What should progressives think about a Nobel Peace Prize laureate launching a punitive military strike against the Assad regime?
What are the political dangers that President Obama faces as he awaits a Congressional vote to authorize the use of force against the Syrian regime?
I’ve heard all these questions and more debated over and over on radio and TV in recent weeks by the usual parade of talking heads – folks who’ve been mostly wrong on everything since 9-11 and George Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
Generally on channels like FOX, CNN, MSNBC and the network Sunday morning shows the debate about Obama and Syria plays out in the context of a political game in which Obama is either the winner or the loser depending upon the speaker’s own political bias or the pundit’s ability to foresee the future in ways that President Obama evidently cannot.
I’ve listened to all this crosstalk (it can’t be called “debate” or “argument” – which both require that some listening be done) and I think the chattering class and political grandstanders are largely ignoring the central question: the one that I believe is foremost on Obama’s mind.
How should the United States respond to the use of chemical weapons by a dictator against his own people?
Liberals and progressives like me (though not necessarily Democratic politicians) are uncomfortable with the use of force. We don’t like military answers to problems that can be solved diplomatically. Unlike uber-hawks like Senator John McCain, we don’t see the sledgehammer as the only tool in the arsenal of democracy.
We on the left have been gratified by President Obama’s diplomatic outreach to the Muslim world and his reticence to swing our military sledgehammer in the china shop of international relations. Many of the talking heads and politicians clucking today squawked that Obama was too slow to launch a strike against Gaddafi in Libya. I was pleased that, when Obama did move against the Gaddafi regime, he did so in a limited and effective way — just as he did in taking out Osama bin Laden.
So, when this President urges a military response to Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons I am far less cynical than I would be if Bush and Cheney were still in charge. And that’s not a partisan political calculation: it’s a matter of observation and unfortunate experience.
Having wound down two costly and controversial wars of choice that have eroded American prestige abroad and the public’s faith in government at home, President Obama surely hoped that the situation in Syria would not escalate to the point where the U.S. would have to consider launching cruise missiles to hold Bashar Assad accountable to international law and standards of human decency.
The thought of bombing someone in retaliation for committing war crimes is hard for peace-loving people to wrap their heads around.
But what are the options?
Getting the United Nations on board is impossible because Russia and China (who have their own obvious reasons for protecting the prerogatives of dictators) will use their Security Council veto to block any UN move against Assad’s regime. The fractious Europeans and the war-weary Brits will not be any help. And our allies among Syria’s neighbors – Turkey, the Saudis, the smaller oil states and Israel – would like to see Assad spanked hard for his transgressions but they rightly fear the chaos that could follow regime change in Syria. The Syrian refugee problem in Turkey and Jordan is already a crisis after years of brutal civil war — and what’s happened in Libya and Egypt after the ousters of Gaddafi and Mubarak does not augur well for a peaceful post-Assad transition in Syria.
With all these factors in play, President Obama still feels that the United States must take the lead and defend mankind against the use of chemical weapons by a despot. Clearly, in threatening military action against Assad, Obama intends to fire a shot across the bow of the young despot in North Korea and the religious despots in Iran whose pursuit of nuclear weapons pose even greater dangers to humanity.
So, all that said — how should the United States respond to the use of chemical weapons by a dictator against his own people? I’m glad that the U.S. Congress will be debating that question.
Two things bothered me most about Obama’s run-up to military action in Syria. My first concern was that Obama was ready to act before the United Nations inspectors had finished their investigation and reported their findings. That felt too much like Bush chasing the weapons inspectors out of Iraq so he could start his war. My second concern was that Obama was ready to go to war in Syria (because that’s what firing cruise missiles is, let’s face it) without authorization from Congress.
I don’t know whether the vote in Parliament and Prime Minister Cameron’s decision to bow to the will of his legislature was the deciding factor that led Obama to seek a vote in Congress, but I’m glad he’s doing it. It’s essential to our democracy to debate matters of war and peace.
It’s also good to see John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi both supporting President Obama: a rare display of bipartisanship. Of course, such displays of bipartisanship are what led Hillary Clinton and other Democrats to endorse President Bush’s cowboy adventure in Iraq. But it appears that the lessons learned in the Iraq war vote have led lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to craft a resolution that ensures a strike against Syria will be limited, specific and short-term, with no “boots on the ground”. (BTW – Does every pundit have to say “boots on the ground”? Can’t someone please say “ground troops” or “infantry” or “ground forces”?)
I hope Congress focuses their debate on the question of how the United States should respond to the use of chemical weapons by a dictator against his own people. Leave the domestic political games behind. Take a stand based on what’s best for humanity – and with an eye toward the message this vote will send to North Korea and Iran. (Alas, there are bad guys in the world.)
President Obama clearly has little to gain in this whole affair. For himself, that is. But he doesn’t appear to be concerned about his own political fortunes or the mid-term elections or any of the things that the pundits focus on so relentlessly. There have been times in the past 100 years when American strength and resolve stood as a bulwark between oppressed people and the evil forces that threatened them. I believe that’s how President Obama sees this moment in Syria and why he feels The United States must take action to hold Bashar Assad accountable for his criminal use of lethal gas against his own citizens.
Let the debate begin!