In his speech to the nation on Tuesday evening, President Obama laid out his case for military action against Syria, even as he hit the ‘pause’ button to allow for further diplomacy in light of the Russian proposal to sequester Syria’s chemical weapons.
I don’t disagree that units of the Syrian military deployed chemical weapons against rebellious populations in the outskirts of Damascus, and that this serious breach of international law deserves condign punishment. However, leaked intelligence has raised questions about from how high in the government the command came, and it is possible that a local rogue commander exceeded his orders out of panic at a rebel advance. If Syria really could be referred to the International Criminal Court for this incident, it is not clear to me that prosecutors could get a conviction of President Bashar al-Assad. (Syria cannot be so referred at least so far, because the ICC only has jurisdiction if a country has signed the Rome Statute that created the court. The only way to get around this restriction is for the UN Security Council to forward a case to the ICC, which can be done even for non-signatories, as with Gaddafi’s Libya. Russia and China so far, however, have kept Syria from being so forwarded at the UNSC).
Obama’s case for a US attack on Syria rests on three premises. The first is that a US strike would be relatively risk-free, since the Syrian regime has limited abilities to mount reprisals, and probably wouldn’t dare.
The second premise is that a US strike would deter Syrian military chem units from deploying their deadly weapons again.
The third premise is that the United States is special, or “exceptional,” and has a duty to intervene where it can to uphold humanitarian values.
All three of these premises seem to me deeply flawed. Something like a set of missile strikes on Syria in the midst of a civil war, and at a time of turbulence in the region, can have unexpected consequences. Radical Iraqi Shiites of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq have threatened to attack the US embassy in Baghdad in reprisal. If we had another Benghazi-type incident, we’d never hear the end of it in Congress, and it could been seen as requiring yet more American missile or drone strikes. If the US hits regime air bases, it could affect the outcome of the war, since the Baath troops cannot reliably get up to Aleppo by overland convoy. The youth that have overthrown two presidents in Egypt are protesting US interference in Eygpt. Public opinion now matters in a way it did not used to, and getting making a whole generation anti-American is a definite risk.
If the local military units have access to small warheads filled with sarin, then likely they will deploy it when they feel desperate or panicked. They won’t fear a US cruise missile strike on Damascus afterwards.
The third idea, that the US is ‘exceptional’ and bears a special responsibility to intervene in Syria after the chemical weapons use seems to me not only incorrect but extremely dangerous. The US is a country like any other, and certainly no more virtuous than most others. It blithely polished off 200,000 Japanese women, children and noncombatant men at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Some were made into shadows on the wall as their bodies carbonized. Thousands suffered from lingering cancer afterwards. No US official was ever so much as reprimanded for this war crime, which was carried out at a time when Japanese had been dehumanized and demonized with the worst sort of racism. The atomic bombs did not hasten the end of the war; the Russian advance into Manchuria did that. One could go on with US infractions against international law and shameless killing of innocents, from the Philippines to Nicaragua to Vietnam.
The US helped craft the UN Charter in hopes of deterring ‘exceptional’ naked aggression, making it illegal to attack another country except in self-defense or with UN Security Council authorization. I am not unsympathetic to the idea that the UNSC is broken, and that partisan uses of the veto by the five permanent members warp and deform it, rendering it useless in cases such as Syria. Some have argued that a set of multilateral organizations could legitimately do an end run around the UNSC in such cases of paralysis, where the fate of thousands or hundreds of thousands weighed in the balance.
But in the instance of Syria, the US has no multilateral support for military action, not the Arab League, not the European Union, not NATO. Nada.
Given that a military attack on Syria is an act of war that could have unforeseen negative consequences for the US, given that a few cruise missiles are not in fact likely to be a powerful deterrent, and given that the US is on the wrong side of international law and has almost no effective allies in such an action, it seems to me unwise and even illegal. Obama’s invocation of American exceptionalism (which historians consider a flaw, not a virtue, in American history) is intended to paper over this illegality.
The fact is that the US could inflict far more pain on the Syrian government with nonviolent means such as tightening the financial boycott on its banks, than it could with a few missile strikes. President Obama should show some backbone and buck the war party inside the Beltway, and insist on non-violent but effective punishment of Damascus for its atrocity, instead of the somewhat juvenile insistence that “action” equals violent action.