Congress is listening: What should you say?

I was for Obama, against the Iraq War, and I wish Clinton had stopped the Rwanda genocide. What should I tell my undecided representative in Congress?

When President Obama asked for Congress to authorize a strike against Syria, he created a chance for your voice to be heard.

I’ve long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And that’s why I’ve made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.

It’s just a chance, mind you. Congress often does unpopular things when powerful interests are involved or inside-the-beltway opinion-makers decide that the People don’t really understand the situation. And while the President asked for congressional authorization, he also said that he didn’t need it and he didn’t promise not to act without it. So it’s entirely possible that the attack will go forward whether the American public approves or not.

Still, you have opportunity to be heard. Lots of senators and representatives in both parties are still reported to be undecided, and I believe a number of them honestly don’t know what to do. The White House and the leadership of both parties in Congress want some form of an authorization to pass, so there will be a lot of pressure coming from that direction. If representatives don’t feel countervailing pressure from their constituents, the path of least resistance will be to go along.

So you should definitely contact your representative and senators this week, before they vote. But what should you say?

Pro-Obama but (mostly) anti-war. Syria has been a difficult question for me, and it seems to be difficult for many of my friends, both the face-to-face and Facebook varieties. As this blog’s regular readers undoubtedly know, I generally (though not always) support President Obama. I voted for him twice, I believe in his overall good intentions, and I tend to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I also am not a pacifist. I supported President Clinton’s bombing campaign in Kosovo, and I regret that the United States did not try to stop the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur. And though I was ambivalent about getting involved in the First Gulf War, when I saw how it played out I gave the first President Bush credit for engineering a broad international effort that achieved a decisive victory.

But I also grew up watching the Vietnam War unfold on television, and was glad that the draft ended before I had to decide what to do. While I initially supported the Afghan War (as part of the broad national consensus that we had to chase down the 9-11 planners no matter what government stood in our way), I soon became disillusioned with it. And I opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, because the second Bush administration’s multiple, conflicting justifications just didn’t add up. I supported anti-war candidates like Howard Dean in 2004 and (I thought) Barack Obama in 2008.

So now I have to think about Syria.

Make it stop. In some ways, Syria resembles Rwanda or Darfur: Civilians are being killed by the thousands — more than 4,000 in August, according to PBS. The UN estimates that more than 2 million people have left the country, and another 4.5 million are displaced inside Syria. In a country with a prewar population around 22 million, that means that more than 1/4 of the country has been displaced.

So it’s hard to argue with that voice in your head that says: “Make it stop.” But how?

The August 21 attack. The trigger for the current crisis was the chemical weapons attack on August 21, which the US government has estimated to have killed 1,429 people, mostly civilians, including 429 children. The Assad regime had been accused of using chemical weapons before, prompting President Obama to make his “red line” comment. (Assad’s ally Russia has put out a report claiming that the Aleppo chemical attack in March happened, but anti-Assad rebels were responsible. France, Britain, and the US have accused Assad.) But the evidence for the August 21 attacks near Damascus is clearer.

Multiple independent accounts make it fairly certain that somebody used chemical weapons near Damascus on August 21. You can argue how certain it is that Assad is responsible.  The most persuasive case I’ve heard that he wasn’t behind the August 21 attack comes from the octogenarian foreign policy analyst William Polk. Polk’s argument is basically that (because he was already winning the civil war) Assad had little to gain and a lot to lose by launching a chemical attack that would further destabilize Syria and give the United States a reason to intervene. Conversely, the rebels had reason to want to shake things up.

The German newspaper Bild Am Sonntag quotes German intelligence sources as saying that Assad’s forces launched the chemical attacks without his authorization, which seems a little far-fetched, particularly if you believe the Aleppo attacks happened. Assad also seems to be in no hurry to bring his war-criminal underlings to justice.

