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.
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.
I will use my reply to Jim as a statement on my position on what the U.S. should do relative to the use of chemical weapons in Syria:
As I have previously stated, and despite what Secretary of State John Kerry said today before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the United States is, if there is ever to be one, the world’s policeman. There simply isn’t another nation in the world capable of enforcing the norms (and laws) against using chemical weapons and having the moral chops to pull it off.
Oh, I realize a lot of liberals are making the point that our past is replete with moral failings on the international scene, but that, in and of itself, is not relevant to the current situation. Sure, we have skeletons in our foreign policy closet. But those skeletons have nothing to tell us about what we should do now, here in the present, as we contemplate the horror of how innocent people, women and children among them, died unspeakable deaths.
One of the best books I have read in the past few years is “Stumbling on Happiness,” by Daniel Gilbert, a social psychologist from Harvard. The essential point of the book is that we, as human beings, don’t anticipate very well what the future will look like, which, of course, is often an obstacle to our “happiness.” We often assume the future will look a lot like the present, which almost never turns out that way, and we base our contemporary decisions on that faulty outlook.
Keeping that in mind, as I carefully watched the interaction today among Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee and John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and General Martin Dempsey, I was oddly struck by how much this issue of whether to attack Assad hinges on what may, or may not, happen in the future. I say “oddly struck” because I had raised the issue myself, in my first post on the subject.
My first concern had been whether Assad or his regime was the actual perpetrator of this horrendous act. I am now convinced he, or someone representing him, is guilty of the unspeakable crime of using chemical weapons against Syrian citizens. Given the reputation for military reluctance that John Kerry has enjoyed, the fact that he would sit there today and use “beyond a reasonable doubt” to characterize the evidence supporting Assad’s guilt is, well, quite persuasive.
But I also needed, as part of my quest for decisive information, for the President to explain what the consequences of any U.S. action might be and what the subsequent U.S. response might entail if things escalated. I didn’t quite get the decisive information I was looking for, but after being unsure for so long, I was finally convinced to support President Obama and his request to strike the Syrian regime because of a logical conclusion I was forced to accept: John Kerry is right that inaction holds more potential future danger than action.
Don’t get me wrong here. Kerry was mistaken to insist that he could definitely say what the consequences of inaction would be. At various times he asserted that he knew with certainty that Assad would use chemical weapons again, should the U.S do nothing. To a boyish Rand Paul he said:
If the United States of America doesn’t hold him accountable on this, with our allies and friends, it’s a guarantee Assad will do it again. A guarantee. And I urge you to go to the classified briefing and learn that.
Guarantee? It’s hard to imagine what may be in that classified briefing that would guarantee anything, much less whether a despot will again do something that has brought him so much negative world attention. But this lowly blogger will never see those briefings.
In any case, as I thought about it all, as I pondered the potential downside if nothing is done to Assad, the potential for unintended international mischief seems to be greater, seems to be much greater, if we look the other way—as we have before—and tolerate the tactical and open use of chemical warfare.
From North Korea, a nation that itself has a large stockpile of chemical weapons, to Iran, seeking nuclear weapon capability, to even Assad himself again using the weapons on his citizenry, it appears quite likely to me that more would be risked—more aggressive behavior by the bad guys—by not acting than inflicting some substantial damage on the despot in Syria and awaiting what, if anything, happens in the region as a result of such action.
I say that, of course, again mindful that a lowly blogger in Missouri is not privy to classified information, which, as far as I am able to surmise from oblique references to it, would only bolster the case for doing something rather than nothing.
I also draw this conclusion mindful of objections raised by many, primarily on the right, that Obama has demonstrated to our enemies that he is a weak leader, that he has made tactical mistakes, that he has no coherent regional strategy. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Seeking democratic authorization, for an American, is not a weakness but a strength. Likewise, the so-called mistake of publicly drawing the “red line” was nothing but an affirmation of what Congress, and the various nations of the world, had already done. The world drew that line and painted it red long before anyone had ever heard of Barack Obama.
