PICHT: Obama and Congress locked in a Syrian morality play

Obama and Kerry insist that a military attack on Syria is the moral thing to do. Is it? Photo: AP

WASHINGTON, September 4, 2013 — When Congress reconvenes on September 9, the Obama Administration and Congressional leadership will make their case for military intervention in Syria. In the course of that they should explain: Why intervene? What will be the scope of intervention? What are the expected results?


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Congress’s response to those questions will in part determine whether an attack will be legal, but answers to those questions will also determine whether it is moral.

The proposed military strikes are limited. The U.S. Navy currently has four destroyers in the Eastern Mediterranean, and probably some submarines. The destroyers have the capacity to launch about 200 Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets in Syria from beyond the range of Syrian air defenses – a standoff attack with no “boots on the ground” and little risk to American lives.

The risk to Syrian lives is greater. Syrian President Assad will not waste the window of opportunity he’s been given to redeploy military assets behind civilian shields.

The Obama Administration has been clear that the expected results of a limited strike are not regime change. The purpose is to deter further chemical attacks, not to bring down the regime. Of course, no effective attacks against the regime will fail to help the rebels, so whether we claim it or not, the attack will be an intervention in the Syrian civil war. Once we’ve intervened, there will be pressure to increase the level of intervention.


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That this aligns us with elements of al-Qaeda is not in itself a reason to condemn the intervention. Al-Qaeda is opposed to drone attacks on targets in Yemen; that does not mean that people who oppose those attacks are allied with al-Qaeda. Terrorist organizations, like stopped clocks, are occasionally right.

A bigger issue is whether intervention in Syria’s civil war will result in a safer and more stable Middle East, and whether it will make life better for Syrians.

That latter issue has been largely absent from this discussion. Why attack Syria? To deter further chemical attacks. Why deter chemical attacks? They are a crime against civilians. How many civilians will die in our missile strikes? Fewer than will die in the further chemical attacks Assad will launch if he thinks he can get away with it, we hope.

How many civilians will die because of our missile strikes, but not in them? If we weaken Assad but don’t change the regime, this war will continue. Over 100,000 have already died. Will missile strikes prolong a war that is killing many more people than the chemical attack did? If our concern is Syrian civilians, should we not intervene with overwhelming force, destroy the Assad regime, and give the rebels their chance to rule?


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For that matter, why do we believe that Assad wants to kill civilians in chemical attacks? What’s in chemical warfare against his own population for him?

Secretary of State John Kerry dismissed Senator Rand Paul’s “armchair isolationism” during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing yesterday. “This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to a slaughter.” But the armchair morality Kerry displayed then is an issue as well.

Without an imminent threat to the U.S. and without taking evidence to the U.N. Security Council and winning a vote there, an American attack on Syria will be hard to justify under international law. Without approval from Congress, it will be hard to justify under American law.

The Obama Administration disagrees, but it has implicitly and explicitly appealed to a “higher,” moral law: We should attack Syria because it’s the right thing to do. “Neither our country nor our conscience can afford the cost of silence. We have spoken up against unspeakable horror. Now we must stand up and act.”

Over 100,000 have died. We’ve been spectators to slaughter for two years.

That doesn’t mean we should remain spectators, but if we intervene for moral reasons, we carry a moral burden. An attack can only be the right thing to do if it reduces the killing in Syria rather than prolonging it. It can be the right thing to do only if it reduces the threat of broader war in the Middle East rather than increasing it. It can be the right thing to do only if it has the lowest cost in human lives among the various options to punish Assad for using chemical weapons, and only if it deters him from using them again.

A guarantee that an attack will be short, limited, and inexpensive will increase Obama’s chances of making it legal, as will delaying the attack to get congressional approval. Those factors will also make it less likely that an attack can be morally justified.

 

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has returned to Ukraine to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure under a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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