THE BLOG
09/09/2013 09:57 am ET Updated Nov 06, 2013

Syria: The Politics of Swagger

Resolution approved. The politics of swagger led to Wednesday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee authorizing a limited U.S. military intervention in Syria. The committee voted 10-7 in favor of a compromise resolution that sets a 60-day limit on any engagement in Syria and bars the use of U.S. troops on the ground for combat operations. The stage for a debate in the full Senate next week on the use of military force is officially set.

The drumbeat towards that vote became less about fact and more about framing and narrative. The narrative was of absolutes: Go to war or look like a punk by doing nothing. The framing emerged as the President drew a red line around the use of chemical weapons by Syria president Bashar al Assad against the Syrian people, and told Syria to observe that line or else. (Although now a back and forth has begun about who actually drew that red line - the President now says he did not draw it, the world did.) That red line became the launch pad for this politics of swagger. The President was then subjected to a political onslaught from neo Cons and some elements of the Left - including former President Bill Clinton - about being 'weak', a punk, a wuss, a fool, once the line was crossed. Here was a president who killed Osama bin Laden and Libyan former leader Colonel Maummar Gadafi - as Eli Lake of the Daily Beast said sarcastically on 'All in With Chris Hayes' 'Who do you have to kill around here to not be accused of being a punk?" There is another irony, so far unsaid. Barack Obama is America's first African American president. He is a black man. America's relationship with black men has long been one where they were considered threat, to be feared, poised to commit violence and yet the routine accusation against this first black president is of being weak, lacking swag, lacking the balls to act - invoking the absence of a John Wayne, get-it-done hyper masculinity.

Take a walk back from president to senator. When President Obama ran for that historic 2008 election, the then senator said he didn't just want to end the war in Iraq, he wanted to "end the mindset that got us into the war in the first place." That mindset is a politics of swagger. Phyllis Bennis, a Fellow at the Institute for Public Policy and author of 'Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the UN Defy Its Power' said during our interview: "The point is, this is the George Bush line post 9/11; we either go to war or let them get away with it. It's a false dichotomy to talk about military force or nothing.' Bennis agrees this politics of swag emerges due to what she calls 'face-saving' post the drawing of red lines and the President then submitting to the haranging from political voices. She explains there has been a 'militarization of foreign policy of diplomacy'.

It is this militarization of diplomacy that enables Secretary of State John Kerry to make a powerful case for war. The same Kerry, who in April 1971 as a former US Navy Lieutenant and spokesperson for 'Vietnam Veterans Against the War', testified in uniform before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Some of what he said: "We watched pride allow the most unimportant battles to be blown into extravaganzas, because we couldn't lose, and we couldn't retreat,............We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake.?" Kerry's voice is now part of that drumbeat towards war, as despite the President's assurance there would be no boots on the ground Kerry called for that option acknowledging the strike may not work.

Bennis like other experts, commentators, human rights organizations, activists and many of the American people does not advocate taking no action. "We should not be prepared to stand aside and do nothing, but we need to send in international human rights campaigners." Bennis explains: "We need to use the chemical weapons treaty." That treaty is the 'Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction, known as 'The Chemical Weapons Convention.' It is an arms control agreement which outlaws the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons. Bennis argues a thorough examination of options from within this Convention should be explored. The challenge with the politics of swagger is the absence of real debate to explore such a strategy. What is on the table is a demand to adopt a specific option or reject it and pay the price of a diminished global identity, a weakening of your nation's supremacy. How does that serve this call to end the mindset that creates war?

Bennnis says: "There has to be a campaign to reclaim legitimate diplomacy". Bennis argues that tough diplomacy would mean the US meeting with Russia. Right now, Presidents Putin and Obama are engaged in a war of words. Putin has condemned Kerry as a liar, Russia vigorously and financially supports Assad, the President canceled a planned meeting with Russia's Putin, but will meet lgbt activists amid a continuing controversy around lgbt rights. The politics of swagger make no room for such a meeting. Bennis argues however tough the politics, a meeting between the two men would much more accurately reflect Obama's rhetoric.

Indeed, the contradiction in these politics of swagger lie in the President's own strengths, seemingly abandoned in this moment. His advisers, the First Lady, other Democrats, routinely remind the American people, this is a President whose eye is always on the end goal, the long game. He is not a leader caught up in the magic or mayhem of a moment. His caution and thoughtfulness were a major plus post the bluster of two terms of George W Bush, and a reason for his election win. Even Bush acknowledged the politics of such bluster are a hindrance to long term change, even as the architects of the Iraq war add their voices to the drumbeat of war while heckling the President and lambasting his leadership. And yet this current Syria strategy is so short term. There is no long term goal, strategy, agenda that has been articulated. Voices like those of Senators Lindsay Graham and John McCain say their support of the strike is because regime change, getting rid of Assad, is the intention. But then what? The president wraps offensive action in moral language - his framing seeks to make what is unpalatable somehow acceptable. Remember his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech where the war in Afghanistan became the 'just' war. There is also the detail of navigating the voices within Syria's opposition.. Syria's opposition, explains Bennis, was initially a diverse democratic mix of voices that did not support military action. That diversity carried across professions, gender, generations, class. That voice has been drowned out by the Islamist forces who are better fighters, some of whom have been trained by the US and fought in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the President seeks to persuade the American people that languaging the strike as narrow, limited and short should serve as conviction that war is not an intention and Congress - what he described as the elected representative of the people - should vote in support. The challenge with that framing is the bizarre notion of Congress repping the people. The latest polling suggests 'we the people' might more accurately be described as 'we the coalition of the seriously unwilling and deeply sceptical', 'we the weary of foreign battlefields and domestic ones created by a politics of obstruction and paralysis from Congress'. So many of 'We the people' do not believe in Congress, nor do they accept Congress holds any real authority. The latest poll released Tuesday by 'The Washington Post. and 'ABC News' shows a majority of Americans oppose a strike against the Syrian government for its alleged use of chemical weapons. Conducted from August 28 through September 1st, the poll found 59% of Americans across the political spectrum opposed the possibility of a strike, while 36% supported the idea. The poll also broke down support by political affiliation. 54% of Democrats were against a possible strike, 42% were in favor. Similarly, 55% of Republicans opposed a strike, while 43% supported one. Independents were overwhelmingly against the strike: 66% opposed intervention, 30% supported it.

Those numbers are backed by on-going protest, rallies and town-halls up and down the country. On Saturday September 7th, a rally is planned at 12 noon at the White House with a planned march to the Capitol Building by a mix of pro-peace, anti-war organizers, activists and advocates initiated by the Syrian American Forum. A second protest is planned for Monday September 9th at 10am. Brian Becker, National Coordinator of the ANSWER Coalition (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), an organization that works to build an anti-racist, peace and social justice movement through grassroots activism said: "We have been in the streets all over the country. The opposition to a new war is everywhere."

As we stand poised for the President to address the nation and we anticipate the probable clashes within Congress, the challenge is with 'we the people' to strategize around our demand for alternative action that includes tough diplomacy. The politics of swagger creates a frame that builds a coffin in which the ultimate casualties of war - life and truth - are buried. What are we willing to do to challenge this strategy and ensure politics heeds the voices of we the people even as the drumbeat towards war gets louder?