Why the US attack on Syria was a big deal

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October 29, 2008 @ 13:12 UTC

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Iran, Syria
International Relations, War & Conflict

The criteria for launching such attacks has shifted, as Robert Dreyfus of The Nation writes:

A parallel new Bush doctrine is emerging, in the last days of the soon-to-be-ancien regime, and it needs to be strangled in its crib. Like the original Bush doctrine — the one that Sarah Palin couldn't name, which called for preventive military action against emerging threats — this one also casts international law aside by insisting that the United States has an inherent right to cross international borders in “hot pursuit” of anyone it doesn't like.

Dreyfus gives examples.

  • Pakistan. “Pakistan has been the subject of at least nineteen aerial attacks by CIA-controlled drone aircraft, killing scores of Pakistanis and some Afghans in tribal areas controlled by pro-Taliban forces. The New York Times listed, and mapped, all nineteen such attacks”
  • Syria. “The U.S. raid into Syria on October 26 similarly trampled on Syria's sovereignty without so much as a fare-thee-well. . . The Washington Post was ecstatic, writing in an editorial: “If Sunday's raid, which targeted a senior al-Qaeda operative, serves only to put Mr. Assad on notice that the United States, too, is no longer prepared to respect the sovereignty of a criminal regime, it will have been worthwhile.” Is it really that easy? To say: We declare your regime criminal, and so we will attack you anytime we care to?”
  • Iran. “The Times broadens the possible targets from Pakistan and Syria to Iran, writing (in a page one story by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker): “Administration officials declined to say whether the emerging application of self-defense could lead to strikes against camps inside Iran that have been used to train Shiite 'special groups' that have fought with the American military and Iraqi security forces.” That, of course, has been a live option, especially since the start of the surge in January, 2007, when President Bush promised to strike at Iranian supply lines in Iraq and other U.S. officials, including Vice President Cheney, pressed hard to attack sites within Iran, regardless of the consequences.”

Previously during the Bush Administration, discussion about the possibility of US commando attacks on the sovereign territory of foreign states focused on seizing some truly extraordinary opportunity. For example, Obama says if he had actionable intelligence on Bin Laden, he would approve a cross-border attack in Pakistan.

It reminds me of back in 2002-3 when you would hear American leaders and journalists speculate about the extraordinary circumstances under which torture ought to be permissible — those ticking bomb scenarios. The rest is history. Within a couple years, the practice of torture was routine.

Both examples — in which the the extraordinary instance became policy and practice — share something in common besides the fact both concern the violation of international law. Also, both prioritize short-term operational goals at the expense of the long-term big picture thinking.

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