A Vote Of Conscience

After celebrating Labor Day by, what else, not laboring, I got in my Internet car and went to see what the right-wing is up to regarding the what-to-do-with-Syria debate.

I started with what is, to the detriment of the nation, a trend-setter in maniacal right-wing punditry, The Drudge Report. There, below the tailor-made-to-match-my-cookies (and obnoxiously large) video advertisements, I found this:

drudge on syria decision

Then I turned to National Review Online, the Intertubes version of the once-reputable National Review magazine, founded by the once-reputable William F. Buckley. Here is a sampling of articles on the Syria debate from NRO:

national review on syria decision

From there I went to the neo-con’s Cyber Book of Prayer, The Weekly Standard, which when I visited on Monday night was dominated by attack-Assad-now intellectual (previously a big-time cheerleader for the disastrous attack-Iraq policy) William Kristol:

weekly standard on syria decision

As only a quick look at these sites reveals, the American right is having a tough time deciding what to do with President Obama’s challenge to be commander-in-chief for a day. Righties don’t know whether their biggest guns should be aimed at the desperate Syrian thug Bashar al-Assad or the desperate American thug Barack Obama.

Here is how The New York Times described the isolationist-realist split in the GOP:

The Congressional vote on whether to strike Syria will offer the best insight yet on which wing of the Republican Party — the traditional hawks, or a growing bloc of noninterventionists — has the advantage in the fierce internal debates over foreign policy that have been taking place all year.

In other words, the two right wings battling it out over Syria are, as I have lately described them, the establishment extremists and the anti-establishment extremists. The one thing the two sides agree on, which helps define their extremism, is that Obama is to blame no matter what.

But what about those on the left? I beamed myself to The Huffington Post late Monday night and found this:

huffpo on syria decisionYou can find a piece by Robert Creamer on the site (“A Progressive Perspective: Why Congress Should Approve the President’s Request to Punish the Use of Chemical Weapons”) that makes the standard case for enforcing the world’s—not Obama’s—red line on chemical warfare:

History will judge us harshly, if we stand by idly, and legitimate the use of chemical weapons — and weapons of mass destruction in general — by allowing their use in the view of the full world to go unpunished.

You can also find a piece featuring the views of uber-leftist Noam Chomsky (“Noam Chomsky: Syria Strike Would Be ‘War Crime'”) who, it seems to me, believes that nearly every American action abroad is criminal.

All of this, from the divisions on the right to the divisions on the left over what to do about Syria, demonstrates the utter preciousness of a free and democratic society. It also demonstrates that the upcoming vote in the House and Senate will be, or should be, a vote of conscience.

We have come to expect, because of the extremism of the Tea Party right, that those who don’t toe the ideological line of this or that group of conservative zealots will be punished in primary elections. This is generally what is wrong with the Republican Party at this moment in time, and I am sure the punishment strategy will be pursued relative to this vote, of conscience or lack thereof.

But let us hope that the left, those who are adamantly opposed to intervention in Syria, will not use this particular vote of conscience as a bludgeon to attack Democrats who disagree with them. There are good people and good arguments on both sides of this difficult issue (unlike, say, whether we should hurt American kids by cutting food stamps, health care funding, or teachers’ jobs).

As for me, I am for now with Senator Bernie Sanders—who, along with current Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, supported the Kosovo resolution in 1999—as reported by USA Today:

Sanders said Saturday that the use of chemical weapons in Syria “is inhumane and a violation of international law,” but he added “at this point in time, I need to hear more from the president as to why he believes it is in the best interests of the United States to intervene in Syria’s bloody and complicated civil war.”

I also need to hear more. But I don’t want to hear liberals and progressives, utilizing the strong-arm tactics of the right, attacking Democrats as they, presumably, use their best judgment in deciding whether the United States, who, no matter what anyone says, is the ultimate enforcer of international norms, should strike the thuggish regime in Syria that dared to openly and defiantly use chemical weapons on innocents.

We are, or should be, better than that.

