Obama’s Silliest Mistake Yet

meThere’s a sketch by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in which Dudley is interviewing Sir Arthur Steeves-Griebling, proprietor of The Vole and Pea, an establishment devoted to fine dining somewhere on the south coast of England. Not to put too fine a point on it: The Vole and Pea is struggling. The problem: no customers. Even a radio appeal to the French across the English Channel has remained fruitless. Obviously, Sir Arthur is not cut out for the catering trade, a fact he implicitly admits when he answers Dudley’s question ‘Have you learned from your mistakes?’

‘Yes I have’, replies Sir Arthur, ‘and I can probably repeat them.’

I was reminded of this exchange some time ago, when Barack Obama -having had people close to the Syrian rebels, or possibly the Israëli secret service, whispering in his ear that the Syrian President Assad might, at some point, resort to chemical warfare. At the time, nothing of the sort had yet happened and Obama could easily have said something like ‘well, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.’ Chances are that we’d not be in the situation we’re in today.

But Barack Obama did not say that. Remembering suddenly that he is President of the United States, the greatest country on Earth, the world’s policeman and tireless force for good he came out and warned Assad that any use of chemical weapons would mean that a red line had been crossed and that the West could in that case no longer stand idly by. Action would have to be taken.

Poor Obama! A man of sound character, above-average intellect and the first in a long line of US Presidents who is not either a complete dolt or a wild-eyed gunslinger makes a mistake like that? Did he not realize that from the moment his words had left his mouth the use of chemical weapons in Syria had become all but inevitable? Assad was unlikely to use them, he has no need of that. Left alone and without western interference the civil war will eventually have only one winner: the regime. But at rebel headquarters the champagne corks must have popped merrily, for what Obama had done was give them a weapon mightier than any anti-tank rocket or machine gun. He had handed them the option of a chemical incident, that would unleash the West’s military wrath on the Syrian leadership.
As we now know, a chemical incident has duly taken place. Somewhere on the outskirts of Damascus, in what has been described in the media as a rebel-held area, people have been filmed and photographed who were purportedly suffering from the effects of a nerve agent. Personally I’m not sure what the appearance of such a person should be like, but I had expected something more in the order of horrible scarring, bleeding from eyes, mouths and noses and a complete unawareness of the presence of cameras. Hundreds of people are supposed to have died. I am in no position to confirm or deny that -I haven’t seen any corpses- but what strikes me is the apparent discrepancy between the dead and the survivors. There has to be something between snuffing it altogether and lying on a stretcher with your hands over your eyes, sneaking a peek at the cameras. Call me a cynic but I’ve seen scenes like that in a succession of conflicts, most notably the war in Bosnia.

Further proof of the fact that the West is doomed to repeat endlessly the mistakes of the past can be found in the way western leader are handling the situation. If I were Obama, or Cameron or Hollande I wouldn’t open my mouth to voice an opinion until the matter had been exhaustively investigated by chemical weapons experts. They are now on the spot in Syria, gathering evidence. Wait for their report? No need, says UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, Assad did it. For such idiocy he gets paid, I’ll remind you. The US Secretary of State: ditto. Do we need the United Nations’ permission before we start firing? Of course not.

Years ago, in the run-up to the murderous western assault on Iraq, I explained in a column for Radio Netherlands that chemical warfare is not the exclusive domain of governments. Any ordinary citizen with a well-stocked kitchen cabinet can mix a cocktail of chemicals that will make your eyes water, prevent you breathing and eventually kill you. Take a bottle of chlorine and another filled with toilet cleaner, pour them into a bucket together and see what happens. Better still, don’t hang around. Also, there’s an industrial strength drain-unblocker -freely available in shops- that will, when mixed with hot water, have much the same effect. On second thought: don’t try any of this at home, it’s dangerous. Anyway, there is no reason to believe the Syrian rebels could or would never cause a bit of a chemical emergency, just to tip weak minded but heavily armed western leaders over the edge of reason. If the cruise missiles can remain silent for a while longer, perhaps we’ll find out the truth. But then, who needs the truth? Truth is for wimps. Poor, poor Obama!


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