Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Syria: To Bomb or Not To Bomb

The President says it’s punitive.
The people hear that it will save lives.

The President says it’s to protect Israel.
The people hear that it’s to protect Syrians.

The President says it’s to challenge Iran.
The people hear it’s to challenge Assad.

The President says it’s not about regime change.
Senator McCain hears it’s about regime change.

It is my own view that one of the biggest problems we citizens of the United States have when it comes to political interactions is that we do not listen to our leaders.  We do not hear what they say; we hear what we want them to say.

The second largest problem is that when it comes to contemplated military action, our Congress as a whole debates not whether to but how to.  And as Congress goes, so goes the press by and large.

Thus we are right now in a situation regarding Syria of taking the fact of a strike against that nation as a virtual given, arguing only over the details, when in fact, the whether to at all question is actually the important question of the day.

And thus we are right now in a situation regarding Syria where President Obama is actually being very clear; unfortunately, his citizens are not listening to him.

1. It’s punitive.  Let us take the President at his word: his reason to seek military action against Syria’s government is punitive.  He has actually used the word ‘punitive’.  There are several problems with such an approach:

a. it’s a do-what-I-say-and-not-what-I-do approach to world affairs; and as any (good) parent knows, it’s an approach doomed to fail, for those following and even those not seeming to be paying attention will inevitably do not as we say but as we do.  We supported the use of chemical weapons by Iraq against Iran in the 1980's, to the point of remaining silent in the face of Saddam’s turning those same weapons against his own citizens, the Kurds of the north.  We used white phosphorous on the civilian population of Fallujah.  We will not sign treaties that seek to ban cluster bombs and certain types of land mines.  And even when we do act to oppose such weaponry, we are strangely silent about the manufacturers and holding them accountable.  To claim the moral high ground, it’s axiomatic that one must actually be standing on the moral high ground at the time.

b. If it’s punishment we’re after, there are a whole host of remedies in the international arena.  The International Criminal Court provides a venue for the prosecution of crimes against humanity and what we term war crimes.  The United Nations has vehicles for other remedies, including sanctions, the sending of peacekeepers and inspectors.  In fact, the UN did send inspectors.  Their report has not yet been produced.  Their testing is not yet complete.  To circumvent the United Nations yet again is to effectively say to the world that the United States does not even believe in the possibility of international law and action.  The lone wolf mythology we cling to is costly beyond our ability to imagine, I fear.  And punishment is a poor substitute for a just peace, especially a punishment that seeks to say that killing in a particular way is wrong by killing in a different way, but killing nonetheless.

2. It’s about Israel, not Syria.  The fear about chemical weapons is as much, if not more, about our concern for the people of Israel than it is for the people of Syria.  It is commonly accepted (although not publicly stated) that the source of information/ intelligence about this most recent attack is Israel.  Given its geographical proximity and their historical hostility, Israel is right to be concerned.  Whether Israel’s concerns and ours align in this particular instance is something that should be discussed.  It’s not.  The President has named the concern.  But no one else seems interested in discussing, weighing and evaluating it.  And remember point #1 – this is about punishment.  The President has said so.  There is no goal to save Syrian lives.  There is no reason put forth that the contemplated action by the US will reduce violence in Syria.  Many believe it will have the opposite effect of escalating an already violent conflict.  When acting pre-emptively on behalf of a party such as Israel, we have to at least admit that we’re willing to sacrifice Syrians to do it.

3. Challenging Iran.  Secretary of State John Kerry stated that one reason to strike against Syria is to send a message to Iran, North Korea and others that chemical weapons may not be used with impunity.  Setting aside the cruel irony of the US telling Iran that it will not tolerate chemical weaponry when it was the US that enabled Saddam to use chemical weapons against Iran in the 1980's war (by providing Saddam with critical intelligence on where and when to launch his attack (Democracy Now), are we really going to kill Syrians in order to teach Iran a lesson?  Are we, in so doing, going to ignore the mutual-defense pact between Syria and Iran?  Are we really going to provoke Iran and its allies, drawing them into (or further into) this conflict?  Did we learn nothing about how global conflicts begin from World War I?  Are we really interested in restarting the practice of proxy wars we retired with the Cold War?  Are we really ignoring Russia and China in all this?  Are we really so immature as to believe that to explore alternatives to military air strikes is ‘doing nothing’?  Is our press so ineffectual as to ignore these vital questions?

4. It’s not about regime change.  President Obama (who will be making the decisions, no matter with whom he consults) has been very clear: he is not seeking regime change.  Senator McCain is not listening and insists that regime change is what must occur.  The problem I see is that following the course of either man does nothing to reduce or eliminate the bloodbath that is Syria today.  We the people would do well to remember that we’re not in this to save the Syrians.  This is not the good guys versus bad guys stuff of movies.  This is exactly what our President is saying it is: killing some Syrians, destroying some territory, to show the Syrian leadership that doing what we’ve said not to do will cost him because we said it would.  It’s a penalty.  No more, no less.