16 Comments

  1. You have stated the issue well, Duane, although it is obvious. The extremists prefer polemics to analysis of the real issue, which is whether the U.S. can be sufficiently inspired by the indiscriminate deaths of 400 children to formally accept a role as world policeman for WMD’s. Despite the shrill cries of hawks, there is ample time for a thoughtful debate because the intent is not to alter the outcome of the Syrian civil war but to punish a grievous violation of an international standard.

    I believe it is not well understood by Congress, much less by their constituents, that we now have a weapon that makes such a role viable. The United States not only has the best cruise missiles in the world, but we possess technology that would degrade anyone else’s use of them, i.e., the GPS system. And, we have the best satellite-intelligence system in the world for targeting those missiles. This situation is unprecedented.

    The difficulty of getting a decision on this that is correct for the long pull is just that, people aren’t good at long-range planning. If they were, everybody’s IRA’s would be a lot fatter. When it comes to taking military action, politicians always hide behind the word “defense”, and for good reason. Nobody likes to think we would take the first swing in a fight but once in the fray it’s Katy bar the door. The Gulf of Tonkin comes to mind. An affirmative vote on the Red Line issue will have to overcome this.

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  2. Duane,

    What a conundrum. Obama paints himself into a corner with his very un-statesman like red-line challenge to Assad, the consequence of which is that Assad didn’t miss a beat in the use of chemical weapons. Now Obama has stupidly painted the entire corner and can’t get out of it without creating a mess. That is, he’s put himself in a position of losing the vote in Congress for authorization to strike and then having to decide whether or not to go rouge – against the wishes of the people’s representatives (though not necessarily against the wishes of the people themselves.)

    Yes, the world will judge us harshly. And that will be true regardless of the decision Obama makes. We’ll look weak and reticent and diminish our credibility if Obama backs down. We’ll look like the evil empire and the world’s bully if he strikes. Without international support, at least from our allies like the U.K., and/or a mandate from the U.N., an attack would likely provoke Assad into doubling down, killing even more people. (I’m pretty sure that by now his Sarin gas weaponry is well hidden and protected from missile strikes.)

    Of course, any unilateral military action we take against Syria would have the effect of declaring war on that country. Syria would be then be justified under international law to defend itself, like, taking Americans who are in-country, say reporters, and sending them to a Gitmo like prison – or just shooting them on the spot. And then there’s Israel. Always Israel.

    IMHO, it was President Obama who was ill advised on this issue and who then caved in to make a commitment the consequences of which are unknown and veey risky. He is weak. And try as he might, he just can’t get out of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

    Herb

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    • Herb,

      As you will see in the piece I posted today, I strongly disagree with you. Democracy is not weakness in this circumstance.While what Obama did, by bringing this to Congress, is risky, it remains true that if he succeeds, that will send a significantly stronger message to would-be international lawbreakers that chemical warfare is a no-no. If he doesn’t succeed, if isolationism wins the day, then the world has lost its moral compass, however imperfect it–we–have been throughout history.

      Duane

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  3. Jane Reaction

     /  September 3, 2013

    The intent is always to bolster Israel.
    It is shameful to watch Kerry triangulate among the dead.
    We are the warmongers, and our criminal actions have become commonplace.

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    • King Beauregard

       /  September 3, 2013

      Every single thing we do can be interpreted as support for Israel, but it doesn’t mean that everything actually reduces to support for Israel. If this is all about Israel, then why now, why this specific set of conditions?

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    • Sorry, Jane. Our history is dotted with horrific imperfections, but in this case, and all we are dealing with here is this case, we are not “warmongers.” Bashir al-Assad is the warmonger, the tyrant, the “criminal.”

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  4. Jane Reaction

     /  September 3, 2013

    KB: In this case, it is about a pipeline that Iran wants to run down through Iraq and to the coast of Syria. Primarily for EU consumption, the Russians and Chinese approve of it because it would help them with their own energy needs.

    We don’t want to let anybody deliver a capability to Iran because it also threatens Israel. While the Israelis are not the main act, there are very much in the show.

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    • King Beauregard

       /  September 3, 2013

      That’s what I mean about how everything CAN be interpreted in terms of relation to Israel, but personally, I think it’s got more to do with the poison gas.

