Among the many questions Americans might be asking ourselves as Congress considers President Barack Obama’s proposal for a military strike against Syria, one is whether unilateral military action is the only or best way to respond to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Instead, the discussion so far has been mainly about whether to bomb, not about any other possibilities for holding the Syrian dictator responsible for this brutal crime.
Let’s stipulate that Bashir Assad’s regime did use chemical weapons and that this time we have the evidence to prove it. Secretary of State John Kerry has been eloquent and convincing in making that case, even if many around the world are understandably skeptical, given our loud insistence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction when in fact he did not.
The weaker part of our brief this time has been the second half of the administration’s argument: that therefore we have no choice but to hit Assad militarily. Though it’s clear that the United States – and the world – should not simply shrug our shoulders about this latest crime, it does not automatically follow that U.S. air strikes are the best way to go. The widespread assumption that this is the single option seems to prove an old axiom: If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
No other nation with the possible exception of France seems ready to act militarily, so once again it is America’s golden hammer that is poised to strike. But the American people are weary of being the world’s policeman and question why it should fall to us uniquely to enforce what are after all international laws and conventions. If the violations are so obvious and evil, where are our friends and allies and other believers in the rule of law? Isn’t their credibility at much at stake as ours?
The answer in part is that many around the world share our abhorrence about what Assad has done but don’t buy the Obama administration’s prescription for dealing with him. They’ve seen us use that hammer too many times and concluded that military force will not solve this political problem. They fear that military action, though justified, will only result in more deaths, more physical destruction and more refugees. Americans are increasingly sharing that view, as indicated by the widespread opposition to the measure now before Congress to authorize the use of force.
Some of our other options
So what to do then if we want to see Assad held accountable but not get into another war? Well, we might consider some of the tools in our national-security and foreign-policy toolbox other than air power. We could accuse Assad and his henchmen of war crimes and begin a process for eventually putting them on trial. We could deepen our economic sanctions against Syria, freezing the assets abroad of the country and key officials. We could boycott Syrian goods and embargo arms shipments. We could ask our NATO allies, who depend on us for their security, to join in such steps and in barring Syrian regime representatives from international forums.
Along with these and other punitive actions, we could and should increase our humanitarian assistance to the millions of Syrians who have had to flee their homes to escape the fighting. Again, we should insist that our NATO allies, G-20 members and Arab friends do the same. We might ask Russia and others to offer asylum to Assad and those around him if they would step down and leave the country, giving them some incentive to quit rather than fight to the death.
And yes, we should help those among the Syrian opposition who are committed to a democratic government, though we should not intervene directly on their behalf or make it our job to tilt the military balance in this civil war in their favor. Obama has said there is no military solution to this conflict, and he should resist those in the Senate who contend it should be U.S. strategy to pursue one.
In sum, we indeed need to do something to ensure that international laws are enforced, not flouted. But we show a disappointing poverty of imagination if the only option we can conceive is brute force. We can do better than that.
Dick Virden a retired foreign service officer and a graduate of the National War College.
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