This should not be who we are: Mahdi Hashi’s rendition and solitary confinement

In the last 10 days, the story of Mahdi Hashi’s hunger strike has seeped, barely, into the public sphere. There has been one “official” tweet about Hashi’s failing health, as he entered his fourth week of a hunger strike at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan. There have been few stories about it since that tweet.

Hashi’s name is not well known, but his treatment at the hands of the U.S. and U.K. over the last year should give pause. A British citizen of Somali descent, he migrated to England at a young age with his parents. At 18, he was a community youth worker, and was continually pressured by MI5 (the British equivalent of the CIA) to cooperate with them and spy on fellow Somalis (akin to the tactics of the FBI and the NYPD). Growing tired of their harassment, Hashi filed a complaint with his local MP Frank Dobson in 2009.  As well, he spoke with a caseworker at Cage Prisoners, which recorded his story (see pp.18-20 of pdf). ​

But things became worse. On several occasions, he was detained at British airports, interrogated and warned against leaving. On one occasion, after having been interrogated at Gatwick Airport, he insisted on continuing his trip to Djbouti to visit his grandmother, only to be detained and interrogated for hours there. He was refused entry and sent back to the U.K. Finally, escaping the unceasing harassment, Hashi moved to Somalia, where he married and had a child. In mid-2012, at the age of 23, Hashi disappeared altogether. Worried, his family appealed to the British government, who informed them that their hands were tied, because—alas—he was no longer a citizen.

Perhaps because he renounced it, you speculate. Not quite. The British government disfranchised him.  British Home Secretary Theresa May stripped him of his citizenship, which she informed him by letter:

“As Secretary of State, I hereby give notice … that I intend to have an order made to deprive Mahdi Mohamed Hashi of your British citizenship.

‘This is because I am satisfied that it would be conducive to the public good to do so. The reason for this decision is that the Security Service assess that you have been involved in Islamicist (sic) extremism and present a risk to the national security of the United Kingdom due to your extremist activities.’

May has made it a signature of her tenure to strip 17 others of their citizenship, in each case doing so after they left the country. All but one (Anna Chapman, the Russian spy) were Muslim. Technically, the British state may only do this when a person has dual citizenship, in order to avoid leaving a person stateless. Still, it is difficult to argue that Hashi could have turned to the Somali government to defend him, even if he had learned of the decision before he disappeared. May’s letter to Hashi was dated several weeks before he was rendered to the United States.

The ease and timing of the British decision is worthy of harsh and loud criticism.  Hashi had never been arrested in the U.K. However, at age 16, he was held in an Egyptian jail for nine days for a visa that still had  two weeks left before renewal was needed. That event, which Hashi reported to the advocacy group Cage Prisoners back in 2010, was somehow linked to suspected terrorist activity, although it is unclear whether there was evidence to back that suspicion. It is also unclear what constitutes evidence of “Islamicist extremism.”  By the time he moved to Somalia, there were still no evident ties to terrorists — except insofar as his work with British Somali youth was automatically assumed to be such a tie. In other words, Hashi’s guilt was through his association with other Somalis.

For the British, whose collusion with the U.S. on most things “counterterrorism” is noteworthy, this was an occasion to let someone else deal with the “problem” of Mahdi Hashi. As Paul Pillar, an ex-CIA employee suggests in this very good article by the Guardian’s Ian Cobain on the British collaboration with the U.S.:

From the United Kingdom point of view, if it is going to be a headache for anyone: let the Americans have the headache.

In other contexts — outside of America’s counterterrorism practices, where accusing young men of criminal and terrorist activities without evidence is endorsed uncritically in the name of national security by all good Americans – we call such suspicion in the absence of evidence racism. When the NYPD does it, we call it racial profiling.

African-AmericanLatino and Muslim communities in New York are intimately familiar with the judgment of “guilt by association.”

