Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Ill-Judged U.S. Intervention in Syria has Backing of California Senators

According to CNN, Californians can assume that after the President’s decision to allow Congress to vote on whether or not to bomb Syria over the likely use of chemical weapons by its government both of the state’s senators will support military action, even though the administration has not made a persuasive case for whether military action is capable of helping Syrian citizens, what form such action will take, or what it hopes to achieve.

Senator Barbara Boxer opposed Bush’s war on Iraq, and it is therefore somewhat surprising that the relatively progressive Senator is signing up to an open-ended, ill-defined military action which seems unlikely to bring a close to a civil war which has claimed over 100,000 lives, forced 2 million Syrians out of the country, and turned over 4 million more into refugees within their own country. 

Saner voices have pointed out that the U.S. might be better-advised to focus on achieving a settlement to bring an end to violence rather than ramping up the killing, a diplomatic offensive which could be accompanied by legislation allowing more Syrian refugees into the U.S., or providing support on a larger and more systematic scale to refugee camps outside of Syria.

But instead our representatives seem intent on war.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, one of the foremost neoconservatives remaining in the Senate, and one of its most arrogant proponents of state secrecy, has been calling for punitive action, which is perhaps the worst and most ill-judged thing the U.S. could do, given that such attacks will inevitably be made without long-term aim and that the only thing we can be sure about is that they will not protect Syrian citizens from the ravages of their government. 

The Senator, who staunchly defended the NSA’s illegal spying, failed in her duty to execute oversight of that spying, pushed the President to escalate the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and supported the war in Iraq in 2003, is now pushing for what she calls a “meaningful response” from the U.S.  But she gives no hint of what form she thinks that response should take, and is willing to write the President a blank check for the use of force before she even knows what kind of action the administration is contemplating (in fact, Feinstein has opined that allowing Congress to vote on a bombing war is unnecessary).  Her statements—“clearly Assad must go”—seem to indicate that she is eager for a broader war.

This is precisely what occurred in 2003, when Congressional officials—either eager for war or anxious to get the responsibility for decision-making out of their hands—gave the Bush administration carte blanche to wage war. 

Feinstein and Boxer are failing in their responsibility by acceding to a request for military authorisation that will arrive in Congress unaccompanied by a legal basis, a real security rationale, a workable template for intervention, and any sense of what a military attack will actually achieve.  They are failing to remind the administration of past, bloody foreign policy blunders, they are failing to demand that it provide proof that military action is either necessary or workable, and they are failing to ensure that there are alternative strategies on the table for debate.

Members of the administration are no better.  Secretary of State John Kerry might not be stooping quite as low as the neocons who questioned the patriotism of anti-war opinion, but in calling opponents of the bombing campaign “armchair isolationists”, he is attacking their credibility while failing to address any of the serious issues they raise (in fairness, some Republican critics of intervention are isolationists).  Kerry had his “slam dunk” moment, eerily reminiscent of the reassurances given by Bush-era war criminals, when he “guaranteed” that Assad would use chemical weapons again if the U.S. did not act.  Hillary Clinton—who backed the war in Iraq and as Secretary of State pressured the President to escalate U.S. involvement in South Asia and expand the War of Terror—is also backing military action. 

Since yesterday, President Obama has indicated that he is considering something more dramatic than a brief bombing campaign, and that regime change is in fact on the table.  But he is unable to explain how this can be done without causing great suffering to a citizenry which is already in danger of losing a generation to a terrible civil war, or what sort of regime he would be changing to.  Earlier comments about the dangers of degrading Assad’s capabilities too much indicate that the administration is aware of the perils in creating a total power vacuum, but as the invasion of Iraq in 2003 demonstrated, that is precisely what this style of “regime change” is almost guaranteed to create.

In defending its policy on military intervention—or lack of anything coherent enough to be dubbed a policy—the Obama administration has repeatedly said that irrespective of international law, international institutions, or international partners, the U.S. will act in its own “best interests”.  But that misses a critical point.  This is a humanitarian crisis we’re talking about.  The people whose lives, livelihoods, homes, and futures are at stake are the Syrians who our actions will invariably affect.  They deserve something better than this slapdash, seat-of-the-pants intervention “a la Iraq”, which will contribute to chaos and amplify violence.

The President talks about the “credibility” of Congress and the UN being on the line.  How can he or the Congress be taken seriously if they would drag the U.S. into a war in which they refuse to define their objectives, explain their reasoning, or convincingly demonstrate that they possess the wherewithal to achieve good results?  How can the UN function well when its most powerful members, who retain right of veto over its actions, support its institutional framework and legal apparatus only when it is convenient?  The unenviable situation the U.S. faces is very much one of its own making, coming on the heels of decades of unacceptably imperialistic behaviour, years of refusing to accede to international norms, and a lengthy history of mounting senseless, botched, and frequently downright immoral military interventions.

The President’s problem is that neither he nor Congress, including Senators Feinstein and Boxer, has any credibility going into this situation.  And tragically, rather than working to rebuild that credibility by dedicating themselves to using legal processes to develop a workable framework for intervention—military or otherwise—our representatives are beating war drums and resorting to the tried-and-failed methods of administrations past, methods which will yield neither security for the U.S. public or peace for Syrian citizens. 

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