Should America Intervene in Syria?
Is American intervention in Syria justified?
If so, what are the costs and consequences of taking military action?
How do these costs and consequences compare with the potential risks of non-intervention?
That’s what I’ll discuss in today’s column.
Progressives tend to speak in muted voices these days. Presumably, one of our own occupies the Oval Office, which draws less criticism. Partisanship instills trust in foreign policy decisions that deserves more intense scrutiny, especially when weighing the prospects of war. This is illogical and dangerous.
Based on his actions, does President Obama really deserve the benefit of our collective doubt more than anyone else? If so, why? What would progressives be saying right now if President Bush was the commander-in-chief rattling the defense establishment’s sabres, calling for an military attack on Syria? I suspect that answer is quite obvious. There would be riots in the streets.
Accordingly, we who tend to be the most suspicious about the reasons for waging war must be entirely consistent in both our evaluation of this President’s judgement and the very real prospect we’re about to engage in what amounts to a third military conflict (following Afghanistan and Iraq) that we can neither afford financially, nor benefit from in any way. As crass as that sounds, let’s not fool ourselves into believing there’s anything to gain by intervening in Syria. Call it what you want — an invasion, a liberation, or an occupation. It’s still going to cost money (and human lives) that we can ill afford to lose.
War in Syria is yet another costly money pit from which disengagement will prove increasingly difficult the longer we stay. Moreover, without a viable exit strategy, the risks are even greater, especially in the long run. It’s not enough simply to defeat and overthrow Syria’s increasingly despotic leader, President Bashar al-Assad. The question which absolutely must be asked before we act militarily is this – what comes next? Is another Libya or Egypt really what we want? Hasn’t history taught us anything?
A corollary to any attack is insisting on a full explanation as to what right the United States has to impose its own will on a sovereign nation which does not currently, nor has ever posed a direct threat to the security of the United States. [SEE FOOTNOTE BELOW] Let’s face it, such an explanation really can’t be given. And that’s the crux of the problem.
Nonetheless, that doesn’t solve the issue. It only adds to the confusion.
Syria is a moral and diplomatic quagmire unlike any other we’ve faced. Unlike Afghanistan, which indeed was once a safe haven for terrorists, including Osama bin Laden who was given sanctuary by the former ruling Taliban regime — and unlike Iraq, which invaded its neighbors (twice) and was thought to pose a grave threat to the entire region and global economy, the Syrian government’s crimes are almost entirely domestic. Yet that doesn’t quite firewall what could be a very real justification for invading and overthrowing the Assad regime.
As things stand now, this is not a potential war with another Islamic nation, although it will very much play out that way in the court of world opinion, especially hypersensitive in other Islamic states, where the prevailing viewpoint already is that the United States seeks to dominate and ultimately destroy Islamic culture. While some of us are gradually coming to a sobering realization that democratic traditions in the West and the advancement of all societies worldwide are incompatible with any hard-line theocracy, and there’s no more fitting example of “hard line” than what we’re seeing in the streets of just about every Islamic nation right now, it’s quite presumptuous of us to invade their countries, overthrow their rulers, and tell them how to live. For this reason, things are probably going to get even worse before they eventually improve.
So, what’s the best argument in favor of taking action right now? Intervention in Syria may be entirely justified based on a critical rule of international law called the Geneva Protocol. This is the 1925 international accord which bans the use of chemical weapons. It’s been updated numerous times since then, but precise language as to its application remains murky. For instance, while international conflicts are clearly addressed by the Geneva Protocol, internal conflicts might not be. Accordingly, if Syria uses chemical weapons against another nation, it’s in clear violation of international law. On doing the same within Syrian territory, particularly in a civil war, the rules of international law aren’t so clear.
