Notes From the Margins…

Red Lines

  • April 27, 2013
  • by

Western wars and ‘interventions’ in the age of ‘humanitarian warfare’ tend to rely on two essential propaganda tropes to prepare domestic and international public opinion for such events.  Firstly, there is an appeal to humanitarianism/guilt through ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) rhetoric which confers a selective moral obligation to bomb or invade countries of geopolitical interest whose rulers/regimes ‘kill their own people’.

Secondly, there is the notion that such regimes are not only dangerous to themselves but to others, through their possession of ‘weapons of mass destruction.’   For the first method to be effective, the public must be brought to such a level of ‘we have to do something’ outrage/horror/empathy that Western military intervention seems to be the only plausible and desirable option – regardless of its broader geopolitical motives or its consequences for the people who must be bombed to be saved.

This kind of intervention enables us to feel good about ourselves,  convinced that we have ‘done something’, or at least that our bombers and missiles have.   Method 2, on the other hand, is not intended to make us feel good, but to make us feel afraid, and very afraid, to the point when war/invasion/bombing seems to be the only way to prevent ‘mad’ dictators from attacking us with WMD or handing such weapons to ‘terrorists’ to do their dirty work for them.

This approach also has the added advantage of emphasizing legality rather than morality, by locking the targeted country into an inspection/sanctions regime that can then be used to trigger whatever ‘intervention’ is deemed necessary, should said country prove itself to be less than transparent or compliant.

All this might seem rather crude, but propaganda is often crude, and these devices have been used very effectively in the past – particularly in the absence of a media ‘fourth estate’ willing to challenge their assertions and premises.  In Iraq tropes 1 and 2 were employed, till the United States settled on the second, “for bureaucratic reasons”,  as Paul Wolfowitz famously put it.  In Libya the emphasis was on trope 1.   In Iran it was – and is – trope 2, with the humanitarian stuff mostly on the back burner.

In Syria both approaches have been applied.   Until recently the emphasis was mainly on the first, and the WMD catastrophe scenarios were largely a background narrative in the ‘tyrant versus freedom fighters’ morality story.

This week there has been a renewed emphasis on trope 2,  possibly because the governments that want to drop Assad and move on to Iran/Hezbollah feel that their side may not be winning.

So we now hear that Assad may have been using ‘chemical weapons against his own people’, including the sarin gas with which the Aum Shinrikyo cult once attempted to bring the apocalypse to Tokyo.  How do we know this?   Because Israeli, British, French and American intelligence services say he might have done, and because the Free Syrian Army have provided soil samples supposedly containing traces of sarin, and because a video shows a man foaming at the mouth, who may or may not be a victim of a sarin gas attack.

Soil samples provided by the enemies of the Assad regime aren’t exactly the most conclusive proof.    And chemical weapons experts have expressed scepticism about their reliability.   Some have asked why the regime would use sarin gas in such quantities, even if they were going to use it at all.   Others have pointed out that the ‘sarin victim’ video, shows signs of phosgene poisoning rather than sarin.  Nor is it at all clear who fired the shell that may have contained it.

The evidence is so flaky that the Obama administration has expressed caution about it – partly because the White House is still not sure what to do about it even if it turns out to be true.   Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s statement on Syria’s possible use of chemical weapons was based on a letter from  Miguel Rodriguez, the White House”s director of legislative affairs, to John ‘Bomber’ McCain, which makes the less-than-conclusive announcement that

“Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.”

These ‘varying degrees of confidence’ don’t mean that this story will not have consequences.  Obama has said that any use of chemical weapons by Assad (not the rebels) would be a ‘red line’ and a ‘game-changer’ – though he has not said that the ‘red line’ has been crossed yet.

And Lord Snooty, taking his cue from the Imperium as all British politicians do, agrees ‘  I think what President Obama said was absolutely right that this should form for the international community a red line for us to do more.’

John McCain, a Republican maniac who is always looking to bomb someone, somewhere, and doesn’t like caveats that might get in the way, has told Fox News that  the red line ‘was crossed.‘  South Carolina Lindsey Graham, another Republican troglodyte also believes that ‘ the red line’s been crossed’ and wants action to ‘secure the chemical weapons before they fall into the wrong hands.’

So does Democrat Senator Diane Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, who wants the world to ‘come together’ and take ‘meaningful action’ because  ‘Syria has the ability to kill tens of thousands with its chemical weapons.  ‘

Sarin may be odourless, but this whole story stinks of manipulation and fabrication, just like the ‘Yellowcake’ uranium story once reeked before the Iraq war, and the undisclosed WMD that Saddam didn’t have, and the ’45 minute’ missiles that he didn’t have either.

But as that war demonstrated, even the most blatant fabrications can still achieve their objective, and just because Syria hasn’t crossed the Imperium’s red line yet, doesn’t mean that someone won’t find a way to ‘prove’ that it does in the future.



You may also Like

Ursula in Blunderland

Ursula in Blunderland

January 31, 2021
The Lie Machine

The Lie Machine

January 23, 2021


  1. Richard Carter

    28th Apr 2013 - 5:17 pm

    It’s not just certified neocons who are tooting the same tune, but the otherwise sensible Brendan Simms is at it:

    It’s quite astonishing to read this stuff; Syria is quite different from Bosnia, which Simms brings in as a parallel, and I’m staggered at the lack of historic awareness in a professor of the history of international relations at Cambridge, no less.

    • Matt

      28th Apr 2013 - 7:05 pm

      Isn’t Simms connected to the Henry Jackson Society? Those guys just can’t stop ‘intervening’.

      • Richard Carter

        29th Apr 2013 - 8:49 am

        Yes, so he is! I’d assumed, that because he wrote ‘Unfinest hour’ about the Yugoslav disintegration, that he was one of the more reasonable historians. But he is a co-preseident of the H Jackson Soc and you can see that he’s an enthusiastic intervener from a piece he wrote for the Social Affairs Unit which includes these deathless words: “If you have some liberal views on domestic politics, but are prepared to concede that George Bush might be broadly right on foreign policy … then the Henry Jackson Society is for you…” ( Yuk!

        • Matt

          29th Apr 2013 - 10:04 am

          Yuk indeed.

  2. Richard Carter

    28th May 2013 - 9:24 am

    There’s a crazed Op Ed piece in the New York Times today (‘In Syria, Go Big or Stay Home,’, in which one Ray Takeyh argues that “a tentative and halting” response would just embolden Iran. He says what’s needed is a major American intervention there, and spells out what this would mean “more than no-fly zones and arms. It would mean disabling Mr. Assad’s air power and putting boots on the ground. America would have to take the lead in organizing a regional military force blessed by the Arab League and supported by its own intelligence assets and Special Forces. After that would come the task of reconstituting Syria and mediating its sectarian conflicts.”

    He goes on to stress that “As the war in Iraq painfully demonstrated, refashioning national institutions from the debris of a civil war can be more taxing than the original military intervention.” You don’t say! A more feeble statement of the complete f*ck up in Iraq could hardly be imagined, and the guy has obviously learned absolutely nothing.

    I only hope this idiot doesn’t have the ear of anyone serious in washington….

    • Matt

      28th May 2013 - 11:01 am

      ‘Crazed’ is right. But these guys are like zombies. They just keep on coming no matter what facts stand in their path. Or more likely they simply don’t care about the deaths and devastation their ‘solutions’ will cause, as long as they can ‘get’ Iran or the enemy de jour.

      And this guy will undoubtedly have somebody’s ear in Washington. It’s pretty much John McCain’s position, to name but one.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


  • No events