I support President Obama’s decision to take military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and I also applaud his decision to request Congressional approval for such action. To do nothing in the face of a widespread massacre, including the use of chemical weapons, is bereft of any coherent U.S. foreign policy strategy. More importantly, it is immoral.
Of course, most Americans disagree, but make no mistake, the case for destroying the Assad regime’s ability to carry out the slaughter of Syrian rebels and civilians could not be more clear cut. For one, as a world community of human beings, we’ve agreed that weapons of mass destruction, i.e. chemical weapons, are not to be used under any circumstances. That is the lesson we must never forget from World War I, a war in which 10 million soldiers lost their lives, along with 7 million civilians. While only 4% of combat deaths in that war can be attributed to various poison gases, their use produced a haunting effect on humanity, best captured in T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Hollow Men.”
Some have argued that there is no difference between the use of chemical and conventional weapons. They could not be more wrong. For conventional weapons, if used properly, are precise, whereas chemical weapons are indiscriminate. A soldier can hold his fire if he sees there are non-combatants on the battle field, just as a general can elect not to fire additional rockets or missiles at a target where civilians have been killed.
Chemical weapons, on the other hand, once unleashed, cannot be contained. Worse, the ONLY intent and purpose of chemical weapons is to kill people, whereas rockets, missiles, and bombs are designed to destroy the machinery of war. Thus, Assad’s use of chemical weapons signals that he is not intent merely on keeping power or winning the war, but upon inflicting fear, misery, and death on his opponents.
Can conventional weapons be used for the same purposes? Absolutely, and that is all the more reason we should conduct targeted strikes against the Assad regime. Thus far, according to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, over 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict. And, while official numbers of pro-Assad and rebel fighter deaths are disputed, it is widely agreed that large percentage of those killed have been civilians. Numbers vary, but at least 40,000 civilians have been killed, and it may be as high as 75,000.
How can we possibly stand by and allow for such slaughter without degrading the value of human life? Opponents of action put forth a number of reasons: 1) China and Russia, members of the U.N. Security Counsel, oppose the action; 2) that we cannot be the police men of the world; 3) the Middle East is a complicated region, and we don’t know what the consequences will be; and 4) didn’t we learn our lesson from Afghanistan and Iraq?
Let’s address these individually. First, the notion that we should not do something because China and Russia are opposed is strange to say the least, because for all intensive purposes, they’re our enemies. I’m not suggesting they’re our enemies in terms of war, but ideologically, globally, and economically, they’re generally opposed to the interests of the U.S. and the rest of the civilized world. Indeed, why should we listen to countries that are governed by authoritarian despots who regularly commit civil rights violations against their own citizens? If it’s because we’re afraid of them, we should be reminded of the consequences of appeasement before World War II: Europe did not avoid war by cowering to Hitler—they invited it. And really, do people actually think China and Russia are going to start a war with the U.S., guaranteeing our mutually assured destruction, over a piss-ant like Assad? Please.
Second, whether we like it or not, we are the police men of the world. The U.N. is crippled from action by China and Russia’s membership, and no other country has the guts to act unilaterally. Either we do something, or the slaughter continues unabated, chemical weapons and all. Does anyone remember the genocide in Rwanda? We didn’t act then, and not surprisingly, no one else did either. The results: between 800,000 and 1 million people were killed systematically by thugs with machetes and machine guns. Syria’s a different situation entirely, but there is at least one similarity: a lot of people are dying, and we possess the power to stop it. Oughtn’t we?
Third, while the Middle East is an unbelievably complicated region with different sects, tribes, and religions, who, really, is going to object to destroying the capability of Assad to murder his people with chemical weapons? That’s right: Assad and his supporters. That’s it. Some might say we ought to stay out of it, but at the end of the day, it’s awfully hard to argue with any moral authority that stopping a dictator who’s killing civilians with chemical weapons is wrong. And again, just who are we supposed to be afraid of? Iran? The Saudis? If Russia and China aren’t going to do anything about it, why does anyone credibly believe these much less powerful countries will, or that we should care if they do?
Finally, the argument that we shouldn’t now act in Syria because we made a mistake by invading Iraq and Afghanistan is absurd. For one, no one is proposing an invasion—we’re talking about surgical air strikes on military targets. But more importantly, we can’t let our mistakes in the past cloud our judgment of the future.
Indeed, consider how different the situations are: before the war in 2003, the Bush Administration’s contention that Iraq had, and intended to use, weapons of mass destruction, was strongly contradicted by U.N. Inspectors, whereas no one now seriously doubts that chemical weapons were used in Syria by Assad. Moreover, while no doubt a cruel dictator, Saddam Hussein wasn’t killing his own people at the time, nor did he have anything to do with 9/11, a fact that was so obscured by the beating of war drums on the Right, that many Republicans still get it wrong. Finally, the Bush Administration was openly planning for an invasion and occupation of Iraq, while the Obama Administration has gone out of its way to state that neither is even an option in Syria. Thus, conflating the two scenarios is, again, absurd; one has nothing to do with the other, and it shows a lack of critical thinking to suggest otherwise.
One more point: a lot of critics of action in Syria say that we don’t know what will happen in the region if we make air strikes against Assad. They speculate about the radical elements of the opposition capturing the weapons themselves, or of the potential for a power vacuum to develop that we can’t control. The problem with this argument is that these unknowns exist whether we act or not. It’s not as if the region’s stable now. And frankly, if we don’t help them, why in the hell would the Syrian people, when they finally do oust Assad, turn to the U.S. for guidance afterward? Isn’t it much more likely that if we don’t act, those who do—including radical Islamists—will be the ones to shape Syria’s future?
Look, everyone knows that the appetite for war in the U.S. is next to nil. What people have to remember when it comes to Syria, however, is that we’re not talking about war, or invasion, or occupation. We’re talking about destroying, to the best of our ability, the Assad regime’s ability to carry out chemical war against the Syrian people. We’re talking about tipping the balance of power toward the rebels, who’re fighting for their independence, much like we did several centuries ago. People who make the argument that we should just stay out of Syria seem to have forgotten that if it weren’t for French aid, our own nation would not have won the Revolutionary War. It’s nearly impossible for a small rebel force, without the power to levy taxes or force conscription, to prevail over an established government—especially when that government is receiving aid from Russia. In other words, if we don’t help the Syrian people in their struggle against Assad, this war could go on indefinitely… and we had better expect to see more videos and news reports of women and children dying in the streets, choking to death from sarin gas poisoning.
In the end, I’m not arguing we should depose Assad. That’s up to the Syrian people. However, what we can—what we must do—is send a clear message to Assad and the rest of the world that slaughtering civilians with chemical weapons is not only a crime against his people, but a crime against humanity. To do anything less would be cowardly and immoral…
The hope only
Of empty men.