Hashi was detained, abused, and interrogated in Djbouti for several months before being handed over for more interrogations to the Americans. After several months, he suddenly appeared in handcuffs in a Brooklyn Federal Court right before Christmas of 2012, along with 2 Swedish men of Somali descent.

No news had been heard about Hashi until Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, when Cage Prisoners reported that he had been on a hunger strike and that his health was failing.

The MCC, where Hashi is being held in solitary confinement, did not confirm that he was on a hunger strike or that he was in critical condition. According to Saghir Hussain, the solicitor for Hashi’s family, they learned of his strike through a phone call with Hashi, which was interrupted “after about 60 seconds or so.” Calls to Hashi’s attorney, Harry Batchelder, were not returned.

According to Arnaud Mafille, a caseworker at Cage Prisoners, the organization that originally tweeted out the news, “He was in hospital for a week due to his hunger strike. He was diagnosed with jaundice. He was released from the hospital after one week. As far as we know he’s still on a hunger strike.”

He does not appear to have been force-fed yet. The Hashi family was unable to learn much more because of the special administrative measures (SAMs) imposed on him.

According to Mafille, Hashi is refusing food in a last ditch effort to have the SAM’s, which have imposed extremely limited contact with his family, removed.  SAM’s often consist of extreme conditions, such as daily 23-hour solitary confinement, and extremely restrictive contact or communication with anyone including family members and attorneys. SAM’s have also been imposed upon Muslim prisoners for “infractions” such as praying in a language other than English, or even praying with an open mouth.  SAM’s have become de rigeur for most, if not all, men suspected of giving material support to organizations or individuals themselves suspected of terrorism. These determinations are often based on guilt by association with an organization or individual, as for persons of Somali descent who may have donatedeven a small amount of money for charitable purposes to groups affiliated with Al-Shabaab.

No new details in Hashi’s case were heard until last Wednesday, several days after his hunger strike and failing liver had been reported. Independently, it appears, CBS News reported that a new document was “quietly dropped” into the files of Mahdi Hashi and his co-defendants, Ali Yasin Ahmed, and Mohammed Yusuf’s files.

The letter, by U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, alleges that they had substantial knowledge that al-Qaida was building a chemical weapons factory, and that they had substantial countersurveillance expertise. I have written about Lynch’s allegations in more detail elsewhere, but here it’s noteworthy that there has been no mention of their supposed familiarity with a chemical weapons program or countersurveillance expertise until now.

It’s also worth noting the timing of Lynch’s letter. It is entered into Hashi’s and the others’ files one month after the chemical gas attack in Syria, and four months since Edward Snowden’s leaked documents confirmed extensive NSA surveillance of American citizens, foreign nationals and international citizens alike. And perhaps it’s also worth noting that those revelations were met by the standard National Security response that surveillance was needed to foil the terrorists, who presumably had superior intelligence capacities.

Lynch’s letter also requests separate appearances for all three defendants on the grounds that their terrorist “proclivities” might cause death or bodily injury to others, or to themselves. Given that their SAMs probably mandate extremely restrictive conditions with negligible contact with anyone or anything, it’s unclear how exactly they could be a danger to anyone.

Last week, a Twitter account called @StatelessMahdi tweeted a picture of Hashi’s mother standing outside the US embassy in London, holding a sign that says “Free Mahdi Hashi.”  It reminds me of the pictures of Yusef Salaam’s mother who, in 1989, would appear at her teenaged son’s trial wearing a “Yusef is Innocent” T-shirt.

In Ken Burns’ recent documentary “The Central Park Five,” there is footage of Sharonne Salaam encountering jeering and laughing crowds on her way into the courtroom, wearing a T-shirt declaring her son’s innocence.  These were crowds who were convinced of New York Daily News’ headlines, naming Salaam and the 4 other black teenagers as part of a “Wolf Pack,” as marauders, animals, brutes who preyed on a young white woman, known as the Central Park Jogger. Many other newspapers across the country followed suit in sensationalizing the racial dimensions of the case. They convicted the teenagers by media, as did Mayor Edward Koch, then aspiring mayor David Dinkins, Donald Trump and others. Trump went as far as spending $85,000 to publish full-page ads in four daily New York City newspapers, demanding the return of the death penalty and more police for these “roving band of wild criminals.”

