By David Sirota, Salon
Before deciding how the U.S. should address the human atrocity in Syria, here are the moral questions at stake
Last Thursday, I was asked to appear on CNN to discuss the burgeoning humanitarian crisis in Syria. Truth be told, I almost said no to the invitation – and for a bad reason. While I do not believe there is evidence to suggest an attack on Syria will make anything better, I felt somewhat conflicted about what I thought the United States should specifically do in the wake of a chemical attack in that country. I reflexively assumed that such ambivalence disqualifies anyone from expressing any opinion, especially in a cable TV realm that often seeks to portray every debate as a battle between crystal-clear absolutisms.
But, of course, in this kind of situation, there really is only one absolute truth: What’s happening in Syria is a human rights atrocity. Almost everything else, and especially the proper course of action, is all opinion, some of it at least fact-based, measured and informed, but much of it purely ideological. And pretending otherwise – pretending that there is one indisputably correct, pro-intervention path forward – is the most ideological position of all. In fact, such absolutism is beyond mere ideology – it is theology.
Ultimately, I accepted CNN’s invitation, and the process of pondering four questions helped prepare me for that discussion. These questions do not focus on the very legitimate concerns about the financial expense and risk to U.S. troops that are involved in an attack on Syria. Instead, they focus on the moral questions about the whole concept of humanitarian military intervention. Considering them clarified some things for me. Perhaps they will for you too as you watch today’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing about a possible attack on Syria. Here they are:
1. Is it natural to feel conflicted about a response to the Syrian civil war? Was it natural to initially feel conflicted about the Iraq War?
I opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, but I would be lying if I said that in my heart at the time I didn’t feel some ambivalence. Not only were U.S. government officials claiming that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were conspiring to launch a coordinated assault to incinerate American cities with nuclear weapons, but Saddam’s thuggery had created an ongoing human rights atrocity in his country. Quite naturally, those factors combined to create a sense of urgency – a sense of “do something, anything!” – among those who at once didn’t want to be incinerated and wanted to halt undue suffering at the hands of a dictator.
This time around – thankfully – nobody is pretending the Assad regime represents an imminent threat to the United States (though don’t be surprised if that drumbeat soon commences). But the human rights atrocities in Syria are real, and should be offensive and horrifying to anyone with a pulse. So the “do something, anything!” impulse isn’t “liberal” or “conservative.” And it isn’t silly, stupid or war-mongering. It is simply a sign that you are human.
What can be silly, stupid and war-mongering is to assume that the “do something, anything!” impulse is proof that one course of action – a military attack – is the only proper or humane thing to do.
2. The rational question to ask is: Will an action actually make the situation better?
In the last few days, we have been told by the U.S. government and pro-war voices in the Washington punditburo that opposing a military assault on Syria is akin to appeasing Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Not only does such an argument instantly discredit itself by violating Godwin’s Law, it smacks of previously discredited rhetoric – the kind that aims to distract attention from what should be the most important questions of all.
As we all remember, the meager debate over the Iraq War (if you can even call it a debate) was an exercise in the ugliest kind of reductionism: the “with us or with the terrorists” kind. Support the war, and you were encouraged to feel like a brave, patriotic, red-blooded hater of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, and you could proudly slap an American flag on your SUV bumper and congratulate yourself for being an honorable supporter of the troops. Oppose the war, by contrast, and you were were cast as a supporter of Saddam and al-Qaida and you were often vilified as an ungrateful traitor daring to undermine brave U.S. soldiers protecting your freedom.
This, no doubt, is the propaganda of Permanent War, for it deliberately obscures what the real question should be when it comes to military action, especially the kind publicly predicated on humanitarian concerns. The question is not whether you love or hate a particular dictator, because if that was the question, then the U.S. government has a lot to answer for in its alliances with many dictators. No, the question when it comes to wars of choice ostensibly waged in defense of human rights should be far more straightforward: namely, will military action result in a net increase or decrease in human suffering?
