Summary: I’ve received many incisive questions about Syria, covering the key points of the this extraordinary debate that so clearly highlights the changing nature of America’s political regime — and our role in it. Here are my responses; post your questions and answers in the comments.
- Q&A on the basics of the proposal for war
- An extraordinary aspect of the Syria debate
- The most extraordinary aspect of the Syria debate
- For More Information
- Our Policy is quite easy to understand
(1) Q&A on the basics of the proposal for war
Q: Do you think then the US/international community should leave Assad alone? There’s no international law prohibiting killing your own people. But there is a law forbidding the use of chemical weapons. There’s also no law that says the Sunnis and Shia can’t annihilate one another bringing chaos to the Middle East.
So what should we do? Doing nothing no strategy at all.
We could degrade Assad’s capabilities, a better option than giving arms to the jihadists — or negotiating with Putin for some kind of modus vivendi in the region.
This aptly summarizes one form of the case for intervention. It is almost entirely wrong.
(1) Has Syria violated laws about use of chemical weapons? No, on several levels.
(a) The UN has not determined that the Syrian government used chemical weapons (in fact, the US government seems indifferent to the UN’s verdict). Syria’s government had no logical reason for such a strike; the rebels had strong motives to run a false flag attack that would gain them both aid and sympathy.
(b) Syria’s use of chemical weapons would not violate its treat obligations.
- The 1925 Geneva Protocol (see Wikipedia) does not prohibit internal use of chemical weapons, or use against nations not party to the treaty.
- Syria has not signed the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, and hence is not bound by it. Neither has authorized the US to act in accordance with these treaties.
- Neither the UN nor the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has found Syria guilty of using chemical weapons.
(c) Neither the UN Charter nor the Convention authorizes the US to attack Syria.
- The UN Charter unconditionally prohibits military action without its prior approval (except in self-defense).
- The Convention mandates that disputes go to the International Court of Justice; serious violations are referred to the UN General Assembly and Security Council.
(d) Describing careful responses as “no strategy” is insane war-mongering.
- Prudence and respect for international opinion recommends waiting for results of the UN investigation (unlike the policy of the US now and before the Iraq invasion).
- Prudence, US law, and respect for the international order that we built recommends following the procedures of the UN Charter and Chemical Weapons Convention.
- Common sense recommends care, rather than the idiotic use of force that has characterized US foreign policy since 9-11, which has resulted in massive expensive defeats in Iraq and (in progress) Afghanistan.
(e) Degrading the strength of Syria’s government is mad if done as Obama proposes, without an understanding of the end state sought for Syria — and how a strike will further that goal.
History since WW2 provides a massive body of “experiments” about foreign military interventions. Analysis by experts shows the modes of intervention which might work. Unfortunately no US official advocates one of these for Syria due to their high cost and equally high risk. Nor would they be likely to get sufficiently broad international approval.
Ignoring this experience in a surge of do-goodism to go kill people will almost certainly just add another sad chapter to this bloody history.
Bombing Syria to bolster US “credibility”, with indifference to the effect on Syria, pushes the US further on the dark path we have traveled since WW2 — towards becoming a global menace. No nation deliberately sets out to become evil; it is usually a sequence of small choices.
Also note that geopolitical and Middle East experts are overwhelming opposed to the proposed attack on Syria. The proponents of war are mostly politicians, activists (many of whom have long records of bellicose support of Israel’s interests), and war-mongers (a profitable career in modern America, most of whom have astonishing records of proven wrong recommendations).
Q: What about principles? Don’t we have backbone? Our weakness in Syria today mean America is seen by our enemies as a paper tiger.
This is nonsense on several levels.
We have invaded and occupied two nations since 9-11, at immense cost in money and blood. We are fighting today in perhaps a dozen countries (the total is secret). How many people must we kill every day to convince “our foes” of our resolve?
This is the “making stuff up” form of analysis. People making this argument seldom provide any evidence to support their fantasies.
