Did Israel bomb Damascus back on May 5? Of course it did. According to Syrian rebel sources, 42 Syrian army soldiers were killed. But Israel won't admit it. This has happened before. Usually, Syria doesn't say anything about Israeli airstrikes. (The Syrian government's complaint about Sunday's airstrike is unusual, and thus cause for concern that the civil war might escalate into a regional conflict.)
The official silence following not-so-secret secret bombings reflects the fact that even enemies have to cooperate sometimes. If Syria acknowledges that it has been the victim of an act of war, Syrian citizens and non-Syrians throughout the Muslim world would pressure the government of President Bashar al-Assad into a war it can't win. Knowing this, the Israelis -- who don't want a war that could unite the fractious Arabs against them and set the Middle East ablaze -- let Assad save face. By refusing to confirm or to deny, they quietly gloat over what everyone knows: that they can come and go as they please over Syrian airspace (or fire long-range missiles from Israeli territory).
We live in a time that bears out the most dystopian of George Orwell's predictions, yet few news events are as surreal and mind-blowing as a so-called secret bombing. There is, after all, nothing secret about bombs.
"Imagine an airstrike on a U.S. weapons depot and no one claims responsibility," the political cartoonist Kevin Moore tweet-asked. "Would we be so blasé about it?" We would be if we were a weak nation and the attacker was a strong one.
Older readers remember the so-called secret bombing of Cambodia in 1969 and 1970, when President Richard Nixon ordered the carpet bombing of North Vietnamese supply bases in eastern Cambodia and Laos, a violation of international law. It was a sensational scoop for readers of The New York Times and members of Congress (who hadn't been informed), but if you were there, there was nothing secretive about the 100,000-plus tons of ordinance dropped in 3800-plus sorties by American B-52s.
Tens of thousands of Cambodians, including many civilians, were killed.
As far as the rest of the world was concerned, however, the bombings were cloaked in silence. The international media found out about it right away, but coverage was scant. Cambodia's Prince Norodom Sihanouk supposedly sent his tacit approval through back channels; for its part, North Vietnam couldn't complain because they weren't supposed to be in Cambodia, either.
The U.S. drone war in Pakistan bears similarities to Cambodia, though it features a delicious extra dollop of deception.
As I reported in 2010, the United States isn't so much occupying Afghanistan as it is using eastern Afghanistan as a staging area to launch drone strikes against tribal areas in western Pakistan. Again, we have the ridiculous spectacle of something that couldn't possibly be less secret -- Hellfire missiles streaming out of the sky from buzzing drones circling Pakistani cities in broad daylight and blasting homes and cars -- while both the Americans firing the weapons and the Pakistani government whose territory they are landing in officially deny knowing anything about them. Although Pakistani officials either claim helplessness in the face of American military might or condemn the drone strikes outright, thousands of people have died in hundreds of attacks under the Bush and Obama administrations as the result of a brutal quid pro quo: the CIA kills "enemies of the state" on the Pakistani regime's hit list in exchange for the privilege of killing "terrorists" it deems a threat.
The United States has similar arrangements with Yemen and Somalia.
Oh, and the U.S. doesn't even officially acknowledge that it has a drone program. It's classified. If it exists. Even though Obama jokes about it.
I wonder whether the lawyered-up officials who gin up these arrangements worry about geopolitical implications. For at least 200 years -- arguably since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 -- the Western world has been governed on the basis of strictly defined borders. At the core of contemporary international law is the doctrine that invading territory or airspace is an act of war, particularly when the victim is internationally recognized as sovereign. So how does that square with secret bombings?
If Israel can carry out acts of war with impunity, without suffering any sanction, and if the U.S. can do the same in Pakistan, who is to say what future cross-border incursions are acceptable? If Syria and Pakistan tacitly consent to their territory being bombed, but don't sign formal agreements to allow it, can they legitimately claim to be sovereign independent states? It seems that both the bombers and the victim countries are messing around with issues with huge potential ramifications without thinking them through.
When political leaders wallow in who-are-you-going-to-believe-me-or-your-lying-eyes absurdism, citizens roll their eyes and learn to distrust everything they see and hear from officials and in mainstream media. How can you take seriously an Israeli government that has had nuclear weapons since the 1970s but refuses to admit it (and sabre-rattles with Iran over its nuclear weapons program, which probably doesn't exist)? Or a United Nations that refuses to call them to account under nuclear nonproliferation treaties?
Citizens don't have to like their leaders to hand them the tacit consent of the governed. But if a regime wants to stay in power, the people have to believe their government more often than not. It can't be perceived as totally full of crap.
Sure, all rules are arbitrary. But once you start breaking your own rules, you undermine the basis of legitimacy for the system you've created and hope to perpetuate. If we go back to the basis of nationhood -- you have a right to exist if you can carve out borders, defend them, and repel invaders -- we unwind the world order that has been in place for nearly half a millennium. Which may be for the better. But it's probably something that we should all discuss.
In the open.
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