Where I Stand On Attacking Syria

At this point I oppose authorizing President Obama to attack Syria and I thought I should explain why.

First, attacking Syria as the president has said he believes we should does not rise to the level of a just war. To be just a war must have a number of characteristics: just authority, just ends, just means, and, something that should go without saying, there must be a reasonable expectation that the means will effect the ends. In my view two of those (authority and effect) are seriously deficient and another (end) is weak.

Second, consider the authorization the president has requested. I honestly don’t see how anyone could vote for that in good conscience. It is too unlimited in time, space, and means. It would authorize the president to invade Syria or to continue bombing Syria (or Iran, for that matter) for the rest of his presidency. It’s not an authorization; it’s a free hand.

My opposition is not ideological or categorical. It’s practical. I can imagine circumstances under which I’d support attacking Syria but present conditions don’t even bear a remote resemblance to those circumstances.

16 comments… add one
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  • steve Link

    We are weak on authority. The effect is pretty likely. He has lots of ways to kill people. If the cost is too high, he wont use gas. He has, rationally, not provoked Turkey or Israel. I dont see any reason why he wont be rational about this also. That said, I think the authority issue is a major problem. While I think we have more to lose than anyone should chemical weapons become more widespread, at present this is a broad issue for the civilized countries of the world. I have reservations about us being the only ones to act on this.

  • Piercello Link

    Steve, I counter via aphorism: “there are no rational people, there are only rational arguments.”

    Very little about the stated urgency of joining this dust-up makes sense to me, given the available information, and the situation is rife with opportunities for rapid escalation in several nasty directions. Rational? Given the way we got here, I’m certainly not convinced.

  • michael reynolds Link

    I don’t give much weight to the “authority” argument. The UN means little to me. If Congress approves I’m content with that box being ticked off.

    I agree with Steve that the effect is likely to be, er, effective.

    I’m mildly opposed, but not very concerned either way. A punitive attack is not Normandy. This is small-bore stuff which I think has been blown wildly out of proportion. We already had this same frenzy over Libya which ended up being an event we’ll have forgotten two years from now and won’t rate even a footnote in the history books.

  • Andy Link

    Dave, didn’t you get the memo? This isn’t a war in the “classic” sense, it’s an “action” to “degrade a man” who deserves it.

  • michael reynolds Link

    AIPAC has apparently decided to go full court press to back the resolution. I think that’s the ball game, but just as important is what it has to say about Israel’s position. They’re undoubtedly counting Iran into the equation. What’s interesting is that Israel seems less than worried about a Sunni Syria.

  • I think you’re making the same mistake you’ve made before. Sure, there’s some level of military action that would discourage Assad (assuming that the regime did, in fact, use chemical weapons which is in dispute). That’s not the question. The question is whether the level of military action that the president is proposing will have that effect. I know of no informed individual who has made that claim other than those who are actually in the administration.

    We’re left then with two alternatives, neither of which is particularly appealing. Either the president is lying about what he intends to do or what he intends to do won’t have he desired effect.

    Further, the president of the United States does not have the authority to punish foreign heads of state for how they conduct themselves in internal matters, especially given treaties to which we are signatories which, like it or not, are the law of the land.

  • TimH Link

    Dave, on your last comment, I heard John McCain making that claim on NPR yesterday. The biggest straw man being erected (in our crowded field of foreign policy scarecrows!) is that we lose “credibility” if we don’t go in and do something. (The President says we go, we don’t go… there’s no credibility.) First, our enemies can read American politics more than we think they can.

    Second, our “credibility” hinges on our ability to create change in Syria. There are no options being discussed that would personally hurt Assad, or remove his ability to inflict chemical (or conventional) attacks. Our credibility is hurt because we can’t bomb our way out of this, without massive civilian casualties, possibly some of our own, and a significant waste of treasure.

  • One of the handicaps of being world hegemon is that they inevitably know more about you than you do about them.

  • jan Link

    According to Obama his credibility is not at issue here. It is now Congress whose credibility is on the line — or, so he wants people to think. Was this the underlying reason, all along, to suddenly bounce the ball of ‘authorization’ towards congress — giving them them the backpack of blame to carry, should things fall apart? Patterns are hard to break, and this is something Obama has been incredibly adept at doing with anyone or everything that didn’t work out too well during his term in office. Is it happening once again, as he ‘talks’ in Sweden about the crisis in Syria?

