With a familiar echo of the USS Maine in Havana to the Gulf of Tonkin ‘incident’ to the illusory ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in Iraq, the drums of war pound louder once more along the Potomac for reasons that have nothing to do with America’s national interest or security
By Mark Cromer
“You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”
~ Publisher William Randolph Hearst, 1897
It’s a historically infamous quote, allegedly cabled from the newspaper baron to his man in Havana in response to a report that there were no signs of brewing conflict in Cuba and it has come to symbolize in the American imagination the modern advent of a ‘false flag’ operation, of powerful interests wagging the dog while concealed in the shadows.
And it also never happened.
While the narrative that the immensely powerful and equally feared Hearst had managed to single-handedly light the fuse that exploded the Spanish-American War has settled into the historical recesses of the American memory, the quote is far more myth than historical fact and likely never occurred in virtually any variation.
But what did plunge the United States into a shooting war with Spain around the globe as the 19th Century came to a close was a rapidly unspooling series of events that was driven by ill-advised posturing and demands by both major powers that set the stage for war following the flashpoint of the USS Maine exploding and sinking in Havana harbor on the night of February 15, 1898, killing hundreds of American sailors.
It would take two more months before war was declared, following a report by the U.S. Navy that the cruiser’s magazines detonated as the result of an external explosion (the Spanish Navy concluded the blast was a shipboard event), but the table had long been set by the time the shooting actually started. And while presented and paraded throughout America as a war to knock an Old World imperial power off its remaining colonial perch in the Western Hemisphere, the reality was that the United States had no intention of shouldering weapons and marching off to secure the national liberation of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.
All three countries were promptly put under new American management.
As President Trump considers his next move in the Middle East, the prospect of plunging the United States deeply into the rubble-strewn sands of Syria—a former cohesive nation-state that but six years ago boasted a stable economy that supported a broad middleclass but today has been reduced to producing refugees by the millions—it’s instructive to consider just who’s cheerleading a forced march to war and just how a purported nationalist like Trump pivoted and jumped into a role of globalist sheriff in a matter of but days.
The official word from the White House is that Trump was moved to issue the order for the USS Porter and USS Ross to unleash nearly 60 Tomahawk missiles into the Shayrat airbase in Syria last Thursday after his daughter Ivanka Trump expressed her ‘heartbreak’ over the atrocity that was reportedly a Damascus-directed chemical attack on its own people. Grim by any origin, graphic imagery of victims of the attack in the Northwestern Syrian city of Khan Sheikhoun last Tuesday went viral and proved to be another conveniently potent prosecutorial evidentiary exhibit for the likes of Sen. John McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, two men who have worked relentlessly for a massive American military escalation across the Middle East and a violent confrontation with Russia over its steadfast support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
It’s understandable if the 63 million Americans who cast their ballots for Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda (and surely most of them voted for the agenda rather than the man) suffered whiplash as those Tomahawks roared forth from the decks of the destroyers. Just days before Trump gave the order to hit Assad’s air force, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in Ankara where he formally acknowledged that regime change in Syria was not a priority for the Trump administration.
Then, almost as if on cue, came the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun.
It was a strange blow for Assad to strike, coming as it did as his government’s forces continue to retake ground and maintain the military initiative that Russia’s intervention has helped them recover over the past 18-months all while a new American administration had seemed to accustom itself to his ongoing rule in Damascus. Like his father before him, Assad may be a brutal dictator in his default position, but the London-educated Syrian strongman is no fool and yet such a horrifying blunder as launching a chemical weapons attack would be a fool’s wager over stakes that have not even been identified.
Just what did Assad stand to gain from ordering such an attack, versus what he clearly stood to lose?
Indeed, why Damascus felt it had to launch a chemical weapons strike at that very moment into a relatively small city (its pre-war population was around 50,000 and likely only a fraction of that now) that’s held by an al-Qaeda affiliated group and in the process discredit and potentially alienate the very benefactor that has kept Assad and his ruling clan from going the way of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya is a perplexing riddle.
Which raises the question—and it is a question that demands reasoned consideration—did Assad order the attack at all? Or did perhaps a rogue or dissident element within his military, a faction that is perhaps partial to the rebel cause and is desperate to reverse their fading fortunes on the battlefield carryout the attack to provoke an American response? Or could perhaps an operational cell within the government have carried out the strike as a warning of what weapons it in fact still possesses, showing a face card of chemical death to leave everyone else wondering what else lies in the cards under it?
Or maybe, just maybe, the strike occurred under different circumstances altogether?
If deployment of chemical weapons was the surest bet to trigger a military reaction from the United States and potentially recalibrate the Trump administration’s position on Assad’s government in Damascus, then who would be the most likely to benefit from such an attack and who would be the most likely to carry it out? Considering that it’s an al-Qaeda affiliated group that occupies Khan Sheikhoun, can the terror organization’s franchise that actually controls the town be ruled out as orchestrating this atrocity?
Or might it have been just as the United States presented it?
