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

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

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.

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.

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?

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.

Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 09/05/2013 - 10:25 am.

    Vote No

    Eric, I’d vote against it too, for the same reasons that you’re listing. I haven’t heard anyone explain how bombing strikes will actually improve things for civilians in Syria. The risks for downsides are big and there is virtually no upside.
    The reputation argument is a harder one since it involves subjectivity and people actively trying to push public opinion in their favor. I’m skeptical that failure to act will lead other dictators to think that they can simply gas their people at will. After all, we’ve sent plenty of ‘messages’ to other bad actors over the past twenty years. They don’t seem to be learning from them.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/05/2013 - 01:23 pm.

      Except for Gaddafi

      After the U.S. accused Libya of the 1986 Berlin disco bombing, in which two American soldiers were killed, Ronald Reagan bombed Libya in retaliation.

      In addition to destroying Libyan military installations, one of the targets was Gaddafi’s tent. Two of his sons were injured and his four-year-old daughter was allegedly killed.

      Reagan was criticized around the world for his “cowboy” actions, but we never heard from old Moammar again until just prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq when he voluntarily turned over all his chemical and biological weapons to the UN.

      The difference is, there was no civil war between terrorist organizations to get in the middle of. Reagan just took out the bad guy. Figuratively to be sure, but he essentially neutered Gaddafi for the rest of his time upon the world stage.

      Obama could have done that with Assad. Two years ago. But it’s too late now.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/05/2013 - 02:20 pm.

        Gaddafi was there

        and causing trouble for Libyans — he just didn’t cause -us- any trouble.
        But then, Assad hasn’t killed -any- Americans yet, so the analogy breaks down.

  2. Submitted by David Frenkel on 09/05/2013 - 11:28 am.

    Large stockpile

    The other unanswered question is why but most accounts does Syria have the largest stockpile of CW in the world? Certainly there is Russian involvement in this stockpile which might explain why the Russians are against any punishment for Syria. Both China and Russia walked out of UN talks on what to do about Syria. China just wants to try to minimize US political and military influence around the world.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/05/2013 - 11:51 am.

    By definition, dictators DO think they are above the law, and think that they DO have the right to do what they wish.

    What would the reaction be, if we made clear that if Assad were to survive this war, he would have to present himself and the people who made the decision the to the World Court for adjudication, and if he did not, they then would be targeted personally?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/05/2013 - 02:25 pm.


      They believe that they -are- the law.
      And I’m still not clear how you would compel Assad to appear before the World Court and abide by its rulings (assuming that Russia and China allowed any).
      ‘Targeting’ Assad takes us back to where we are now; we are trying to impose some sort of unwritten ‘natural international law’ without any specific legal authority.
      This puts US above the law.

  4. Submitted by Jim Camery on 09/05/2013 - 12:38 pm.

    What is a WMD?

    Sarin gas certainly is, but was napalm also a WMD? Is starvation?

  5. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/05/2013 - 12:41 pm.

    I’d vote against it

    for a number of reasons.

    First, an attack on a foreign nation is an act of war. Period. It requires Congressional action.

    Second, as I understand it, the U.N. treaty recognizes a nation’s right to go to war under very limited circumstances. Using chemical weapons in a civil war is not one of them. There is no imminent threat to America, as I understand the term for purposes of a recognized right to commence war. Yes, our interests will be affected by the end result of the Syrian civil war, but that’s true of virtually any and every civil war waged in the 21st century.

    Third, as others have suggested elsewhere, if the use of chemical weapons against one’s own people is a crime under international law, then our efforts are best directed at compiling and presenting evidence of that crime to the appropriate tribunal, not engaging in an ilegal war.

    Fourth, even if all of these hurdles could be overcome, I do not see how a missile attack will put an end to the use of chemical weapons. To the contrary, I think their use already signals a level of desperation on Assad’s part. Attempting to bomb him into submission and out of office, under the guise of preventing further chemical attacks, can only increase his desperation and what he’s willing to do to remain in power.

    Fifth, what is it we expect to happen if he does leave Syria, presumably with some guarantee that he won’t be tried for crimes against humanity and a safe place to live out his life? There is no clear leader able to step into the breach and forestall a struggle for control of Syria, certainly not one aligned with U.S. interests.

    Nail down the case against Assad, bring the Russians and Syria’s other supporters on-board as best we can, and present the evidence to a court. It’s the only legal and sensible thing to do in the face of this insanity.

  6. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 09/05/2013 - 12:44 pm.