As we know today, Salaam and the other four teenagers would spend years in jail after having been railroaded into false confessions. As we also know today, they were innocent of any wrongdoing. As in Salaam’s case, the signs that Hashi was going to be profiled were there when he was a mere teenager, well before his disappearance from Somalia.

The U.S. has become a nation that zealously kidnaps men from foreign countries on the scantest suspicion of being threats to the U.S. and tortures them for indefinite amounts of time. Yes, solitary confinement is torture. Hashi and his co-defendants are three among many such men held here in the U.S. — outside of Guantánamo. Many have still not been charged.

This should not be who we are.

If Lynch’s allegations that Hashi and his co-defendants have substantial knowledge of a chemical weapons programs and are countersurveillance experts, then we need to have a speedy and open trial to see exactly how that expertise was acquired — and how the U.S. obtained that evidence. If Hashi is indeed guilty, that fact will not be established through secret interrogations or unlawful renditions. If he is guilty, that fact won’t be established by secret evidence or tortuous SAMs that eliminate his ability to have contact with the outside world.  It will only be established through a lawful prosecution, a vigorous defense, timely evidence and a transparent trial. The U.S. government’s case against Hashi can only be enhanced by treating him and his co-defendants humanely and sharing the evidence with the public. Until then, skepticism and doubts about the ethics of this nation’s counterterrorism practices will and should prevail.

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This article appeared in Salon.com today under the title: “This is counterrrorism?: The Shocking Story of Mahdi Hashi”

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Loretta Lynch alleges Mahdi Hashi is a chemical weapons and countersurveillance expert!

One week ago, a little-noticed tweet announced that Mahdi Hashi, a British-Somali young man who disappeared from his home in Somalia in mid-2012 and suddenly appeared in a Brooklyn Federal Court last December on terrorism-related charges, had been on a hunger strike and hospitalized with jaundice and potential of liver damage.  Shortly before Hashi disappeared (and rendered, as it turns out), the British government stripped Hashi of his citizenship on the grounds that he was engaged in “Islamicist activities.” (See links below to read more about Hashi’s situation).

In a phone call, Arnaud Mafille, a caseworker at Cage Prisoners, indicated that Hashi’s strike is in protest of the extreme Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) imposed on him, including restricted contact with his family. According to Saghir Hussain, the lawyer for Hashi’s family,

“The information was provided by MH to his father over a short telephone conversation, which was interrupted by the authorities after “60 seconds or so.”

SAM’s often consist of extreme conditions, such as daily 23-hour solitary confinement, and with extremely restrictive contact or communication with anyone, including family members.  SAM’s have also been imposed upon Muslim prisoners for “infractions” such as praying in a language other than English, or even praying with an open mouth.  SAM’s have become de rigeur for most, if not all, men suspected of giving material support to organizations or individuals themselves suspected of terrorism. Laura Rovner and Jeanne Theoharris have written extensively about SAM’s here; Theoharis also describes the horrific details of SAM’s in relation to one of her former students, Fahad Hashmi.

Four days after news of Hashi’s hunger strike, CBS News reported that a new letter was “quietly dropped” into the files of Mahdi Hashi and two others who had been indicted alongside hime, Ali Yasin Ahmed, and Mohammed Yusuf’s files. The letter alleges that Hashi had substantial knowledge was chemical weapons expert and was helping Al-Qaeda build a chemical weapons factory. The story itself is a fascinating confirmation of the thesis that the press is the government’s helper. The document “alleges,” but the press believes the allegations unconditionally.

