Many thoughtful responses to yesterday’s post, for which I am grateful and which I have condensed here. My “answer” to most of them is largely to say, well, when I listen to the Kerry and Obama clips linked to yesterday, I come to a different conclusion . . . though, as a result of your input, with more qualms than before. (Anyone without qualms in this situation sees the world too simply. Here are columnist Matt Miller’s six qualms that leave him unsure which way to go. Well worth the quick read.)
But in addition to referring you back to the case made by the Administration, I’ve interjected a few thoughts of my own:
Paul F. deLespinasse: “What good would it do us, or the people of Syria, if the U.S. engages in a ‘limited’ strike by cruise missiles? [THE WORLD, OF WHICH WE AND THE SYRIANS ARE A PART, WOULD BE BETTER OFF IF THE INTERNATIONAL BAN ON THE USE OF CHEMICAL WEAPONS WERE ENFORCED, DISCOURAGING THEIR FUTURE USE.] . . . If Congress understands America’s true interests, it will not support President Obama’s desire to bomb Syria. But in any event, Obama—for whom I do not regret voting even though he has made mistakes—should be commended for recognizing his constitutional duty to get Congressional authorization before engaging in acts of war where no emergency requires immediate action.”
Lee Salomon: “Is the President simply proposing punishment for unacceptable behavior [YES, I THINK HE HAS MADE THAT CLEAR], or are we throwing our weight on to one side? Sen. McCain suggests his support for the President’s proposals only if they serve to tip the balance to the other side. But, what will be the result? Can the “opposition” actually form a functioning alternative government? There is no organized ‘other side’. Will Syria become Somalia? These are uncomfortable questions which the Administration is not addressing. It is avoiding these questions by suggesting that they don’t require answers since we aren’t going to be in Syria with ‘feet on the ground’, nor will we be there very long. Can anyone with the slightest knowledge of our military history believe this? I think, Andrew, that your Democratic Party loyalties have gotten the best of your caution. Or, to put it another way, if this enterprise were a business, would you buy its stock? [IT’S MOOT, BECAUSE ALL MY CASH IS IN BOREALIS. BUT JOHN BOEHNER — NO DEMOCRAT — HAS.]”
Russell Turpin: “Why not strike Syria? Because the argument ‘to punish Assad’ is inadequate. Showing that Assad has used chemical weapons begins the case for military action, but doesn’t finish it. What practical purpose will the military action accomplish? Regime change? No, that’s not suggested. Swaying the course of the civil war? No, it’s not even clear that’s wanted. Then, what? Is it simply a slap on Assad’s wrist? That’s not worth the lives of the people who will die. Just as dead as those who were killed in that chemical attack. But this time, by our hands. [BUT WHAT IF THE GOAL IS TO LET THE ENTIRE WORLD — NOT JUST ASSAD — KNOW THAT CHEMICAL WARFARE, HAVING BEEN PROSCRIBED BY LONGSTANDING INTERNATIONAL AGREEMENT, WILL NOT BE TOLERATED?]”
Doug Mohn: “I’m still listening and am undecided. I believed Colin Powell last time and am not so trusting this time. [BUT WE KNOW BUSH WAS LOOKING FOR AN EXCUSE TO INVADE OIL-RICH IRAQ LONG BEFORE 9/11 AND THAT TREMENDOUS PRESSURE WAS PUT ON THE INTELLIGENCE COMMUNITY TO COME UP WITH A RATIONALE. THAT SEEMS VERY DIFFERENT FROM THE CURRENT SITUATION, NOT LEAST BECAUSE AN INVASION IS CATEGORICALLY RUED OUT.] Here is a point-by-point rebuttal of the case for military action. [THE FIRST “POINT” IS THAT IT MAY HAVE BEEN AS FEW AS 100 CHILDREN HIDEOUSLY GASSED TO DEATH, NOT 426. SO . . . WHAT? EVEN IF TRUE, HOW DOES THAT CHANGE THINGS? I DID NOT FIND THE POINTS IN THIS LINK SUFFICIENTLY PERSUASIVE.]”
Michael M: “I didn’t watch the speeches. Yes, chemical weapons are terrible, but it’s not our fight. [WATCH THE SPEECHES. KERRY AND OBAMA ARE NOT UNTHOUGHTFUL, UNINTELLIGENT MEN. THEY HAVE LISTENED HARD TO EVERY POINT OF VIEW; PERHAPS YOU SHOULD TAKE THE TIME TO CONSIDER THEIR CONCLUISION BEFORE REACHING YOUR OWN.]”
