The San Francisco Chronicle ran a story on Friday describing the “outsized role” that California’s senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, are playing in President Obama’s drive to war in Syria. To “outsized”, we might add the adjectives “irresponsible”, “reckless”, “lazy”, and “dangerous”.
The President has not specified what form his intervention would take. At some times he has suggested that it would take the form of a brief bombing campaign. At others, he has suggested that regime change is on the table. Both Feinstein and Boxer premise their support on the assumption that “Obama is requesting a limited engagement, with no troops”.
Such an engagement would be the worst of all worlds. It would spawn a predictable backlash against the United States, would risk solidifying Assad’s public support against an external threat, and would be unable to destroy Assad’s chemical capabilities. On top of all of this, it would manifestly fail to protect Syrian civilians, who are as vulnerable to conventional as chemical weapons (over 100,000 people have been killed in the course of the civil war). Such an intervention is not humanitarian in nature, but merely punitive.
The Chronicle described how “both premise their support for a strike on Syria on a need to prevent the United States from being seen as a ‘paper tiger’”. In other words, this is about an ugly nationalistic ego and the need to do something, anything, even if it is a spectacular failure when it comes to helping Syrians who will be the ones to pay the price for the ill-judged U.S. attack.
Feinstein—a committed neoconservative who supported the Iraq war, defended illegal NSA spying after failing in her oversight duties regarding the same, argued for escalation in Afghanistan, and is the Senate’s most influential proponent of state secrecy—is circulating a DVD showing the horrific results of the chemical attack in Syria (widely assumed to have been mounted by President Assad, although the U.S. has failed to declassify the intelligence which they say proves as much) as a way of pressuring her colleagues in Congress to act. This is a good example of Feinstein missing the point which her characteristic aplomb. No one needs convincing that the chemical attacks were a bad thing. No one thinks that Assad is a good guy.
But wallowing in what scholars of human rights refer to as a “pornography of suffering” is no substitute for planning and policymaking. We can’t allow our emotions to drive bad policy which will compound the plight of Syrian citizens. We recently had a eight-year experiment of “government by gut”, of watching a President conduct his foreign policy based on the movements of his alimentary canal. In case anyone’s forgotten, it didn’t work.
In a very real way, Feinstein’s own chickens are coming home to roost. The war of aggression in Iraq, the many vetoes at the UN to support human rights violations by U.S. allies, and the refusal of the U.S. to sign up to international treaties are precisely the things which have weakened and undermined international laws and norms. U.S. hypocrisy does not provide an excuse for the behaviour of other states’ terrorism. But it does explain why the U.S. finds itself in such a weak position, and why the sociopathic regimes in Russia and China are easily able to block U.S. efforts to censure Syria’s government or protect its citizens.
Feinstein’s rationalisation of her decision to back military intervention also demonstrates her well-documented contempt for her constituents and the public interest. Writing of those constituents, she remarked that they “have not seen what I have seen, or heard what I have heard”. And the good Senator is doing her best to keep it that way. If she knows of some concrete objective for U.S. intervention, or is aware of some secret plan for a successful humanitarian intervention, she would do well to share it with the public. But the Senator has never been able to contain her impatience with those of us in the public who think that we deserve to understand the basis for her decision-making, or our view that because when government acts it acts in our names, we need to exercise a little oversight of our own when it is so clear that she and her colleagues aren’t up to the job.
The longer we keep people like Feinstein in powerful positions in the Senate, the weaker the U.S. will grow, both in terms of its moral legitimacy and in terms of its capacity to influence global developments.
Barbara Boxer’s support for military intervention is a little more surprising. Boxer once said that her commendable vote against Bush’s war of aggression on Iraq was her proudest moment, and something that was a “comfort to [her]”. As it should have been. The Senator went out on a limb and rejected a war that was based not only on lies, manipulated intelligence, and a violent neoconservative ideology, but also a misconceived sense of U.S. power, a rejection of international law, and a failure to understand both the point and nature of humanitarian interventions.
If her Iraq vote—where she was clearly in the right—was a comfort to Senator Boxer, her Syria vote might very well haunt her. The President’s argument that it is necessary to break international law in order to defend it might find more sympathetic ears if he was willing to leverage U.S. intelligence findings about the chemical attack to persuade other state actors at the United Nations, or if he was willing to explain to the public what he would actually like to achieve in Syria, and how he thinks a limited unilateral intervention can achieve that goal.
Boxer reiterated a demonstrably false opposition, suggesting that the only alternative to military action is “walk[ing] away”. She is wrong and she should know it. There are many alternatives to military action which have yet to be exhausted. Most of these alternatives stand a much greater chance of bringing some peace to Syrians, and to actually helping the country and its citizens than an ill-defined military intervention.
Instead, Senators are preparing to write the President a blank check as he fumbles to make up a policy for intervention on the fly. Everything he and his cabinet have said about the proposed U.S. military intervention in Syria suggests that should Congress endorse the President’s request for authorisation, the U.S. will be acting in a careless way which is likely to do more harm than good in Syria.
A successful humanitarian intervention should be concerned with the welfare of the people it is seeking to protect rather than the nationalistic ego of the country staging the intervention. Feinstein and Boxer should reject the President’s rush to a military solution and ask the administration to prioritise humanitarian relief, a diplomatic offense, and efforts to isolate the Syrian government and bring a halt to, rather than escalate, the violence in that country.