I can’t get the video to embed, so here’s the link:

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505263_162-57603620/court-document-references-al-qaeda-linked-chemical-weapons-program-in-somalia/

Notice the “critical” comments by CBS “This Morning” host, Charlie Rose, as he and Norah O’Donnell consult with CBS Senior Correspondent, former assistant CIA Direct, John Miller.

The last few weeks have been filled with reports about chemical weapons being used in Syria, but this morning a new filing in an obscure terrorism case is confirming something long feared: a chemical weapons program run by Al-Qaeda.

Miller, the canny investigative reporter that he is, notices that a new letter was “quietly dropped” into Mahdi Hashi’s, Ali Yasin Ahmed and Mohammed Yusuf’s files, which point to their expertise in helping Al-Qaeda develop a chemical weapons program!

The causal overdeterminations made in this short segment are fascinating: The letter, dated September 18, 2013, was written by US Attorney Loretta Lynch. According to Rose and Miller, it confirms the existence of a chemical weapons program by Al-Qaeda, which had been LONG FEARED.

In fact, the letter confirms nothing of the sort, except that this is what the US Government is claiming in order to restrict Hashi, Ahmed, and Yusuf from any access to the outside world, and perhaps other untold, more extreme, measures. Lynch’s letter also specifies that the SAM’s restrict their access to “each other” (presumably because they might conspire to…something(?). I suspect that Lynch’s phrase indicates that they also have no contact with anyone, i.e., they are each being held in solitary confinement, though I have found no explicit evidence of this yet.

Neither Rose, O’Donnell, nor Miller question the timing of the letter—nor do they explain the purpose of the letter–in making this causal connection.

Let’s consider the October and November superseding indictments of Hashi and his alleged co-terrorists, and Lynch’s letter. Up until today, all three had been indicted on fairly general charges: (1) a “conspiracy to give material support to terrorism,” which by most measures is an extremely weak charge, usually indicating little concrete evidence, if any, that can convincingly link a person to terrorist activity; (2) Material support to a foreign terrorist organization; and (3) Firearms.There is no mention of chemical weapons or counterterrorism intelligence expertise in initial indictment.

Now, the thrust of Lynch’s letter was to request separate appearances for all three defendants. Lynch does so presumably on the same grounds by which Special Administrative Measures were ordered for them (also mentioned in the letter), namely because

The Attorney General, in directing that such restrictions be implemented, previously found that “[b]ased upon information provided to me of [the defendants’] proclivity for terrorism . . . there is substantial risk that [the defendants’] communications or contacts with persons could result in death or serious bodily injury to persons, or substantial damage to property that would entail the risk of serious bodily injury to persons.

Indeed in the last part of the letter, Lynch states that separate appearances are requested because of the above grounds and

To minimize the potential for violations of the defendants’ SAMs during their appearance in Court and for the safety of the defendants themselves.

The safety of the defendants themselves?? From whom? Each other? From Al-Qaeda? They, like the rest of us, are already aware that these three are in prison..

Even a vegan can recognize red herring when they see one. Consider the timing of this letter. It is filed

-after ten months of silence in Hashi’s et al’s cases, and only five days after word of his hunger strike.

– fewer than 2 months after the news about chemical weapons attack in Syria, which tempted the Administration to launch a military attack in Syria.

-fewer than 4 months since Edward Snowden leaked documents confirming extensive NSA surveillance of all American citizens, non-citizens, foreigners—EVERYONE. Those revelations prompted renewed calls for transparency and accountability on the part of the Obama Administration, which has been reeling defensively and searching for new ways to make the case that the US MUST spy on everyone for the purposes of national security.

Claiming “Al-Qaeda!” will surely remind us of the need for spying. And sure enough, CBS News responded appropriately about the “confirmation” of a chemical weapons program developed through “commercial” and widely available ingredients.

