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