What might we do instead if we’re really interested in helping Syrians?

1. If you’re a praying person, pray.  One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about prayer (wish I could recall the source) is that God does not reverse the past.  What has happened already has happened already and it will not be undone.  Prayer, effective prayer, deals with the present and the future.  For those of us in the United States particularly, we might pray for wisdom, patience, forbearance, and mercy on the part of our leadership.   We might pray that our own eyes be opened to new pathways of peace and the strength, courage and dedication of resources to make them happen.  Weaponry as a problem-solving technique has become too easy in our time.  Military solutions are our go-to position all too often, ironic given its largely ineffectiveness at meeting our stated goals of peace.  This praying isn’t about patriotism.  It isn’t about having our own way.  It isn’t about undoing the past.  It’s about being empowered by the God of all to do right in the world and by the world.  The work of doing right is hard.  It takes lots of time and effort and money.  And it doesn’t often get a parade at the end.  And sometimes it gets a cross.  For a Christian at least, that shouldn’t be a surprise.  So let us praying people pray like we mean it and live like we believe it.

2. Invest in peace and the ways of peace.  We might marshal our impressive resources in the cause of just peace -- for at no time in our nation's history have we dedicated the resources for peace preparedness that we do to war preparedness. What might we do now?

a. we might pony up really big money to make refugee camps and other sites genuine places of safe haven.  On an individual basis, we might donate money to UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees) to provide for the masses of Syrian refugees (shout out to Jon Stewart on the Daily Show for highlighting this issue and way to help on September 3's show).

b. We might mobilize massive numbers of trained peacemakers, mediators and folks trained in the ways not merely of conflict resolution but also of building a civil society based upon universal humanitarian goals. We mobilize our military - why not our non-military?   And there are Syrians who are trying desperately to build and rebuild their own civil society.

c. We might ask our elected leadership to stop any support for the rebels in Syria unless and until they attend peace talks in Geneva.  We might ask other nations supporting the Assad regime (Russia and Iran) to do the same.

d. We might start punishing those who produce chemical weapons in international tribunals.

e. When it comes to the dedication of troops, we might use the United Nations - peacekeepers from the UN actually have a pretty good track record - a fact that gets overlooked. (and yes, I remember Rwanda).

f. We might wait for the UN inspection team to come back with its report/findings. I am no fan of Mr. Putin, but he actually asked a pretty good question - why would Assad use chemical weapons exactly when the UN inspection team was in country? Assad might be a monster, but is he really that much of an idiot?

g. If the goal is punishment,  we might treat this as a crime.  If so,

(1) proof beyond a reasonable doubt is required. Shouldn't we have the same level of proof for the killing of many as we do of the killing of one? and

(2) there are already processes in place in the international community for that. So charge Assad with crimes against humanity and prosecute him for them.

(3) If, on the other hand, the goal is to stop or reduce the numbers of civilians from being killed, we have to remember that this is a civil war and all sides are armed to varying degrees and all sides are using violence to impose their will both upon the civilians as well as the opposition. The only thing I know to change that dynamic (other than a clear winner, which rarely happens) is negotiated peace. The bottom line for me is that the answer to grab our guns just hasn't been effective, ever, at reducing or eliminating the numbers of the dead -- it's only been effective at giving one side or the other clear victory after the bloodbath.  Isn't it well past time to commit , really commit, to the ways of peace?

(4) A side note worth remembering: the other day NPR interviewed 2 sisters in Syria - they were of opposite opinions. Family. One favored the rebels and hated the Assad regime for its cruelties. The other feared the rebels, particularly as a woman, certain that her own life would not be worth much if they were to prevail. When I jump into someone else's fight, I'd better have a good idea about all that's at stake. Ask the Iraqis.

When I take up a gun, a bomb, or any instrumentality of violence, I am not stopping people dying. What I'm doing is simply changing the cast of characters who will die.

And logically, if I am 'letting' people die by not bombing Syria, am I then responsible if the bombing results not in less deaths but more, if Assad increases rather than decreases his attacks on the civilian population?

We can't predict with certainty the outcomes of actions because we're not in control of the universe of possibilities. That doesn't mean we do nothing. But it does mean that we dare not act surprised when our efforts to 'help' backfire with more violence that we participated in escalating.  ( See Slate report on the increase in civilian deaths in which other countries intervene in armed conflict.)

But I remain stuck in pondering whether it really is the best we humans can do when children are dying to drop more bombs that risk killing more children? Why can't we create safe havens for them to run to? Why can't we teach their parents a better way? Why can't we spend the money on things that actually work? I wish I knew.

Other posts I've written about Syria:  There's a War a CominJumping Rope in the SandCandidate Questions on Foreign Policy, and Grading the Debate.

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