Many of us who opposed the Iraq War did so not out of some affinity for Saddam Hussein, but because we believed there was a good chance that an invasion would ultimately increase human suffering. Some who supported the war did so because they believed the opposite. But many who supported the war did so without even the slightest regard for those considerations. That included the Bush administration, as evidenced by its “bring ’em on” bravado and its utter lack of regard for postwar planning.
Thanks, in part, to that administration’s cavalier attitude, up to 1 million Iraqi civilians died. Iraq War supporters would have us believe that simply because Saddam is dead and gone, none of that matters, but it’s possible (if not likely) the families of the million dead disagree. It’s also possible that while Syria is not Iraq, we can learn from the Iraq experience that “with us or with the terrorists” sloganeering can, unto itself, be a devious rationale for other kinds of atrocities – the ones we perversely commit in the official name of human rights.
With all that in mind, the question of U.S. military action against Syria becomes far more thorny because it is not at all clear that military action will make anything better – and that’s putting it mildly. As McClatchy notes, military and geopolitical experts are telling us that the kind of military response being discussed by the Obama administration would be “symbolic and fall far short of eliminating Syria’s chemical capabilities.” Likewise, the Guardian’s headline says it all: “Obama strike would not weaken Assad’s military strength, experts warn.” And Foreign Policy reports that one of the U.S. military planners who designed Syria strike blueprints “has serious misgivings” about the idea that bombing will improve anything. Even the president himself admits that “we cannot resolve the underlying conflict in Syria with our military.”
If you happen to have more credible information and insight than these well-informed experts, then go right ahead and make your case. However, if you don’t, then take a deep breath, momentarily suppress your “do something, anything!” impulse, and ask yourself: is it really so indisputably good, moral or constructive to support dropping bombs on Syria – most likely in heavily populated civilian areas – to make some sort of abstract political statement, but with no real expectation that doing so will make anything better?
If you can’t credibly argue that a military action has a good shot of making things better, then aren’t you submitting to the kind of ugly militarism that says state-sponsored violence is an end unto itself? After all, while there are real civilian lives being extinguished by the monstrous Assad regime, there will also inevitably be real civilian lives at the explosive end of U.S. cruise missiles (and that’s almost certainly the case no matter how many times professional politicians throw around reassuring words like “surgical” and “proportional”).
Shouldn’t humanitarians be thinking about those lives as as well, and isn’t it possible that when you think about all those lives, there are different conclusions? More specifically, isn’t it possible that there is a more credible case that rejecting military intervention rather than supporting it would result in less overall human suffering? And if it is possible, then isn’t it disingenuous to automatically cast non-intervention as sympathy for dictators rather than as a humanitarian calculation?
That last query can be particularly difficult to ponder because it challenges the way we are programmed to consider intervention and non-intervention only on the Rwanda/Nazi continuum. At one end of the continuum is the Western world opting for non-intervention in Rwanda, thus permitting a genocide. At the other end of that continuum is the United States’ decision to intervene in World War II. Though that decision wasn’t made primarily to stop the Holocaust, it did end up rescuing the remaining European Jewish population from Nazi death camps.
As a method of evaluating international conflicts, this continuum seems adequate, but it is deliberately deceptive. After all, the decision to forcefully intervene against Saddam Hussein ended up creating vast atrocities – and it is hardly clear that the war resulted in a net reduction in human suffering. So Iraq proves the whole idea that military intervention is automatically synonymous with morality or humanitarianism is a ruse, and not an accidental one, either. It is designed to guarantee certain ideologically driven policy decisions, regardless of whether those decisions are the right ones.
3. But what about the “red line” of chemical weapons?
President Obama has declared that above and beyond all other considerations, military action can be predicated solely on whether an enemy nation has crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons. Though the administration insists there is now clear evidence the Syrian government used chemical weapons, the news that the evidence is both no “slam dunk” and not being fully divulged to the public evokes memories of the deliberately misleading rhetoric about Iraq’s supposed WMD, and fears that we again are going to go to war on false pretenses.