David: “You say: ‘I can’t see how anyone could listen to both John Kerry’s presentation and then the President’s and fail to agree with his decision to impose consequences on Syria.’ Noam Chomsky disagrees because the US is obligated by international agreements to get the agreement of the UN, which it has not done. [THIS ONE DOES GIVE ME PAUSE; BUT IT WOULD MEAN THAT ANY ONE MEMBER OF THE UN SECURITY COUNCIL COULD IN EFFECT NULLIFY A NEARLY CENTURY-OLD GLOBAL TREATY. I THINK IT’S REASONABLE TO GIVE THAT TREATY MORE WEIGHT THAN WE GIVE THE WILL OF VLADIMIR PUTIN.]”
Richard: “Why is it worse to kill people with gas than with bombs or guns? Why is it ok to kill children with drones while aiming at suspected terrorists? How about landmines – the US refuses to sign on to a ban? Genocide in Rwanda? Any number of other mass causes of death that have done and are doing much more harm? It’s quite possible the increases in refuges from fear of US bombings will result in more harm than are alleged by chemical weapons. The moral compass is a bit too selective for my taste. [WE HAVE NOT ALWAYS MADE THE RIGHT CALLS — PRESIDENT CLINTON COUNTS OUR INACTION IN RWANDA AS ONE OF THE KEY SHORT-COMINGS OF HIS ADMINISTRATION. AND I DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT THE LAND MINE TREATY, BUT NOTE THAT CHINA, RUSSIA, INDIA AND PAKISTAN ARE AMONG THE COUNTRIES THAT ALSO HAVE NOT SIGNED ON. MAYBE WE SHOULD SIGN ON ANYWAY — IT IS FOR SURE WORTH PERIODIC REVIEW. BUT IN THE CASE OF THE CHEMICAL WEAPONS TREATY — WHAT WE’RE ADDRESSING HERE — VERY FEW NATIONS HAVE FAILED TO SIGN.”
Matt Wilbert: “I’m afraid I am one of the people who does not agree with you, the Secretary of State, or the President on this issue. I support the Administration on most issues, and the GOP on basically none, but the case for striking Syria is so remarkably weak that it is surprising to me that the President even proposed it. Here are a few objections. 1) The logic is bad. Yes, we all agree that countries shouldn’t gas their own people (or anyone else for that matter.) But just because something is widely considered reprehensible doesn’t mean the answer is military force. But the argument seems to be that if we don’t attack Syria, we are letting their actions go unpunished. Are there no sanctions against Syria? Is Syria not a pariah among nations? There are punishments other than modest cruise missile attacks. 2) The justification is insufficient. International law doesn’t permit countries to launch attacks against a country to enforce the protocols against the use of chemical weapons, if those conventions even apply to domestic use. The Security Council could authorize some kind of action, but it won’t. That could be written off as Russia protecting an ally, but there is little international support for this kind of action even within western democracies. I can understand when people think that a particular situation trumps normal legalities, but in this case the US is trying to reinforce international “norms” by violating international law. That seems self-defeating. 3) The proposed measures are inadequate. Yes, we could undoubtedly cause lots of damage to things in Syria if we wanted, but no one has explained how military action with no actual ground presence could possibly protect civilians from chemical weapons. No doubt we could protect them by invading the country and removing the current government, but no one wants to do that for obvious reasons. In fact, most people, including the Administration, are at pains to explain how limited the strikes will be, and how little danger they will pose to any American. Unfortunately, this means they will also pose remarkably little danger to the Syrian government. 4) It isn’t in the US national interest. It simply doesn’t matter to the US what happens in Syria. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a humanitarian interest, nor that we shouldn’t try to bring an end to the conflict, nor help the refugees or the countries hosting them, but the US doesn’t have a vital interest in the outcome of the conflict and the argument that we have a vital interest in maintaining a prohibition against the use of chemical weapons simply isn’t credible. We have not responded to chemical weapons use at various times in the past, nor even to arguably more important norms like the prohibition of genocide. 5) Bombing is always a questionable approach to helping the people of a country. First, it tends to kill a lot of those people. Second, it probably won’t succeed in replacing the government. Third, if it does manage to cause or support of change of government, very often the new government isn’t much of an improvement. Anyway — and in sum — I think this is one time when the President has made a significant error in judgment, and I am hoping that Congress, either through wisdom or dysfunction, rejects his request for support of this folly. [THIS IS AN AWFULLY THOUGHTFUL EXPOSITION. ONE PIECE IT DOES NOT ADDRESS, HOWEVER, IS WHETHER — HAVING TRIED TO DISCOURAGE THE USE OF CHEMICAL WEAPONS (SURELY A WORTHY GOAL!) BY DRAWING A ‘RED LINE” (EVEN IF YOU ARGUE THAT IT WAS AN INADVISABLE MEANS OF REACHING THAT GOAL) — WE NOW JUST SAY OUR RED LINES ARE NOT TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY. DOES THAT ALONE HAVE POTENTIAL COSTS? MIGHT THEY OUTWEIGH THE POTENTIAL COSTS OF THE LIMITED CRUISE MISSILE STRIKE?]”