Nor does CBS question why, after extremely vague charges filed despite months of interrogations, there are suddenly such specific allegations such as,

(2) the defendants have extensive weapons and combat training and were formerly members of an elite al-Shabaab suicide bombing unit.

and

(4) the defendants are dangerous and influential foreign al-Shabaab fighters who have previously employed operational tradecraft and counter surveillance techniques to avoid detection by law enforcement authorities.

One wonders how sophisticated Hashi could have been in avoiding detection by law enforcement authorities if he was scooped up as easily as he was.

I could be mistaken, but I believe this is the first time that allegations associating Hashi with chemical weapons or countersurveillance expertise have ever been made.

The rhetorical use of “expert” is fascinating given that the chemicals that are being used are most likely elementary. Household bleach thrown at a group of people can be a chemical weapons attack. It doesn’t have to be sarin gas (as Charlie Rose evokes in the segment in connection to the subway sarin attacks in Japan).

Are Hashi et al chemical weapons experts? Or are they new faces to map on convenient chemical weapons and countersurveillance accusations in support of the general War on Terror?

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Other stories about Mahdi Hashi:

https://translationexercises.wordpress.com/tag/mahdi-hashi/

http://www.emptywheel.net/2013/01/04/the-disposition-of-informants-and-citizens/

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/exclusive-how-mi5-blackmails-british-muslims-1688618.html

http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/blog/2013/02/26/medieval-exile-the-21-britons-stripped-of-their-citizenship/

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/14/obama-secret-kill-list-disposition-matrix

Why our best students are totally oblivious

Why our best students are totally oblivious:

While being up in arms about popular injustices, they’re educated how not to see race, empire and colonialism

This past week, I taught my first classes of the semester. The college where I teach attracts young men and women who are generally left of center. Some of them are the children of progressive activists and academics. Many of the students who enroll in my courses hope to spend the rest of their lives ending poverty, racism, sexual oppression, among other forms of injustice. As such, they are an extremely aware crowd.

In one of my courses, which deals with race, philosophy and legal theory, I listed a series of names on the board and asked students to describe who they were: Trayvon Martin, Yusuf SalaamShaker AamerAafia SiddiquiJosé Padilla. Nearly every student in the room was familiar with the first name, and could give in excruciating detail the facts of the case and trial, and the questionable laws used to defend George Zimmerman in public discussion. Most of the students knew immediately that Yusuf Salaam was one of the Central Park Five who, despite their innocence, had been convicted of raping a woman and had spent years in prison. They were making astute connections to New York’s stop-and-frisk policy, racial profiling, “stand your ground” laws (yes, even though these were not explicitly part of the Zimmerman trial, they are relevant). You may not have known some of these details, but they did. As I mentioned, they’re rather politically aware.

Not a single student recognized the other three names.

In another course on political philosophy that also began last week, several students had only the faintest idea that Guantánamo was a prison, and could not describe who the prisoners were, why they were there, or why it mattered.


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These were illuminating reminders for me. Most of these students are not to blame for not knowing. They were born between 1992 and 1995. A few are slightly older. For them, the U.S.-led War on Terror is a constant background in their lives. They have few memories of a time when the U.S. was not waging war in the Middle East. They grew up in the shadow of the first Gulf War. But shadows are just that: observable, yet elusive, ungraspable. In the same way, the War on Terror, unless it has affected them directly, is neither unfamiliar, nor completely familiar. It’s not close enough for them to know which questions to ask in order to have a clear picture; yet it’s too close to know what the opposite of a War on Terror would look like.

The context in which my young progressive students can know so much about some populations and nothing about other populations who face analogous circumstances is worthy of pause. It is true that most of us find it difficult to remember names and figures when they cycle through the mainstream news hour for less than a few minutes, for only a day or two. We know Trayvon Martin’s name because there were assiduous protests surrounding his death, and because the mainstream news media became interested in it. The names of so many young black men who died similarly will not be known to us because of the absence of organized protests and the lack of media interest.

