You know what’s wrong with all the talk, the incessant and cocksure talk, about attacking Syria? Everything. At least everything that matters.
Sure, it would temporarily feel good if America were to strike a blow against a despotic and desperate regime that has killed thousands of its own citizens, including women and children.
Sure, it would be justified, at least morally, to demonstrate to other brutal tyrants around the world that the use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated.
Sure, we could do great damage to Bashar al-Assad by way of some tactical attacks against his military assets, possibly even tipping the balance in favor of the disparate Syrian opposition, some of whom, if they topple the government, we will undoubtedly hear from again, since they are our ideological and theological enemies.
Before the pundits and politicians talk decisively about involving the U.S. in the Syrian mess, what we should be talking about is why would Assad do such a thing now and why would he do it where he allegedly ordered it? As Syrian Kurdish leader Salen Muslim said,
The regime in Syria … has chemical weapons, but they wouldn’t use them around Damascus, 5 km from the (U.N.) committee which is investigating chemical weapons. Of course they are not so stupid as to do so.
It is possible of course that Syrian leadership is that stupid. But shouldn’t we be absolutely certain first? After the Iraq war’s weapons-of-mass-destruction mass delusion, shouldn’t we be sure?
And before launching missiles and dropping bombs and satisfying the war-thirst of John McCain, we should be talking about the “additional information” related to the chemical attack that Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States would provide “in the days ahead.” That was on August 23. So far, all I’ve heard that would directly—as opposed to circumstantially—tie the Syrian government to the chemical attack is a report of intercepted calls by U.S. intelligence gatherers, as Foreign Policy’s The Cable reported:
Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people.
The trouble is, as that report makes clear, such an intercept raises additional questions about who is to blame for such a brutal move:
Was the attack on Aug. 21 the work of a Syrian officer overstepping his bounds? Or was the strike explicitly directed by senior members of the Assad regime? “It’s unclear where control lies,” one U.S. intelligence official told The Cable. “Is there just some sort of general blessing to use these things? Or are there explicit orders for each attack?”
I, for one, want to know the answer to those questions before I assent to a retaliatory attack against Syria. And apparently there is a report being compiled by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that will give us probative evidence that Assad is responsible for the horrific chemical attack. While that is a necessary component of justifying a move against Syria, it is not sufficient.
U.S. officials have said that any strike would be limited in scope and duration and would be intended as both punishment for the use of chemical weapons and as a deterrent.
It’s one thing to imagine that this action can be “limited in scope and duration.” But before a final justification for the action can be made, the government must address the logical follow-up question: After the last cruise missile has exploded, after the last bomb has dropped, what then? I don’t demand some kind of overarching strategy for the entire region, as Senator McCain and others have demanded and demeaned the President for not having. There is no such strategy applicable to what is going on in that part of the world. Every situation is different and does not lend itself to some sort of grand plan.
However, in terms of Syria, in terms of using military intervention against Assad, whether on our own or, more acceptably, in conjunction with other nations, it should at least be explained to Americans that the next step is inherently unknown, dependent on what Syria or Iran or Hezbollah or others do in reaction to our direct intervention. The intention of a military strike may be conceived as punishment and it may be conceived as limited in scope and duration, but it should be explained to Americans that what happens after we do damage to Syria is a gamble. Escalation may follow. More American involvement may become necessary. And no one, right now at this moment, knows how extensive that involvement may be.
As I write this, President Obama is under intense pressure to make good on his word that the use of chemical warfare is a line that cannot be crossed with impunity. He has to do something, it is argued by folks on both ideological sides, in order to protect the integrity of the United States, otherwise our threats in the future will be meaningless. We will look like international weaklings. And it appears increasingly obvious that the President will act. He will do something.
I remember the criticisms of President Obama related to the escalation of the Afghanistan war. Do you remember? He was accused of “dithering,” of indecision. Our local paper, the Joplin Globe, editorialized at the time:
The choice is now yours, Mr. President. Put up or back down. There is no room for equivocation.
At that time, almost four years ago, I wrote about those who were itching for an upgrade of the Afghanistan war:
Those who favor escalating the war should “put up or back down” when it comes to defining exactly how we will know when we have won the war. If they can’t do that, then maybe they need to take some more time and think about it.
In 1964, Lyndon Johnson expressed frustration to Sen. Richard Russell, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee at the time, about what to do in Vietnam. He knew the effort was not likely to succeed, yet, Johnson could not marshal the courage to pull the plug on the action. It would have been too “costly,” in his mind, both domestically and internationally.
So, 55,000 more lives were lost. That’s right. After President Johnson knew the war was essentially useless, 55,000 more lives were needlessly lost.
Maybe a little more deliberation and a little more courage to “back down” would have led Johnson to do the right thing. We will never know. But we do know that President Obama is rethinking his initial plans to continue prosecuting the war. That is a good thing. And it is not equivocation or dithering to want to get things right.
Again, I ask those who can’t think of anything else to do in this present situation but to attack Syria to please tell us how this thing will end if it doesn’t turn out to be limited in scope and duration. What should our response be if the situation spreads outside of Syria? How far are we willing to go?
I can be persuaded. I share the outrage of what happened to civilians, to women and to children, outside of Damascus. I am not in favor of doing nothing about what is going on in Syria, particularly if a desperate regime has now decided to do the unthinkable. But to justify American involvement, a better case has to be made than has been made so far.
And I can only hope and believe that President Obama, should he do what it appears he will do, has considered the next step, and the next, and the next. I hope that he consults with Congress, which in this particular case, should shoulder much of the responsibility for attacking Syria. This isn’t Libya. The unknowns are much greater and more extensive.
Finally, if we do act, it should not be because we have a compulsion to save political face both domestically and internationally. We know from recent history that such a compulsion eventually cost the lives of 55,000 Americans.