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