Q: The world needs a global policeman! Otherwise chaos will engulf the world.
- As shown above, intervention by the US would by US violations of international law — against Syria, which has not done so. That’s vigilantism, not law enforcement.
- The US lacks the resources to act as global cop, as explained in Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987).
- The American people have no interesting to spending their money and children to provide this free service to the world.
- Police almost always fail at counter-insurgency. CI is not police work.
- “Police” are a function of a society. Even criminals accept the jurisdiction of the laws and their enforcers (e.g., a “fair cop”). Outside our borders US troops are foreign (often foreign infidel) invaders — as we saw in Iraq and see today in Afghanistan. They have no legitimacy to act; their presence sparks opposition.
- In 1588 Spain sent its global police force to that den of criminals — Britain, home to heretics and pirates. Even today the UK looks with pride on its success at resisting arrest.
- There is a very large body of history showing that association with foreign military intervention taints the local government, sapping its legitimacy. Since bolstering legitimacy is the primary defense against insurgency (for details see the Counterinsurgency Field Manual: FM 3-24), that is counterproductive.
“Global police” is an euphemism for military hegemon. History shows that military hegemons are rare, tend to be opposed by other great powers, and often brutal for smaller powers.
Most of these claims about the benefits of a hegemon rely on historically false claims about the British Empire (similar claims about the other historical powers are in the dust bin with the paternalism of slave owners). For example, the fantasies of Niall Ferguson. For details see “The Good Empire – Should we pick up where the British left off?“, Vivek Chibber (Professor of Sociology, NYU), Boston Review, February/March 2005 — A review of Ferguson’s Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire.
My favorite example is Ferguson’s delusions is the opening to Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003), where he’s nostalgic about his boyhood in Kenya, 1966. A magical time, except for those still recovering from the brutal colonial war so recently ended (with a very different set of reminiscences now playing out in UK Courts). Bernard Porter justly skewers NF in his LRB review of two books about that era.
America’s brief role as hegemon has been no better.
- The Vietnam War was a series of war crimes, as shown by archival evidence presented by Nick Turse in Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (2013). Not only did we drop more tonnage of bombs on Vietnam than the entirety of all use in WW2, but also large quantities of chemical weapons (i.e., herbicides which were highly toxic to people).
- The damage to Iraq will take generations to repair. Not just to the infrastructure, but also in the legacy of biocontaminents. Lots of papers emerging like this: “Metal Contamination and the Epidemic of Congenital Birth Defects in Iraq Cities“, Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, November 2012.
- Afghanistan was a horror show when we invaded, and we probably will leave it no better. Our only contribution will be more dead.
What is America’s reward for bearing the burden of global hegemon? The traditional reward, which the UK enjoyed to the max, was profit. Stripping colonies of their resources (even if this meant the occasional famine), imposing unequal terms of trade, and levying taxes. Which shall it be for the USA?
(2) An extraordinary aspect of the Syria debate
We now have a fully developed lobby for repudiating the Constitution, unashamed to champion a President who acts above the law. This is a milestone, a red line. We are not going back to the America-That-Once-Was.
Obama’s recourse to Congress is just a nod to the past. He ignored Congress by invading in Libia, and his staff have made clear they will do so again if He wills is.
These are the days of wonder, as the Second Republic dies in full view — but we refused to see. The New America emerges, but we prefer to pretend otherwise. To acknowledged these events requires either updating our self-image, or acting.
Eventually events will force us to choose.
(3) The most extraordinary aspect of the Syria debate
The debate about intervention in Syria is quite similar to that about intervention in Libya. And Yemen. And Iraq. And Afghanistan.
Not only have we been rehashing roughly similar logic for 12 years, but the repeated failure of the war-mongers’ theories (often the same people) has not deterred our leaders to try again. And again. Each time with less public support — which matters little in New America.
Failure to Learn can bring down the greatest nation. Nothing can save America from itself.
