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Some bigger questions beyond who wins or loses the vote on Syria

The arguments for and against President Obama’s Syria proposal run deep  — and also run backwards and forwards in time and sideways into politics.

A boy dives into a crater filled with water in Deir al-Zor, Syria, on Wednesday.
REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

This Syria thing is a big, complicated deal.

Don’t trust your first reaction to the big questions or the smaller questions contained within. Keep your mind open but listen critically to the arguments on both sides and try to separate big, enduring considerations from the distractions.

Watch out for the mainstream media narrative. It is way too distracted by who’s going to win or lose politically and, of course, by whatever is the latest development.

Conventional journalism is fine at the “breaking news” but has trouble even acknowledging big, deep discomfiting questions that cannot be clearly answered within the boundaries of the objectivity paradigm or within their presumptions about your attention span.

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The arguments for and against President Obama’s proposal, and his decision to ask Congress to authorize it, run deep — and also run backwards and forwards in time and sideways into politics.

Backwards into the U.S Constitution and the War Powers question, into the long discussions of American exceptionalism/U.S. imperialism, and much more history than that.

Forwards into what the neoconservatives are fond of calling “the next American century,” which is not so different from the argument that the United States must continue to run the world for the world’s own good.

Sideways into politics is just a stupid phrase I made up to refer to the interesting double-interruption that this issue is causing in the otherwise most predictable syndrome of the last five years in Washington, the syndrome that might be called if-Obama-is-for-it-all-the-Dems-will-vote-yes-and-all-the-Repubs-will vote-no syndrome. This is a partisan stereotype scrambler and that is healthy.

Anyway, I think the issue is a great starting point for 100 discussions. I beg your indulgence to kick off a few of them in the days ahead with short bursts of background and analysis that I hope will occasionally border on insight. But if I’m to do that candidly and honestly, I think I have to be clearer about where I stand than I did on Saturday in the moments after Obama made his surprising I’m-going-to-seek-congressional-authorization-to-strike-Syria statement.

Convincing evidence

I believe the administration has convincing evidence that the Assad government used chemical weapons to massacre civilian men, women and children. I don’t have the expertise to really judge the evidence and I know many people were wrong about Saddam and WMD and maybe one day we will discover that we were all being buffaloed, but I doubt it. This feels completely different from Iraq on the evidence score. Bush was looking for an excuse to start that war. Obama has been looking for a way to stay out of this one. And the skeptics on this one are not Hans Blix; they are officials of the Russian government whose motives may be somewhat less pure.

If I was in Congress and if I had confidence that a brief bombardment of key military/weapons sites in Syria would kill relatively few innocent bystanders, significantly degrade Syria’s ability for future use of chemical weapons, deter other vile dictators from thinking they could get away with using similar weapons, not lead to a wider Mideast war, not produce a currently unimaginable blowback against the United States in the future and a few other difficult things, I would reluctantly vote for it.

But If I had to vote yes-or-no right now, I would vote no.

I’m not an isolationist. I want my country to be involved in the world. I want it to join international organizations and play a leadership role, commensurate with its power and wealth, in promoting peace and progress. I want it to have strong alliances and to stand by its allies. I detest the way that word “isolationist” is used to describe anyone who is resists the latest idea for getting my country into another war.

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It bothers me that my country gets into more wars — way more, it isn’t even close — than any other country on earth.We make excuses. We try to make it sound noble. (We are the arsenal of democracy!) We believe our own protestations of good intentions. We try to use words other than “war.”

The U.S. Constitution authorizes Congress to “declare war.” But no president since FDR has asked for a declaration of “war.” Obama is asking for a mere “authorization to use military force.” But if anyone did to us what we are contemplating doing to Syria, we would know what to call it. U.S. Rep Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said recently: “I think that anyone who argues that shooting missiles and dropping bombs on another country is not an act of war has got some further education warranted.”

Going to war is and should be a big deal. People are going to get killed. Yes, I know. People are already getting killed, in large numbers, in Syria, every day. And in lots of other troubled places around the world, too. And, sadly, this will be true for the foreseeable future.

But if people are going to get killed by the U.S. military, that is on all our hands and we need to focus as clearly and calmly as possible on the big questions of whether should we do this and why should we do this. Here’s one, and it is from Obama’s speech last weekend and (to me) it’s the best argument for going ahead:

Here’s my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community: What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price? What’s the purpose of the international system that we’ve built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world’s people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced?

A message

I know one message it will send and it is this: You can get away with using chemical weapons. And, of course, that is a terrible message. And it will be a terrible thing for the world if the use of chemical weapons becomes more common and acceptable. The world has supposedly banned the use of chemical weapons, but it has no regular, credible way to enforce that ban. The U.N. is supposed to do it, but it simply doesn’t work except in those unfortunately rare instances in which the five permanent members of the Security Council can agree.

(By the way, did you know that there was once an international agreement banning war entirely? It was the Kellogg-Briand Pact. Kellogg, the U.S. secretary of state who negotiated the pact in 1928, was even a Minnesotan. Most of the nations of world signed on. Most of the nations of the world have subsequently participated in wars.)

So, if a brief, relatively non-lethal show of U.S. force to punish Syria and diminish its capability for future uses of chemical weapons could occur with the likely effect of significantly buttressing the international
prohibition on such weapons, without bringing on a parade of horrible unintended consequences, I think I would vote aye.

But what if President Assad of Syria decides to respond by gassing even more people? I guess the logic of this justification means we’d have to hit him again, only harder. And what if some other country is the next one to use or develop banned weapons, and that one happens to also have a friend on the U.N. Security Council? Would the United States have to bomb that country too? Would we have a new doctrine that the way the world enforces the ban against the use of chemical (or biological or nuclear) weapons is that the United States bombs them, with or without allies, with or without U.N. authorization?

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Well, OK, that’s one of those big, deep discomfiting questions that I don’t hear anyone addressing. And I wouldn’t vote yes until I heard an answer to it that made sense to me.

Maybe that’s enough for now. But I hope to be back soon with more questions.