The Syria Dilemma

There’s news this morning that the United States, Great Britain, and France have launched air strikes against the Assad regime in Syria.  The strikes are in response to what the three Western allies call a chemical weapons atrocity committed by the Assad regime on its own people, and are targeting laboratories, production facilities, storage facilities, and other elements of the regime’s chemical weapons capabilities.

5ad199560f2544131873fb90Nobody wants to see civilians assaulted by chemical weapons, of course, and I agree with President Trump that anyone who uses chemical weapons is a “monster.”  The problem is that the Assad regime denies any use of chemical weapons, and its allies — namely, Russia and Iran — are backing the regime.  Indeed, at one point Russia claimed that Great Britain had, for some elusive reason, staged the chemical attack.  The outlandishness of that claim gives us a pretty good idea of how to assess the relative credibility of the charges and countercharges concerning who did what.

But in the curious arena of international affairs, questions of credibility and truth, and right and wrong, often don’t mean much.  Attacking Syria will have consequences for our relations with Russia and Iran, such as they are, and might put other American allies, like Israel, at increased risk.  Of course, it could also risk drawing the United States deeper into the quagmire of internal disputes in a foreign nation, a la Afghanistan and Iraq.  On the other hand, do countries like the United States, France, and Great Britain, which have the ability to take concrete steps to try to stop the use of chemical weapons, have a moral obligation to do something like launching these attacks when international organizations like the United Nations prove to be incapable of protecting innocents from monstrous and barbaric attacks?

It’s a dilemma that is above my pay grade, and one which I hope our leaders have thought through thoroughly and carefully.  I’m all for stopping the use of chemical weapons, but it is the unpredictable long-term consequences that give me concern.

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Offhand Ultimatums

The issue of the United States’ response to the apparent use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government has been on the front burner for weeks now.  After fruitless efforts to build an international coalition, followed by vows to go it alone, then by a decision to seek congressional approval, it seems late in the game for a new proposal.  But that’s what happened yesterday.

Secretary of State John Kerry, in response to a question at a news conference, said Syria could avert a U.S. attack by placing its chemical weapons under international control — whatever that means.  The Obama Administration said Kerry’s response was a “rhetorical argument” that wasn’t meant to make a diplomatic overture, but that was how it was treated.  Russia, Syria, and others in the international community immediately expressed support for the idea, as did congressional Democrats who don’t want to vote on whether to authorize the President to use military force.  By the end of the day, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that the Senate vote on the issue would, in fact, be delayed.  And when President Obama last night sat for interviews in a TV blitz designed to build support for a limited strike, he was responding to the news, rather than making it.  In view of the reaction to Kerry’s comment,  the President said he would put plans for a military strike on hold if Syria put its weapons stockpile under international control — although he expressed skepticism it would happen.  Of course, the obvious question is:  if the President is skeptical, why would the Secretary of State make the proposal in the first place?

Tonight the President is supposed to make a speech to the American people about the Syrian issue.  Perhaps he will take the opportunity to explain his Administration’s confusing approach to the issue, with the American position seemingly swaying in the wind created every time John Kerry speaks.

The President and his supporters profess to be mystified by why Americans aren’t supporting their policy on Syria, whatever it is.  It’s not that Americans aren’t sickened by the use of chemical weapons.  Instead, it’s that this Administration has little credibility when it says that America needs to act, alone if necessary, to address the situation.  We don’t understand why this should be our job, and we simply don’t credit the Administration’s increasingly outlandish promises — like Secretary Kerry’s statement yesterday that the military effort needed to “degrade” the Assad regime’s chemical weapons capabilities would be “unbelievably small.”   We also see what has happened in Libya and Egypt and don’t believe that some kind of thread-the-needle air strike can “degrade” chemical weapons capabilities without creating more chaos in an already chaotic region.  The credibility gap isn’t helped by the Administration’s shifting positions and heedless issuance of offhand ultimatums that apparently weren’t intended to be ultimatums in the first place.

Why Always Us?

Or, perhaps, the question should be:  why always U.S.?

President Obama apparently is weighing some kind of military strike against Syria in response to its government apparent use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.  As described in the New York Times, the use of military force would be limited, designed to cripple the Assad dictatorship’s ability to use chemical weapons but not effecting “regime change.”

It seems like an effort to thread the eye of a needle with an awfully blunt instrument — but the issue I’m raising is more fundamental.  I’m as appalled as any civilized person about the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, but . . . can’t someone else do something about it?  Syria isn’t our neighbor.  We don’t share any kind of common cultural or linguistic heritage with Syria.  Syria doesn’t have any great economic or geopolitical significance so far as I can determine.  As a result, when it comes to Syria, our interests appear to be no greater than those of those of any other country, and much less than some.

So, when the Syrian government commits an atrocity, why do heads swivel in our direction — as they always seem to do?  And, why are American Presidents eager to spend our treasure and risk the lives of our soldiers when that happens?  Is it because they like being viewed as world leaders?  Forgive me, but I would rather have a President whose focus is exclusively on our interests, assessed with a cold and calculating eye.  In this case, what exactly would a Syrian adventure of the kind described by the New York Times accomplish for the United States?  Even if successful, it would still leave the Assad government capable of slaughtering its people — only with conventional weapons, rather than chemical ones.  And, of course, any involvement risks the possibility that some wild-eyed fanatics in the Arab world will swear out a jihad against the Great Satan because it, again, has intervened in the world’s most volatile region.

There is no reason why the United States should be involved in punishing Syria for its gross moral transgressions.  The Arab League, or Turkey, or the United Nations, or some other country that shares a border or a language or some other cultural element with Syria should assume the lead.  Our resources are not infinite, and it’s time we stopped acting like they were.

The Horror Of Chemical Weapons

There is something particularly horrific about chemical weapons — which is why the reports of Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens are especially appalling.

It seems odd to argue that one way of inflicting death is “better” or more civilized than another, and a massacre of unarmed people is a massacre whether it is accomplished by gunfire or some other means.  And yet . . . the use of chemical weapons seems to be uniquely wanton, indefensible and barbaric.  The indiscriminate way in which poison gas reaches its victims, and the ugly and painful circumstances of the resulting death, with victims convulsing and foaming at the mouth, all reflect a murderous mindset of a government that no longer feels bound by the conventions of modern society and will lash out and kill without cause or purpose.

Any government that would use chemical weapons on its own citizens, killing innocent women and children in the process, has lost any pretense of legitimacy.  I’ve written before of how the United Nations has become a hollow force in the modern world, incapable of preventing mass killings or effectively shielding those unfortunates who trust in its promises of protection.  The Syrian situation may be the acid test, however.  If the UN cannot lead effective international action against a criminal government that has used chemical weapons against its own people, why should it exist at all?