There are no good options in addressing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's depraved use of chemical weapons killing 1400 of his own people in Syria. There are only less bad options. The international community should act, but in its absence, the United States must do something.
George W Bush continues to kill. Because of the lies that led to "shock and awe" of Iraq, the world will turn its back on a depraved dictator using chemical weapons on its own people. The world will set aside a century-old precedent and set a new precedent: it is okay to use chemical weapons; it is okay to use weapons of mass destruction. Iran, go ahead and build your nuclear reactor. Is there any doubt that but for the excruciating legacy of Iraq, the world community would rally around the US?
But here are great differences between Iraq and Syria. And Obama is not Bush/Cheney.
George W. Bush used a hypothetical case, built upon "cooked" and fabricated "intel", that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and conspiring with the 9/11 terrorists, playing upon the horror Americans were still experiencing after September 11, which we mark this week. There was no actual act. There was no civil war underway with civilians pleading for help from the outside.
Syria is not the same thing. There has been actual documented mass murder using chemical weapons on August 21; intelligence has confirmed where the attacks originated and where they landed; this will be a targeted, limited, strike focused singly on weakening Assad's ability to use chemical weapons, with no boots on the ground instead of the "Shock and Awe" and amassing of 100,000 US troops; Obama is not seeking regime change as Bush/Cheney's intent was from the early days of their administration.
Obama, in contrast to Bush, has considered the ramifications of "unintended consequences" and "what ifs," whereas Bush/Cheney purposefully ignored any criticism that contradicted the fantasy of being received as Liberators with candy and flowers, that the war would be over in a matter of days, and the $6 billion bill would be paid from Iraq's oil (the cost is exceeding $1 trillion out of US taxpayers pockets).
Most strikingly, Bush/Cheney pursued the preemptive invasion of Iraq, conjuring up a "43 second" timeframe in which Saddam Hussein could unleash a "mushroom cloud," purely for political reasons, and capitalized on the terror of 9/11 to silence any critical opposition and ram through their domestic agenda that included tax cuts for the rich while putting the Iraq War on the taxpayers' credit card.
The politics are completely different now - Obama has absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose by this action - even giving fuel to the anti-Obamacist obsessives who are looking for any excuse to impeach him and tie up the rest of his administration, as they did to Clinton in 1998, since Fast & Furious, Benghazi, the NSA and IRS have not panned out for them. (And had Obama not brought the Authorization for Use of Force to Congress, they wouldn't have wasted a minute before filing Articles of Impeachment.)
The situation is reversed now. Syria would only further alienate Obama with progressives, still reeling from the NSA scandal and drones. He faces the possibility of losing the Senate. It wouldn't even temper the anti-Obama-all-the-time-crowd among the rightwing hawks. Obama has nothing to gain and everything to lose politically from a strike on Syria.
And instead of "poodles" rolling over for Bush/Cheney among world leaders, Congress and the media, what you have now is the media and the politicos compensating for their failures, gullibility and cowardice. They are marshalling skepticism, cynicism and demanding evidence and answers to the "what ifs" and the "what thens".
"The well of public opinion was well and truly poisoned by the Iraq episode and we need to understand the public skepticism," British Prime Minister David Cameron said during Parliament's debate.
And that is not necessarily bad.
Ideally, it would be better for the United Nations to act, but Russia, Syria's main sponsor, and China have vetoed every action coming from the Security Council.
NATO should be the ones to take carry the ball as they did in Kosovo, even though that was an American operation (Clinton took tremendous flack, but the operation succeeded).
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO secretary general, said in an interview with Euronews, “First of all let me stress that I don’t foresee any further role for NATO...But having said that we are gravely concerned about the situation in Syria and it’s my firm belief that the chemical attacks in Syria can’t go unanswered. It is necessary that the international community sends a firm message to dictators all over the world that you can’t use chemical weapons without any reaction.”
