Tuesday, September 10, 2013

About Syria & U.S. Intervention

If I’d been in the U.S. on Monday, I would not have attended a rally against U.S. airstrikes on Assad’s regime in Syria. Not because I favor such strikes, but because I don’t want to delude myself or others about what we’re doing or not doing if the U.S. were to act. For instance, the mailer from CREDO stated:

The use of chemical weapons is morally reprehensible, and it should be punished. The International Criminal Court should immediately start war crime tribunals and proceedings against those responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. And the U.S. can take evidence that Assad’s regime used chemical weapons to the UN Security Council and seek a resolution against Syria. Both acts would make it far more difficult for Russia to continue defending the regime and open the door for international action to broker a ceasefire -- the only way we will stop the massacre of civilians.

Gee, why hadn’t anyone thought of these actions before? To call this attitude “spittin’ into the wind” would be an apt cliché, except that we’re talking about life and death here. We’re not talking about a simple choice of war or peace. There is no peace in Syria, nor will there be for some time, regardless of U.S. actions. Whatever we do, let’s not delude ourselves. By not acting, we may embolden the regime to use chemical weapons in the future, assuming the regime—with Assad’s knowledge and consent—did make the decision to deploy the poison gas (a likely but by no means certain proposition). By not acting, we and the rest of the world may have allowed the use of chemical weapons without consequence, to the detriment of a bright line that has for the most part been recognized (although we looked the other way with Iraq when Saddam was our enemy’s enemy in the war with Iran). Finally, the President drew a bright line and if we don’t back up his word, we may reduce the credibility of the U.S. and the Obama administration. While I’m generally an Obama administration supporter, the issue isn’t whether it would hurt him and his administration (the David Gergen argument), but it’s a larger issue, larger than all of the factors that I’ve listed so far: what’s in the vital interest of the U.S. in the long haul?

Based on my perception that we do not have a compelling national interest in acting by direct military attack on Syria, we should not. It will come at a cost, as I hope that I’ve made clear above, but politics always revolves around choices, often tragic choices, life and death choices. The leader of our nation has to decide whether a compelling national interest merits the lives of those in our armed forces, the cost to our treasury, and the effects on our long-term standing in the world. I believe our (sort of) hands-off approach to Syria has been the correct stance, the despicable character of the Assad regime notwithstanding. In fact, it may be a case of the devil we know is better than the one that we don’t. If you think that you can forecast accurately the future of any potential change in regime, then I expect that you forecast the sequence and turn of events in Egypt successfully as well. Please call the President immediately with your credentials! Like Egypt, Syria has no oil and no reason (or ability) at this point to cause its neighbors further harm. The Israelis and Saudis may be nervous, but that should be their problem first and foremost, and a secondary concern (at most) to the U.S. We have to act in our national interest, not in accord with any other nation’s interest except to the extent that it accords with our own.

We have a polity will have and express different ideas about what constitutes a compelling national interest, but to me, we have to have some tangible reason for action, not merely our revulsion of murder and genocide (important as those are) nor some sense of national prestige or credibility.

At this point, I don’t see how our national interest compels us to act. The reasons for action—which I take seriously—do not outweigh the reasons to avoid taking the course of active military intervention. Let’s hope that the Russian proposal, if real, works and saves us from having to make a tough decision.

I’ll be sending this to Congressmen Loebsak and Braley along with Senators Grassley and Harkin. A “no” vote to strikes isn’t a vote against “war” or to “give peace a chance”, but a calculated decision to protect the vital national interests of the U.S. and to commit to making the world a better place in the long run, even when it hurts.  

P.S. Nicholas Kristoff wrote compelling in favor of intervening. Stephen Walt argues articulately (and convincingly, to me) against intervention, and Graham Allison provides some thoughts about alternative courses of action that seek to punish and deter without the use of airstrikes. See my Twitter feed for citations if you care to check these out.

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