A variety of conspiracy theories blame third parties for the attacks: Obama did it, the Israelis did it, and so on. (I haven’t found a space-alien theory yet, but why not? It sounds like exactly the kind of thing the Founders from the Gamma Quadrant would do to foment internal discord among the humans.) I have a high evidence threshold for such theories, so I’m ignoring them until I hear something a lot more substantial than what’s come out so far.

Maybe this is my general give-Obama-the-benefit-of-the-doubt assumption talking, but I find the argument the US government is making more convincing: Simultaneous attacks on multiple locations implies a level of coordination the rebels don’t have. The locations correspond to places the regime was shelling anyway. Satellite images show rocket launches from regime-controlled areas. And:

We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence. On the afternoon of August 21, we have intelligence that Syrian chemical weapons personnel were directed to cease operations.

Now, you and I can’t check the satellite imagery and the communication intercepts; all we have is the word of people like John Kerry. Presumably the classified briefing given to Congress had more details. According to the Washington Post, after hearing the briefing

Lawmakers from both parties said there was widespread agreement with the evidence that Bashar al-Assad’s regime carried out the chemical attacks

(That includes Ron Wyden, a Democrat who is skeptical of administration claims on other intelligence-related issues.) I interpret this to mean that if you doubt Assad is responsible, you have to believe that the Obama administration is fabricating evidence out of whole cloth. After the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq, that kind of villainy in high places is not unthinkable. But I just don’t believe Obama is that dishonest, and I don’t see his motivation for trumping up an unnecessary war. (I know about the Iran pipeline theory, but I’m not persuaded.)

So I’m assuming the Assad regime used chemical weapons on August 21 near Damascus, and quite likely in March and April near Aleppo. I don’t see why we can’t or shouldn’t wait for the UN inspectors to confirm that conclusion — former UN inspector Hans Blix made this point to Rachel Maddow — but I expect that they will confirm it.

Why attack? The next step in the administration’s case is that we have a responsibility to enforce the international norms against chemical weapons use. Secretary of State Kerry put it like this: Our response

matters because a lot of other countries, whose polices challenges these international norms, are watching. … They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it, because then maybe they too can put the world at greater risk.

This is where they lose me, in the steps from “Assad has done something evil.” to “Somebody should do something about it.” to “The United States should launch an attack.”

Inconsistent motives. The problem is that we’re juggling two very different motives: The humanitarian desire to make it stop (where the chemical attacks are only one slice of “it”) and the desire to punish Assad for using chemical weapons, in the belief that his punishment will deter governments in general from using chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons in the future.

Punishment produces the vision of a surgical strike: We’ll launch a wave of cruise missiles that destroy a bunch of stuff Assad values, convincing him that future chemical attacks will cost him more than he’ll gain. The whole thing will last a couple of days and then we can stand aside again. But make-it-stop requires a much more involved commitment: We need to hit Assad hard enough (with the threat of more later) to convince him he can’t win militarily, then broker a peace settlement and maybe provide peacekeeping troops to enforce it. (That’s the Kosovo scenario.)

Make-it-stop pushes us to act quickly: People are dying every day. That’s why we can’t wait for a laborious (and possibly broken) UN process to assess Assad’s responsibility and do something about it. But the punishment scenario is much less time-sensitive. If Assad winds up deposed and facing the World Court in five or ten years, the point will be made.

I’m worried that the combination of motives will get us in trouble: We’ll move quickly and imagine we can disengage quickly, only to discover we haven’t really accomplished either objective. Then what?

The Emperor of the World. The punishment motive also has two roots: Are we punishing Assad for violating international norms against chemical weapons, or for doing something the President of the United States told him not to do.

Much of the inside-the-Beltway talk revolves around the second root: President Obama drew a red line, and now he has to back it up. We have to prove that we mean what we say. Otherwise the United States will lose face in the world, with dire consequences like Iran going forward with a nuclear weapons program.

This is imperial thinking, and I believe it’s dangerously misguided. It frames the President as the Emperor of the World, empowered to decide who is allowed to fight whom and which countries can be granted which kinds of weapons. If we think this way, we will always be fighting a war somewhere, until ultimately our economy breaks under the strain.