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  5. I wish we hadn’t painted our selves into this corner. Maybe we had no choice.

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  6. We didn’t paint ourselves into a corner.

    We have always been in this corner, even though we couldn’t see it when we dealt with Native Americans, slaves, and other immigrants that came to America over the years, including the ones today.

    What makes weapons of mass destruction so frightening?

    They destroy everyone, soldiers, seniors, children, parents, doctors, nurses, – everyone. Human beings have been a society of warriors since societies began. That means it is OK for warriors to go fight each other.

    It is not OK for warriors to kill too many of the non-fighting populace – we need them to start over when the fighting is done, whoever wins. Even warriors need something to come back to, something to fight for.

    WMDs are so scary because they do not discriminate. They kill everyone. Even the drone issue has a strong element of the same scariness. Mass bombing has it, too, as does artillery, and any other indiscriminate weapon.

    As a species and as a nation, we have usually been OK with warrior-on-warrior fighting, but not so much when non-combatants were being killed indiscriminantly, especially if we could extrapolate those non-combatants to be us.

    We have always been in that corner, paint or no paint. President Obama is just expressing our human characteristic. I think we should applaud him for that.

    I also don’t give a fig for what other petty tyrants think of our action or inaction. They are petty tyrants because they don’t care what anyone else thinks. I believe they will only pay attention, real attention, when we are at their door, demanding accountability for their actions, whenever that happens.

    Is there any real difference between what Assad has purportedly done and what Hitler did? Pol Pot? Attila? Ghengis Khan? The list goes on.

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  7. ansonburlingame

     /  September 3, 2013

    Duane,

    I first repeat again how strongly I oppose any discussion over “what to do in Syria, now” that are based in any way on partisan politics, gaining an edge, politically. The extremes of both the right and left will do exactly that, but we the people, thinking people should be smarter than that.

    As well I do not agree that any individual vote by members of Congress should be a vote of “conscience”. But I define “conscience” carefully in saying so. My “conscience” tells me that dead kids is absolutely wrong, dispecable, etc. And therefore my “conscience” tells me PUNISHMENT to anyone that does so is called for. Therefore I vote to “punish Syria”.

    Far too superficial in my view as votes of conscience are most of the time. Very critical thinking, really long range analysis, considering very carefully what the unintended consequences might be, and for sure, a deep and careful vetting of ALL the intelligence available. In my blog I wrote of “rogue commanders” which are at least a possibility that must be considered, in my view. I also wrote of the need for some evidence to show this was not an inadvertant release of gas, by “somebody”. All I KNOW for sure, now is gas was in fact released and a helluva lot of people suffered and died as a result.

    In other words, each and every member of Congress should ask themselves “What would I do if I were President?” Then they should answer that question publicly and apolitically, meaning not demeaning others. Of course most members of Congress do not think or act that way. As well most members of Congress really don’t care “what the people think” to any great degree. At best they think in terms of “their people” the ones voting them into office in the first place. Can’t tick off that group, for sure.

    You are now seeing a divide, apolitically to a degree, just between Jim and Herb, above. Jim I suspect believes the President has made the correct choice(s) in this tortuous path and Herb thinks differently, without being anti-Obama (polemically). But watch Herb carefully as well. He does NOT like military force in almost any case(s).

    Now I will argue with Jim’s comments above, repeating what I have pointed out in my “military” blog (speaking from what I know about military capabilities). Syria is unlike ANY opponent that we have faced since WWII. It has a VERY robust and capable Air Defense system, far more advanced than anyone we have faced, even Vietnam, over the last 60 years.

    I suspect Syria HAS some capability to shoot down low flying (and slow, about 500 mph) cruise missiles. No they won’t get them all but a lot of them, maybe, long before such missiles reach targets. See my blog for more details.

    Another thought, also in my blog. Russia warships HAVE the ability to shoot down missiles, lots of missiles. “What if” the Russian warships now in the Med start shooting down our MISSILES (not at our ships), the ones enroute to Syria. Can they do that? You bet. Will they do that? I doubt it, but,again, what IF they do do IT. Wonder if that thought process has been debated, in the NCA or now in Congress? Wonder what Putin might be thinking along those lines, right now?