And as far as a regional strategy, as far as a coherent plan to deal with disparate countries like Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Israel, forget it. The only coherent policy, despite what the geniuses at the Council on Foreign Relations, especially the group’s president Richard Haass, have to say about it as they criticize Obama’s handling of Syria, is to evaluate things on a case-by-case basis. There is no one-size-fits-all foreign policy for a region as screwed up as North Africa and the Middle East. If Richard Haass thinks he has one, or can invent one, he is as delusional as the architects of the Iraq war, whom he now attacks.
Speaking of President Obama and his handling of this mess, some critics, including Haass, object that he should not have brought this issue before Congress for several reasons, among them that if Congress refuses to authorize action, or if it too tightly ties the President’s hands, then that will ruin our international credibility; we will be an unreliable actor and other countries will lose confidence in us. Nonsense. In a perfect world, our credibility would be based on a combination of our military might and our willingness to use it in conjunction with our moral might. But the truth is that our credibility is always only as good as our next act. What have you done for me lately? is the question of the day, every day, in both domestic and foreign policy. This president has eliminated Osama bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi, he has utterly decimated al-Qaeda leadership, but now we are told that he has squandered U.S. credibility by looking feckless and not decisively acting on his own. Ridiculous.
Additionally, as the President said, this is not Iraq or Afghanistan. This is not any other situation in history. This is Syria. This is sectarian and tribal madness. This is religion gone wild. This is chemical combat. And upon it all has to shine—has to shine—the light of civilization. Thus, this is a defining moment for America, the only true enforcer of international law, the keeper of the flame of a progressive world civilization. We will leave our footprint on the right side of history or retreat into isolation. It is unarguable that we have done things in our past that have not advanced the cause of civilization, that in fact have set it back. But those things, those unconscionable mistakes, should not blind us to our duty now, at this moment, to do what is right when so much seems to be at stake.
Again, I am mindful that Syria’s problems are significantly rooted in religious nonsense and thus wearily intractable. That there are regional problems that ten thousand cruise missiles won’t begin to solve. That there remains a lot of unknowns, in terms of what may happen after a strike on Syria by the United States, and that, admittedly, the hypothetical outcomes if we don’t act may be exaggerated. It may be true that nothing of consequence will materialize whether we act or whether we don’t.
Most understandable, I am mindful that Americans are tired of war and war-talk. They should be. Thousands of lives, perhaps tens of thousands of limbs, and trillions of dollars from the national treasury have been invested in what now seem to be mistaken attempts to right the world with warfare after 9/11. I don’t blame folks for embracing skepticism toward American action against a worthless Syrian tyrant in a place far away from, say, Joplin, Missouri.
But as you pointed out, Jim, times and weaponry have changed. You said that in terms of our military technology, “This situation is unprecedented.” Indeed it is. Although what the President and Congress are contemplating is an act of war, it is not, as John Kerry pointed out today, war in the “classical sense.” As far as I’m concerned, this is truly a police action, even though the Administration refuses to technically characterize it that way and argues, plausibly, that there are national security issues involved that justify our explosive response.
I, though, was persuaded today by what I heard, which can be neatly summed up in words from John Kerry’s initial statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:
So this is a vote for accountability. Norms and laws that keep the civilized world civil mean nothing if they’re not enforced. As Justice Jackson said in his opening argument at the Nuremberg trials, “the ultimate step in avoiding periodic wars, which are inevitable in a system of international lawlessness, is to make statesmen responsible to the law.”
If the world’s worst despots see that they can flout with impunity prohibitions against the world’s worst weapons, then those prohibitions are just pieces of paper. That is what we mean by accountability and that is what we mean by, “We cannot be silent.”
Finally, in Dreams from My Father, a pre-presidential Barack Obama told us that the law is more than “a sort of glorified accounting that serves to regulate the affairs of those who have power.” He asserted:
The law is also memory; the law also records a long-running conversation, a nation arguing with its conscience.
As far as chemical weapons, that “long-running legal conversation” began in 1925 with the Geneva Protocol. And it’s not only our nation that is “arguing with its conscience,” but the whole world. Given that, no one can deny that if our national conscience loses this present argument, if we fail to enforce the law against chemical warfare, then the world’s conscience will lose too.