  • PD Shaw Link

    1. I remain undecided, and would prefer to wait until the U.N. reports its findings. The U.S. reporting that it was a Sarin gas attack on Sunday removed an initial objection, though I think that claim should have been the beginning of a national and international discussion.

    2. The President seeking Congressional approval is good, particularly given the international norms he wants to enforce. To the extent that the action is to enforce a so-called global taboo, its just as important for the President to struggle to obtain broad recognition of this taboo, as it is to act on it unilaterally.

    3. However, I personally find the international norm against chemical weapons weak. Looking at the history of the various treaties and conventions going back to WWI, it appears that the primary taboo is against using chemical weapons in a conventional war setting because it utterly destroys the morale of troops. A cynic might surmise that the ban on chemical weapons was primarily to make fighting a war possible. I see the President’s motivations as seeking to extend a strong taboo existing in war, to internal affairs where international support is much weaker.

    4. There is a national security concern in preventing proliferation of chemical weapons, though I don’t think Sarin itself rises very high in the ranks of threats. Terrorist attacks in the U.S. can probably be just as effective with guns and bombs. Perhaps there are other chemicals of greater concern.

    5. The national security concerns over chemical weapons proliferation are probably best addressed by preserving the relatively inward looking Baathist regime, than the more internationalist elements of the rebels.

    6. The most difficult intelligence issue is the psychology of the Assad regime. The British intelligence assessment found “no obvious political or military trigger for regime use of CW on an apparently larger scale now, particularly given the current presence in Syria of the UN investigation team” and I would add Obama’s announcement of a red-line. Its very difficult to effectuate deterrence when we don’t understand why the regime acts as it does (or who is making the decisions).

    7. I think the President’s credibility has been damaged by drawing a “red line” that he didn’t think he would need to enforce and it is worth something to the U.S. to protect his credibility, so long as he is our President. I don’t think this can be the sole factor for military intervention, but I think its a factor worth something in the analysis.

  • michael reynolds Link


    I agree with just about every word of that, though I’m less undecided than “weakly opposed.”

    Regarding Assad’s motives though, I happened across an interesting interview on Lawrence O’Donnell’s generally insufferable show last night. He had one of the authors of The Dictator’s Handbook on, and this gentleman’s theory is that this is in part a signaling move to Assad’s own people. By placing himself even further beyond the pale, by signaling a willingness to accept the risk of US retaliation, the theory is that Assad is sending a message that he is in it come hell of high water, that he cannot be shuffled off to comfortable exile, that he is going full-on Hitler’s bunker.

    No idea if that’s right, but it’s interesting.

  • he cannot be shuffled off to comfortable exile, that he is going full-on Hitler’s bunker.

    That’s been my take for some time.

  • I largely agree, too, PD. WRT #7 I think that’s a sunk cost.

    And I would characterize my own position as “opposed but persuadable”.

  • michael reynolds Link

    My “weak opposition” comes down to not seeing which dog we have in this fight.

    If I were to be completely amoral I’d say the obvious policy for us to pursue is to keep this war going. (Hezbollah killing Al Qaeda? What’s not to like?) I still have a sneaking suspicion that’s what’s going on. It still fits the facts – half-assed threats to intervene but only at the point where Assad deploys a new weapon, slow-walking weapons and training support for the rebels, evasive public statements.

  • Lee Link

    So approximately 12 areas are alleged to have been attacked by chemical weapons /nerve gas in the middle of the night. Each of the areas has a population of between 20,000 and 55,000 people, and are essentially suburbs or neighborhoods of Damascus. The estimated number of people killed by this attack is between 355 and 1,700, TOTAL, for ALL 12 attacks/areas. This is an average of 30 to 142 people in each attack, or 0.1% to 0.6% of the population of that area/suburb/city/neighborhood. Not to denigrate the deaths of these people, nor to belittle the horros of chemical warfare, but what part of MASS, as in “weapons of MASS destruction” am I missing?

    This makes me extremely nervous about predicating going to war (which not matter what Kerry says, it is what we would be doing) on that night of “chemical attacks.”

    Also, Assad will fight like a man with nothing to lose. He is well aware of what happened to both Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi, and I am sure he does not want to end up like them.

    Additionally, the one part of the population of Syria for whom I have the most sympathy, and for whose future I fear the most, is the Christian population. And they have a chance of being better off under Assad, than under a Moslem* Brotherhood led government.

    * I REFUSE to use “Muslim.” Moslem is a perfectly good Anglicization that we have used for a very long time. We are about the only people who make any effort at trying to emulate native speakers, even badly.

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