Righteous Wrath, Or Unlawful Attack? In light of the Gulf of Tonkin and WMD fabrications, one might have thought that the default position of “responsible” commentators, when presented with US justifications, would be one of extreme scepticism. And yet, in New Zealand and across the Western World, the US assertion that the chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun was the work of the Syrian head-of-state, President Bashar al-Assad, has been accepted without question.
THERE IS AN ASSUMPTION among New Zealand foreign policy “experts” that what the United States tells us should be believed. If, to take the most recent instance, the US Government informs the New Zealand Government that the Syrian Government is responsible for using chemical weapons against its own people, then that intelligence should be accepted by all responsible commentators. More importantly, it should reinforce all subsequent commentary concerning New Zealand’s diplomatic and military responses.
But, is this willingness to take the justifications of the United States at their face value really all that responsible? Surely, the first obligation of all those in a position to comment on the tragic chemical release at Khan Sheikhoun and President Trump’s retaliatory missile strike on Syria, is to be guided by America’s record? Shouldn’t we be examining past justifications for US military adventures before offering New Zealand support for this latest attack on a sovereign state?
Because the United States’ post-war record really isn’t all that flash when it comes to justifying its military assaults on other countries.
America’s most costly military engagement of the post-World War II era, the Vietnam War, was justified with what was later exposed as a carefully constructed falsehood. The so-called “Gulf of Tonkin Incident” of 22-24 August 1965, which prompted the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution” of the United States Congress, which, in turn, authorised President Lyndon Johnson to assist any Southeast Asian government endangered by “communist aggression”, never happened.
That America’s allies, including New Zealand, were somehow persuaded that a US naval force, including a fully-equipped aircraft carrier and at least one destroyer, had been threatened seriously by three North Vietnamese patrol boats, tells us much about the influence of Cold War paranoia on Western decision-making in the mid-1960s.
The exposure of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident as a fabricated pretext for US military aggression in Indochina should have encouraged America’s friends to treat any future justifications for US violations of the United Nations’ Charter with considerable caution.
To the eternal credit of the Labour-led government of Helen Clark, it was not persuaded by the United States’ repeated claims, peaking in January and February 2003, that the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, remained in possession of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” (WMDs) and must, therefore, be overthrown by an American-led invasion.
Thirty-eight years after the non-existent Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Clark rightfully insisted that any such invasion could not be supported by New Zealand unless and until it had been authorised by a resolution of the United Nations’ Security Council.
In an attempt to persuade the UN Security Council to pass such a resolution, the US President, George W. Bush, sent his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, to make the case for military intervention. The hapless Powell appeared before the Council on 5 February 2003, equipped with all manner of diagrams and slides. His “evidence” even included a “model” phial containing the deadly Anthrax virus!
The Council was not persuaded and refused to authorise an American-led invasion. A wise decision, as it turned out, because when, in defiance of the United Nations, the US, the UK and Australia invaded Iraq in March 2003, Saddam Hussein’s claims (backed-up by UN Inspectors) that Iraq had destroyed all of its WMDs, turned out to be true. In spite of the most exhaustive searches, the US was unable to locate any WMDs whatsoever.
There’s a schoolyard chant: “Fool me once, shame on you! Fool me twice, shame on me!”
In light of the Gulf of Tonkin and WMD fabrications, one might have thought that the default position of “responsible” commentators, when presented with US justifications, would be one of extreme scepticism. And yet, in New Zealand and across the Western World, the US assertion that the chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun was the work of the Syrian head-of-state, President Bashar al-Assad, has been accepted without question.
Colin Powell and Nikki Haley Show and Tell the UN Security Council ..... Lies?
In a diplomatic atmosphere alarmingly reminiscent of Cold War fear and suspicion, the alternative explanation offered by Syria’s ally, the Russian Federation – that Syrian bombs struck a warehouse in which rebel munitions, including deadly chemical agents, were stored – has been dismissed out of hand.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Bill English, responding to the US missile attack, said:
“We of course would rather see the Syrian differences resolved by diplomatic processes but the Security Council hasn’t been able to condemn it or do anything about it.
“So we can understand the US taking action to prevent that kind of chemical attack occurring again – and we support action as long as it’s proportionate.”
Clearly, the events of 1965 and 2003 have left no trace upon Prime Minister English. Nor, it would seem, upon New Zealand’s “expert” commentators. Neither the lessons of history, nor the UN Charter, count for much against the unchallengeable word of Uncle Sam.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 11 April 2017.