Similarly, the names of Padilla, Siddiqui and Aamer have not been mentioned for quite some time in the mainstream news cycle to which my students are attuned. When they were noticed, the mentions were generally brief and in the context of the state’s successful fight against “Terror.” In certain spaces, there have been continual protests and excellent critical coverage. But few dissents against the U.S.’s sustained foray into empire — through drones, torture, indefinite detention and other means — have commanded alert and aggressive attention from our patriotic and subservient mainstream media.

My students’ lack of knowledge of most things related to the U.S.’s war on terror indicates other predictable and alarming things: The principle of preemptive policing — jailing men indefinitely without charges, torturing them — is commonplace and no longer (if ever) worthy of shock. The racial profiling of Muslim men, because it is done in the context of an explicit state-led war, is difficult to be alarmed about without challenging the moral credibility of the government that leads it.

If racism is discussed, it is, correctly, within the context of the U.S.’s morally troubling and murky history of slavery. But the discussions are not usually linked to the equally troubling history of colonialism and conquest of indigenous populations. The U.S.’s history of racism against migrants such as Asians and Latinos is perhaps better known for some. But it is difficult to be a “good citizen” and still be critical of the ideological war that the U.S. wages on Muslims — especially in the midst of the U.S.’s ever-continuing attacks — covert, drone, explicit.

My students’ lack of knowledge about the effects of the Global War on Terror on men and women in the U.S. indicates to me that they are the successful product — even in the elite grammar/high schools from which so many of them graduated — of a patriotic and “morally upstanding” education. They have learned that many institutions — like their schools — work in their favor, even on their behalf. They have not come face to face with prisons, border police, customs officials, NYPD or hostile judges. They have learned how not to see race, empire and colonialism while being up in arms about the more popular facets of injustice — even though these are closely linked: the environment, sexual and reproductive rights, and “wringing bias out” of our hearts.

The latter phrase is invoked by President Obama in a speech, given after the “not guilty” verdict in the George Zimmerman trial: “Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?” This question reduces racism to an individual failing, a problem of conscience, rather than one of laws (drug and three strikes, preemptive policing, racial profiling), institutions (carceral, banking, social, state, military, cultural), ideologies (lynch law, slavery, empire, national security, surveillance, the War on Terror), and accepted culture.

The president’s follow-up question — “Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?” — elides the complex interplay of ideology, institutional power and political circumstances in ascribing morality to any individual person.

When young black men are arrested for petty theft, it becomes commonplace to discuss their “individual moral failings.” When senior, often white, investment bankers embezzle money, they are rewarded with bailouts, bonuses and bona fides.

When a young Somali-American woman sends less than $2,000 to Somalia to aid the poor, she is convicted of aiding terrorists, and given extended prison time. When HSBC Bank skirts material support statutes by laundering $850 million, they are fined less than a month’s profits.

When young Muslim men speak critically of the U.S.-led wars against predominantly Muslim countries, they are immediately assumed to be terrorists.

Are the judgments ascribed to each of these groups about character alone? I would suggest they emerge from a history of ideological biases, cemented by unaccountable institutions, including the last two presidential administrations. These judgments are embedded in the political discourse spun by political authorities. They guarantee that only those who are poorer, darker or less powerful will pay — heavily, disproportionately, with their lives. These matters are hardly only about the bias in our hearts and judging the content of one’s character.

Within the American tradition of adventure-packed action movies and the 30-minute news cycle, individual failings are easier to focus on, to obsess over, to judge, to be outraged about.

Cultural worldviews, pernicious politics, racial histories and ideologies are more difficult to disarticulate. They require reading histories and thinking through multiple logics, and weeding through numerous laws and political contexts.

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This article appeared in today’s edition of Salon (www.salon.com).

The Decision to Bomb Syria

Robert E. PraschBy Robert E. Prasch

Congress Gets to Vote on a War!