    As for stealth aircraft, my guess is Syria has almost the same defenses against such aircraft as does Russia today, FAR more than ever envisioned by Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. So sending in manned bombers, even stealth bombers must be VERY carefully considered. Actually I don’t think ANY manned aircraft are in the President’s or military’s current plans. It is ONLY cruise missiles and my be guess only about 200 or so of such weapons.

    Our country became angry(embarrassed?) when ONE drone was shot down by Iran of late (or did it crash?). Can you imagine the worldwide pictures if a B-2 bomber went down in Syria? OMG! May not happen, should not happen are not good answers to such a point, in my view. But then nothing in war is 100% either. My guess is some Air Force generals are worried about just such a matter, right now. Well WHY, General, I ask, are you “worried”? Fair question?

    But here is both my geopolitical and military question for all, for now. What, exactly, do we mean by saying “PUNISH Syria?” What will punishment look like AND will such punishment be effective? Ever spank your kid and HOPE he does not do it again?

    Before I would vote to endorse a strike, I would demand an answer to that question, a very clear and detailed answer. And if I had to get a security clearance, clear the room of everyone else to get such an answer, well so be it. After all it is now a very public issue to decide by 535 individuals, plus a President, particularly if Congress says NO , which I do not think they will do, vote NO as a Congressional majority. But in the House, who knows for sure. To me it is a “cake walk” in the Senate simply because most will simply want to “support the President” whether he is right or wrong in this public matter.

    Anson

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  8. 1. Most of the politics being played is coming from the far right of the Republican Party, so I don’t know what you are talking about. This post was specifically directed at my side, urging folks not to use this vote as a weapon against any member of Congress who disagreed with the extremists.

    2. “Vote of conscience” is simply a term of art to demonstrate that members are to follow their own reasoning and emotions on this particular vote, as opposed to having to toe the party line. There’s nothing “superficial” about it.

    3. I worry less about the defensive prowess of the Syrians as about their ability to make mischief with their stockpile of chemical weapons. I have faith that the gazillions we have spent on military readiness bought us something, particularly something capable of severely disrupting a petty tyrant’s personal military.

    4. If we are to significantly worry about Russia doing something if we act to do what we think is right and in our strategic interests, then we have taken a time machine back to the 1970s.

    5. Even though the administration has generally stayed away from “punishment” talk, I will accept your characterization and play along: we should damage Assad’s military defenses significantly and target other assets that pose a low risk for civilian damage (along with a strategy to ensure that the stockpile of chemical weapons can be protected, this being the biggest problem of all, it seems to me). As for the real details of what we will do, you can always call up the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and ask them if you can attend the classified briefing. Because that’s the only way you might, I said, might, get to see the details.

    Duane

     

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  9. ansonburlingame

     /  September 4, 2013

    Not bad, Duane, yours is a reasonable reply. I had been told by a friend that your retort was….. But it is not so, in my view.

    But let me make a couple of rejoiners. First you call for “something capable of severely disrupting a petty tyrant’s personal military.”

    I suggest you saw exactly that, in early 2003, BEFORE any “boots went on the ground” in Iraq. What we had THEN is very close to what we currently have, the ability to wag “shock and awe” from the air to achieve your stated goal. BUT America is not even close to calling for “shock and awe” against Syria today. Frankly I don’t think we CAN conduct such a campaign, against Syria today, for reasons stated in my blog.

    But let me make that point clear. We CAN conduct an overhwhelming airial bombardment of Syria in some places, BUT to do so we are going to incurr military losses, aricraft and men/women flying them such as never seen before, since WWII, even Vietnam, going up against a technically capable opponent such as we have not fought against in 60 years.

    The remainder of my comments will go on you recent blog wherein you now seem to take a position how you would vote as a member of Congress. I will offer my own thoughts after reading the blog. I am sure, however, that my “vote” will differ at least right now but with more, hopefully to be revealed.

    Anson

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