09.08.13 Against a US strike on Syria, with misgivings

I have been tearing myself to shreds over this one. As recently as last week, I supported a military strike because chemical weapons use is so horrific. A discussion with my remarkable colleagues at Freedom House* (at all levels of the organization) has caused me to refocus on outcomes, rather than punishment. I now oppose a US military strike on Syria. If there were more domestic and/or international support and if there were any reasonable means to predict what our action would do for/to innocent civilians (short-term and long term), I would feel differently. Regardless, I hold my position with misgivings: I believe that acting  and not acting will both produce catastrophic results. I have merely concluded that the catastrophe produced by action would likely be greater than that produced by inaction. Following is my rationale.

Act only if you can act well, components of which are:

  • Acting morally (including seeking best outcomes for victims and innocents, both in the short and long term)
  • Acting competently, which includes
    • Gathering full and balanced knowledge
    • Challenging assumptions
    • Rejecting unsupported ideology
    • Defining objectives
    • Considering alternatives
    • Planning for contingencies, including worst-case scenarios
    • Performing cost benefit analysis that is as holistic (not financial), long-term, and objective as possible
    • Garnering sufficient support: acting solo decreases the probability of desirable outcomes, because one is deprived of allied resources (intellectual, diplomatic, economic, military), reducing ability to ride out short-term setbacks in the effort. It is not necessary to have both overwhelming international and domestic support, but some combination of both is a must.
    • Getting desirable results (I.e., the ultimate measure of whether one has acted well is in the accomplishment of desired objectives)
  • If “responsibility to protect” exists (and I believe it does), previous behavior of an actor willing and able to take action against evil should be irrelevant: the point is to stop evil in that moment. That is, even if the US has been a perpetrator of evil (e.g., selling chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein and turning a blind eye to use of them), it should still be called upon to do good, when it can.  (In fact, though, past behavior — and experience — have profound impacts on the actor’s ability to gather necessary support for the effort. In this case, Bush’s unjustified war on Iraq has almost completely destroyed US ability to put together an international coalition to support its policy and to persuade a justifiably weary and skeptical public at home).
  • If responsibility to protect exists, it must be allowed to trump international law, in specific instances (ie, international law is a means to and end, not an immutable good, in and of itself). Falling back on “we can’t stop evil without UN authorization” allows evil states on the UN Security Council to veto acts of good.
  • Every case is unique, including the era and context in which it appears: inability to intervene everywhere must not negate the possibility of intervening anywhere — consistency is not a reasonable aim of national policy
  • Chemical weapons are abhorrent, but pale in relation to overall civilian suffering (a reverse of my position even a few days ago)
  • Fighting for pride is absurd
  • Credibility is important, but only a means to a (hopefully moral) end, not a goal to be pursued for it’s own sake: having drawn a red line is not sufficient reason for war
  • Inflicting punishment is insufficient justification for war, by itself: a war must be likely to produce better (hopefully moral) results than any other alternative
  • Using too little power may produce worse outcomes than using a whole lot more — or none at all
  • US intelligence is to be taken with a grain of salt, but widespread agreement with US intelligence increases its credibility. Even as I remember being duped by Bush/neocon propaganda in 2003 (I ended up opposing the war, just the same), I have little doubt that Assad is responsible for the gas attack, since most credible international actors agree with the US assessment on this.
  • The ability of this administration and Congress to act competently is to be doubted. I see no evidence of strategic thinking or what-next planning.

In the current case, recent US history has made it impossible for the country to garner significant support for war, domestically or internationally. The US would be nearly alone internationally and the president would be severely isolated domestically, both of which bode ill for positive outcomes. (As soon as something goes wrong following a US strike, Obama will be instantly abandoned by Republicans and Democrats alike. That is, even to the extent the administration has thought through what-ifs and next steps, it will not have any support for carrying them out.)

Also, the results of any particular action or inaction taken in Syria are impossible to foresee, which — in turn — makes costs and benefits incalculable.

Chemical weapons use must be deterred. Slaughters of civilians must to stopped. But one cannot intervene everywhere, every time. This time is not right. The situation is too fraught. The odds of producing worse outcomes are too high.

That having been said, if the US chooses to strike, may that strike be powerful enough to make a difference: a weak effort will demonstrate — by its very nature — a lack of any purpose beyond punishment, pride, and pursuit of credibility for its own sake.

If the US does not strike militarily, it may not morally turn a blind eye to the carnage in Syria. It must engage in concerted efforts to arm and train the “good” rebels (to the extent it can distinguish them), with as many international allies as it can gather.

Attack or not, Syria is the defining — and probably fatal — moment for Obama’s presidency. That is, sadly, of his own making.

*I am relieved that Freedom House will not be making an official statement on this issue. While the organization is on record in support of democratically inclined rebels in Syria, urging for or against a military strike is tangential to the organization’s human rights mission.

©2013 Keith Berner

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2 Comments on “09.08.13 Against a US strike on Syria, with misgivings”

  1. Jay Rosenthal Says:

    Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people – and many other acts he has perpetrated before and during this civil war – are not just abhorrent acts – they are crimes against humanity – and arguably, acts of genocide.

    the US and the rest of the world is obligated under international human rights law to recognize the crime and to exact punishment. We do not have a choice – we have an obligation – when has human rights law become optional?

