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7 questions about the Syria airstrikes that aren’t being asked

Rejecting reckless calls to military action: Now that’s a “presidential” act worth bringing back.

Image Credit: Reuters
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Mission accomplished,” says the President. What, exactly, was the mission? And what exactly was accomplished?

Donald Trump is being mocked for using this phrase in a tweet to praise what he claims was a “perfectly executed” airstrike against chemical weapons facilities in Syria. This recalls George W. Bush’s egregious evocation of the phrase in 2003 to claim an early end to the U.S. entanglement in Iraq, which is still ongoing fifteen years later.

History made a fool of Bush for that proclamation, which was printed on a banner behind the President as he delivered his speech proclaiming an end to the Iraqi conflict on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

But Bush’s foolish and lethal incursion to Iraq had the backing of virtually the entire national-security establishment. So did Donald Trump’s bombing attack on Syria, as did the bombing attack he ordered last year.

The costs of intervention

U.S. media, for the most part, reinforce the idea that intervention by our military is the preferred solution to global conflicts. Some of the same reporters who now mock Trump for saying “Mission Accomplished” cheered on Bush’s invasion of Iraq. They remember Bush’s errors, but not their own.

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The media’s job, we are told, is to ask skeptical questions about the people in power. That didn’t happen much in the runup to the invasion of Iraq, and it’s not happening now. Here are the questions that should be asked – not just on the eve of a bombing attack, but every day we continue our disastrous and drifting military intervention in the Middle East.

  1. Why couldn’t the military wait for inspectors to do their jobs?

Inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international non-proliferation organization, were scheduled to arrive in Douma, Syria on Saturday, April 15 to begin investigating the reported chemical attack on civilians there. The airstrikes took place on Friday, April 14.

This is a disturbing echo of the 2003 Iraq invasion. There, too, the United States was unwilling to wait for international inspectors to discover the facts before beginning the attack. Fifteen years on, we know that didn’t work out very well. Why couldn’t the bombing of Syria wait for inspectors to do their work?

  1. How do we know we’re being told the truth?

“We are confident that we have crippled Syria’s chemical weapons program,” said U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. That statement was echoed by military leaders. But a report from Agence France Presse suggests that one destroyed building, described by attacking forces as a chemical-weapons facility, was actually a pharmaceutical and research facility specializing in food testing and antivenoms for scorpion and snake bites.

“If there were chemical weapons, we would not be able to stand here,” said someone who identified himself as an engineer who worked at the facility.

Given our country’s long history of public deception from military and civilian officials, why aren’t we demanding independent confirmation of the airstrikes’ effectiveness?

  1. Have strikes like these ever really “punished” a country’s leader – or “sent them a message,” for that matter?

We keep hearing the cliché that airstrikes like these are meant to “punish” leaders like Assad. This time was no different. And yet, it’s unlikely that Assad personally suffered as a result of this attack.

So who, really, are we punishing?

Then there’s this comment, from Defense Secretary James Mattis: “Together we have sent a clear message to Assad and his murderous lieutenants that they should not perpetrate another chemical weapons attack.”

That was also the presumed purpose of Trump’s last missile attack on Syria, less than a year ago. Trump supporters claimed that attack sent a forceful “message,” too – to Assad, to Putin, the Chinese, and others. “With just one strike that message was sent to all these people,” claimed former Trump advisor Sebastian Gorka.

The situation in Syria did not perceptibly change after that attack. And the day after this latest airstrike, Assad launched a new round of airstrikes of his own.

These airstrikes seem more performative than tactical – warfare as theater, but with real lives at stake. There must be better ways to send a message.

  1. Why isn’t the full range of U.S. activity in Syria getting more coverage?

Thanks to widespread under-reporting of U.S. involvement in Syria, commentators can complain about “years of unmasterly inactivity by the democracies” with a straight face, wrongly blaming that nation’s disasters on a failure to intervene.

In a paragraph that was subsequently deleted from its website, the Washington Post wrote that the latest airstrikes “capped nearly a week of debate in which Pentagon leaders voiced concerns that an attack could pull the United States into Syria’s civil war.” As of this writing, that language can still be found in syndicated versions of the article.

We were pulled into that civil war a long time ago.  The United States has more than 2,000 troops in Syria, a fact that was not immediately revealed to the American people. That figure is understated, although the Pentagon will not say by how much, since it excludes troops on classified missions and some Special Forces personnel.