These international agreements (and more importantly — how we interpret them) are critical not only to debating possible intervention in Syria. They should serve as benchmarks of law that virtually everyone in the civilized world can agree upon. Therefore, it becomes incumbent upon all nations to aid and encourage their enforcement, whatever the cost, no matter the inconvenience. More specifically, if and when laws of the Geneva Convention have been violated, the larger community of nations must act with unmistakable unity and clarity. Violators must be caught, exposed, and their crimes must be punished. Otherwise, international law becomes a paper tiger without teeth. There must be a hazardous bite to it all. This is not only a proper administration of justice and a very noble by-product of multilateral cooperation, it’s also a deterrent against future violations.
And so, Syria is an important test case to the international community of nations right now. Its oppressive government is counting on those who presumably back the Geneva Conventional accords being too disinterested or lacking the ability (or willpower) to intervene in what amounts to another ugly civil war. Based on the lukewarm support the United States received from other nations so far on the intervention question, the Syria’s ruling incumbency may have guessed right.
Hypothetically, if intervention into the internal affairs of a foreign nation is indeed justified according to international law (and a consensus opinion of the some valid authority such as the U.N. Security Council is reached), the next question becomes who should assume the most risk ? Moreover, which nations should pay a greater percentage of the cost of containment? I would argue, irrefutably I think, the United States (which means the American taxpayer) has assumed far too large a share of the rest of the world’s burden for far too long. If wars are to be launched, it’s time for someone else to go out and buy the body bags, and then do what’s necessary to fill them.
Let’s start with some of the world’s wealthiest nations first, which means the autocratic monarchies of the Middle East. Since they’re closer to the front lines of the conflict than most nations and have a vested interest in Syria’s welfare from both an ethic and cultural standpoint, shouldn’t they be writing the checks? At the very least, shouldn’t the cries for military intervention be echoing loudest in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the other regimes best positioned to exert influence within Syria?
But we here in the United States also share much of the blame, grounded in our own greed and some twisted illusion called “American exceptionalism.” Fact is, we’ve become a global superpower predicated on a thriving industry of war and fear. A lot of people get very rich when bad things happen around the world, and a lot of those people are Americans. These death merchants now litter the national capital area and are tethered tightly to the tit of giant corporations, a bloated defense establishment which blows more money each year than the next 16 other largest defense budgets on earth (combined), and a secretive sub-culture of foreign and domestic spy agencies and surveillance spooks, many of them private contractors, who now have an iron stranglehold over absolutely every major military of foreign policy decision made in Washington. In short, these homeland security shanks have our nation totally by the balls, and Syria is yet another opportunity to put on the hard squeeze. Next time you visit the national capital area, take a look around at all the glass buildings with the names of companies you’ve probably never heard of. Every time our nation goes to war, cash registers start ringing.
This well-deserved mistrust we progressives have of of just about anything the defense establishment and its profiteers say or do should invoke our continuing suspicions. Only our disgust should now be magnified, many times over. When we’ve been flat out lied to by all the so-called “experts” — as was the case with Iraq’s phoney weapons of mass destruction, which became the justification to invade Iraq and spend more than a trillion dollars — many of us are more than a little leery the next time we hear it’s time to invade another nation in the Middle East. Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, anyone who blows the trumpet call for more bombing and killing bears an extra burden of making what must be an irrefutable case for engagement.
So far, those who have called for military intervention in Syria – including President Obama — have completely failed to do that. Until such a time comes, our top priority should be to climb out of the tar pit of ceaseless foreign engagement and end this costly madness of being the world’s policeman. Let’s bring as many troops and munitions home as we can from military bases scattered all over the world. Let’s insist that other countries fight their own battles and pay their own bills. Finally, let’s start taking care of our own cities and people first, before trying to go out and impose ourselves on the rest of the world.
[FOOTNOTE] -- Whether or not the security and sovereignty of the United States is threatened has often been immaterial to the larger question of foreign engagement, starting with the Spanish-American War (which was almost entirely fabricated by the government and press) all the way up to the Vietnam War, which we often forget was a civil war.