    I would vote against it because among the many unknowns is one known: more people will die. And the possibility of once again getting into a Middle East war is just unacceptable.
    Sending a message kills. And it may not stop other nations from cheap and easily concocted gas.

  7. Submitted by Dan Landherr on 09/05/2013 - 12:50 pm.

    That second to last paragraph is dangerous

    It says that the US will be dragged into a war any time someone decides to use chemical weapons. Why give a foreign dictator the power to determine our foreign policy? What happens when the entity using chemical weapons isn’t a nation?

  8. Submitted by Matt Snyders on 09/05/2013 - 12:59 pm.


    Mr. Black, I believe it’s time for you to pick a new profession. Your shilling for the administration grows more transparent every day. Now it’s just embarrassing. This paragraph in particular was head-scratching (to use the most charitable term):

    “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.”

    To what specific “convincing evidence” do you refer? The administration is REFUSING TO MAKE PUBLIC THE EVIDENCE citing “national security” concerns. This is a decision that’s spurred controversy/suspicion pretty much everywhere in the world. In other words, you dedicated an entire section–titled “Compelling Evidence”–to slavishly defending the administration’s case for war WITHOUT ONCE mentioning that the administration is refusing to publicize said evidence. Most obvious question first: how can you call evidence “convincing” when you haven’t even seen it? That is unless your only intent is to reassure readers that everything is fine with the president’s war plans and that they should go along with them– in which case, you’re filing war propaganda, not political analysis. And most certainly not journalism.

    But wait, what’s that? You say this “feels” different than Iraq. Okay. But based on what facts? (Truthiness?) I’ll spare you my feelings and share some parallels I and others have observed.

    Just like in Iraq 11 years ago, U.S./U.N.-condoned weapons inspectors failed to turn up anything. Now they’re being forced to leave early out of fear of American bomb strikes (just like Iraq). John Kerry later said their findings wouldn’t gave mattered anyway; take a moment to ponder what that must imply. 

    Fascinatingly, what should be the central crux of the debate (The UN.’s findings) is being buried–in some cases blacked out–by Western establishment media outlets (just like Iraq). The administration’s only PUBLICLY ACKNOWLEDGED evidence comes in two forms 1) some Internet video footage of dead people, and 2) anonymously provided hair follicles that came totally “independent” of the U.N. Investigation. The story goes that the DNA come to us courtesy of unnamed “first responders,” who, according to John Kerry, went through “an appropriate chain of custody” that evidently didn’t include anyone but American government brass. In other words, all the evidence we’re going off is coming from just one source–the administration–which we know has been itching for a Syrian skirmish for years and whose credibility is severely lacking (just like Iraq). And now a brain-dead press is parroting war-mongering administration talking points with zero shame or critical thinking (just like Iraq). But I get it. It FEELS different. The man selling thus war has a D in front of his name instead of an R.
    Finally: are we going to pretend this Daily Mail story never happened? This was on Yahoo! News in January. Not exactly Conspiracy Central.

    “U.S. ‘Backed Plan to Launch Chemical Weapon on Syria and Blame Assad Regime'”

    (Because that’s the only way to explain away something of this magnitude. Just pretend it never happened and hope people will forget).

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/05/2013 - 02:34 pm.

      A basic constitutional note:

      We are a Republic (recite the Pledge) not a Democracy.
      We delegate decision making to our elected representatives; we do not make decisions by mob rule (plebiscite).
      So, the full evidence has been shown to our elected representatives, to whom we have delegated the right and responsibility to make decisions in our name. There is no requirement in our system for the same information to be made publicly available, and good practical reasons why it should not be.

      And a rumor is still a rumor.
      Even the (nearly unreadable) image that you provided states that it concerns ‘allegations’ based on a leaked email from a contractor; not a communication by the United States government.

      • Submitted by Matt Snyders on 09/05/2013 - 04:06 pm.

        I’m sorry

        …but I can’t tell if you’re being serious. If satire is your goal, you’re going to have to take the absurdity-level up a notch. Because hard as though it is to believe, there really are a number of unprincipled party hacks out there who resort to exactly the same straw-gasping mumbojumbo you just parodied.

        (All you need to do to trick these party tribalists is switch party identification. Once anti-war progressives are promoting a Neo-Con agenda simply because the NeoCons switched parties. This is why Obama has continued and intensified the Bush/Wolfiwitz agenda despite his campaign propaganda to the precise contrary: the NeoCons simply switched parties and got behind a more palatable, progressive-marketed puppet. Don’t believe me? Look at campaign financing. He was the Pentagon’s and Wall Street’s darling from the start. Watching democrats defend NeoCons is entertaining theatre if nothing else).