Our most gracious sovereign – Barack Obama — has condescended to allow the elected representatives of the American people to engage in what his Administration openly states is a “non-binding” vote over whether or not the armed forces of the United States should enter into hostilities with yet another Middle East nation. This, it goes without saying, is a significant development. After all, our representatives have never been asked to debate or authorize the ongoing bombing campaigns being conducted in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, or any other of a number of nations with substantial Muslim populations. No wonder the Washington establishment is all aflutter.

The Principle at Stake

What has brought about this historic occasion? Well, if we can believe the Administration (and given this Administration’s penchant for prevarication, this is a big “if”), Syria has broken a long-standing taboo. Indeed, the Syrian government may have violated a long-standing principle that is well-known among nations. What is this principle?  It is that only nations working in concert with the United States, and advancing an agenda pre-approved by the United States, may deploy lethal gas against its enemies (or alternatively, against its own civilians as occurred in Halabja). If we can believe the Administration, Syria has violated this taboo.

While Saddam Hussein conducted the gas attacks described above, he was neither then nor now deemed to have been in violation of the principle as stated. Why? Because at the time he was de facto allied with the CIA and the upper echelons of the Reagan Administration in a conflict with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The United States was, then as now, preoccupied with weakening Iran for having had the temerity to overthrow the ruler the CIA had installed after orchestrating a coup in 1954. By the logic of the Washington foreign policy establishment, the Iranians had displayed arrogance on a grand scale. For that reason the CIA was complicit in the Iraqi Army’s deployment of lethal gases against the Iranian Army in the 1980s. Emboldened by what he could only perceive to have been a “green light” from the Reagan Administration, Saddam Hussein later gassed approximately 100,000 Kurdish civilians, whose transgression was to either be in the wrong place at the wrong time (that is to say their own villages) or for taking an anti-Saddam Hussein stance before such a position had been formally sanctified by the United States.

Three Options in Syria

This brings us back to what should be done about Syria’s transgression. In effect, the Obama Administration has indicated that we have three options: (1) do nothing other than express outrage, (2) engage in a serious bombing effort, one designed to significantly reduce the fighting capability of the Syrian Army so that it becomes vulnerable to succumbing to the several rebel forces now in the field, or (3) engage in “limited strikes” wherein targets are selected in a manner that “teaches a lesson” without disturbing the current balance of power of the ongoing civil war (although interestingly, the actual wording of the letter sent by the President to Congress requesting authorization is very open-ended on the use of force). Before continuing, let us take a moment to think through option (3). Given the size and severity of the rebellion it is hard to imagine what targets would actually qualify. Perhaps the United States could bomb some lonely outposts or check-points outside of the combat zones, military vehicles or aircraft that are undergoing repairs and/or about to be replaced, or perhaps we would demolish Syria’s Department of Motor Vehicles office. Seriously, it is hard to say which targets would fall under this third category.

As things stand, if we care about bringing an end to the war and the stopping the death and destruction along with the alarming rise in the number of refugees, choice (1) or (2) should almost self-evidently dominate (3). After all, (3) simply brings the United States into another conflict in a manner designed to ensure that nothing is done that might change the situation on the ground and thereby move the combatants toward a resolution of the war. Again, by design, the point of such a bombing campaign would be to solely and singularly express the United States government’s willingness to uphold the less-than-glorious principle expressed above. Worse, it defends this principle by killing or maiming a number of low-ranking Syrian Army troops and whichever civilians happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. My guess is that neither of these groups would have been enthusiasts of gassing civilians in the event that they had been asked. However, Bashar al-Assad has shown that he is as inclined to be as concerned with the public’s position on decisions related to war and peace as … well, never mind.