I totally understand the temptation to fantasize about ruling the world and making everyone behave. Without that fantasy, the future is filled with fears I have no answer for, what-if-Iran-gets-the-bomb being only the beginning. But it is a fantasy and we need to plan for the real world, where not even the United States has the power to make everyone behave. It is simply insane to be debating whether we can afford Food Stamps or Social Security while at the same time imagining that we have the resources to rule the world.

Another example of imperial thinking: We always imagine that our opponents will submit to whatever moves we make rather than respond with moves of their own. We imagine that the battlefield will be the one we define, and the enemy won’t step outside it. What if we’re wrong about that? What if Assad or Iran or Hezbollah decides to expand the battlefield with assassinations or subway bombings or hostage-taking or something else we’re not discussing? If you’re prepared to take the first step, are you prepared to take more steps if that’s not the end of it?

The international process. I spent a little time this week looking into the international-law aspect of chemical weapons, and it turns out to be iffier than you might think. (Ezra Klein does an excellent summary.) The Geneva Protocol of 1925 (which Syria signed) does ban chemical weapons for “use in war”. At the time, everybody was thinking about World War I, so whether it was intended to ban governments from gassing their own people is still a dubious point. (Is Assad “at war” in the Geneva-1925 sense?) The Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 is more sweeping, but Syria never signed it.

Still, let’s assume that taken together, these and other international agreements establish a global consensus against chemical-weapon attacks. How should that be enforced?

The CWC creates the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to monitor the agreement and delegates enforcement to the UN. Article XII says:

The Conference shall, in cases of particular gravity, bring the issue, including relevant information and conclusions, to the attention of the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Security Council.

Rajon Menon at The National Interest summarizes the weakness of Obama’s international-law case:

The president has also stated that it’s essential to ensure that the bans on chemical weapons are respected. Yet the 1925 Geneva Protocol contains no provisions for unilateral enforcement by states, let alone via military force. The same goes for the Chemical Weapons Convention (which Syria has not signed). It calls for “collective measures…in conformity with international law” to address serious breaches. There’s no basis for the United States to don the mantle of self-styled enforcer.

And the legal case for unilateral action is further weakened by the lack of a self-defense rationale under the terms of the UN Charter: Assad has not used chemical (or any other) weapons against the United States.

Our case would also be stronger if we supported international law across the board, rather than only when it suits us.

Everyone is assuming Russia will veto any action against Assad in the UN Security Council. But we don’t actually know that, and if it happens, we could still appeal to the General Assembly. (Both steps depend on the UN inspectors agreeing with our assessment that Assad used chemical weapons, or at least not contradicting it.) If that failed, we could still assemble a coalition of nations outside the UN. Assembling that coalition will be easier if the UN process is demonstrably broken, rather than if we just assume it won’t work and don’t try it.

The Iraq lesson. We always have these discussions in analogies. Is this Iraq or Kosovo or Vietnam or World War II? (BTW: I think it’s time to retire the Munich analogy. Assad is not going to conquer France if we fail to stop him now.)

Obviously, Syria is its own unique situation. So if we bring up another country from another time, we need to be specific about what lesson we’re trying to apply.

Here’s the lesson I bring forward from the decision to invade Iraq: It’s important to pin down one clear reason to act, with one clear goal for the action.

In the 2002-2003 Iraq debate, the Bush administration had at least half a dozen reasons to invade: Saddam was developing nuclear weapons, Saddam was evil to his own people, Iraq was a threat to Israel, we could make Iraq a beacon of democracy for the Muslim world, Saddam was responsible for 9-11, Saddam might give WMDs to al Qaeda, and on and on and on. None of them exactly held water, but if you challenged one, administration spokespeople would shift to another rather than answer your objections. So arguments with well-informed critics tended to go round and round rather than reach any clear conclusion.