(4) For More Information
(a) Articles about Syria, covering ll the bases. It took years to produce this depth and volume of analysis about the Afghanistan War; 12 years of practice allows this to be done in one week. Soon we will learn if all this has any effect.
- The political scientists publishing at The Monkey Cage have a wide range of excellent analysis about Syria.
- A look back at our previous raid: “US special forces launch rare attack inside Syria“, AP, 26 October 2008 — Dead civilians, including 4 children.
- “Experts Point To Long, Glorious History Of Successful U.S. Bombing Campaigns“, The Onion, 27 August 2013
- “Obama Weighing His Syria Option“, The Onion, 27 August 2013
- “They’re Baaack: Neocons Launch Push for Regime Change“, Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, AntiWar Blog, 27 August 2013
- As usual, a crazy historical precedent given for our new mad war: “The Kosovo Precedent: Syria in the Crosshairs“, Franklin “Chuck” Spinney, CounterPunch, 27 August 2013
- Asking the questions that Obama will not answer (and probably does not have answer): “Making War In Syria“, Charles P. Pierce, Esquire, 27 August 2013
- Dissecting the usual nonsense in the Weekly Standard: “‘Experts’ Who Are Always Wrong About Everything Want to Bomb Syria“, Scott Lemieux (Prof History & Pol Sci, College of St Rose), 27 August 2013
- “How an Insular Beltway Elite Makes Wars of Choice More Likely“, Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic, 28 August 2013 — “The pressure on President Obama to intervene in Syria is hyped, and the pressure to stay out of the conflict is unjustly ignored.” In DC only hawks are considered legitimate experts.
- “Selective ‘obscenity’: US checkered record on chemical weapons“, RT, 29 August 2013
- “Syrians In Ghouta Claim Saudi-Supplied Rebels Behind Chemical Attack“, Mint Pres News, 29 August 2013 — “Rebels and local residents in Ghouta accuse Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan of providing chemical weapons to an al-Qaida linked rebel group.”
- “Which Syrian Chemical Attack Account Is More Credible?“, Fairness & Accuracy In Media, 1 September 2013
- Sensible words from the International Crisis Group, 1 September 2013 — The US intends to attack “for reasons largely divorced from the interests of the Syrian people.”
- Analysis by William Polk (former US official and Professor of long experience; see Wikipedia), posted by James Fallows at The Atlantic, 2 September 2013
- “To some, US case for Syrian gas attack, strike has too many holes“, McClatchy, 2 September 2013
- “How Intelligence Was Twisted to Support an Attack on Syria“, Gareth Porter, Truthout, 3 September 2013
- “Working Together Separately“, Adam Shatz, London Review of Books, 3 September 2013 — About the rapidly deepening Israel-Saudi alliance, the emerging dominant axis of the Middle East.
- “The World’s Most Pernicious Analogy Strikes Again“, Scott Lemieux (Prof History, U RI), 3 September 2013 — No, this is not like Munich
- “Obama’s National-Security Argument for Striking Syria Is Terrible“, Jonathan Chait, NY Magazine, 3 September 2013 — Even Chait opposes this war (a first?).
- Graphic: “Syria chemical attack: the intelligence dossiers“, Guardian, 3 September 2013 — Compare & contrast the intel of USA, UK, and France. Russia says it has different info.
(b) Posts about Syria:
- The Syrian dominos, Tom Hayden, 25 October 2012
- Some questions as we march to war in Syria, 17 June 2013
- The first question to ask about our war with Syria has nothing to do with Syria, 28 August 2013
(c) A guide to our mad wars:
- A guide to our Middle East Wars – change you cannot see,
31 March 2009
- Is America a destabilizing force in the world?, 23 January 2009
- “War without end”, a great article by George Wilson,
27 June 2009
- Every day brings new advocacy for war. That’s our America., 1 November 2010
- A look back at the madness that led us into our wars. How does this advice read 6 years later?, 26 June 2010
- About the violent mobs in the Middle East. And in America, 16 September 2012
(5) Our Policy is quite easy to understand