Sue Hoell: “Really? You really want me to share my thoughts? (1) President Obama has been talking about taking out Assad for the past two years. It seems like the sarin gas accusation is a flimsy excuse to do what he has been clamoring to do for two years. (2) Why has Obama been so eager to take out Assad? Because Assad and Iran are allies and Western petroleum companies are chomping at the bit to take control of Iranian oil and adjacent shipping lanes? (3) There is no proof that it was Assad who used the sarin gas rather than the US-armed and trained mercenaries, Israel, Saudi or Qatar agents. (4) Assad has no reason to gas his own people. He has plenty of reason to gas mercenaries armed by the West to overthrow his government and kill Syrians. Why shouldn’t he use all weapons he has at his disposal to stop the mercenaries from continuing to create havoc?
(5) Why is it so unthinkable for sarin gas to be used in Syria, when it was OK for the US to drop Napalm and White Phosphorus on people in Viet Nam and to overlook Saddam gassing Iranians and Kurds during the Iran-Iraq war? (6) Why is it OK for the US to police the rest of the world but decline to provide needed infrastructure, pharmaceuticals, food, housing, to the rest of the world? Because killing people is easy. Caring for people is much more challenging.”
Vote Vets‘ Jon Stolz (writing to his list): “After careful consideration and an overwhelming response from tens of thousands of veterans, military family members and supporters, we have come to the difficult conclusion that VoteVets cannot support military intervention in Syria. There is no doubt that the use of chemical weapons in Syria is a horrific tragedy, and very likely a war crime. But if our goal is to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons cache, then missile strikes, alone, won’t achieve that goal. And If the goal is to give Assad a deterrent against using them again, missile strikes don’t achieve that, either. . . . Above all else, we must not ignore the warning of our senior military leaders, like we did in the lead up to the Iraq War. In a letter to Congress several weeks ago Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey’s words speak for themselves. ‘We can destroy the Syrian air force,’ he said. ‘The loss of Assad’s air force would negate his ability to attack opposition forces from the air, but it would also escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict. Stated another way, it would not be militarily decisive, but it would commit us decisively to the conflict…'”
The world is a desperately challenging place. The fact that we have made terrible errors in judgment in the past (among them, I would argue Vietnam and Iraq) does not mean we should fail to face each new decision — even the really difficult ones — on its own merits. Or that we should withdraw from the world. John McCain would have had us take far more action (did you see Rachel Maddow’s map last night showing all the places he’s advocated military engagement?); some argue we should be taking none. In so many of these things, given the evil and chaos and self-interest in the world, there is no good choice, only the least bad choice.
(Noah Stern passed on to me Matthew Yglesias’s excellent “The Case for Doing Nothing” in Slate calling out this notion. ” … we can brush [our concerns] under the table with the thought that there are no good options, which makes it OK to endorse some shoddy ones. Except, in this case, it’s total nonsense. Obama has an excellent option. It’s called ‘don’t bomb Syria.'” But even if you come out where he does, I think it’s fair to criticize his argument for giving insufficient weight to the downside of doing nothing. And to this question of whether we must all agree that one man — Putin, in this case — has the moral authority to override enforcement of a long-established global treaty.)
Having thought some more about this, thanks to the responses above and others that were similar, I’m still with the President and Secretary of State (and Boehner and Pelosi and France). But so long as anyone chiming in has taken the time to hear out the Secretary of State and then the President, I totally respect their coming to a different conclusion. Meanwhile, if the President, hearing all this debate (as it will be expressed in Congress), encounters new facts or arguments that change his mind, that’s fine with me, too — though I’m certain he and his team have already thought very long and hard about the least bad course to take.
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