So you have to wonder why Obama would pursue a unilateral strike against Syria's chemical weapons capability if he did not believe what he says: that there is an international interest and a national security interest.
"This attack is an assault on human dignity," Obama said in his speech in the Rose Garden. "It also presents a serious danger to our national security. It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. It endangers our friends and our partners along Syria’s borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons, or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm. In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted.
"Here's my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community: What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price? What's the purpose of the international system that we've built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world's people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced?
"Make no mistake -- this has implications beyond chemical warfare. If we won't enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorist who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?...."
So Obama has done something rather extraordinary: he is asking Congress to adopt a resolution authorizing the Use of Military Force - something that Congress has been asking for, but all of a sudden, is upset about having to do. This can have great significance in setting a precedent that would overturn the creep of power assumed by the Unitary Executive.
"We all know there are no easy options. But I wasn’t elected to avoid hard decisions. And neither were the members of the House and the Senate. I’ve told you what I believe, that our security and our values demand that we cannot turn away from the massacre of countless civilians with chemical weapons. And our democracy is stronger when the President and the people’s representatives stand together."
Speaking before a meeting with Members of Congress, September 3, Obama said, "So the key point that I want to emphasize to the American people: The military plan that has been developed by the joint chiefs and that I believe is appropriate is proportional. It is limited. It does not involve boots on the ground. This is not Iraq and this is not Afghanistan."
Progressives have actually mobilized an all-out offensive to pressure Congress to vote against the resolution.
Alan Grayson, one of the most extreme opponents of a military strike, articulated the most radical of the progressive position, saying that chemical weapons warrant no more concern than any other instrument of death. "To me, a corpse is a corpse," he said "I don't want to sound flip, but when you're dead, you're dead."
He added, "There is no desire, no desire on the part of the American People to be the world's policeman and for us to pick up this gauntlet, even on the basis of unequivocal evidence of chemical warfare by the Syrian Army deliberately against its own people...."At a time when we are cutting veterans benefits, cutting education student loans, cutting school budgets, contemplating cutting Social Security and Medicare, I don't see how we can justify spending billions of dollars on an attack like this," Grayson said.
"We're not the world's policeman. We're not the world's judge, jury and executioner. No one else in the world does things like this, and there's no reason why we should. We've got 20 million people in this country who are looking for full-time work. Let's tend our own garden, for a change."
The Republicans - even the Republicans who had previously called for the exact actions that Obama is proposing like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio - are nixing the vote for the predictable reason that they want to embarrass Obama, no matter the consequence for the nation and US standing in the world. And John McCain threatens not to vote for the resolution unless it includes "regime change" as its objective, which would guarantee a long, protracted, war and the spilling of this nation's blood and treasure.
Indeed, for all the bluster about how Congress - and the American people - must be heard, how absurd is it that Rand Paul is hinting at filibustering - preventing an actual.
This should be the red line - for Harry Reid to go launch a nuclear attack on the filibuster - if Rand Paul or another Republican filibusters to prevent a debate, to prevent the President from acting, presumably by a minority because they are not sure of getting a majority vote on their side.
Indeed, one of the consequences of this action in Syria is that Republicans will use Syria as only the latest excuse to expand their war on the social safety net, demanding further cuts in spending, while insisting on overturning the sequester on defense spending (Raytheon stock up 20% in 60 days).
Who will pay for another military mission in the Middle East after 12 years and two wars in the volatile region? Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) asks. "We've cutback on education, we've cut back on nutrition programs, we've thrown kids off Head Start We have billions to spend on a war, but no money to take care of the very pressing needs of the American people. That bothers me a lot"
This is a real dilemma, and I found it helpful to examine specific questions that should be addressed:
Are there alternatives to a missile strike? Haven't we tried? The biggest problem is that the US is left hanging by the United Nations and NATO. Russia and China's promised veto in the Security Council has blocked UN action, and NATO, amazingly, has shown no interest. On the other hand, Obama's saber-rattling has brought Russia into the fore, opening up a new avenue for a diplomatic solution which did not exist before, even forcing Russia and China to put up or shut up with a new resolution in the Security Council.
