With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Remember the Maine?

Credit: National Archives.

Pending congressional approval, the Obama administration is poised to attack Syria under the pretext that the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad has employed chemical weapons against his own people. Critical analysts, including former UN chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte have already cast doubt on the evidence, claiming chemical weapons may have actually been deployed by the Free Syrian Army, which is backed by Al Qaeda and has committed many of its own atrocities in the civil war.

It is difficult to discern the truth at this time, but history provides grounds for skepticism about the Obama administration's claims. Many wars in U.S. history have been fought on fraudulent pretexts, with the government stage-managing events that provided a rationale for intervention. Claude Julien in America's Empire wrote that "for most Americans, when the United States intervenes in world affairs it is not to defend their interests or national ambitions but to serve selflessly in the international order." As such, policy-makers cannot simply say they are invading Country X because they want to obtain new military bases, access strategic resources like oil for U.S.-based multinational corporations or gain strategic advantage over geopolitical rivals like China and Russia who have long supported Assad. Rather they need a pretext so they can sell the intervention as having a "humanitarian motive" and as being part of some kind of crusade, say for human rights, when war in reality is never about human rights and almost always contributes to more violence and death.

The most famous case of the US going to war under fraudulent pretexts is the Spanish-American Cuban War after the McKinley administration charged the Spanish with sinking an American battleship, the Maine, near Havana harbor following an explosion on deck. It is likely the explosion however was caused by a fire, not the Spanish, and sunk on its own. Some Cuban historians believe that the sinking of the Maine was a classic false-flag operation that was orchestrated to create public support for military intervention, though smoking gun evidence has never emerged.

Sixty years after the sinking of the Maine, the Gulf of Tonkin incident was planned by hidden government interests bent on going to war with Vietnam. To justify sending thousands of Marines, the Johnson administration claimed a U.S. naval destroyer had been attacked by the North Vietnamese in the South China Sea, when the attack was later proven to have been provoked. Undersecretary of State George Ball commented in a 1977 BBC radio interview that "many of the people who were associated with the war were looking for any excuse to initiate the bombing. The sending of a destroyer up the Tonkin Gulf was primarily for provocation ... There was a feeling that if the destroyer got into some trouble that it would provide the provocation we needed."

American provocations also helped provoke the outbreak of the Korean War. Beginning in the late 1940s, US intelligence agents sent South Korean secret teams into the North to carry out espionage and assassinate northern leaders, including Kim Il-Sung, thus precipitating the northern invasion of the South in June 1950. The opium tainted China lobby was desperate to save Chiang Kai-shek's regime in Taiwan and was behind some of the machinations, none of which were reported in the media.

More deceptions were deployed to drum up support for U.S. intervention in the Persian Gulf. In 1991, the Kuwait government hired a public relations firm that promoted stories exaggerating Saddam Hussein's atrocities, falsely claiming his troops killed babies after cutting their incubators. Twelve years later, the Bush administration falsely asserted that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, while drudging up Saddam's past use of chemical weapons on the Kurds, which the Reagan administration had not only covered up but also covertly supported.

In 2011, prior to the Libyan war, the mainstream media reported as fact false administrative claims that Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi had given his soldiers vVagra to induce rape, and had hired black mercenaries to fight the opposition, when in fact many black Libyans supported Qaddafi who had long championed their interests and a more just distribution of Libya's oil wealth.

All of these examples should make us skeptical about the accuracy of government claims about chemical weapons use by Assad and some of the deep political forces that may be at play behind the scenes. With the war on terror winding down and in the wake of the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, defense contractors and the Pentagon must be nervous about the possibility of budget cuts looming. A war in Syria may be one of their last opportunities to reaffirm the now discredited doctrine of humanitarian intervention. It may also be seen as an opportunity to restore American influence in the Middle East. The consequences of U.S. intervention though are likely to increase the carnage that has been on display before the world for the last two years.