I am an Obama Liberal who supports American intervention in Syria, albeit with some reservations. As such, I wish to offer the interventionist approach that I feel has been missing amidst the pleas of non-intervention echoed by the leaders of Mac GOP and Mac Dems, a plea specifically put forth in Mr. Surman’s and Ms. Mulligan’s opinion piece last week. My support for a strike on Syria derives from the fact that only an American strike—or the very real threat of one—has the capacity to 1.) Save lives, and 2.) Enforce an international system of morality in war that Assad has breached and that the U.N. has proved incapable of enforcing.
As most Macalester students are probably aware, the United Nations has a short list of successes and a rather long list of failures, at least in the field of peacekeeping. The inaction of the U.N. since the Syrian Civil War’s outbreak does not give much hope for change, as the fundamentally amoral actions of Russia and China have stymied any multinational action that Obama would have preferred. And so the sad fact emerges that retaliatory action for Assad’s chemical weapons attack will come from the U.S. and France or from no other source. To their credit, Mr. Surman and Ms. Mulligan do not seem to be unrealistically hoping for U.N. action. And yet, they are opposed to American intervention in Syria for three broad reasons. First, they question our military capacity to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. Secondly, they note that most deaths are not being caused by those chemical weapons, but by traditional weapons (thus questioning the ultimate point or efficacy of destroying chemical weapons). Finally, they warn of unintended consequences of intervention (emboldening Assad, “risk of retribution” from Iran and Hezbollah among others).
In regards to a possible strike’s efficacy, Mr. Surman and Ms. Mulligan correctly argue that a strike may not be able to destroy all of Assad’s weapons stock—or that a strike might not stop him from employing these weapons. Indeed, many of Assad’s weapons facilities are located near populated areas and so the United States would need to be extremely cautious. As Jonathon Marcus of the BBC noted in his September 3rd article, “Syria Crisis: How Could the US Target Chemical Weapons?” the US would probably target the delivery systems of the chemical weapons instead of the weapons themselves, even though we have some weapons that are probably capable of vaporizing — through extreme heat—the chemicals in question. In any case, few would argue that we could destroy all of Assad’s chemical weapons; however, we can decrease his ease of their use through strategic strikes upon their ability to transport and release these weapons.
That outcome would be worth acting upon instead of throwing up our hands in impotence, as the authors appear to be doing. The chance—the near-guarantee in this case of imperfection should not lead to moral capitulation.
Moreover, the authors correctly point out that the vast majority of deaths have been caused by non-chemical means such as “bombs and bullets;” as such, even if such an attack were successful, people would still continue to die by the thousands. Their point is absolutely correct and is well taken. However, the use of chemical weapons upon civilians—as Obama has noted—constitutes a crossing of an immoral Rubicon. The authors seem to be implying that a death is a death no matter how it occurs; I would argue that chemical weapons usage is a particularly evil method of warfare and, for better or for worse, logically or illogically, humanity looks upon this type of warfare as medieval barbarism that is more inhumane than traditional warfare. General Sherman, in 1864, noted that “war is cruelty and you cannot refine it.”
While I agree that war is cruel, I disagree that anything in warfare goes. A certain type of warfare cannot be allowed in the 20th Century, and because the U.N. is incapable of acting, we must act for the good of the world. Furthermore, the authors note that many who would be hurt would be those lesser generals “simply following orders.” However, morality is not divorced from military service; since Nuremburg, the United Nations itself has not accepted that excuse for avoiding the consequences of evil action.
Finally, the authors naturally question the unintended consequences of a US action. They first note that if we strike, we may strengthen Assad’s enemies, many of whom are radical Jihadists. However, a limited attack upon the chemical weapons facilities would probably not significantly alter the balance of power. If the opponents of a strike are indeed concerned about this eventuality, then they are admitting that it is likely Assad would use weapons in the future against these groups, and thus unwittingly reaffirming the legitimacy of using chemical weapons in war. The authors also note that an intervention could enrage Hezbollah and Iran—Syria’s allies—and thus endanger Americans. Seeing as both have targeted Americans in the past—and Hezbollah wants to annihilate our strongest ally in the region—it seems misguided to worry about these forces hating us more.
In recent days, the Russian proposal has provided a possible way out of violence. If the Russians are genuine about this proposal, then America should act in good faith with them to implement it. However, if the Russian proposal is serious, it is likely a result of the threat of U.S. action. As such, we should remain careful to maintain our position and ready to act in force if the deal falls through.