    And from a historic perspective, this is not Irag – this is Kosovo (when the West did act and now Milosovic has been indicted in the Hague). Failure to act will liken to the Spanish Civil War (when the US decided not to act against Franco – and at the same time throwing the Lincoln Brigade under the bus). Obama is right when he says the line has been set before – because international law compels us to act – Assad has crossed that line – of course, unless we ignore international law – and by doing that, we effectively repeal international law prohibiting the use of chemical weapons.

    And to argue that this attack might make things worse, is really turning a blind eye to the facts on the ground – reality is that limited attacks will not make it much worse – but it might tip the balance more in favor of the rebels – especially if the Syrian air force is debilitated.

    but inaction on our part will no doubt make it worse because the crimes of Assad will only multiple because they seem to work – he uses terror and crimes against humanity against his own people and no country does anything about it – he actually could adopt a much more brutal approach – as did Franco in Spain – because he sees no downside – only an upside – and a way to survive. Failure to act will ensure Assad’s continued existence as a leader of his country – acting actually might bring his reign to an end – as it did in Serbia and Libya.

    Intervention on human rights grounds – essentially to stop acts of genocide and crimes against humanity – should be the only reason for intervening in a civil war – we are as a country and a world committed in principle to ending genocide as a viable strategy of a government and to punishing crimes against humanity whenever and wherever they are committed. If the US uses chemical weapons we should be brought in front of the criminal court in the Hague – just like Milosovic. We don’t want this to be Rwanda, where we failed to act – and it became our biggest failure perhaps ever in trying to eradicate genocide as a crime.

    I see an analogy to the Treyvon Martin case – in that case, the ill informed jury did not see a crime deserving punishment. And now Congress – and unbelievably progressives – are arguing in favor of inaction in the face of genocidal acts. They are viewing a crime of immense proportion – with the law behind them to act – and they are not seeing a crime worthy of punishment.

    The progressives who fought against Franco in the Liberty Brigade would really not believe that a progressive platform in the 21st century would advocate inaction when there is a chance to attack those directly responsible for the international crime. The similarities to the Spanish Civil War are beyond compelling. What do you think Pablo Picasso was trying to convey with his masterpiece Guernica? It was the indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations and the worlds indifference to that crime. We are now reliving the Spanish Civil War – even with Kosovo as a roadmap to justice.

    And the UN appears to be the worst place to play this out – Russia is directly implicated in the crimes – how can the criminal be in the room as the judge and jury. It is incredibly disheartening, but the UN has proved to be useless in this context.

    We should provide weapons to the opposition, but we should also punish the criminals – otherwise, human rights law prohibiting crimes against humanity are worthless – and i don’t believe they are.

    The chemical attack crossed a line where international or unilateral action is mandated by any country adhering to the chemical weapons international ban. Failure to press punishment for these crimes against humanity will most likely end in a negotiated settlement with Assad or Assad running off to some island to sit on the beach alongside Papa Doc’s relatives. All of this while, Milosovic is on trial in the Hague. I want Assad on trial in the Hague. Failure to attack directly those divisions of Assad’s army responsible for this will set back the development of international human rights law by a 100 years. And will legalize and legitimize chemical warfare as an actual option that countries – especially those in Civil Wars – will be allowed to take without violating international law. Its that serious. So I respectfully disagree with your point of view.


    • Keith Berner Says:

      Jay, thanks for your impassioned argument. This entire mess is so morally and practically complex, that I agree with an overwhelming proportion of what you’ve written, even though I have reached a different conclusion. As I mention, until a few days ago, nearly the only thing that mattered to me was punishment for chemical weapons use. I feel sickened by my own support for inaction at this time — Assad deserves to be punished and the world ought not ever turn a blind eye to acts like his. But (as I have written) I also believe we are obligated to pursue a course of least harm.

      A few responses to your piece:

      You write “the US and the rest of the world is obligated under international human rights law to recognize the crime and to exact punishment.” In fact, international law is both contradictory and in flux on this issue. Some things to consider:
      –Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, making it unclear whether it can legally be punished for not abiding by it.
      –The US is not a participant in the International Criminal Court (the Hague), meaning that the US has no right to bring another party before that court.
      –A responsibility to protect (under which military action to prevent/respond to atrocities would be justified even in the absence of self-defense or UN authorization) is a very recent concept. Though liberals worldwide are increasingly accepting of it (including me), it is hardly a matter of settled international law.

      I also don’t believe that international law should stand in the way of doing the right and necessary thing. I believe in the duty of individuals and states to use whatever means are necessary to stop evil, but there must (in my mind) be reasonable hope that the means they intend to use are themselves likely to produce more good than harm. I simply don’t believe that Obama’s “shot across the bow” is likely to do that.

      One of my brilliant colleagues said the other day — in agreement with your view: “Syria will be this generation’s Rwanda.” I agree with her and you, but can no longer get from there to the military action that this administration — at this time — seems to have in mind.


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