The result of that muddle was that we invaded with no clear goal, so we could never declare victory and get out. We couldn’t get out quickly after toppling the regime, or later when we captured Saddam, or later when our inspectors determined there were no WMDs.

We’re out now. Do you feel victorious?

And so in Syria: Are we attacking to end the suffering of the Syrian people? To topple Assad? To punish a violation of international norms? To prove to Iran that we mean what we say?

You can’t say “all of the above” because there is no plan that accomplishes all those things. The only reason the administration is hinting in all those directions is that no single reason persuades enough people.

That’s dangerous. It invites mission creep, where we decide we’re doing a quick-and-easy strike to punish Assad, and then go further rather than explain why the strike didn’t accomplish all the objectives people had in mind when they supported it.

The objectives one-by-one. Make-it-stop is the motive I most sympathize with, but also the one that calls for the most open-ended commitment with the least chance of success. I like the goal, but I’m not willing to pay the price.

Punish-Assad-for-using-chemical-weapons is the low-cost scenario, but we need to be open about the limitations of the goal. We’ll hit Assad, stop, the killing will go on, and eventually Assad will probably win the war anyway. The public needs to understand that from the outset. So far, the administration has been hiding that limitation rather than explaining it clearly. I can’t support them until they discuss this more honestly, because otherwise we’re setting ourselves up for the mission to creep towards make-it-stop.

By itself, the anti-chemical-weapons motive is not time sensitive, and I think we’ll succeed better by playing a long game that goes through the UN process. Whether that process succeeds or fails, we’ll build a larger coalition that will be a more persuasive deterrent going forward.

Punish-Assad-for-defying-the-World-Emperor is part of a long-term delusion that will eventually crash the United States if we don’t root it out. We have to reject this thinking wherever it appears.

What I am telling Rep. Annie Kuster (NH-02), and what I hope you’ll tell your representative. The primary lesson of Iraq is that an intervention needs two things:

  • a single clear justification that gives us a single clear goal
  • a plan that leads to that goal at a price we are willing to pay

So far, President Obama has not identified that justification/goal/plan/price. Until he does, Congress should not authorize an intervention in Syria.

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  • Irene  On September 9, 2013 at 11:10 am

    A news commentator said yesterday that the situation is dangerous, as are all of our options. But if we say we are going to do something and then don’t, we put ourselves in an even more dangerous position. It’s possible that given overwhelming opposition by the people Obama could say he was wrong and is not going to act. But no huge cry was raised when he drew the line on chemical weapons. Most agree with it in principle. If Obama were to go back on it, even due to lack of support, it really would make him look very weak in the eyes of the Middle East, as they are already saying as he delays. That is what he has to weigh.

  • dc4art  On September 9, 2013 at 11:53 am

    Thank you for writing with a very clear style that makes it much easier to understand the reasons to go into Syria.

    I agree the make it stop reason is the best to go in but how long do we want it to stop is the best question.

  • Irene  On September 9, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    Also, Obama has given a clear goal: impair the ability of the Syrian gov. to use chemical weapons, through destruction of command centers, weapons if possible, and also by sending the message. And he has said it will be limited, but he cannot reveal the exact actions. He has given them quite a bit of warning. Asking him to show the plan is, forgive me for being blunt, naive in my mind.

  • GraNygun  On September 10, 2013 at 1:21 am

    “Obama’s overall good intentions”


    That’s…that’s a good one. Would these be the overall good intentions about campaigning against a war and then, in the midst of dismal poll numbers, agitate for one? Or would they be the condescending manner at which he talked to the American people about the NSA overreach? Or would they be the condescending manner in which he approaches the American public that does not agree with him, allowing his proxies in the media (and in the blogosphere, AHEM) do his dirty work for him? Would these good intentions be his time and again lies about things so small as “I didn’t say red line”, “the Cambridge police dept acted stupidly”, or the big ones like “If you like your plan you can keep it” or “Benghazi was over a video tape”?

    Thanks, I needed that laugh


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