Now that the president has gone to Congress for authorization of a military strike in Syria, members of both houses can no longer get away with “asking questions” and second guessing: they have to declare where they stand and vote on it.
So here’s where I stand: I don’t think we should send missiles into Syria. If I was in Congress I’d vote against it and I think it’s a grave mistake that will make a bad situation worse.
And before I explain my reasoning let me say that I don’t think that people who disagree with me are contemptible scoundrels and warmongers. My own father, an ex-jesuit community organizer and a true moral beacon in my life thinks we should intervene and that counts for a lot in my book.
That said, here’s why I think a military strike like the one being proposed is a bad idea.
First of all there’s always a likelihood that we kill innocent people, a risk you run with any kind of military engagement, particularly aerial bombardment.
Second, while I think the general idea of enforcing the international norm against the deployment of chemical weapons is a laudable goal, I’m skeptical this kind of strike will do that. If Assad did in fact use chemical weapons—and you’ll excuse me if the experience of Iraq makes me a wee bit reluctant to definitively state he did based solely on US intelligence. But again, if Assad, as the evidence would seem to suggest, did use these weapons, then he likely did so as a way of basically burning the bridge that could have let him retreat.
He sent a message to supporters that the only way out is through, that he will fight to the end. And all the people included in his coalition—Syrian christians, alawites, members of the military and business elite—they are in the same bunker with him. If the rebels win, the family members of the people Assad gassed will not look kindly on his supporters.
Given the fact that Assad’s fighting literally for his life, I’m not quite sure a targeted punitive strike like the one being proposed will have that much of an effect. It may slightly alter the calculation of deploying such weapons again, but even if it does, if Assad thinks he has to use chemical weapons to win…or find himself drawn and quartered, guess what he is going to do?
Also, imagine the quagmire the US will find itself in if Assad does go ahead and used chemical weapons after we have punished him for doing so. Clearly, our red line will have to be enforced by even more punitive measures, and that way lies full entanglement in a bloody brutal civil war.
Third, there is a good chance an American military strike will make the situation worse. As Mid-East scholar Juan Cole argues, the only hope there is of any kind of eventual negotiated settlement in Syria is if both sides conclude they’re stuck at a stalemate and grow weary of the bloodshed. But US intervention on the side of the rebels will act a signal that rebels should keep fighting with the possibility of future intervention that might be decisive on their part and get rid of whatever incentive they might have to go to the negotiating table.
Of course, we should be honest here. Assad is a maniacal butcher and what he’s done is unspeakable. At the same time many—though certainly far from all—fighting against him are jihadis who have also committed atrocities. And I’ve heard people I’m quite allied with ideologically talk about a political resolution to this war or a diplomatic solution, I sometimes get the sense that that’s just a phrase those of us on the left use to assuage our conscience so we can point towards a solution to this bloodshed and misery that doesn’t involve missiles.
But maybe there isn’t a political or diplomatic solution. I don’t think there was ever really a political solution to our own civil war here in the US, which didn’t feature any chemical weapons but left 600,000 dead and rotting in blood-soaked fields. If there had been a political solution, Lincoln would have loved to find it, but ultimately history’s verdict is that the side of the war defending bondage and evil had to be vanquished definitively.
And that may be the case here in Syria, in which case, those of us who oppose military intervention both for practical reasons and on principle, need to have the moral courage to stare into the gaping maw of horror that is the Syrian civil war and the Assad regime and the murder of hundreds of innocent children and say: We can’t make this situation better. We just can’t.
Except that, too, is not quite right. There are things we can do. If our primary concern here is alleviating the misery of the Syrian people, 2 million of whom have been turned into refugees, there are many concrete things we can do that don’t involve missiles.
The cost of a single Tomahawk missile is estimated to between $600,000 up to 1.4 million dollars and reports have indicated a strike could use up to 200 of them. That’s anywhere from $120 million to $280 million. We could write a check tomorrow from the treasury to the UN High Commission on Refugees in that amount to get much needed supplies to the refugee camps.
Right now you can give money at the UNHCR. We as a country could also do what Sweden, now hosting President Obama, has announced they’re doing to help: offer asylum to Syria refugees.
Tuesday, Sweden became the first European county to announce they will give permanent resident status to all Syrian refugees who apply and their families. Or we could offer Syrians the same streamlined immigration process that Cubans now enjoy. And, say what you will about Fidel Castro, he sure as hell has never gassed 1400 of his own people.
Let’s not make the same mistake again.