As for the notion of dragging Assad or whoever ordered the use of chemical weapons to the International Court, that would take forever, and who would actually go in and take him? How would that actually happen? That makes Assad more determined to win, because he would be less likely to be tried for war crimes, than if he loses.
Embargoing, boycotting, economic sanctions? Hasn't that been shown to only hurt the civilians and do nothing against the dictator like Assad who has amassed $1 billion by looting his country? Like in Iraq and Iran, he would only use such actions to blame the US for their suffering.
Freezing the financial assets of Assad and his family? That would be a good idea but won't stop the murder of 5,000 people a month any time soon. In the PBS interview with Charlie Rose, Assad spoke glowingly of following his father's example of brutally massacring "terrorists" - the term he uses for his opponents who he compares to the 9/11 terrorists.
Who are we helping? Among the myriad rebel groups are jihadists, Al Qaeda affiliates. Americans are leery of toppling one dictator who is a secularist, and getting another Islamist regime. This is the real danger and why Obama has stopped short of more actively providing the military support that Sen. McCain has been demanding. But an attack on chemical weapons removes that as a possibility for both sides.
The action Obama has proposed is too limited to be effective, so why bother, especially if it only incites retaliation? But degrading Assad's chemical weapons - which suggests he is desperate - could tip the balance by depriving him of this cruel means to terrorize the Syrian people, and if he is weakened, that could encourage the political solution that everyone agrees is essential.
What about retaliation? If anything, Assad's threats against the US (“You should expect everything.”), and his snarky attitude in his PBS interview with Charlie Rose (most egregious was the ruthless dictator's citing of American polls showing opposition to a strike), should have rallied the Congress and the American people purely on patriotic grounds. And in a different world, one where anything Obama advocates is automatically quashed, this would be the case.
Indeed, there is every sign that whereas the Bush/Cheney crew dismissed the "what ifs", the Obama Administration has investigated and planned for them - and presented these plans to Congressmen in classified briefings - unlike Iraq, when there was no consideration for what would happen in the days, weeks and months after the invasion.
Mission Creep: What people fear most is that retaliation by Syria or worse, its allies, will escalate our military action to a full-scale shooting war, and again point to Iraq as an example. Even more frightening is the possibility that because of mutual defense pacts with Russia and Iran, this could trigger World War III. But Russia's curious offer to mediate the surrender of Syria's chemical weapons suggests they don't have the appetite for WWIII either.
More concerning to me is not what Obama wants to do - I can support that and I trust him - but what Republican NeoCons want to twist this into, like John McCain have already inserted language calling for regime change in the Senate resolution. That is what would lead to America in a full-scale shooting war.
Another possible unintended consequence, though, is that since not the US nor our allies - Israel, Turkey, Jordan - have been attacked, without a United Nations resolution, it is the United States that would be acting like an outlaw. And unbelievably, it is not against international law to use chemical weapons against your own people, just others. That's why Obama uses the term "a violation of International norms." But Obama has already waited for the clearest evidence that chemical weapons have been used for mass murder. Should he wait for thousands of Israelis to be slaughtered? That would trigger out-and-out war. Obama has said this is not war. And if George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have not been held to account for their war crimes, I doubt there would be action against the US.
What is the consequence of not acting? If there is no retribution against Assad's regime for using chemical weapons, he will be emboldened and that will lead to widen its use. Indeed, August 21 wasn't the first time the regime used chemical weapons The French and British estimated back in April he had used it multiple times. But this was the largest. Some suggest that he would have used chemical weapons to annihilate an entire city - well, that would likely be next. And the widening of hostilities is reflected in the fact that 5000 Syrians were killed in 2011; now 5000 Syrians are being killed each month, and 2 million have become refugees.
