They don’t care what happens within the region. Look at their stock prices, like Halliburton. They’ve all quadrupled since 9/11. And that is sort of the unseen engine behind a lot of this. So there’s a lot of pressure.

JAY: I was at a conference a couple of months ago. I was invited as the press. And it was a lobbying agency that lobbies Middle Eastern governments more or less on behalf of arms manufacturers. I found myself a rather strange table fellow there. But the talk there was all about how much Saudi Arabia wanted the United States to not just deal with Assad, but wants an attack on Iran, and that the Saudis were going to find some way to make this happen.

HEDGES: And, you know, the Saudis have created more havoc and damage within the Middle East, arguably, in the last two decades than any other country or any other group, including, of course, al-Qaeda.

JAY: Yeah. I mean, Israel is a story all of its own, of course, but I take your point.

Thanks very much for joining us, Chris.

HEDGES: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of show The Chris Hedges Report.