Syria Two-Step

September 04, 2013

Although President Barack Obama continues to beat his war drum, there are still signs of hope that the U.S. will not follow his mistaken plan. Late last week it seemed that Obama's administration would launch a unilateral strike against Syria over the Labor Day weekend (it seems like we always to go to war on holidays while people are not paying attention). Both Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry amped up their war rhetoric on Friday as they made the case for a preemptive strike without United Nations approval (and even without the support of main ally Britain after the British Parliament surprisingly voted down Prime Minister David Cameron's plan to join the Syria attack). As Kerry and Obama laid out their war plans, I could not help but wonder if they have apologized to former President George W. Bush for their attacks on him during the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaign for Bush's unilateral, non-UN-approved Iraq attack! Despite attacking Bush, Kerry and Obama now push a plan that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says would be illegal. How did Obama become the type of president he despised? Perhaps it is because he made a dumb remark and feels the need to prove his manliness by sticking to his words instead of admitting he made a mistake. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Obama made an unscripted remark during an interview in which he called the use of chemical weapons in Syria "a red line." Having drawn that rhetorical line, Obama seems hellbent on enforcing his words with new military policies. Attacking a nation should not be seen as easier than admitting you said something you should not have said.

Kerry and other Democratic leaders are becoming good team players by quickly following Obama's plan. Each time Kerry gives a speech on Syria, I keep hoping for for a time-traveling younger Kerry to show up and asked who this war-loving, anti-international law Secretary of State is! Alas, even many Democrats in Congress are supporting this effort even though they would have likely opposed it coming from Bush (and, to be fair, many Republicans are opposing it just because it is Obama's plan). But at least Obama did change course suddenly on Saturday by announcing he would ask Congress to weigh in on the strike. With the global community refusing to support his plan and most Americans opposed to it, Obama apparently felt he needed some cover. Since it seemed the start of U.S. military action was imminent, this is a positive step as it slows the rush to war. It also is positive by bringing in more voices for dialogue about this critical matter. Although presidents - including Obama - like to argue that the War Powers Resolution (that requires presidents to seek war authorization from Congress) is unconstitutional, the Resolution is a good idea as it brings more accountability to military actions and means one person alone cannot take us into a long war. It remains unclear if Obama's plan will pass Congress (a good Washington Post graphic tracking votes shows "no" votes leading but most members undecided). But at least we will have this debate and more people will weigh in on the plan.

The proposed Senate resolution on Syria is designed to both authorize Obama to strike Syria but also limit his actions. It would not allow military officials on the ground and sets a time limit on the length of the effort. However, the proposed limit would allow Obama to strike Syria for up to 90 days. That hardly sounds like a "shot across the bow" (as Obama described his plan). Is it a brief strike or three months of war? These problematic contradictions about his plans continue to build. Obama's rhetoric of a "shot across the bow" makes little sense as he claims the U.S. will not seek regime change or get involved in Syria's civil war. A shot across the bow is a warning shot. If Syrian President Bashar Assad ignores the warning shot, then what? More "warning shots"? Obama's rhetoric of this being a warning shot suggests there could be a more prolonged and intensive effort even as he denies that will occur. Additionally, Obama's planned attack makes little sense if it is just a symbolic shot to tell Assad he should not use chemical weapons. Unless the U.S. removes Assad from power, what message will Assad actually get from the attack? Maybe he will decide that if he uses chemical weapons the U.S. will drop shoot some random missiles and then pull out so he can remain in power. Does that really teach Assad a lesson? And how does it make sense to punish Assad for violating international law by in turn violating international law? And why do we think shooting missiles (and likely killing people) is a good way to teach someone not to kill people? If Assad's government used chemical weapons, then that is a war crime (and it is a war crime to deliberately target civilians as Assad's government did even before using chemical weapons). That does not mean a military response must follow. War criminals like Assad have been tried in international (and domestic) courts to receive a judicial - rather than military - message of condemnation. Obama could still demand that the "red line" be enforced without using the military. The only options are not military attack or do nothing.

Sadly, with the over-focus on military options, the growing humanitarian crisis is being pushed to the back burner (and likely made worse). A report yesterday noted that the number of Syrian refugees who have left the war-torn nation has now topped 2 million (and the rate of displacement is dramatically increasing). As we focus on military options, we spend less time and effort working to help the refugees. Additionally, dropping bombs on the nation will likely result in more people being displaced from their homes. Yet Obama instead seems determined to do exactly that. I wonder at what point the Nobel Peace Prize committee will follow the example set by the The Heisman Trust's handling of Reggie Bush (actually some have already pushed for Obama to lose his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize because of his Libyan military intervention and especially because of his drone warfare)! Hopefully Congress will reject Obama's war plans and hopefully he will abide by that rejection. And hopefully the international community will come together to help the millions of Syrian refugees who need assistance right now. If you wish to help, please consider giving to the Syrian relief efforts of the Mennonite Central Committee here.

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