With opposition to any use of military force in Syria growing here in the U.S. on a near-hourly basis, President Obama has announced he will address the nation on Tuesday.
I've preferred to stay quiet about Syria up to this point partly because I'm deeply conflicted about it, and partly because I wanted to listen to other people on all sides of the issue before making a judgment. For me, this is not a partisan thing. This is an American thing. It's something that shouldn't be subject to right or left but based on facts.
I am convinced that the President has evidence that Syria has used chemical weapons more than once and that they have escalated the attacks. I am equally convinced that his request to use military strikes is rooted in his long-standing commitment to non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, land mines, and chemical weapons.
In that sense, this is very different from Iraq, if for no other reason than that the president and his advisors surely understand their burden of proof is heavier because of the lies told twelve years ago by Bush, Cheney, et al.
Why not diplomacy?
Even so, I am not convinced that it makes any sense at all to use missiles and airstrikes to "send a message." In fact, I am, at this time, solidly against the use of force. At the same time, I'm not seeing much fruit from diplomatic efforts either.
Samantha Power outlined what the United States has done at the United Nations in a speech at the Center for American Progress, and it's not very optimistic. As long as Russia and China obstruct, the UN Security Council remains stymied. To review, here is what has taken place on that front:
Since 2011, Russia and China have vetoed three separate Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian regime’s violence or promoting a political solution to the conflict. This year alone, Russia has blocked at least three statements expressing humanitarian concern and calling for humanitarian access to besieged cities in Syria. And in the past two months, Russia has blocked two resolutions condemning the generic use of chemical weapons and two press statements expressing concern about their use. We believe that more than 1,400 people were killed in Damascus on August 21, and the Security Council could not even agree to put out a press statement expressing its disapproval.
The international system that was founded in 1945 —a system we designed specifically to respond to the kinds of horrors we saw play out in World War II—has not lived up to its promise or its responsibilities in the case of Syria. And it is naive to think that Russia is on the verge of changing its position and allowing the UN Security Council to assume its rightful role as the enforcer of international peace and security. In short, the Security Council the world needs to deal with this urgent crisis is not the Security Council we have.
Many Americans recognize that, while we were right to seek to work through the Security Council, it is clear that Syria is one of those occasions – like Kosovo – when the Council is so paralyzed that countries have to act outside it if they are to prevent the flouting of international laws and norms. But these same people still reasonably ask: Beyond the Security Council, what support does the United States have in holding Assad accountable?
No United Nations support, then. All right, what about NATO?
NATO Chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen agreed that evidence shows chemical weapons were used, and that the Assad regime was responsible. However, he also said it was up to individual countries to respond. In other words, no coordinated NATO response and no diplomatic pressure created by a collective group of nations jumping into the fray.
Diplomatic pressure isn't working. Still, there are five areas that the president will need to address before I would reconsider what is a pretty firm stance in opposition to bombing Syria.
- Israeli use of phosphorous - If the president is as committed to eradicating and eliminating the use chemical weapons as he says he is, then I think it will be incumbent upon him to straight up own the Administration's blind eye to Israel's use of white phosphorous in 2008 and 2009. He will need to say that Syria is a time to recommit to the international norms, whether one is friend or foe, and he should call out Israel specifically for their use of such atrocities against Palestinians. While it's true that they are no longer using it and that is the ultimate stated goal with Syria, it is also true that there wasn't any official United States condemnation, at least, not in public. There should be.
- Explain why US intervention wouldn't destabilize the region further - I have seen no evidence now, or in recent history, suggesting that limited airstrikes could somehow be carried out without further destabilization and harm done to those already suffering under Assad's monstrous iron hand. It's safe to assume that the use of force would do harm to civilians and equally safe to assume that Assad would respond with even more vicious retaliation, particularly against the very, very small slice of Syrian rebels that may not be extremists. Why does the president and his national security team think this wouldn't push rebels into more radical arms than they are now?
- Explain why we can't put more pressure on Russia and China - It seems to me that if Russia and China are the primary proxies in this particular conflict, they should be held to account in the court of public opinion as complicit in Assad's chemical weapons use. That hasn't happened, and it should.
- Abandon the Domino Theory nonsense - The very, very worst argument John Kerry has used this week is the Domino Theory. He claims that failure to act will rain down more despicable acts not only from Assad, but from terrorists and other bad actors in the region. This argument doesn't wash with me. We've heard it going back to Viet Nam, only to discover later that it was just used to justify our aggression against another nation and our involvement in another regional conflict where corporate interests had more at stake than we, the people, ever did. As soon as I hear that argument I want to scream in frustration and just say no. There is either a case to make for force on its merits or there isn't. But hanging some amorphous future threat in front of us and using the fear card will not have a positive effect on me, and I suspect many others.
- Acknowledge the role that climate change has had in bringing about this disaster. The conflict in Syria arose out of the Arab spring, and the real desire on the part of many to live in a place with some opportunity instead of constant famine, need and want. Syria's drought led to crop failures and food insecurity, ultimately driving many from rural areas into the cities. This ThinkProgress report explains how climate change has contributed to the unrest and rebellion in Syria. In August of this year, Syria sought a way to tap into accounts frozen to purchase wheat to replenish its stores. Those accounts are frozen because of American trade sanctions imposed in response to the deepening crisis there. That humanitarian crisis is deeper than the one generated by Assad's use of chemical weapons, which begs the question of why we wouldn't concentrate more resources into getting food to people rather than raining bombs on them.
Those are my top issues. I have others, but these are the dominant ones. So far, the Administration has convinced me chemical weapons were used. They have not convinced me that their proposed response is the appropriate one. If President Obama cannot address these issues in a straightforward manner in his address, then he should not expect to garner support for what most of us view as a flight into folly and even more suffering.