Thomas Magstadt
NationofChange / Op-Ed
Published: Saturday 7 September 2013
The question is whether it’s in our national interest to go to war against Syria.

Syria: War Against What? Why We Fight (and Lose)

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"Casting the issue as one of self-defense, the defense secretary also underscored the threat to American military personnel across the region. He said other dictators around the world and militant groups like Hezbollah might be emboldened if the United States did not punish the Assad government. 'The use of chemical weapons in Syria is not only an assault on humanity….  It is a serious threat to America’s national security interests and those of our closest allies.'" ‒US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel

War is the continuation of politics by other means… ‒Carl von Clauswitz

Whatever the ultimate aim in international politics, the immediate aim is always power. ‒Hans Morgenthau

The first quote above, from a recent story in The NY Times (9/3/2013), perfectly brackets the confusion in the United States both at the top (policy makers) and bottom (public opinion) over whether or not to use military force against Syria's certifiably brutal dictatorship.  Only a small fraction of the confusion is  factual or evidentiary; far more is due to a lack of conceptual clarity as to what war is, generally, and what purpose(s) a war against Syria, specifically, is designed to serve.

Are we going to war against the Assad regime because Assad is committing crimes against humanity (moral) or because vital national interests are at stake (political)?  Can we attack another country with bombs and missiles without actually going to war "in the classic sense," as Secretary of State John Kerry has explicitly claimed?    

First, the facts about Syria according to the White House, leaders in both houses of Congress, and the mainstream media.

1. Bashir al Assad is a sadistic dictator.

2. The Assad regime is facing a mass rebellion against his oppressive rule.

3. Assad’s attempt to put down this rebellion has resulted in the killing of thousands of Syrians, including many women, children, and elderly non-combatants, and the displacement of millions.

4.  There appears to be highly credible evidence that Assad’s security forces have used chemical weapons against the opposition – it’s in the nature of chemical weapons that the decision to use them in urban areas is taken in the knowledge the death and suffering they will cause is likely to be even more uncontrollable and indiscriminate than conventional weapons.

5.  The actions of the Assad regime are consistent with the widely recognized definition of “crimes against humanity” developed at the Nuremburg trials after World War II and more recently codified in the 2002 Rome Statute, the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague.

As of May 2013, 122 states have signed and ratified the Rome Statute and thus become parties to this treaty.  Ironically, the United States is not one of them.  

Second, it is worth reiterating this inconvenient fact – Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the U.S. Constitution, also known as the War Powers Clause, vests in the Congress, not the president, the power to declare war.  This clause is terse and unambiguous:

[The Congress shall have Power...] To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water…

Third, the War Powers Resolution of 1973 gives the president the power to commit troops anywhere he likes for a period of 90 days.  Section 2(c) provides that the president’s power to initiate military action is limited to

(1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.

But this resolution contradicts itself, as it authorizes the president to use military force with a 90-day window for any reason at all, which is obviously both internally inconsistent and unconstitutional.  No wonder one critic calls the War Powers Resolution “incoherent.” 

The incoherence of the War Powers Resolution represents a disaster waiting to happen.  The conditions for another  disastrous war are upon us. We presently have a rapidly developing vortex and sinkhole.  The vortex is war, the sinkhole is Syria.  What  is the real cause of the incoherence, confusion and divisiveness swirling like a deadly vortex into a sinkhole called Syria?

Nations do not go to war for moral reasons; nations go to war for political reasons or, otherwise put, for reasons of state.  We can and do sometime deceive ourselves into thinking we went to war against Germany in 1941 out of moral conviction and to stop the Holocaust.  In fact, the Holocaust began in 1933 – fully eight years before the US got into the war. 

We rarely read or hear about the Evian (aka "Nations of Asylum) Conference at Evian-les-Bains in France in 1938.  Called by President Franklyn Roosevelt, the stated purpose was to come to the rescue of German Jews.  Thirty-two nations attended, expecting the US to take the lead.  The delegates were reportedly stunned when the US declined to raise America's own quota of 25,957 Jewish immigrants a year from Germany and (newly annexed) Austria. 

The US got into World War II the same way and for the same reason(s) we entered World War I – reluctantly and belatedly.  Only when it became clear that Great Britain, the traditional "keeper of the balance" in Europe, was overmatched by Germany and that none but the United States could prevent Germany from establishing its hegemony on the Continent.  A Nazi-ruled  Europe, with its Axis partner Japan pre-eminent in Asia, would have posed a grave threat to the United States.

Not muddle-headed morality, but hardnosed realpolitik is what best explains why nations go to war. Only when the leaders and led are confused, duped or utterly ignorant of history do nations make the drastic choice to go to war for any other reason. 

