What can we do about the situation in Syria? What should we do about the situation in Syria? These two interrelated questions are burning into our collective brains. And the intensity of the burn is so much greater now that chemical weapons have been used against civilians. President Obama drew a red line; President Assad apparently stepped over that line, adding more than 1,000 people to the toll of more than 100,000 deaths.
We Americans are torn in multiple directions about this. Is there a moral responsibility to do something - anything? Is there a Superpower responsibility to take military action because we are the most heavily armed nation in the world, and a democracy? Should we only act if there is an American security reason? What if we kill civilians? What if we radicalize more young people into jihadism? What if the reaction to our action is Syria, Hezbollah, Iran and others launching missiles into Israel (playing the age-old game of Blame the Jews)? Can we really trust our own government to be telling us the truth about the poison gas incident? Remember WMDs and Iraq? How can we justify killing people to punish Assad for killing people? Why don't we just negotiate a peace deal in Syria? What happened to diplomacy?
And on, and on, and on, and on....
I have used the term "unintended consequences" in an earlier Facebook post on this topic. I used it to suggest a cautionary pause in the march to war. But every action has unintended consequences, including the action of inaction. We have watched, in horror, the unfolding of war and the devolution of society in Syria for more than two years. Our government has done relatively little, close to nothing (as far as is known by the public) over the course of the conflict. Now our President has declared that he intends to punish the Syrian government for crossing the red line of using chemical weapons, and he has sent a resolution to the U.S. Congress for their approval.
I support a military strike against the Syrian regime, unless there is a diplomatic path - and I mean one that looks realistic and starts immediately. Here's why...
There is an almost universal (only 7 nations have not signed and ratified) agreement that chemical weapons should be banned. Syria has not signed on to this convention, and has one of the largest stockpiles of these weapons in the world. And Syria has used them, recently killing over 1,000 men, women and children. This is a gross violation of international law, not to mention a moral outrage. If this action goes unpunished, it will make all arms conventions meaningless, and the world will move even more quickly into chaos at the hands of dictators (and terrorists).
People in the USA are proud to say that we're number one. We're the last Superpower standing. We are mighty and powerful and not to be messed with. Well, that's fine, but it is hollow jingoism if we don't act when others won't. We have a moral obligation in the world because we are so powerful. We have sat back and watched genocide and massacres too many times without doing anything to try to stop it, or slow it down. We cannot, in all good conscience, let Assad get away with mass murder. I don't think there is a convention against civil war; hence we cannot legally weigh in on the side of the Syrian insurgents. But there is international law prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, and this is the opening we must use.
We all have an opinion on this, and many of us express it on social media. The pundits express their opinions in the public media. This is good, this is our democracy in action. But we have to be very careful not to let opinion become fact. We have placed our trust in our government to carry out the actions that only government can do. There are many professionals in government, and those with expertise in foreign policy, international law, political science, diplomacy, military science and etc. are making, and should be making, decisions that guide the actions of our country. (1)
To those who say that Obama doesn't know what he's doing, that he is being played by the Russians and the Syrians, I say - really? To those who say (and I have heard this directly) that Obama is no different than G.W. Bush, I say - really? I'll take a President who moves cautiously and intelligently, who does not invent the basis for invading another country and starting a 10-year war, who is man enough to stand in front of a national audience and speak truth, even if it makes him look weak or diminishes his credibility in the eyes of those who hate him. Here are the facts: our President warned Syria that the use of chemical weapons would prompt a severe response from the United States; the Syrians gassed their own civilians; our President announced that the United States would act by launching a limited military response with the goal of punishing Assad as well as degrading his ability to deliver chemical munitions again; our President correctly asked Congress to approve his plan for a limited strike; Congress and the American public started to dither (as usual); our President and the President of Russia announced a plan that has a glimmer of hope to lock up Syria's chemical weapons. And this is where we are presently.
I am saddened by the daily deaths and level of cruelty playing out in Syria. I am saddened by the powerlessness of the rest of the world to intervene. And I am saddened by the inability of Americans to stand up for what is moral and correct.
I support President Obama. I hope that his diplomatic efforts succeed. And in the end, even if Congress and the American public don't support it, I hope he uses his executive authority to do the right thing.
And mostly, I hope the conflict in Syria ends soon for the sake of our Syrian sisters and brothers.
(1) There is a clear distinction in my mind between the Obama and the GW Bush administrations. In my opinion, the Bush administration is guilty of war crimes because it invaded and occupied a sovereign country on false pretenses, and killed tens of thousands of people in the process. I was very outspoken on this blog and elsewhere about this during those eight years. The present administration is a very different reality.