And so we have it, unexpectedly, a debate over the use of American military might in a foreign conflict.
President Barack Obama announced yesterday that he is prepared to lob cruise missiles into Syria as punishment for the Assad's regime use of chemical weapons against his own people. But he wants Congressional approval first, a move that reverses the historical course and could re-empower a neutered Congress.
Obama called the Syrian gas attack "an assault on human dignity" that "presents a serious danger to our national security."
It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. It endangers our friends and our partners along Syria's borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons, or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm.Because of this, he said, "military action against Syrian regime targets" was necessary.
In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted.
This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground. Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope. But I'm confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out.But before he gives the order, he wants Congress to act, as required by the war-powers clause of the U.S. Constitution..
I've long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And that's why I've made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress.The Times has framed the decision as a political one -- and no doubt it is. If Congress backs the president's plan and the missile's fly, he can share blame for the fall out.
But more importantly, asking Congress to act means that there is the potential for a full debate over Syria and the proper responses to chemical and other weapons use overseas.
There appears to be division over action in Syria and the mainstream media is reporting that the vote can go either way:
"Obama hasn’t got a chance to win this vote if he can’t win the majority of his own party, and I doubt he can,” Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a leading Republican, said in an interview. “Democrats have been conspicuously silent. Just about his only support is coming from Republicans. He is a war president without a war party.”He may not have a war party, but he does have a war consensus, built upon the power of the Washington military establishment and the weapons contractors. In Washington, money talks and there is no money in the anti-war position.
War, therefore, seems likely -- but those of us opposed to military action and the permanent war machine have an opportunity we never expected to have. We need to engage in the debate, to be as loud as we can to make sure that the anti-war position gets out there and to make sure that the public remains on the right side of the war issue. (The vast majority of whom are telling pollsters they oppose intervention.) And we need to make sure that we make sure that we are clear about the alternatives.
The Nation, in an editorial in the current issue, outlines both the case against military intervention and the alternatives:
There can be no question that a US military attack on Syria without UN Security Council approval would be a violation of international law. President Obama admitted as much several days after the chemical weapons attack. Any attempt to get around the predicted Russian and Chinese veto by seeking NATO approval would be just as illegitimate. And the UN’s “responsibility to protect” clause, which allows humanitarian intervention to override state sovereignty in the case of systematic human rights violations, requires Security Council approval as well. The Obama administration also has an obligation to justify its actions to the American people and to seek congressional authorization.The president has made it clear where he stands on the use of military force, so there no longer should be any illusions about Obama as an agent of change. The decision to seek Congressional approval is welcome, but his aggressive rhetoric indicates that a permanent, pro-war bureaucracy continues to rule in Washington and that he is very much a part of it.
But the arguments against an attack on Syria are more than legalistic. There are both practical and, yes, humanitarian reasons to be opposed to military action. On the practical level, there is little chance that limited airstrikes will have much deterrent effect on a ruthless regime that sees itself as engaged in an existential struggle for survival. The initial airstrikes could thus easily suck Washington into what Middle East scholar Fawaz Gerges has called “a playground for the merchants of death.” It would make the United States a direct participant in what has become a regional sectarian conflict, further destabilizing Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, all of which are now parties to the Syrian maelstrom. It would draw Washington closer to, and strengthen, a chaotic rebel front now dominated by jihadi extremists closely connected to Al Qaeda in Iraq, and it would increase the chances of direct conflict between the United States and Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, all of whom are determined to prevent the fall of Assad.
On the humanitarian level, there is a strong chance that US airstrikes, no matter how “surgical,” will kill innocent civilians. Many of the Assad regime’s missile and artillery batteries are in heavily populated districts, and some have formidable air defenses, which could lead to many grievous mistakes (in the 1999 Kosovo war, some 500 civilians were killed by a NATO bombing campaign that was intended to save lives). American airstrikes could worsen what is already a disastrous refugee crisis. In fact, one of the most constructive things America could do to relieve the suffering of Syrians would be to vastly increase aid to the 1.9 million refugees who have flooded across the country’s borders.
Instead of bombing Syria, the United States should join Russia in its effort to renew the Geneva negotiations. Moscow and Washington are in conflict over Syria, but they share an interest in not widening the war and strengthening jihadi extremists. It’s long past time for the two powers to concede that neither Assad nor the rebels are going to be defeated anytime soon. A peace agreement isn’t feasible now, but if the United States and Russia work together, they could use their combined influence to choke off the flow of arms from the outside and contain the conflict as they work toward a cease-fire. If they don’t, Syria’s disintegration will spread throughout the region.
War, as Howard Zinn made clear in a 2001 essay in The Progressive, "is always indiscriminate, a war against innocents, a war against children. War is terrorism, magnified a hundred times."
We have a responsibility to take up the challenge put out there by Obama and to cut short the rush to war.