Saying we can stage air strikes against another country without going to war in the classic sense is Orwellian doublespeak in the classic sense.  Declaring the use of chemical weapons constitutes "a red line" is tantamount to saying some acts of depravity are too evil to be ignored and obviously is meant as a veiled  threat; and it implies that the morality of mass-murdering innocent civilians depends on the means used – a claim that borders on the absurdity.  Is gassing women and children worse than fire-bombing (we did it in WWII and Vietnam) or bludgeoning them to death?

Nobody with an ounce of decency can deny that the Assad regime is a moral obscenity and there can be little doubt that he is guilty of heinous crimes against humanity.  But that's not the question.  The question is whether it's in our national interest to go to war against Syria.  The answer to that question is obvious. 

No. 



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ABOUT Thomas Magstadt

Tom Magstadt earned his Ph.D. at The Johns Hopkins University School of International Studies. He is the author of "An Empire If You Can Keep It: Power and Principle in American Foreign Policy," "Understanding Politics: Ideas, Institutions and Issues," and "Nations and Governments: Comparative Politics in Regional Perspective." He was a regular contributor to the Prague Post in 1998-99 and has published widely in newspapers, magazines and journals in the United States. He was a Fulbright Scholar in the Czech Republic in the mid-1990s and a visiting professor at the Air War College in 1990-92. He has taught at several universities, chaired two political science departments, and also did a stint as an intelligence analyst at the CIA. He is a member of the board of the International Relations Council of Kansas City. Now working mainly as a free-lance writer, he lives in Westwood Hills, Kansas.

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6 comments on "Syria: War Against What? Why We Fight (and Lose)"

mattsimonchua

September 09, 2013 12:17am

Good point regarding the moral absurdity of the means of weapons used to butcher civilians.

Brian Glennie

September 08, 2013 4:34pm

Who gave the U.S. the right to judge, jury, and executioner.
I know the rest of the Americas- Canada, Mexico, Central and South American countries don't support this Western gunslinger mentality

Ron in NM

September 08, 2013 4:18pm

I am not aware that anyone is proposing that we "go to war against Syria." Of course I oppose that. But does a "surgical strike" against the nerve gas capability mean that we're going to war? I don't know enough about what is really planned, but I do think we should do something. Just lodge a complaint with someone that Syria used nerve gas against his own citizens? How would that stop them from doing it again? I do think they would be emboldened to do it again, and all the jihadists in the Middle East will be thinking along the same lines. They will think that we're "sick of war" and therefore won't do anything to anyone who does something illegal and immoral. Remember, some of these people want to put Islam in charge of the whole world.

Bush turned us against military action because he led us into a totally unjustified war, and he wanted to replace Saddam Hussein. Look at what that cost us. I was opposed to that war before it was even launched. But does that mean that now we're going to turn our backs while children are dying painfully from that deadly gas Assad is using? Are we suffering, as a nation, from Bi-Polar Disorder?

Chamberlain tried to mollify Hitler, but it didn't work. Shall we now try to mollify Assad? No, I don't want our soldiers in Syria, definitely not. But does a military strike mean war? Do any of us really know?

Life is complex, as are international affairs. What happens if we do something, and what happens if we do nothing? We can only speculate. I guess I just can't forget the image of those children and toddlers squirming and writhing in their death gasps. Try as I may, I can't turn my back on that.

brother doc

September 08, 2013 3:45pm

1. There are several historical omissions/inaccuracies in the author's account of the run-up to WWII, just to name one obvious one, Hitler declared war on the US after Pearl Harbor convinced him that his Japanese ally, had already inflicted a mortal blow to the US and it would be years, if ever, before we could recover and pose a threat to his European ambitions. We did not go into the war over the Holocaust--it, too, did not start till after the Wannsee conference in late 1942 set in motion the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.
2. The more important question not being asked in all this approach to a Syrian confrontation is, why is the USA doing this for Israel? Why have we given Israel the deathgrip over American policy in the middle East? Would it really be in the US interest to let a country which already is armed with 150+ nuclear weapoons, a foreign policy that consistently antagonizes all its nbeighbors by the way it treats the Palestinian people, and which is already receiving biollion$ in military aid from Uncle Sugar every year, decide the next steps in our policy in the region? I amtired of carrying Israe's burden, and of course I know I will be called an anti-Semite for criticizing anything Tel Aviv does but the fact is, the US has and should have interests besides following Netanyahu's redlining everything happening over there. Next up: Iran?

brady

September 07, 2013 8:45am

Fighting with arms is never right. We should ban all arms and talk to each other.

Ron in NM

September 08, 2013 4:12pm

Yes, let's all join hands and sing "Michael Row the Boat Ashore."

What happens if the other guys don't want to ban all arms and talk to us? What then? Do we just keep talking to ourselves and hope for the best?