Last week, I wrote an article criticizing President Obama’s decision to seek Congressional approval for a US-led strike on Syria. My understanding of the Constitution is that as “Commander-in-Chief”, the President has the authority to launch limited military actions. Every US President since George Washington has accepted that interpretation of the power of the Presidency. Now that President Obama has mistakenly handed over to Congress the decision regarding whether or not to act in Syria, it is imperative that Congress approve the resolution.
There are, however, a number of facts that beg for clarification. Did Assad use chemical weapons? Though I have no access to any secret intelligence information, what evidence has been made public thanks to the world’s major intelligence services– with the notable exception of Russia’s — seems compelling. The American, British, Israeli, and French services have all come to the same conclusion: forces loyal to Assad used chemical weapons on rebel areas two weeks ago.
Opponents to the military-strike plan claim the situation in Syria today is identical to the period when allegations were made against Saddam Hussein on the subject of his purported weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Though no WMD were ever found, their presumptive presence was used to justify the invasion of Iraq. I contend that these two situations are in no way analogous. In the present-day situation, we know Assad possesses chemical weapons, because he has used them.
Once one accepts the premise that Assad has already used chemical weapons, most of the arguments opposing US intervention in Syria fall into one of three categories: 1) Since 100,000 people have been killed in Syria over the course of the past two years, what is categorically worse about usage of chemical weapons?… Death is death. This argument has some merit, particularly for the mostly-civilian casualties of the current conflict. But the world has outlawed the use of chemical weapons for a reason. Chemical weapons are associated with a particularly gruesome death. These weapons kill indiscriminately, striking every living being in their path. Chemical weapons maim and murder regardless of target (as was clearly the case two weeks ago in Syria). This type of weapon has only been used a few instances since being outlawed– (e.g., by Iraq against Iran during their grisly war and again by Iraq against the Kurds.) Gamal Abdul Nasser’s Egyptian forces also used chemical weapons while operating in Yemen in the 1960s. Yes, action should probably have been taken in these instances but they also coincided with the Cold War period and intervention would have presented perils that no one seemed ready or able to face at the time.
The Syrian government’s deciding to employ chemical weapons– especially when the regime has been warned explicitly not to do so – has now put us all on a path from which there is no turning back. Chemical and biological weapons are much easier to develop and conceal than are nuclear armaments. Left unchecked, there will be no stopping large-scale usage of chemical and biological weapons. If no clear deterrent to their use is put into place, what would stop combatants from also turning to nuclear weapons (not been utilized since World War II)? Do we really want a world where the use of weapons of mass destruction becomes tolerable?
A key question begs to be answered: Will the proposed American action be sufficient to deter future usage of such weaponry? To this question, there can be no definitive answer. One can hope that if the Assad’s air force is obliterated (a very real possibility), both Assad and future leaders will understand that the price of using chemical and biological arms is not worth the short-term tactical gain they may seem to provide.
Another reason to avoid intervention is also cited by opponents: to be honest, the rebels are no better than Assad. It is true that the rebels are certainly not all to our liking. We must, however, remember three important points. First, the Syrian civil conflict began because Assad had begun shooting unarmed demonstrators. Second, Assad continues to receive direct military assistance from two of the most abhorred players in the area: Iran and its proxy, the terrorist group, Hezbollah. Third, Syria under Assad, is a member of the UN and is flouting all of that organization’s stated standards of behavior for member-states.
But beyond the basic question of whether taking action in Syria is an imperative, the opposition in the United States can be divided into several groups. The traditional left-wing of the Democratic Party believes that using force is wrong in most situations. Furthermore, Liberal Democrats argue that during the past, the US has resorted to the use of too much force. The second opposition group is composed of those who can only be termed “traditional isolationists”. This group seems to make up a significant portion of the “Tea Party wing” of the Republican Party (as exemplified by the positions of Senator Rand Paul.) Their view is that conflicts abroad are simply not our concern. Many of Tea Party representatives have stated– “Let them kill each other, it’s none of our business. First and foremost we should be dealing with American problems.”
Let’s look at the liberal Democrats. They seem to believe that Syria is a peaceful place being threatened by a war-mongering United States seeking to invade and kill. One of the more absurd recent statements on this topic was made by “peace activists”, who threatened they will send in human shields to protect Assad from any bombing. In response, Iyad El-Baghdadi, an Arab opponent of Assad tweeted recently: “How about you go act as human shields in Homs, which is being leveled by Assad’s barrel bombs?” The extreme liberal view implies it would be bad for the U.S. to use force to degrade Assad’s ability to kill his own people. That is, it is ok if Assad continues to do so, without any apparent consequence.
I am appalled by the position of many on left who feel that killing is only bad if the US is responsible. According to this distorted view, a US military action that inadvertently result in the tragic death of 10 civilians–while saving 1,000 lives– would still be wrong. The same line of reasoning justified a decision not to bomb Auschwitz during World War II. Syria is where civilians are being slaughtered by the Assad regime as a matter of policy, not because they are collateral damage. I understand the view, held by many, that the US should have a smaller footprint in the world. However, with no replacement on the horizon, America has no choice but to take action when unconscionable atrocities are committed, because it is the only country with the capacity to do so.
The view of the “new isolationists” is even less defensible. These people are the first to vote for increased defense spending. Yet, while they oppose cutbacks in military spending, they seem to think that the US can (and should) withdraw from world affairs and address only the country’s own problems. Proponents of this view seem to have little– if any– understanding of the level of global interdependence that exists today. While the US may have overreacted in wake of 9/11, the events of that day should have brought to the discussion the same clarity that Pearl Harbor did in the period of World War II. The days of the United States withdrawing behind two oceans are long gone. Even in the early days of the Republic, the US found it necessary to intervene in international affairs. How much more so is that the case today? One cannot possibly believe that the US should have the world’s only blue water Navy – that is, a navy that can travel anywhere and fight anywhere, and then argue that the US should not take any action overseas. We may wish that the US were not the globe’s policeman, but would most of us prefer that the Chinese take on that role?
To those members of Congress who want to vote “No” to action in Syria as a tactic to undermine President Obama (who seems to be doing a pretty good job of undermining himself!), just remember, Obama will remain President for only three more years. In 2017, someone else will take over and will be followed by every other person to inhabit the Oval Office in the years to come. Should Congress vote “no”, future Presidents will be forever hobbled by the actions taken this week.
Finally, I must address the assertion of Rand Paul who stated his opposition to an attack on Syria because it might increase the immediate danger to Israel. To some extent, Paul has a point. My son’s school did hold a drill last week, explaining what to do if there were a missile attack. Students were instructed what to do if the sirens go off while they are on the school bus. Two weeks ago, as tensions started building, I moved our gas masks from storage to a more accessible location.
Personally, I would rather take the very small risk that – if attacked– Assad will turn his sights on Israel, than live in a world where the use of chemical weapons can be employed with impunity.