Yet again the United States finds itself mired in a staring contest with incredibly tough questions: Is it time to get involved militarily in Syria? And if so, what exactly would such an involvement entail? These stubborn questions refuse to blink, refuse to go away. But what should be done in an incredibly complex situation when there seem to be no good answers, but only good questions? Is this a staring contest that the US is bound to lose?
The Waiting Game
According to Nation Books author John Nichols, "The president's decision to delay action until he hears from Congress respects the Constitution's language, and its intent. Now, Congress must do the same by taking its responsibility seriously enough to demand facts, to consider whether acts of war are justified and to determine whether the United States — as opposed to the United Nations — should be the police officer of the world."
Whether Congress will give the go ahead or reject the call like its British counterpart remains to be seen. While House Republican leaders are already endorsing military action, more Americans oppose than support a strike, according to a recent Pew survey.
Not so Fast
Historian Andrew Bacevich contends that we must answer three basic questions in order to frame the situation in Syria and the possibility of US intervention before deciding on a military strike.
First, why does this particular heinous act rise to the level of justifying a military response? Second, once US military action against Syria begins, when will it end? Third, what is the legal basis for military action? Bacevich argues that until these goals are clearly defined, no military action should be taken.
Military Action is Illegal (Wait, really? Even if Congress approves?)
As Phyllis Bennis demonstrates in her latest piece for Al Jazeera English, the UN Charter is clear on when military force is legal. There are two scenarios under this charter that would warrant military action. The first: immediate self-defense, which is not the case. The second: via authorization by the UN Security Council, which cannot be obtained. Hence if Obama were to act on Congressional approval, he would have to act unilaterally. Bennis concludes that a strike against Syria would be illegal, immoral, and counterproductive.
In an email to the Huffington Post, Noam Chomsky remarked, "As international support for Obama's decision to attack Syria has collapsed, along with the credibility of government claims, the administration has fallen back on a standard pretext for war crimes when all else fails: the credibility of the threats of the self-designated policeman of the world." In other words, "aggression without UN authorization would be a war crime."
As passions run high concerning the outrage over the use of chemical weapons, we must not set aside international law, which requires international enforcement by a concert of countries rather than a unilateral strike.
The Goldilocks Principle of Intervention
Is this an all or nothing situation? Either the US invades and occupies Syria or doesn't provide any military assistance at all? Many commentators, such as Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations, suggest that there is a middle ground. The President has described the desired action as "limited in duration and scope." But let's not forget, these are almost the exact words President Obama used when describing his military intentions in Libya in 2011 — "limited in their nature, duration, and scope."
The mainstream account of the US intervention in Libya can be summarized by an article in Foreign Affairs that called the campaign a "victory" and "the right way to run an intervention." But the reality is significantly more complicated. Far from being the poster child for humanitarian intervention, political scientist Alan Kuperman argues,
An examination of the course of violence in Libya before and after NATO's action shows that the intervention backfired. The intervention extended the war's duration about six fold; increased its death toll approximately seven to ten times; and exacerbated human rights abuses, humanitarian suffering, Islamic radicalism, and weapons proliferation in Libya and its neighbors. If it is a "model intervention," as senior NATO officials claim, it is a model of failure.
But the situation in Syria is different, and we should be case specific in our decision-making. There is perhaps a way for the US to intervene and help the war-torn country without an all-out bombing campaign. Joshua Landis, the Director of the Center of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma, suggests, "The US must respond to the use of chemical weapons in a forceful manner, but should not launch a broader intervention in Syria…. The barbarism of the Assad regime is horrifying, but the US cannot solve the bitter ethnic, sectarian, and factional rivalries in Syria. It should, however, attempt to dissuade Assad from using chemical weapons, and can employ force in this endeavor."