  9. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/05/2013 - 01:16 pm.

    Phrasing the questions

    Makes the difference.

    If we are asking whether we can be -certain- that a limited intervention will save innocent lives, then the answer is no, we can’t. This is a high setting of the bar; it means that we will hardly ever intervene; possibly never, since there are always unlikely (but unquantified) possibilities where things can go wrong.

    What I think we’re left arguing about is how confident we are in a positive outcome (and again we must specify what this is). To me, we are in a situation where the government of Syria is going to be led by nasty people given any outcome. There are no good guys.
    So, our best interest is that no one wins; that we are left with a balance of power such that neither Assad or the rebels gains complete control. Currently the balance appears to be shifting in Assad’s favor, so we should provide just enough support to the rebels to restore the balance. This appears to be what we are doing — if we gave them what they want (air support and heavy weapons) this would shift the balance in their favor.

    Limiting civilian deaths is a separate question.
    Punishing Assad for using chemical weapons might well cause him to kill people in other ways, but I’m not sure that being burned to death in a rocket attack is any better than being poisoned.

    So yes it is possible that a limited attack would cause Assad to respond by gassing more people, but this seems unlikely. We may term his use of violence psychopathic, but his history of playing the geopolitical game seems quite skillful and rational. I think he is likely to make the choice that appears to further his interest.
    He has not been using poison gas because he enjoys it; he is using poison gas because it is a cost effective terror weapon. If the cost of using that weapon increases significantly, he will use other weapons.
    So the bottom line is whether the cost to him is significant; this we will know only in hindsight.

    All of which means that there are no good choices; just the least of the bad ones.
    I don’t think that doing nothing is acceptable (it isn’t to me).
    Formal international action is not an option since Russia and China are an impassible roadblock in the U. N. NATO might be a solution since Turkey is a member, but so far Syria’s military actions against Turkey have been limited to shooting down one plane and some artillery fire, so the odds of NATO getting involved are limited so far.
    Which leads us to the informal international option of a ‘coalition of the willing’. So far France is aboard. Britain opted out, but Parliament appears about to reconsider. So we will see. If Britain jumps back in (which they should; they defined the country of Syria in the first place) then Congress will probably do likewise.

    • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 09/05/2013 - 03:56 pm.


      I’m not asking for 100% certain proof, I’m asking for some sort of plausible narrative where it actually helps people on the ground. I’m not getting that anywhere. I need someone to explain how some sort of limited strike or ‘shot across the bow’ will actually improve the situation. This should be a basic part of the explanation but it’s missing entirely.
      Are you serious that we’re going to try and maintain the balance of power? Are you really suggesting that we’re getting into the middle of a civil war to make sure that no one wins it? That we simply extend it? Frankly that’s crazy talk.

      • Submitted by Lance Groth on 09/05/2013 - 06:23 pm.

        Disconnect on Objectives

        I don’t believe that the Administration’s goal is to improve conditions for people on the ground, nor to tip the balance in the civil war. In fact, I’m quite certain I heard an Administration spokesman (can’t remember now if it was Kerry or who) state that there is no intention of regime change. I believe that the goal is narrowly defined as punishment for violating the international ban on chemical weapons, and degrading of Syria’s capability of using such weapons again. Period, end of plan. I suppose you could say that preventing further use of chem weapons would “improve conditions for people on the ground” – but given the carnage in Syria, I hardly think they’d notice.

        Now, there may be a broader objective for which the above is a pretense, but everyone involved in the discussions, on both sides of the aisle, agree that there must not be a “boots on the ground” invasion. Air power alone is unlikely to unseat Assad – wars ultimately must be won by the foot soldiers – so the stated objectives seem to be just that.

        So the relevant question is simply, is it appropriate for the U.S. to use its air power, on behalf of the world community but acting alone if need be, to punish the Assad regime for its use of chem weapons? For myself, I hate the thought of it, it seems that we must, or be seen as total hypocrites and give up on any claim to moral authority regarding the use of WMD’s. That said, ultimately I do not think that anything good will come of it, and there are any number of awful consequences that may spin off from it. But the same is true of doing nothing. The choice seems to be between the repugnant and the horrible. Which is why it’s such a tough decision.

  10. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/05/2013 - 04:56 pm.

    I vote no

    Matt Snyders makes an important point, though I’m skeptical of the implied conspiracy theory — and of Eric Black’s involvement in that conspiracy.