That Assad, for reasons known only to him, decided to go all ‘Chemical Ali’ on a mere whim once more and consequently walk a tightrope as the winds of oblivion suddenly whip around him, to risk watching victory vanish as he confronts his personal end along the lines of Gaddafi, Hussein, Mussolini or Ceausescu?
Maybe that’s just what happened.
Yet there was an all too familiar rush to reach an immediate conclusion within hours of the attack.
Last Wednesday, Nikki Haley took to the UN Security Council to issue a blistering denunciation of Russian support for Assad and, in a stunning overnight rewrite of what had been an emerging fundamental reset of American foreign policy, warned that Washington was now suddenly indeed ready to take immediate military action in Syria before all the facts were established.
“Look at those pictures,” Haley said, brandishing photos of dead and dying children. “We cannot close our eyes to those pictures. We cannot close our minds of the responsibility to act. We don’t know everything about yesterday’s attack, but there are many things we do know. We know that’s yesterday’s attacks bear all the hallmarks of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.”
Haley’s own words resonated with another American official’s declaration at the UN some 14 years ago, when then Secretary of State Colin Powell lectured the world: “I cannot tell you everything that we know, but what I can share with you, when combined with what all of us have learned over the years, is deeply troubling.”
Powell went on to make the case for what became the American invasion of Iraq, perhaps the most catastrophic geopolitical miscalculation in the history of the United States, a disaster that was so incompetently carried out by President George W. Bush that it ultimately triggered the total collapse of a half-dozen nation states even as it succeeded in exploding the ranks and the range of Islamic jihadist terror groups.
And the result of all that ‘deeply troubling’ incontrovertible evidence that Powell informed the world America had which proved—even if he couldn’t reveal it—that Iraq under Saddam Hussein was vigorously pursuing weapons of mass destruction and in some instances already had them?
Well, those WMDs have proved more elusive than even Saddam was in the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad. They were never found.
But what has emerged, from the snow-covered mountains of Afghanistan to the sunny shores of the Mediterranean, is the mercurial terror state of ISIS and its fellow travelers in radical jihad, which now control more real estate, more armaments, more men and more operational reach than at any time since Bush launched the Second Gulf War. In America’s 16 years at war in Afghanistan and its 14 years at war in Iraq, nearly 7,000 American soldiers have been killed while installing and propping up changing sets of hopelessly corrupt regimes that are incapable or unwilling to restore order to their societies. Villages, towns and cities that were taken with American blood fall again to the jihadis only to be taken again and then abandoned once more as the security forces that Americans have trained change sides or drop their weapons and flee.
Stranded in outposts amid the whirlwinds of violent chaos that has enveloped these regions for millennia, more than 50,000 American soldiers have been grievously wounded in these ‘deployments’ without end, returning home with their arms, legs and faces blown off even as Washington plans for more rotations, surges and expanded interventions.
Trump issued the order to fire the missiles the day after Haley addressed the UN Security Council and in the six days that have followed a surreal pageant has unfolded across the media as anti-Trump pundits, politicians and reporters have heralded the attack as the president’s apparent new found commitment to what was excitedly declared by all as ‘the world order.’ On Fox News, pundit Bill O’Reilly got so lathered up in his nightly fantasy of actually being president that he called for America and NATO to launch combat operations against Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Perhaps the American invasion and occupation of the Congo to end the gruesome civil war there that has claimed millions of lives will finally find its way on the United States ‘To Do List.’
But by virtually any non-politicized military estimation the strike was little more than a costly symbolic gesture: the Syrians were back using the airbase to launch attacks against ISIS and other rebel groups the following day. While Secretary of Defense James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis declared on Monday that the barrage had damaged or destroyed no less than 20-percent of Syria’s operational aircraft, that estimate felt like it had all the malleable texture of General William Westmoreland’s estimates of enemy strength and reports of imminent victory in Vietnam.
It seems the more relevant damage done by the missile strikes and the diplomatic melodrama that has unfolded in the week since has been to the United States already deteriorated relationship with Russia, pushing America another step closer to a confrontation that could lead to a conflagration over a misstep or a mistake.
And this just as the United States faces a military showdown with a legitimate and active threat to its national security: North Korea.
The United States could use Russia’s help in ensuring China doesn’t miscalculate or drag its feet much longer in dealing with a country—unlike Syria—that routinely threatens to attack America with weapons of mass destruction and one—unlike Syria—that is ruled by a certifiable madman who has very publicly brandished those ever-developing weapons systems.
Yet an estranged and potentially enraged Russia is not likely to lend a hand against a true threat to America if the United States remains intent of knocking Moscow’s man in Damascus out of power.
This has been a heady week for Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham and the rest of the interventionist caucus inside the Beltway—which is to say just about everyone else in the Senate save Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders—their fortunes of endless war appear to have turned on a dime and surged with reports of a chemical weapons attack in the midst of the Syrian civil war.
For McCain, he seems closer than ever to his political life’s ambition and one can almost hear him gloat the next time he heads into the Oval Office to meet with a president who is seemingly becoming a globalist apprentice: “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”
Except this time, it will have happened.