Syria goes too far

Syria goes too far
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On August 20, 2012, President Obama interrupted a routine White House press briefing with a surprise cameo appearance. Well in the midst of his re-election campaign, the prez likely figured he could benefit from some direct media facetime.

“Jay tells me that you guys have been missing me,” he joked dryly.

Much of what Obama said at the presser was partisan and forgettable; a denunciation of the infamous Todd Akin comments, an umpteenth call for Mitt Romney to release his tax returns. But then, right at the end, just before he walked off the dais, the President offered a few brief comments on the civil war in Syria.

“I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation,” he said, responding to a reporter’s question, “but the point you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical. That’s an issue that doesn’t just concern Syria, it concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel. It concerns us. We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people.”

“We have communicated in no uncertain terms to every player in the region,” he continued, “that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front, or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations.”

At the time, it sounded like an empty threat. Perhaps just tough-talk posturing to improve the President’s national security bona fides with swing voters? Everyone knew even the world’s worst dictators never actually use chemical weapons any more; guys like Assad only keep the things around as an empty threat of their own, a “beware of dog” sign for a dog that doesn’t bite.

Well, never underestimate murderous psychopaths seems to be the lesson here. Last week reports began to slowly trickle in that the Syrian military had, in fact, used chemical weapons against rebel forces; specifically the nerve gas sarin in small battles near the cities of Damascus and Aleppo. Sarin causes severe muscle convulsions, loss of control over basic bodily functions, paralysis, respiratory failure, and a truly ghastly death. It’s the same chemical Saddam Hussein used to exterminate the Kurds, and the one that homicidal cult in Japan once went around pumping into subway cars.

His bluff having been called, Obama responded by equivocating. Though the use of sarin has been confirmed by the Israelis, British, and French — along with, according to Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Diane Feinstein, the United States “intelligence community,” on April 25 the White House released an exceedingly cautious letter offering only a nervous call for “a comprehensive United Nations investigation” to corroborate these war crimes.

This whole business — a mad dictator allegedly possessing weapons of mass destruction, supposedly ambiguous foreign intelligence, UN inspections unlikely to do much beyond waste everyone’s time — obviously evoke strong memories of the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the famous “dumb war” of 2003, to quote State Senator Obama. Since liberal critics seem to have been vindicated by history in their opposition to that conflict, it’s worth recalling the underlying conclusions that motivated their opposition. If we are to avoid intervening in Syria, after all, we’ll have to make peace with similar arguments.

● Evil is not unto itself a sufficient pretext for military intervention.

● The sovereignty of independent nations is an absolute right, and no nation deserves to have theirs infringed — regardless of how odious their government may be.

● America should avoid taking sides and shedding blood (ours and theirs) in a foreign country’s domestic conflict about which we know relatively little — and have even less at stake.

● We should avoid deposing stable Middle Eastern regimes and creating chaotic post-dictator power vacuums that could emerge as breeding grounds of Islamism. Especially in conflicts where a secular dictatorship is warring with a fundamentalist-dominated opposition.

All fair concerns, and in the Syrian context, the case for non-intervention is made even starker by the the fact that no one is pushing any grandiose, George W. Bush-style schemes about turning this once-dysfunctional country into a model democracy capable of inspiring the larger neighbourhood. America’s geopolitical curiosity in the whole mess has been exceedingly limited.

Yet that limited ambition also highlights the conflict’s uncomplicated short-term urgency  for outside observers — preventing a massive loss of life at the hands of truly horrific means.

The United States could easily stop President Assad’s killings; of this there is no doubt. Syria is a third-world nation of 22 million people possessing an army of under 300,000 soldiers. There is absolutely nothing the Assad forces could do — chemical weapons or not — for which the Pentagon lacks a sophisticated and expensive method of countering.

Charity may not be a viable motive for a long-term Syrian strategy, but it seems a reasonable short-term one, as it did following the mere threat of a massacre in Libya. In that case, the Obama Administration offered the (widely disputed) figure of “100,000” as the possible number of Libyan lives that could be saved through intervention. Well, 60,000 to 70,000 Syrians have actually died in their conflict.

To quote another bit of rhetoric the President might wish to forget at the moment — his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize speech — Obama once declared that “force can be justified on humanitarian grounds,” particularly in “places that have been scarred by war.” This, he said, was the very definition of a “just war;” one that entails the exercise of force to uphold certain universal ideals regarding the inherent dignity and sacredness of human life — values championed by every religious creed and humanist philosophy — rather than mere naked self-interest.

“We honor those ideals,” the President added later, “by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.”

And so it is now.


  1. David

    Intervening in Syria, or not intervening as the case may be, is now a much harder choice to make. You are right about it being more politically expedient for the West to publicly denounce while quietly ignoring the conflict, however.

    Even Israel is not terribly alarmed, especially since Assad will be in even worse shape to threaten their interests or fund Hezbollah even if he maintains his hold on power. The rise of a truly Islamist state is also something that scares all of Syria's neighbors, ironically the Arabic ones.

    Sadly, the carnage will likely continue even if Assad were to be assassinated or the rebels lose prominent territory.

  2. Kwyjor

    "the one that homicidal cult in Japan once went around pumping into subway cars"

    Accuracy, pls. The Japanese sarin attacks were carried out via chemicals carried on in plastic bags (and in fact things could have been a lot worse if not for a certain amount of ineptitude). Nothing was "pumped in". Perhaps you are getting confused with the Moscow theatre hostage crisis?

  3. Svan

    I don't think anyone is particularly fooled by what Obama is doing. His administration doesn't want to go to Syria. Period. His intervention strategy is to forestall action until there is some Syrian final solution that will definitively nullify any military involvement. The reason the spotlight is on him now is because the use of chemical weapons is the only objective threshold the president has even implied to be critical to US engagement. Now that it has been met it's like they're trying to run out the clock on media interest, Assad's regime, or the rebels themselves.

