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M.J. Rosenberg: Obama’s Old-Fashioned Imperialism

by M.J. Rosenberg

Jun 19, 2013 | Foreign Policy, Politics


President Barack Obama’s decision to provide military aid to the Syrian opposition is incredible. The U.S. is barely out of Iraq. It’s still bogged down in Afghanistan. Obama insists on keeping the Iran war option “on the table.” Yet suddenly we are taking sides in a civil war in Syria.

The most amazing thing is that the president has the audacity to even propose involvement in Syria to the American people. (Not that he is asking, just telling. If he asked, he’d know that 70 percent of Americans oppose aiding the rebels).

Since 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson came up with a phony pretext to gain passage of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing the Vietnam war, it has been one presidentially-initiated intervention after another: Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Persian Gulf, Yugoslavia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya. (This list does not even include the delivery of arms to the mujahideen in Afghanistan which brought us the Taliban, Osama Bin Laden, 9/11 and the endless War on Terror).

Obama’s proposal to take sides in the Syrian war ignores our destructive history in the Middle East.

I won’t argue that all the results of those interventions and wars were bad, although most of them were. I will elaborate on just one, because it seems most comparable. It is in the immediate neighborhood of Obama’s current initiative and involves many of the same players.

In June 1982, the Israeli government invaded Lebanon to drive the Palestine Liberation Organization and its fighters out of the country it had been using as a base for operations against Israel. (This was 11 years before the Oslo Accord in which the PLO recognized Israel).

The invasion led to a series of humanitarian disasters, most notably the slaughter by Christian forces allied with Israel of 800 civilians (almost all women, children and the elderly) in the Palestinian refugee camps called Sabra and Shatila. When the Israelis insisted that they would not stop the war until the Palestinians left the country, President Ronald Reagan dispatched 1,800 Marines to serve as peacekeepers, along with French and Italian forces, until the Palestinians were forced to board ships (to Tunisia!) and the Lebanese government reestablished some semblance of control over the country.

Reagan’s stated intentions were good. He said the Marines were going in solely as peacekeepers, not fighters, and they would stay for a maximum of 30 days. He said his goal was freeing Lebanon from domination by Palestinians and Syrians, and enabling Israel to get out. (Not surprisingly, he described Israel as more victim, not instigator, of the war).

Of course, it didn’t turn out as Reagan hoped. In the words of Lawrence Korb, who was Assistant Secretary of Defense at the time, the peacekeeper force soon became “entangled in Lebanon’s sectarian conflict.” Its presence resulted “only in exacerbating the problems it was supposed to resolve.” Other than achieving Israel’s goal of expelling the PLO, the U.S. intervention succeeded only in infuriating all sides while accomplishing nothing.

And then, on October 23, 1983, 14 months after Reagan pledged that the Marines would stay only one, 241 Marines were blown up while asleep in their barracks at the Beirut airport by Hizbullah terrorists. It was the worst Marine loss of life since Iwo Jima. Five months later Reagan pulled all U.S. forces out: Lebanon was no better off than before. It’s not necessary to elaborate on the families of the 241 lost Marines.

There is no need to expend many words on the most destructive of U.S. interventions in the Middle East, the Iraq war, because it is so recent. It was built on lies told by a president, his advisers and a claque of neoconservatives who are always eager to get America to fight Arabs or Muslims whenever and wherever they can.

Right now, their primary goal is to ensure that the Obama administration does not relax its hostility toward Iran despite the election of a moderate new president. But that won’t stop them from cheerleading for U.S. action in Syria, which they have been clamoring for since the Syrian civil war began. And then, of course, there are Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham who think Obama’s moves in Syria are not nearly warlike enough.

Obama’s proposal to take sides in the Syrian war is wrong. It is arrogant. It ignores our destructive history in the Middle East and the perception by all parties in the region that everything we do there is motivated by our blatant bias toward Israel.

And it opens up the now unforeseen possibility of an expanded war, perhaps even with John McCain’s favorite solution: “boots on the ground.” After all, Reagan never intended Marines to even fight in Lebanon, let alone be killed in their beds.

The role of the U.S. should be to support unconditional negotiations involving all sides with no stated goal other than to end the killing. (Expecting the Assad regime to negotiate when we say the goal of negotiations is its removal is absurd).

Helping to end the slaughter of innocents (by both sides) through diplomacy is the only appropriate role for this country. It is also an essential role. Dictating solutions to any other country’s civil war is nothing but 19th century imperialism, no different than President McKinley’s war to “liberate Cuba.”


M.J. Rosenberg is a Special Correspondent for The Washington Spectator. He was most recently a Foreign Policy fellow at Media Matters For America. Previously, he spent 15 years as a Senate and House aide. Early in his career he was editor of AIPAC’s newsletter Near East Report. From 1998-2009, he was director of policy at Israel Policy Forum. Follow him @MJayRosenberg and @WashSpec.


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