03 September 2013
Syria Pro and Con
For the sake of argument, here are ten arguments apiece for and against a punitive attack on Syria, submitted by a Jordanian website. In the U.S. arguments for the strike are being made in Washington, while Russia reportedly wants to send lobbyists to make the case against intervention. The Russian case against intervention is self-evident: that country makes money from the Assad regime. Whether they're capable of making a principled argument I can't say, but the demand for principled arguments may be part of the problem. What "principle," exactly, puts President Obama on the same side as Sen. McCain, and actually compels the winner of the 2008 election position shape his position to satisfy the loser? When McCain enters the debate, the immediate provocation of chemical weapons becomes less relevant. He's been pushing for a more aggressive American stand against Assad since the Syrian civil war broke out, on the apparent assumption that nothing could be worse than an anti-American dictator. Most Americans who support intervention feel a predictable moralist outrage over the atrocities purportedly perpetrated by a dictator. They may be incapable of entertaining the possibility, however slim, that the rebels carried out the chemical attack; instead, they reflexively assume that any suggestion of that possibility is a lie by Assad and his unprincipled Russian friends. They are definitely incapable of considering the possibility that Assad is the country's best option at this point in history -- that anyone morally preferable would be unable to take or consolidate power, while anyone capable of replacing him is also capable of more mischief. The image of the dictator blinds some observers to the realities of a situation. So long as a dictator exists, there must be a better alternative, and that alternative must be supported. Expressed another way, wherever there is tyranny there must be freedom fighters, but that assumption has little basis in history, and to intervene in Syria on the assumption that doing so will give the inevitable freedom fighters their best chance to come to the fore is delusional. As for the specific provocation of chemical weapons, as far as I can tell no treaty or law obliges individual nations to take punitive military action against governments that use such weapons. The argument made by the Obama administration is about preventing a precedent for the use with impunity of chemical weapons, but it's really up to the people of each sovereign nation to decide whether they give themselves the duty to enforce this particular taboo at the risk of their lives in distant lands. As for the President himself, his position increasingly looks little more principled than Russia's. Obama is clearly looking to save face, or cover his ass, depending on your perspective, but his implication that any forthcoming debate in Congress only figleaves his eventual use of executive prerogative power is more troubling than anything Republicans have ever accused him of. Presidents of the United States need to stop thinking of themselves as the ultimate enforcers of international justice, and as the men who ultimately define it. That Obama may make concessions to McCain, and larger concessions yet to Republicans -- will someone dare suggest sacrificing Obamacare for authorization? -- may tell us all we need to know about the difference between what people think Obama stands for, or what they want him to stand for, and what he actually does stand for.