Before Trump raised the troop count, the CIA was spending $1 billion per year supporting anti-government militias under President Obama.  That hasn’t prevented a rash of commentary complaining about U.S. “inaction” in Syria before Trump took office. It didn’t prevent additional chaos and death, either – and probably made the situation worse.

  1. Where are the advocates for a smarter national security policy?

There’s been very little real debate inside the national security establishment about the wisdom of these strikes, and what debate there has been has focused on the margins. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a senior State Department official under Secretary Hillary Clinton in the Obama administration, tweeted:

I believe that the U.S., U.K, & France did the right thing by striking Syria over chemical weapons. It will not stop the war nor save the Syrian people from many other horrors. It is illegal under international law. But it at least draws a line somewhere & says enough.

In other words: This attack will not achieve any tactical goals or save any lives. And it is illegal – just as chemical weapons attacks are illegal – under international law. It’s illegal under U.S. law, too, which is the primary focus of Democratic criticism.

But, says Slaughter, the amorphous goals of “drawing a line” and “saying enough” make it worthwhile, for reasons that are never articulated.

Michèle Flournoy, who served as Under Secretary of Defense under President Obama and was considered a leading Defense Secretary prospect in a Hillary Clinton Administration, said:

  • What Trump got right: upheld the international norm against [chemical weapon] use, built international support for and participation in the strikes, sought to minimize collateral damage — Syrian, Russian, Iranian.

  • What Trump got wrong: continuing to use taunting, name-calling tweets as his primary form of (un)presidential communication; failing to seriously consult Congress before deciding to launch the strikes; after more than a year in office, still no coherent Syria strategy.

How can a country uphold international norms by violating international law?

If Trump lacks a coherent Syria policy, he has company. Obama’s policy toward Syria shifted and drifted. Hillary Clinton backed Trump’s last round of airstrikes and proposed a “no-fly” policy for Syria that could have quickly escalated into open confrontation with Russia.

The country deserves a rational alternative to Trump’s impulsivity and John Bolton’s extreme bellicosity and bigotry. When it comes to foreign policy, we need a real opposition party. What will it take to develop one?

  1. “Take On” Russia? Really?

Commentators have been pushing Trump to take aggressive military action in Syria, despite the potential for military conflict with nuclear-armed Russia. MSNBC’s Dana Bash accused Trump of “an inexplicable lack of resolve regarding Russia” – leaving the audience to make its own inferences – adding, “We have not been willing to take them on.”

In the same segment, reported by FAIR’s Adam Johnson, Bash complained that “the U.S. hasn’t done “a very good job pushing Russia out of the way,” adding that “we’ve let Russia have too free a hand, in my view, in the skies over Syria.”  Her colleague Andrea Mitchell responded that “the criticism is that the president is reluctant to go after Russia.”

The drum beats on

“Mission accomplished.”

This drumbeat of political pressure has forced Trump’s hand. He has now directed missiles against Syria, twice. Both attacks carried the risk of military confrontation with the world’s other nuclear superpower.

That risk is greater than most people realize, as historian and military strategist Maj. Danny Sjursen explained in our recent conversation.

Trump has now adopted a more aggressive military posture against Russia than Barack Obama. Whatever his personal involvement with the Russian government turns out to have been, it is in nobody’s best interests to heighten tensions between two nuclear superpowers.

The national security establishment has been promoting a confrontational approach, but they’ve been unable to explain how that would lead to a better outcome for the US or the world – just as they’ve been unable to explain how unilateral military intervention can lead to a good outcome in Syria.

  1. Did the airstrikes make Trump “presidential”?

“Amid distraction and dysfunction,” wrote Mike Allen and Jonathan Swan for Axios, “Trump looked and acted like a traditional commander-in-chief last night.”

The constitutional phrase, “Commander in Chief,” was originally understood to underscore the fact that the military is under civilian control. It has devolved into a title that confers a quasi-military rank on the president. That’s getting it backwards. The fetishization of all things military is one of the reasons we can’t have a balanced debate about military intervention.

Besides, saying that an act of war makes Trump “presidential” – that’s so 2017!

Here’s a suggestion: In 1963, John F. Kennedy rejected his generals’ advice to strike Soviet installations during the Cuban missile crisis.

Rejecting reckless calls to military action: Now that’s a “presidential” act worth bringing back.

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