Asking The Elephant To Do Gymnastics

Spy movies seem to be something that Hollywood loves, especially Cold War spy movies. The thing about spy movies is that most of them were originally books, or their stories taken from books. A lot of those books were stories taken from real life (only made way more cool). Whether based on truth, or simply following a formula, Cold War era spy movies were massively popular. There was a lot of fear, a lot of propaganda, and not a small amount of nuclear weapons usage…in pretty much all of them. And they all followed the same basic ideas of Russian ridiculousness and American might. It seems that humanity’s taste in movies hasn’t really matured past the spy movies of the Cold War…unless you count the soon-to-be-released The Fifth Estate, which has no explosions (except of personal lives), but it does have a lot of propaganda.

Now, to be fair, The Fifth Estate isn’t even released yet…and won’t be until 18 October. But, there were at least three showings of the trailer tonight during CNN advert breaks, and if the trailers are anything to go by, this movie is based mostly on propaganda, and little on fact… a John Le Carré film it is not (the irony to that: the actor who plays Assange was also in Tinker, Tailor… my how the mighty have fallen [he’d say up, I suspect… I’d argue the colloquial of scortor would be more apt]).

Ironically, those trailers were shown while various CNN anchors and guests were discussing President Obama’s speech. Obama’s speech, it turns out, is much like what The Fifth Estate promises: lots of rhetoric and propaganda, little usefulness. The phrase ‘gassed children’ was used at least 7 times (I counted). Either way, heartstrings were pulled in an effort to make Americans understand the necessity of involvement in Syria. The President even encouraged all to go and watch the videos of the chemical attacks to see for themselves the atrocities committed. I don’t think a single person on earth has denied that chemical weapons were used…even Assad has said they were used. Not once, however, was there evidence presented of who used them…nor anything that even resembled a strategy should military action be needed (although Obama said it wouldn’t be a “pinprick” because the US military doesn’t do “pinpricks.” They do, actually, which makes me even more skeptical of who is actually advising Obama on military matters).

The President did discuss the possibility of a diplomatic solution in relation to the chemical weapons in Syria, instead of military action, and explained that’s why he asked Congress to postpone a vote on use of force (and I’m sure the fact that he’d lose the vote had nothing to do with it). Much like the Austrio-Hungarian demands to Serbia after the death of Franz Ferdinand in 1914, the United States will find a way to make the demands to Syria an impossible ultimatum. Currently (well, accidentally) the diplomatic solution is this: Russia gets Syria to agree to turn over all chemical weapons to the international community, who will in turn secure the sites and destroy the weapons (which, in reality, is a couple decade long process). Russia and Syria have both agreed to this, and Syria has agreed to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention. Of course, anything involving Russia is a gamble.

The first problem with this is practicality: how do you get UN inspectors into a country in the middle of a civil war, test, locate and secure 7-10 chemical weapons sights WITHOUT incident.. and then proceed to destroy the chemicals without them falling into the wrong hands? The UN isn’t even sure it wants to do that…that’s a big undertaking and the risk is not insignificant. Syria is about as unstable as a country can get and still have a semblance of a government. Putting UN chemical weapons experts, and armed UN authorities, on the ground in Syria may just make things worse. And no way does the UN carry the full burden; I suspect US troops would be added to a UN contingent, under UN command, to help secure these sites. And if there are US troops on the ground, along with UN troops, any smart rebel leader would make sure an attack on US troops would lead to full scale US assistance (and he’s smart enough to do that, he’d be smart enough to make it look like Assad’s fault). Obama’s promise of not getting involved in a civil war, his promise of no boots on the ground, would be null and void.

The second issue is the practicality of Russia working toward something that they have no particular national interest in. Churchill once, infamously, said that Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. He meant that what Russia would do was always a gamble, because the “key was Russia’s national interest,” and therefore you could never really predict it. In reality, not much about Russia has changed since the fall of the Soviet Union (something Putin wouldn’t say no to having back). Syrian stability, under Assad, is certainly in Russian national interests…and the US not intervening is also in Russian national interests. Allowing the US to intervene in Syria certainly sets some bad precedents for both Russia and China in the future (Chechnya and Tibet, respectively)…but Obama says the US isn’t the world’s policeman, so they should both be alright. More importantly, Russia has no desire to see Syria, an arms customer, fall into the hands of Al-Qaeda. Russian history + religious extremism = bad outcome. Although the US didn’t learn from Russia in relation to Afghanistan, perhaps Russia has finally learned its lesson in dealing with religious extremism…at least enough to know they want nothing to do with it.


Syria agreeing to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention is interesting. The signatures of the Chemical Weapons Convention are bound by the restrictions placed on the creation and use of chem weapons. Signed in 1993, this particular international agreement creates the “norms” that Kerry’s been talking about for weeks. There are a few things he’s failed to mention, however. First: Syria hasn’t signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, so they aren’t bound by the rules (technically, chemical weapons usage by a nation is illegal under international law, BUT only if the Assad regime used them. If they were used by the Syrian rebels, who has no sovereignty because they aren’t a nation, they aren’t bound by those laws at all). The last thing Kerry, and Obama, have failed to discuss is the US’ own history using chemical weapons. We’ve heard how Germany used chemical weapons in WWI and WWII (and Obama made sure to point out that US soldiers suffered from gas attacks during WWI… and trench foot, which was actually worse), Iraq under Hussein and now Syria….they’ve neglected to mention that the US has also used chemical weapons, and on a large scale (Napalm and Agent Orange, anyone?). Although, I guess they leave that out since neither Napalm nor Agent Orange are on the banned list (funny, that). So if Syria signs, it’d be required to abide by the rules…the rules the international community is already imposing on them anyway. Might as well have a piece of paper in a file cabinet to make it official.

For the record, when it’s something the Chairman of the JCS doesn’t want, it’s probably a bad idea (and does anyone else miss Admr. Mullen?). And, when a speech by the President of the United States, in an effort to explain to his constituency why military action is necessary, talks about gassed children but never mentions military strategy, you have to wonder what the President actually wants. But more importantly: when a speech by the President of the United States can be directly related to a propaganda piece on why Julian Assange is cool, there’s maybe a few flaws in your presentation. Needless to say, tonight’s speech by Obama did very little to explain anything except that there are dead children, and it’s the US’ responsibility to do something about it. Of course, we also learned that this entire situation has very little to do with Syrian, and a lot to do with Iran and Israel, but I suspect that wasn’t supposed to be noticed.

[If you’re interested, trailers for The Fifth Estate:…AND Obama speech transcript:]


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