    Beyond that, the most persuasive arguments I’ve come across are the ones supporting opposition to the proposed “surgical” military action. In that context, and on these pages, James Hamilton makes what are, for me, the best arguments against the proposed military action. I particularly like his plainly-stated first sentence. As Eric suggested in his piece, we would not take kindly (to phrase it as politely as I can at the moment) to another nation doing to use what we’re proposing to do to Syria. Pretending otherwise is delusion. I’m not aware of any document, that gives the President of the United States the unilateral authority to send a military attack against another country that, no matter how brutally it may treat its own people, has done nothing — overtly, at least — to harm the United States or its interests.

    That there may be terrorists inside Syria whose malevolence toward the U.S. is open and plain is not sufficient justification for a missile attack. There are terrorists hostile to the United States in practically every country on the planet, including our own.

    In the end, I go back to James Hamilton’s list, and find it a persuasive argument against doing what Mr. Obama seems intent on doing. Should we go ahead with what I regard as a misguided and mistaken action, I don’t see any upside for the U.S. “Surgical” strikes with cruise missiles are “surgical” in the sense that a hacksaw and hatchet are more precise than a rock-crusher. There are bound to be “collateral damage” casualties, and saying “Gosh, we didn’t *mean* to kill your family” is not going to be any more persuasive in Syria than it has been in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Assad is despicable. He deserves every bit of enmity directed his way. But he has not attacked the United States, and no matter how much we may dislike him, there’s no legal or constitutional justification for attacking his government.

  11. Submitted by Kevin Watterson on 09/05/2013 - 05:27 pm.

    The United Nations is useless in matters of war and security, so maybe the only true way to “ban” the use of chemical weapons is for the United States to enforce it with military force. Not a pleasant thought, but a thought nonetheless.

    • Submitted by Matt Snyders on 09/05/2013 - 06:32 pm.

      If that were really the case…

      We now know a British defense company provided nerve gas to the Assad regime– this has created quite the stir across the pond. Evidently Cameron he British goverment hatched the deal on behalf of *10 months after the conflict began.* You can read more here:

      So if the United States is serious about enforcing this “ban,” I assume we’ll be bombing Great Britain tomorrow. (You know, those English-speaking white people. Don’t worry about collateral damage– the bombing will be very strategic, yes, very precise).

      One voice conspicuously silent in this bizarre, soulless debate: that of the Syrians themselves. If the whole objective were truly humanitarian, surely we’d hear more input from them. What percentage of any people in any country do you suppose support the idea of a foreign military dropping bombs on them? Again, this whole debate is just bizarre. Mere incompetence can’t explain it.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/05/2013 - 08:19 pm.

        From your link:

        “The Government was accused of “breathtaking laxity” in its arms controls last night after it emerged that officials authorised the export to Syria of two chemicals capable of being used to make a nerve agent such as sarin a year ago.”

        • Submitted by Matt Snyders on 09/05/2013 - 10:59 pm.


          …and it gets worse. But of course you already know that because you read the whole thing.

          • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 09/06/2013 - 08:18 am.

            The chemicals were never exported to Syria

            Also from your article:

            “The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: ‘You see the system working, with materials not exported. The facts are that the licences were revoked and the exports did not take place.'”

            This is repeated a number of times throughout the article. The controversy is over the licenses being granted by a UK authority, but because Syria is a country under sanctions, the European Union revoked the licenses before any materials were actually exported.

            I also read the whole thing.

  12. Submitted by Mr Utley on 09/11/2013 - 04:44 am.

    OK, How about.

    Syria says it is willing and actually wants to get rid of its chemical weapons. Then throws the entire UN Inspector logistical mess in the way. Who determines compliance, who grants access, who provides security for the inspectors, who disposes of the chemicals, and on and on.

    We have a large force sitting out in the ocean with a finger on the trigger out of harms way. “No Boots”
    How about we test the resolve to get rid of these weapons by Syria and just maybe any of its willing neighbors. Open offer.


    Have each country wishing to turn over the humanitarian card, bring their weapons to the closest naval port, they will be inventoried and receipts and agreement of no future use signed. The weapons are then taken to an agreed off shore location where they will be destroyed. Anyone wishing to verify can be there in a neutral location to verify the destruction.

    THEN —- The next of these countries that uses any of these weapons in the future is in violation not only to previous agreements but also a very current one. They become the fair game target of all others who complied and agreed to the current disarmament.

    We stay out of the way. These countries become responsible not only for themselves but their neighbors. Let them work together, it is not just our idea it is theirs. We have all witnessed the result of their resolve to a cause and the extent they will go to to insure that resolve.

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