And yet, as legitimate as those fears are, there’s an even deeper problem with the entire “red line” concept. It seems to suggest that if we are going to use military force for humanitarian causes, then that military force should not be contingent on the scope of the atrocities at hand but only on the particular instruments used to commit said atrocities. It says this because, as CNN notes, “(In Syria) there have been massacres. Populated areas have been bombed. Blasts have targeted people lining up for food at bakeries. People have been decapitated. Millions of Syrians are displaced.” And here’s the thing: Those atrocities, which have killed 100,000 Syrians, were committed with conventional weapons.
It stands to reason, then, that predicating military action exclusively on a chemical weapons “red line” doesn’t only say to the world what the Obama administration suggests it does; more specifically, it doesn’t just say that the use of such unconventional weapons is unacceptable. It also rather explicitly suggests that in the U.S. government’s eyes, atrocities committed with regular old conventional weapons are fine, or at least not atrocious enough to warrant a military response. In other words, it seems to tell other dictators that as long as they kill and maim their own people with conventional armaments, they will remain on the acceptable side of the “red line” and therefore they don’t risk a U.S. response.
Noting this isn’t to argue for more military interventions in places where chemical weapons are not used (as mentioned above, military intervention often makes things worse). However, it is to spotlight the big problem with the “red line” construct as a sole basis for humanitarian military intervention. Chemical weapons are hideous and awful – nobody disputes that. But pretending that their use alone is more important than the total extent of a humanitarian crisis runs the risk of effectively absolving and protecting the monsters who commit crimes through more mundane methods.
4. Because there are no easy answers, isn’t there an even bigger imperative for Congress to weigh in?
President Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval for an attack on Syria has been met with surprise among a political class that has become all too accustomed to presidents ignoring the Constitution. It has also been met with predictable criticism from war-mongers in Permanent Washington who evidently believe merely following the Constitution’s war powers provisions is somehow a sign of weakness.
On the merits, of course, the reason that Congress must assert its decision-making power over a military assault on Syria should be obvious. That reason, in fact, was best articulated by Barack Obama during his first presidential campaign. Back then, he said, “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”
The president was indisputably correct. Simply stated, without the explicit consent of Congress, a president has no constitutional authority to initiate a war with another country that poses no imminent threat to the United States. And as none other than Joe Biden explained only a few years ago, a president who does initiate such a war without such consent is committing an impeachable offense. End of story.
Now sure, there’s a whole “unitary executive” ideology that absurdly claims the president can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, to whomever he wants. But even if you somehow believe that crap and thus mindlessly dismiss the questions of legality and constitutionality, you probably shouldn’t so flippantly dismiss the democratic principles that undergird those questions.
Congress was not given the sole power to declare or reject war for no reason. It was granted that authority to better guarantee public consent for the most dire decisions of all – the decision to use the American people’s resources to kill other human beings, and to officially carry out such violence in all of our names.
Vesting such a decision in the legislative branch isn’t some outdated idea; in this age of what the military calls a state of “persistent conflict,” it is as necessary as ever, for it reduces the possibility of a single executive using that state to abuse martial power.
Similarly, the complexity of a potential military engagement is not a reason to circumvent Congress on the grounds that the national legislature is allegedly too stupid, too dysfunctional or too hostile to nuance to make such nuanced decisions. On the contrary, the complexity of the Syria questions – and the fact that there are no easy answers – make congressional involvement that much more essential. That’s because when there are no clearly great answers, the best hope of arriving at the least-bad decision – and one with some modicum of popular support – is to fully and openly debate it in the place where all Americans (in theory) have some local representation. And if, as the Obama administration asserts, the case for a new war in the Middle East is so obvious and self-evident, then it should have no problem getting Congress to authorize that new war.
Without that debate – and without congressional approval – a war-making decision against a dictator ends up being itself dictatorial. It ends up not only flouting the Constitution, but telling Americans that their consent doesn’t matter. In short, it declares that the armed forces are less the public’s military and more the Dear Leader’s private army.
Britain – a country that still has an actual royal family – seems to appreciate the inherent problem with that. According to polls, most Americans appreciate the problem as well, and that has thankfully forced the Obama administration to submit to the constitutional process. The critics of such a process seem to pine for a country where the Dear Leader is allowed to initiate wars without any public consent whatsoever. Perhaps they would feel more comfortable living in a dictatorship like Syria.