Credit where it’s due. To say that I’m no fan of the North State Congressman Doug LaMalfa would be a dramatic understatement. But when Congress sought to reign in the NSA’s illegal spying, LaMalfa supported the move, which ultimately failed thanks to fierce attacks from the security establishment’s staunchest defenders in Congress (Senator Dianne Feinstein among them) and intense lobbying from a President who has shown himself as eager to prosecute the War of Terror as his right-wing predecessor.
Now, Congress faces its next test. Aware of public scepticism and perhaps understanding that his legacy is in danger of resembling that of George W Bush, President Obama has asked Congress to approve his plans to launch bombing attacks on Syria after the administration claimed that the government there used chemical weapons to kill Syrians.
This is the rare case where I think the administration is probably motivated by something resembling a humanitarian conscience, and I accept the President’s contention that he is doing this for the “right” reasons. But because it is an intervention which makes little sense, which would fail in achieving its stated goals, would violate international law, and would place the United States in a precarious and ultimately untenable situation, I believe that it must be opposed, and that Congressman LaMalfa should vote against the measure which seeks to launch yet another war which will be colonial in style even if not in ambition.
Many on the political right in the United States sneer at the idea of international law, particularly when that law places checks on their efforts to launch bloody invasions like that in Iraq and restrains the U.S. from behaving like a rogue terrorist state. But surely even those who reject the idea that the United States should respect such laws can appreciate the pragmatic argument that the almost obsessive flouting of international law earns the United States a great deal of opprobrium, guarantees that its citizens will experience what the irresponsible national security community quaintly calls “blowback”, and all but ensures that we are unable to build broad-based coalitions when there is a real need for humanitarian intervention.
LaMalfa’s superiors in Congress will be putting pressure on the Congressman to support them. Boehner supports the bombing campaign and Majority Leader Cantor argued that “Assad’s Syria, a state sponsor of terrorism, is the epitome of a rogue state, and it has long posed a direct threat to American interests and to our partners”. I suspect that those who have been tortured, kidnapped, or seen their countries bombed by the U.S., or those whose family members have been murdered by the U.S. government might add some caveats to the first part of Cantor’s statement.
But the second part is typical of the innuendo and insinuation that dragged us off to war in Iraq ten years ago. Cantor’s statements require far more evidence and proof than anyone in the administration or Congress has been able to bring forward. Now more than ever, I suspect that Assad has enough on his plate that he is not plotting against the U.S. in any kind of systematic way, if indeed he ever was. There has been no suggestion that there is an imminent threat to the United States. Cantor is agitating for war, and trying to fudge his responsibility to make a case for that war in exactly the same way that the neocons and their hired guns did in 2002 and 2003.
The President is aware of this, and is trying to be the anti-Bush, claiming that “What we are envisioning is something limited. It is something proportional. It will degrade Assad’s capabilities”. But how limited? Proportional to what? And to what end will it degrade Assad’s capabilities.
All of this opens up a bigger question: why this sort of intervention, and what will it achieve?
The sabre-rattling was sparked by a chemical attack which claimed many lives. But a bombing campaign which the President has said might last for as few as 48 hours will be the worst of all worlds. It will kill Syrians, including civilians (the military has already withdrawn into neighbourhoods). But the U.S. is reportedly wary of hitting chemical sites for obvious reasons. And the past two years have proven that Assad does not need chemical weapons to kill his countrymen in spectacularly large numbers. Even if the U.S. can degrade his chemical capabilities, there is no hint that his conventional weaponry will be sufficiently damaged to keep him from carrying on killing. Moreover, the administration has been unable to explain why, after a brief bombing campaign, civilians will suddenly become safer.
The moment the first missile is launched, the U.S. will become an aggressor in a region where it has particularly bad form when it comes to bombing and ransacking countries, often for despicable reasons, and leaving them and their citizens in a shambles. And it will have initiated a conflict in which it is painfully obvious that the administration is acting at the urging of war-crazy agitators like John McCain (who is pushing the president to engage in a more sustained and expansive war), and out of a sense that some action is better than no action, but with no actual sense of what it can accomplish, or even any idea of what it would like to accomplish even if the tools at its disposal proved adequate for the task.
Obama’s drive to attack Syria might lack the messianic drive that characterised Bush’s vicious, illegal war on Iraq, but it will end in the same chaos. I am not averse to humanitarian interventions, and can accept that sometimes they will require the use of military force. But in those terrible situations when force might be necessary, that force should be leveraged legally, it should be applied purposefully, and there should be high certainty of achieving an outcome which will actually benefit the people the intervention is designed to protect rather than simply adding to the growing body-counts and rubble, and to the number of bombs raining down on beleaguered cities.
It is painful for many people to accept, but because of the bridges we’ve burned, the bombs we’ve dropped, the moral legitimacy we’ve ceded, and the violence we’ve sown in the past, largely though certainly not exclusively under the leadership of LaMalfa’s party, the U.S. increasingly lacks the wherewithal to mount a successful humanitarian intervention. Assad is tearing his country apart and visiting ruin on Syrian citizens (and evidence suggests that many of the rebels might be little better), and it would be wonderful if there was a way for the international community to stop the violence. But that community is almost invariably undermined by its most powerful and least responsible members (Russia and China in some cases, the U.S., Britain, and France in others), and if the U.S. government cannot even articulate a plan for a successful intervention, there is no reason to believe that one could readily be mounted.
According to CNN, LaMalfa has expressed scepticism about a bombing attack on Syria. I don’t know what motivates that scepticism (and I hope it’s more than the bloviating stupidity which must have motivated the posting on his twitter feed of a story suggesting that Obama wants to bomb Syria on behalf of his “Islamic proxies” to start a war on Israel), but it is certainly healthy and welcome, particularly given that both of our Senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, have indicated their support for bombing and killing.
LaMalfa wouldn’t earn my vote by opposing the drive to war, but he would earn some respect. And I believe he would be taking an important step in reforming the wayward, imperialistic, militaristic, and hubristic character of U.S. foreign policy.