But what of the principle being upheld?  Surely it is important to establish that only regimes working to advance ends pre-approved by the United States government have the right to deploy lethal gases. Not many people living outside the United States support the principle summarized above. True, many people across the globe do favor a complete ban on the use of lethal gasses as weapons, but if the United States were to adhere to this latter principle, it would be necessary to mount an investigation and prosecution of the Reagan-era officials and agencies that actively assisted and/or covered up for Saddam Hussein’s use of lethal gas during the Iran-Iraq War. The Obama Administration has demonstrated that it can be feckless on its campaign promises, but no one can claim that they have not vigorously stood by the principle that any and all American officials who engage in war crimes should be favored with absolute legal impunity. If we believe the news reports, this last decision was taken because the Administration was pained to discover that there was low morale amongst those who claimed that they were “just following orders” when they knowingly committed war crimes.

Why Does the Administration Favor a “Limited Strike”?

Let us assume that a decision to bomb Syria has been or will be taken. Why would the Administration elect to limit the scope of such a strike before it begins? The answer is actually right in front of us – the Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration before it, wishes to preserve the Assad regime or something that looks and acts very much like it. Why? The reason is that, despite formal enmity, the United States has something of a “working relationship” with Assad. We also know that a genuinely democratic Syrian government, even if largely free of fundamentalist influence, would want the return of the Golan Heights (and the all-important right of access to water from the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee that comes with it), support Palestinian claims over substantially more of the Occupied territories than the current Israeli government is inclined to cede, and will generally take “awkward” or “unsettling” positions on a variety of other regional issues. Worse, it could do so with all of the legitimacy that the world tends to confer on democratically elected governments.

Moreover, Assad has long proven his willingness to work with the United States on what might be described as “delicate matters.”  One could say that the United States and Syria share an implicit understanding about several matters of mutual importance. For example, we rarely hear of attacks on Israel from Syria, even by irregular forces (Israel, by contrast, periodically bombs Syria). Consider another example. In September 2002, the United States government was anxious to have a Canadian citizen of Syrian descent questioned under torture. At the time it was thought that it would be awkward for the United States government to do the job, so the intended victim was flown by private plane to Jordan where the wonderfully cooperative and “enlightened” King had Maher Arar transferred to Syria for a year of utterly inhumane treatment accompanied by extended torture. A year later Syrian officials apologetically reported that, despite their best efforts, they had found Arar absolutely innocent of any wrongdoing. Needless to say, the Bush and Obama Administrations, along with the US judiciary, will never forgive Arar for being innocent, which explains why to this day he cannot enter the United States and remains on the No-Fly list despite a formal apology and $10 million settlement from the Canadian government.

This, I submit, is the crux of the problem. Barack Obama probably doesn’t like Assad. As well, it is likely true that Sec. of State John Kerry really believes that the President of Syria is like Hitler (although not so much like him as to ruin the lovely dinner that then Sen. Kerry and his wife enjoyed with President Assad and his wife). We can safely assume that they would like to see a world in which Assad did not play a part. But, as with the case of Egypt, the Washington foreign policy establishment generally and the Obama Administration in particular have a deep and visceral fear of the Syrian and Egyptian publics. Their concern is that the peoples of the Middle East have shown a disconcerting tendency to make up their own minds when voting for representatives, rather than selecting those whom the United States government wants them to want. Until the peoples of the Middle East learn to vote “correctly,” the United States government can be counted upon to resist the emergence of democracy across the region.

This, ultimately, is the logic of Option (3). The United States government, when push comes to shove, wants Assad or someone very much like him to rule over Syria. A disdain or contempt for public opinion across the Middle East is the underlying reason why there has long been a bi-partisan consensus in support of military rule in Egypt, in support of the violent repression of the people of Bahrain, in support of the extreme fundamentalists who have long miss-ruled Saudi Arabia, and in support of a policy of relentless hostility directed towards Iran.

Worse of all, from the perspective of the Washington establishment, Assad fully understands the situation and the leverage that it inadvertently grants him. This was the reason that Assad demonstrated his contempt for President Obama’s implied threat of a “Red Line” by deploying lethal gas. The Administration is especially angry because in their hearts they already know that they are going to let Assad get away with it.

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Robert E. Prasch is Professor of Economics at Middlebury College.