The war in Syria has killed more than 100,000 people with conventional weapons and sent more than a million people fleeing from their homes. Many Americans may ask, if the U.S. did not intervene to stop those deaths, why should it act now?Andrew Bacevich at BillMoyers.com, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, poses a series of questions to President Obama before he launches his response:
Because the use of chemical weapons is a red line drawn not just by the U.S. but by the entire world, to protect civilians. It may seem like a strange distinction: Someone killed by a conventional rifle or bomb is just as dead as someone killed by a chemical weapon.
But the damage from chemical agents, like nuclear weapons, cannot be finely targeted. Such weapons can kill wide swaths of people in a matter of seconds or minutes. They pose a special risk to civilians. These are weapons that many governments possess but few ever imagine using.
The 1925 Geneva Protocol said the prohibition against chemical weapons "shall be universally accepted as part of International Law, binding alike the conscience and the practice of nations." Note that phrase: The conscience and the practice of nations. For nearly a century, nearly every government has abided by this treaty, forswearing use of such weapons. Were that to change, should such weapons be regularly deployed, wars across the globe would be even more destructive and ruinous.
First, why does this particular heinous act rise to the level of justifying a military response? More specifically, why did a similarly heinous act by the Egyptian army elicit from Washington only the mildest response? Just weeks ago, Egyptian security forces slaughtered hundreds of Egyptians whose “crime” was to protest a military coup that overthrew a legitimately elected president. Why the double standard?The Washington Post urges a more comprehensive approach than just targeted military action:
Second, once U.S. military action against Syria begins, when will it end? What is the political objective? Wrapping the Assad regime on the knuckles is unlikely to persuade it to change its ways. That regime is engaged in a fight for survival. So what exactly does the United States intend to achieve and how much is President Obama willing to spend in lives and treasure to get there? War is a risky business. Is the president willing to commit U.S. forces to what could well become another protracted and costly struggle?
Third, what is the legal basis for military action? Neither Russia nor China is likely to agree to an attack on Syria, so authorization by the U.N. Security Council won’t be forthcoming. Will Obama ask Congress for the authority to act? Or will he, as so many of his recent predecessors have done, employ some dodge to circumvent the Constitution? With what justification?
The dangerous outcomes that Mr. Obama worried might be precipitated by U.S. involvement have mostly come about in the absence of such involvement. Syria has become a haven for thousands of fighters affiliated with al-Qaeda. Violence has spread to neighboring states, especially Lebanon and Iraq. U.S. allies Turkey and, especially, Jordan are in danger of being overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Now, according to Doctors Without Borders and other credible sources, weapons of mass destruction apparently have been used on a scale not seen since Saddam Hussein went after his Kurdish population in 1988, with Mr. Assad seemingly calculating he has little to fear from crossing Mr. Obama’s “red line.”The New York Times urges caution and the support of an international coalition as the President moves forward:
The U.S. president has been correct from the start that the Syria crisis offered no good options to U.S. policymakers. [...] But the fact that Syria offers no perfect outcomes or options does not mean that all possible outcomes are equally undesirable. It remains in the United States’ interest now as two years ago to see more moderate forces prevail. This can’t be achieved with one or two volleys of cruise missiles. It will require patience and commitment.
The United States can’t dictate the outcome in Syria, and it would be foolish to send ground troops in an effort to do so. But by combining military measures with training, weapons supplies and diplomacy, it could exercise considerable influence. The military measures could include destroying forces involved in chemical weapons use and elements of the Syrian air force that have been used to target civilians, as well as helping to carve out a safe zone for rebels and the civilian populations they are seeking to protect.
If Mr. Obama does forgo the U.N., he will need strong endorsements from the Arab League and the European Union, and more countries than just Turkey, Britain and France should join the effort. And if he does proceed with military action, it should be carefully targeted at Syrian air assets and military units involved in chemical weapons use. This, too, will not be easy, but the aim is to punish Mr. Assad for slaughtering his people with chemical arms, not to be drawn into another civil war.More debate below the fold.
A political agreement is still the best solution to this deadly conflict, and every effort must be made to find one. President Obama has resisted demands that he intervene militarily and in force. Though Mr. Assad’s use of chemical weapons surely requires a response of some kind, the arguments against deep American involvement remain as compelling as ever.
Dexter Filkins at The New Yorker looks at the question through the filter of a Syrian reporter and activist who was on the scene soon after the attack occurred:
“People were panicking,” he went on. “They were saying, Am I dead or am I alive?”Bob Dreyfuss at The Nation writes that the crisis can be addressed diplomatically:
The worst moment, Salaheddine said, came when he found three women huddled together in the hospital; a young woman, her mother, and her grandmother. All were suffering the symptoms of poison gas, he said, and each was trying to comfort the others. “I was trying to rescue the grandmother,” Salaheddine said. “She was dying. I was trying to give her oxygen. She kept saying to me, ‘My son—my heart, my heart.’ She was gasping for air. She was in agony. She died in my arms.”
Before we hung up, Salaheddine told me he hoped that his story would goad the United States into action. “I want you to pass a message to the U.S. leadership: America has great power and influence and can make a difference. We are suffering. It’s been too long.”
Salaheddine’s message raises the central question: What can America do? It’s not unreasonable to ask whether even a well-intentioned American effort to save Syrians might fail, or whether such an effort might pull America into a terrible quagmire. In the piece about Obama and Syria I wrote for the magazine in May, I detailed just how daunting those challenges are. But how much longer are we going to allow those questions to prevent us from trying?
Here’s the core question now, in regard to Syria: If it’s true that President Bashar al-Assad’s government used poison gas in an incident that killed hundreds of people, at least, in the suburbs of Damascus, can the United States avoid military action in response? The answer is: yes. And it should.Eugene Robinson:
That doesn’t mean that the United States ought to do nothing. The horrific incident, reported in detail by Doctors Without Borders, demands action. But the proper response by the United States is an all-out effort to achieve a cease-fire in the Syrian civil war. It’s late in the game, but it can be done. The first step would be for Washington to put intense pressure on Saudi Arabia, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, and Turkey, to halt the flow of weapons to the Syrian rebels, while simultaneously getting Russia and Iran to do the same. A concerted, worldwide diplomatic effort along those lines could work, but there’s zero evidence that President Obama has even thought of that.
History says don’t do it. Most Americans say don’t do it. But President Obama has to punish Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s homicidal regime with a military strike — and hope that history and the people are wrong.For more debate, check out this edition of Room for Debate at The New York Times, featuring more analysis on just how the U.S. should handle the crisis in Syria.
If it is true that the regime killed hundreds of civilians with nerve gas in a Damascus suburb last week — and Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Monday that the use of chemical weapons is “undeniable” — then Obama has no choice. Such use cannot be tolerated, and any government or group that employs chemical weapons must be made to suffer real consequences. Obama should uphold this principle by destroying some of Assad’s military assets with cruise missiles.
I say this despite my belief that Obama has been right to keep the United States out of the Syrian civil war. It is not easy to watch such suffering and destruction — more than 100,000 people killed, millions displaced, cities pounded into rubble — and do nothing. Now I believe we are obliged to hit Assad. But then what?
What do you think is the best way forward?