Thoughts on Syria, foreign policy, and the use of force.

Some have suggested that our options on Syria are nothing, limited missile strikes, or all out war, and that none of these options are good, viable, or principled.  In contrast, I believe there is a fourth option that is both viable and principled: an extended air operation. The President could take a similar approach to the one taken in Libya and Kosovo, based on humanitarian principles. Rather than a limited missile strike, he could use an extended air operation, in conjunction with select rebels and special forces to have a more significant impact. I don't know that this is currently politically viable, but I do think it is what we should have done some time ago. I also appreciate that there are no guarantees on what would follow, so I don’t want to suggest that this would be a surefire effort, except in one respect. I believe it would almost certainly limit civilian deaths, even if additional people died via the bombing. In the long run, less people will die if the violence is ended through military action.

Should Obama choose the more likely scaled back version of cruse missiles only, it could none-the-less have an effect, and possibly give the Rebels an edge.

But here is my bigger concern, doing nothing emboldens both the next very bad person, and the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons. Don’t get me wrong, it is easy to be cynical. Once we have decided that 100,000 deaths is not worth intervening in. Or to state it more charitably, once we decide that given America's recent history it is not appropriate, or in our interest or there's to intervene in another Middle-Eastern country, even where civilians are being intentionally and indiscriminately killed--it is hard to make the case that choking to death is somehow fundamentally different that being shot or bombed. BUT, that was not the world’s conclusion the last time chemical weapons were used on a mass scale during WWI. At that time we decided that chemical weapons are different, are horrible, and ought to be unimaginable.

Here is something else that should be unimaginable. The process whereby one painstakingly surrounds a town, the citizens knowing what is to come and unable to do anything about it. Fear and dread overcoming reason with no explanation for the children. Here, there is no need for chemical weapons—shock-waves and shrapnel will do the job, as shells fall randomly, butchering in mass.

The United States ought to have a fairly consistent foreign policy.  One that consistently uses force and diplomacy to prevent the mass killings of civilians, or the use of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons.  This is not to say that we should police the world.  We should not intervene in every civil war, or even every cross border war.  Nor should we intervene where we cannot intervene as a practical mater. (Ought implies can.) We should intervene where there are significant numbers of civilians being killed indiscriminately. 

One last thought. Suppose we look at this from the other side of the table. Imagine you are Bashar al-Assad or the next sadistic leader. If you are one of these people and a student of history, and if you compare and contrast how Mubarak responded to protests in Egypt with how Bashar al-Assad has responded, it is not hard to come to the conclusion that full-scale indiscriminate violence works, at least for a time. Beating protestors and occasionally shooting a few only emboldens protestors. In contrast, indiscriminately shelling neighborhoods and killing whole families, that works. That is likely to get you a seat in power for a very long time, if no one stops you by force.

At numerous points in history, people of good will have risen up to oppose limited oppression, often using non-violent techniques. This is the preferred way to oppose injustice, and it works where there is some sense of restraint. (South Africa, British India, and the United States circa 1890-1965) This is in contrast to the unlimited systematic use of violence, rape, torture, and war to hold on to power through any means possible. (Nazi Germany, Rwanda, and the Black Slave's experience in the United States circa, 1625-1865) These latter examples of terror and oppression required an armed response. i.e. Just War.

I appreciate that flag waving, the call for intervention on humanitarian grounds, and even Just War theory itself are often perverted to create wars of choice. But we redouble our failure when we choose not to prevent genocide where we have the power to act.

One important counter point to my position.  If there are no "good guys" to back.  And if the other side is also clearly guilty of significant war crimes and mass killings,  (as opposed to the low level war crimes that accompany every war.) Or if they would likely carry out such attacks should they receive assistance.  Or if it would take ground troops to really be effective, then the wisdom of the above approach is less tenable.


Anonymous said...

Genocide? Is there genocide going on? I thought/believe the killing is based on political alignment. If the rebels take control I'd expect genocide as the Alawites will probably be slaughtered.

Helping either side is foolish. Assisting refugees fee is all we should even be considering doing. The itself poses a problem. How do you tell who are refugees vs militants blending in to disguise themselves as such?

