Allow me to begin this important discussion by wishing all of my fellow Jews a blessed New Year. Unfortunately, this Jew found himself a little side-tracked at synagogue today. I was thinking too much about the nightmare otherwise known as the “Syrian situation.” Such is the way I inevitably react whenever America deliberates about going into war. Sometimes, I find myself in support, but that’s the exception, not the rule. I like to put a heavy burden of persuasion on the folks who are seeking permission to bomb, bomb again, and then keep on bombing. In the case of Syria, as far as I’m concerned, the war advocates can’t possibly bear that burden.
My most critical question is actually a rhetorical one, though it shouldn’t be: What exactly do we hope to accomplish by implementing the President’s mini shock-and-awe strategy? Do we hope to effectuate regime change in Syria? Do we hope to punish and scare Assad by taking away some of his toys, but not so many as to destabilize his country? Or do we simply hope to persuade all enemy regimes to take our “red line” statements seriously in the future? I honestly don’t know which of those apply, and for good reason – it seems like the mission changes daily depending on whether the President is courting the hawks or the doves.
Folks, it is almost axiomatic that when the United States doesn’t define the goals of war in advance, it has no business thrusting itself into one. The American public deserves to know WHY we are devoting our resources, let alone taking lives, before our Government can justify declaring war. And the answer should not depend on how many votes are needed to obtain that declaration. It is bad enough to have mission creep once a war has started, but it is ludicrous to have it during the period when you are courting votes.
So what is the point here? If you are as confused as I am, that should be all you need to know in determining whether to support the Congressional resolution.
Leaving aside the issue of the goals, what exactly is the provocation that justifies a mini-shock-and-awe strategy? Is it the fact that Assad has supposedly killed 100,000 of his own people? Or is it the evidence that Assad has killed one percent of that number using chemical gas? Most of the war’s advocates like to emphasize the second point and NOT the first. That is how they justify the fact that we have continued to allow Assad to slaughter scores of thousands of people over the course of two years without doing anything about it. But folks, there is no way you can tell me that the use of chemical weapons on 1,300 people is anywhere near as serious as the use of conventional weapons to kill 100,000.
Ask yourself this question. Let’s say you lived in a county of one million people and someone with a crystal ball were to tell you that one of two things will happen to your county in the next thirty years: either 100,000 will be slaughtered with guns and bombs, or 1,300 will die from a chemical attack. Can you honestly tell me that you wouldn’t prefer the latter scenario? I’m not justifying the use of chemicals. It is absolutely deplorable. And I’m not even saying that the killing of 1,000 by chemicals is no more serious than the killing of 1,000 by guns. Clearly, chemical weapons torture their victims, are especially likely to be used on non-combatants, and represent insidiously dangerous threats to the future stability of the planet. I get all that. But when I evaluate dictators in terms of their crimes against humanity, I’m looking above all else at the bottom line: how many people did they butcher? And it would be a strange statement for us to say that the murder of 1,300 warrants intervention whereas the murder of 100,000 does not.
You’ll note that I have been speaking as if it were a demonstrated fact that Assad didn’t merely stockpile chemicals but used them on his people. That “fact,” however, has hardly been demonstrated to the American people. The evidence used to support the Administration’s strongest chemical-weapons allegations have only been disclosed in closed-door sessions with Congress. And you know what that means? This war, just like the Iraq War, is being sold on a “just trust us” basis to the American people.
I submit that governments have no business going into war when (a) neither their country nor its allies are being directly threatened; (b) the war is being justified based only on evidence that their citizens cannot evaluate for themselves; and (c) their citizens overwhelmingly oppose the war. For me, when it comes to war, that third condition is a big one.
Lest I sound like an isolationist, God forbid, allow me to reassure you that I am writing this in the name of world peace, not in the name of tending to one’s own garden. Oh sure, there are plenty of things we can do in America with the money we would be using on bombing Syria (Detroit immediately comes to mind), but I’m happy to use our money in the Middle East if I thought it could help to build peace in the region. The thing is, though, that I don’t think America has any business right now playing the role of the big, bad policeman. It needs to earn that role. It needs to show that it is as passionate about working for peace as it is willing to kill swarthy people with bombs.
If we are so concerned about peace, why won’t we give tough love to our Middle Eastern allies? Where was America when the Palestinians came before the United Nations asking for recognition as a state? We opposed that resolution, sadly, and have provided only skin-deep criticism of Israel’s continuing settlement construction. That is hardly a profile in courage. Similarly, where were we when, for decade after decade, the Saudis treated their women like chattel? Because that regime gave us oil and friendship, we have apparently felt free to look the other way even though, until this last month, the Saudis had NEVER before banned domestic violence and other types of abuses against women.
Before America assumes the role of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator II, shouldn’t Congress first take the baby steps needed to earn its street cred? Perhaps instead of voting to bomb Syria, the Congress should show its willingness to stand up to Israel’s pro-settlement forces. Or perhaps it should signal to the Middle East that we won’t tolerate human rights abuses regardless of whether they are perpetrated by friend or foe. Then, maybe folks like me would be more willing to look the other way when it comes to supporting a war against a regime that has not directly threatened either America or any of its allies.
Why should the burden of persuasion be so heavy against those who are banging the drumbeat of war? For starters, because one never knows what will happen once you start bombing away – except of course that you will kill innocent people. We cannot take lightly the prospect that more innocent lives will be lost because of our actions. And we also cannot take lightly the prospect that once we start de-stabilizing a country like Syria, all hell could break loose. Don’t rule out the prospect that we will need to involve ourselves in another quagmire in order to cap the bottle that we would have opened. The next time someone promises that the mission will be limited, just remind them of W and his “Mission Accomplished” photo-op.
In conclusion, I personally am willing to assume that Assad is a butcher who has violated international norms as to how to wage war. But then again, I’m sickened by what a lot of regimes and leaders do. My knee-jerk reaction isn’t to bomb them all. When I step back and reflect on this situation, I just see a President who made a regrettable statement about a “red line” and is now seeking the political cover for doing what must be done to stand behind his words. Personally, I wouldn’t have looked askance at the President if, without Congressional approval, he took some measured military action to send a message to Assad. (Call it a “shot across the bow.”) He clearly thinks he has the authority to issue drone strikes, so nothing would have stopped him from taking symbolic actions against Assad. But asking for an authorization to declare war is different. After all this buildup, the President would feel the need to wreak some serious havoc. And this is precisely what cannot be supported under the circumstances.
So, as I did when I came home from synagogue today, please write your Congressperson and tell him whether you support the Resolution. In my case, though, I made sure not simply to say “vote no,” but to ensure that my Congressman understood that I wasn’t just another Rand Paul. No matter where we stand on this particular resolution, our message should be for the Congress to stay engaged in the Middle East as activists for PEACE, rather than for war. Surely, they can get more accomplished in the direction of peace by being tough on our friends than by bombing our enemies.