  4. Jake_Ackers

    True that. Each President has a revolver with 1 one bullet in it in terms of foreign policy. Obama shot that bullet with Libya and partially grazed his own foot with Benghazi. At the end all he can do now is pistol whip Assad until his term is over. I highly doubt he has enough to go into Syria the way it was with Libya.

  5. Rachel Bush

    Yeah, I think the thing is that Obama is now in the position of also being attacked from the right on foreign policy when it comes to interventionism.

    Everyone knows that the Democrats are for preserving Social Security for all costs, but conservative politicians have shown that they would use any concessions (e.g. chained CPI) to convince seniors that Democrats are instead for "gutting" Social Security.

    I bring this up because in the same way, when it comes to Syria, the Libya intervention has given Obama political vulnerability regardless of what action he takes.

  6. Svan

    I don't know if I totally agree if this really has much to do with liberalism as a political ideology, as it does with specifically this administration. The Obama administration wants to go into Syria like cats want to take a bath.

  7. Jake_Ackers

    Well its more so interventionist versus non-interventionist. The left used to be very interventionist and for the most part are. It's the right that was very non-interventionist. However, truth be told now a days, whichever is the President's party that declared war is the party that supports it. The other just opposes it. Nevertheless, most Americans tend to be non-interventionist in general with strong factions of each in both parties as a result.

  8. @MilesToCode

    Svan is correct. Obama isn't going to go in to Syria because he doesn't want to be tagged as going in to war – at least not before the 2014 election.

  9. Bill

    Chemically poisoning the their own people, just like knocking over baby incubators and wmds in iraq. It seems all too done already, scripted fear if anything else. It is another push into non anglo territory over whatever good reason you can find, more bank and oil control is all I see the US ultimately involving itself in under the disguise with another "war" to protect something.

  10. Jake_Ackers

    So Saddam was not a genocidal dictator? Yes the US shouldn't intervene into these countries unless its under the UN. But to think the US does it solely for oil is crazy. Especially since it costs why more than the oil which we have to buy anyway.

  11. Jake_Ackers

    Riot happens in a city. City Police gets called. Then State then the Feds. Similarly, the Arab League needs to do something then the UN. You don't call the Texan police to deal with a problem in Alaska, simply because the Texas Ranger Division is the "best equipped" or "one of the largest" or "one of the strongest." Unless you want a officer from the Texas Ranger to deal with a case that is linked directly with a case in Texas. Even then you don't call the whole department. Then why should the US intervene in Syria? Should the US play a role? Yes but you don't call the whole Ranger Division to an armed revolt in Alaska. You call the federal government. Same deal in the Mid-East. Call the UN not the US.

    Problem with intervention is this. These leaders see the world as one unified place yet forget there are sub-global groups. Continents, Regions, Nations, Cities. So people like Obama and other pro-interventionists like Bush view us all "citizens of the world" or "all part of the human race." So it justifies intervention. However, it's more so HOW we intervene in these countries. The UN is the body to deal with these issues. Syria signed up for the UN, thus the UN has legitimacy in intervening.

    If not, then just covertly fund the rebels. Which I am sure the US is doing. After all if Russia and China are intervening covertly as well as other Arab countries, it's in our national security interest to do so. Frankly, if I was the Obama administration, I would leverage Turkey into a strong position in the world stage. And guide them into leading the effort toward dealing with Syria.

  12. Rachel Bush

    I don't agree that a U.N. inspection would necessarily waste everyone's time. It was later revealed that President Bush had already scheduled the day of the Iraq invasion giving speeches about taking the U.N. investigation into careful consideration. Plans under consideration included possibly crashing a plane made to look a U.N. plane and creating an artificial crisis.

    I'm not really in a position to judge the inherent efficacy of U.N. investigations, though — I'd hope that professionals in this sort of area would find ways to account for ways to hide the weapons, and honestly present in their report the areas of the inspection they were unable to complete.

    During this time, my position was not necessarily that "evil is not unto itself a sufficient pretext for military intervention", nor that nations' sovereignty is an absolute right. It was really that throughout all of history, a pre-emptive strike has been inherently wrong because of the situations it can lead to. By "pre-emptive strike," I am not excluding strikes on allied countries. This notion had been codified into international law because of actions by countries the U.S. once stood against, that used the idea as a pretext. Everything that followed (waterboarding, for example), stood within that same legal context.

    Prevention of possession of weapons of mass destruction is the one exception to the precedent that the country claiming pre-emptive strike without cassus belli is usually the aggressor. I agree with the idea, but the magnitude of that turning point should have led to the evidence being given more consideration. There will be a day in history when we will have to make the decision to go to war with a country like Syria or Iran, and hopefully it will be after we have recovered from the phenomenal debt created by the last two wars, but not before we have forgotten those lessons.

    So, in line with Jake_Ackers' comment, intervention I would support includes regional intervention through the UN in problems that have an effect on a global scale, ideally those which have grown beyond the capability of local regions to handle. This would not include Syria until it uses chemical weapons on other nations and is gaining power, except through arming the rebels. For better or worse, we already apply this practice to internal African politics. All else being equal, I don't see why we don't apply it to the Middle East, unless the realpolitik of resource distribution and protection of our ally Israel is making the difference.

  13. Mikael B. Bekkers

    It seems to be a never ending saga on the daily reels of such tragedy striking the Syrian people.How people could use such obnoxious weapons on defenseless people is lost upon me.I know hate is a strong thing,for I feel it myself, and tendency has it to just brush it off in hopes of a better outcome.How does stability play into the region of such things,well again from here on the American shores on can only hope again for the best possible outcome.

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