I don't doubt that chemical weapons were dispersed. I don't know nor believe anyone as to who "used" them as both sides should not be trusted. There are rumors that it may have been an accident during chemical weapon transport. I heard hardly any rebel militants were killed in the ordeal... strange if true.

This may have been an Operation Northwoods play by the rebels too.

All in all, the U.S. is now reaping what it has sown. By lying, misleading, and deceiving the people and Congress why should anyone believe the "intelligence" they say they have and show? For some reason, I think many people think that "digital" evidence isn't forgeable... "just trust us" doesn't work anymore after getting caught lying, misleading, and deceiving. And rather than being more transparent and truthful leaders in this country have opted for silencing and the least mistruthful statements...

It use to be that the commander in chief of the army was the king, and you would find the king on the battle field in harms way. Perhaps we need to reconsider allowing our "leaders" to direct form the comforts away from the battlefield. Perhaps if they weren't sending others and other's children into harms way they might reconsider whether something is a noble enough cause. It's easy to start wars and claim fighting for justice when your life isn't on the line... I want to see real leadership from the Commander in Chief and Congress.

David Best said...

I may be using the word genocide a bit loosly, but I think in this case it is appropriate.

According to Wikipedia, (with citation) "Genocide is "the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, Caste, religious, or national group",[1]"

Here I am defining the political opposition as a "national group."

I recognise that that may be a stretch.

When I said genocide prior to looking up the precise word, what I had in mind was te intentional and indiscriminate killing of civilians. I also had in mind significant numbers of said civilians. I would not use the word to describe the death of hundreds of civilians. But when the number reaches hundreds of thousands, then the words seems more applicable.

But I would be willing to forgo useing the word if that helps. I don't care what we call it. My concern is on the indiscriminate killing of civilians.



David Baxley said...

I tend to struggle with this and might agree with the first comments. Yes there are killing of civilians but who fault is it. The Rebels (who are rebelling) or the government? Why do we side with the rebels as the ones that are more just? I see no evidence of that in the big picture here. When the rebels have gone in to fight they have also killed civilians. I struggle with this post because it is one sided, the rebels side. How can one say who is the more just of these two evil forces opposing each other. Granted I am not a fan of current powers but if we are to truly intervene on the grounds of protection of the innocent or for the sake of justice we better damn well know who's side is truly just. This is not genocide and it is a political war with two opposing sides wanting power and our history in these matter would say we do not truly know who is innocent as far as power go. Neither side deserves support on the the reasons you present, maybe there are other reasons but you reasons for wanting to go in on any level are two one sided and show limited view of the situation and the rebels.

David Best said...

So in other words David, you agree with my last paragraph. It is true. I am no Syria expert.

David Best said...

I think an important difference between Assad and the Rebels is the scale of the killing of unarmed civilians. I don't doubt that atrocities have been committed by both sides. But at the national security level, I don't much care about the low level stuff. I am saying the United States should consistently appose the large scale killing of civilians, like the act of surrounding a village and shelling it into the ground, where there is not military reason to do so.

As I said in the piece, I don't think we should intervene everywhere all the time. I do think that if we are able, then we should act to stop atrocities. That is different than siding with the Rebels, though that is a side effect. If the Rebels kill and destroy whole villages. Then we should break their stuff too.

David Baxley said...

Yes, I agree with your lat paragraph. Although your desires are good it's so hard to know when a war ends and murder begins and who is a innocent or less guilty. Like you said , true genocide should be fought but , to my best understanding so far, that is not the case here. Although I might even say we should do something, but only through NATO, (I think I am done with policing the world and determining what justice is and how it should be played out in every nation) but I am open on this.

David Best said...

This is a really good article, and highlights points both of us have made David. It begins by buttressing your point. The opposition to Bashad is highly questionable. But it also illustrates the consensus that if not "genocide" their have certainly been large scale crimes against humanity, whole vilages surrounded and bombed. It concludes by suggesting keys to smart intervention.

David Best said...

This one: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/16/opinion/the-worlds-next-genocide.html