There is a strong possibility, too, that various rebel factions would acquire chemical weapons, and these groups include Jihadist rebels and Al Qaeda affiliates.
Also, there is a high risk of proliferation - which gets to US interests - Hezbollah, Iran, North Korea are watching. If this use of chemical weapons does not draw consequences, they also will be empowered to acquire chemical weapons with impunity, without fear of degradation of those capabilities. Do we wait for thousands of Israelis to be gassed?
There is a parallel to regimes using grotesque tools of war without the world doing something to stop it. Think about the millions gassed in Hitler's gas chambers - a massive use of chemical weapons - and no one in the international community thought the need to bomb the gas chambers or the rail lines to the concentration camps.
People chide Obama for saying last year that there was a red line that if crossed, would prompt US response, but the reality is that the international ban on the use of chemical weapons goes back to World War I, and, as it turns out, the US is already obligated to address Syria's use of chemical weapons. In 2003, Congress passed the Syria Accountability Act (signed by Bush in 2004) stating that it is the policy of US to stop Syria from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. It is the US Congress that set a red line and if the US doesn't enforce it, why should the US be listened to on any matter.
What are the consequences for domestic politics and policy? Republicans will no doubt use military action against Syria as an excuse to overturn the sequester on defense spending - indeed, planning for the mission is affected by the fact that key individuals were furloughed because of the sequester. and Republicans will use this to demand offsets which always seem to be extracted from the most vulnerable among us.
And opponents of the strike say we should be investing at home, in our crumbling infrastructure, in schools. Except we haven't, thanks to the Republican obstruction. Attacking Syria will no doubt be used as the newest excuse, but the reality is that the sequester has cut into economic growth and jobs creation more than anything.
Instead, maybe for once the Democrats can turn this around and demand lifting both sides of the sequester if Republicans want to lift the sequester on Defense spending.
What are the consequences if Congress votes no? If Obama loses this vote, he is damaged as a world leader and the United States will be seen as a paper tiger, with little or no influence in the world.
Obama will also be fatally damaged as a national leader. Forget about the budget, immigration reform, gun violence prevention, climate change. He will be a lame duck with no chance of accomplishing anything for the rest of his 1000 days in office.
"It may be end of his administration; he won't be able to get anything done," Ed Schulz said on his radio show. Moreover, it will give those who have been itching to impeach him since he won election in November 2008, something tangible, since Fast and Furious, Benghazi, NSA and the IRS have been insufficient.
On the other hand, if Obama wins the vote and the attack achieves its desired end, he will be bolstered, he will have the leadership creds to get his agenda passed. - maybe even gun violence prevention and climate change!
There may be a way out. Obama's saber-rattling might have prompted Putin to actually come forward and get Syria to give over its chemical weapons - a big step forward since Assad wasn't even acknowledging their existence (I am skeptical that Russia will do this, and it may be a ploy to stall for time.)
Indeed, another difference between Obama and Bush is that Obama will likely pursue the diplomatic solution - if it is real - instead of close the door, as Bush did to Saddam Hussein, when he sent an emissary to offer to let US inspectors in to forestall the attack. Bush unleashed "Shock and Awe" anyway.
Now, though, Obama can capitalize on this "blink" in the game of brinksmanship. Now that Assad and Russia have confirmed the existence of the chemical weapons, and Russia has demonstrated that it sees a need for them to be contained, the United States can go back to the United Nations to get a resolution - then if Russia or China vetoes any action, they will betray their true stripes, and Obama can still call for a military strike.
There are no good options, only less bad ones. But action needs to be taken against Assad. Ideally, but before the US launches unilateral missile strikes to incapacitate Syria's chemical weapons infrastructure, it should still pursue international and diplomatic solutions.
And yes, I do trust Obama's word. Obama is not Bush.
It is stunning to consider that this is unfolding during the week we mark the anniversary of September 11. What a difference an Iraq War has made.
Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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