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No War in Syria

September 6, 2013

by J. Andrew Zalucky

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(Photo: ABC News)

I am not a pacifist, and I am not an isolationist. There are times when a humanitarian crisis has reached such levels, where there is a clear idea of aggressor and victim, and an internationalist outcry for action that merits a decisive show of force that will end the conflict and necessitate negotiation towards a resolution. Yes, some cases merit military intervention.

Syria in 2013 is not one of those.

Since the protest movement-turned-civil war began two years ago, much has been made of the death of innocents and the crimes of the Assad regime. To be sure, the reports coming from humanitarian workers after the August 21st chemical weapons attack have been horrifying. Indeed, Bashar Al-Assad’s government is responsible for much of the bloodshed, but there has been little sign that the rebels would be a better ally in this case. If we were to intervene with a series of cruise missile strikes and fighter jets, we will not halt the killing of innocent civilians or stop the bullets from flying on either side. The only thing that will change is that some of those bullets will now be manufactured and fired by Americans.

Over at The Washington Post, Ezra Klein has put together a damning list of things that could go wrong if we intervene in Syria. Granted, war is a messy business, so things are bound to go wrong in any armed conflict. But one would at least hope that the risks carried some sort of benefit, or pointed toward some sort of comprehensive strategy. In this case, even those calling for intervention are claiming it is being done to “send a message” to the Assad regime. In other words, our attacking Syria would be nothing less than an affectation to show how ‘serious’ we are when it comes to foreign policy. Another huge absurdity was Secretary of State John Kerry’s reference to the August 21st attack as our “Munich Moment”, alluding to the 1938 Munich Agreement in which France and Britain allowed Hitler to annex the Sudetenland without firing a shot. This laughable application of Godwin’s Law is not only flimsy and demagogic, but betrays a desperation that further undermines the arguments for intervention. That and it also reminded me of that cringe-inducing moment in one of Obama’s SOTU speeches where he references America’s “sputnik moment”.

Speaking of Britain, it should also speak volumes to us when the governing body of our closest ally votes down military action, especially with Labour Party, which led the country into its involvement with Iraq, voting “Nay” unanimously. Writing in Foreign Policy, Bruce Ackerman pointed out some of the ironies of a British leader following a parliamentary vote when a US President basically had to be shamed into doing the same here:

In a moment full of historical irony, Prime Minister David Cameron’s defeat in the House of Commons was a precipitating cause of the president’s agonizing reappraisal. For almost a thousand years, the British constitution excluded Parliament from declarations of war — the king claiming this power as his “royal prerogative.” Given George III’s war against his rebellious colonists, this made it imperative for America’s Founding Fathers to establish that their new president would play a very different role — and that it would be up to Congress to make the ultimate decisions on war and peace.

Yet two centuries onward, it was the British Parliament that taught the imperial presidency a lesson. It was only in 2003 that Tony Blair decided that his adventure with George W. Bush required something more than a royal decree. To enhance his democratic legitimacy, he requested the formal approval of Parliament — which was readily forthcoming since his party was in firm control of the House. But this time around, Cameron was at the head of a shaky Tory-Liberal coalition, which proved incapable of delivering the votes.

It should also weigh heavily on our minds that, as with issues of NSA surveillance and other national security matters, a diverse coalition of libertarians and liberals have come together to oppose the intervention. It says something when Alan Grayson (D-FL) and Rand Paul (R-KY) see eye-to-eye on the same issue. Not that their agreement makes the non-interventionist case right on its own, but it shows that its an issue which transcends garden-variety party-politics. Senator Paul actually went and wrote an op-ed in Time yesterday, where he reminded the President of his constitutional obligations:

Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11 gives Congress — and Congress alone — the power to declare war. If Congress does not approve this military action, the President must abide by that decision.

In an interview with The Atlantic‘s Molly Ball, Alan Grayson responded to the claim that our intervention would be justified for humanitarian reasons:

That’s a nice sentiment, one which I often share. But the fact is, no one has been able to come up with a game plan here that makes any sense. If we could end suffering in Syria through a military strike, that would be a decision worth thinking about. But no one is suggesting that’s going to happen here. No one is suggesting this will end the dictatorship. No one is suggesting this will defeat the al-Nusra rebels who want sharia law and no rights for women. No one is suggesting this will actually prevent a gas attack in the future. No one is suggesting this will do much of anything except give a slap on the wrist to [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad in hopes that maybe something good will come out of that. I actually would support humanitarian aid to the refugees. There are 2 million of them in Jordan and Turkey right now, and I think they could use our help. My concept of humanitarian aid is food, medicine, shelter, clothing, not bombs.

I bold the section about aid to the refugees for a reason. The refugees are effectively out of the fight, and with the number now exceeding 2 million, the crisis does have international implications and calls for immediate aid from the international community. We should absolutely help the Jordanians, Lebanese, and Turks with providing shelter, food, and medical supplies to Syrian refugees. Unlike the case for military intervention, this case has a clear moral and practical objective. (In the case of Turkey specifically, we should of course honor our NATO agreement with them and protect their borders should the conflict expand there (But this is a military matter tied to agreements and alliances, not to affectations and proxy wars). And to those elements in the Syrian resistance who carry liberal democratic persuasions, the best option may be to leave the country and wait the conflict out, lest you be wiped out by the regime or have your message disfigured and discredited by an alliance with reactionary, theocratic jihadists.

And finally, for those of you who want to see the poll numbers, check out Tuesday’s Pew Poll on US Airstrikes on Syria. The entire piece is worth reading, but for a quick snapshot, here are the figures for supporting and opposing the strikes, broken out by party allegiance:

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It’s not an issue of loyalty to one party or another. Democrats- you may be pumped to #UniteBlue and continue to stand by this President no matter what, but all of that servile loyalty will be as insignificant as a drop of water in the vast ocean of problems that could come from us intervening in the Syrian Civil War. To those Liberal interventionists who wish to pursue a humanitarian cause in Syria, airstrikes will not accomplish this and in fact may lead to even more blow-back. And with all of the covert operations being conducted by CIA black-sites and drone strikes elsewhere, the last thing we need is more impetus for reprisals against the United States. Republicans, contrary to what The Weekly Standard would have you think, foreign policy is not a middle-school playground or Freudian chest-beating contest. There is a profound difference between appearing weak and exercising restraint. Besides, as Steve Chapman points out in Reason,

The United States boasts the most powerful military on Earth. We have 1.4 million active-duty personnel, thousands of tanks, ships and planes, and 5,000 nuclear warheads. We spend more on defense than the next 13 countries combined. Yet we are told we have to bomb Syria to preserve our credibility in world affairs.

If the description of our capabilities played against the insecurities of hawkish conservatives sounds absurd, it’s because…well, it is absurd.

Again, let’s focus on aiding the refugees. Once the conflict has ended or when parties are willing to negotiate, by all means- let’s play a major role. It was Teddy Roosevelt who helped negotiate a peace between Russia and Japan at the end of the 1904-5 war, and he did it without sending The Great White Fleet to fire on one side or the other. And if the UN Inspectors find that the Assad regime was indeed responsible for the atrocity on August 21st, then like Augusto Pinochet and Slobodan Milošević before him, he should be taken to the International Criminal Court at The Hague to face justice.

The Senate and House of Representatives are likely to vote on the legislation drafted by the Senate Foreign Relations committee sometime in the next week. If there was any time to contact your members in congress, now is that time.

Call your Senators and Representatives: (202) 224-3121

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