This is a post on our supposedly imminent attack on Syria.It is rare I find a political matter which is on so many people's lips. In the past week at least several friends, a couple of whom I would never expect to ask me what I thought about some political topic, asked me what I thought. Whatever congress decides, I think we are going to attack. Despite the fact that Pres. Obama can't seem to get any backing from the west other than France (about fricking time, but of course on the WRONG one.)
To do anything short of some kind of physical attack might be too embarrassing for the president to consider. Somehow I can't imagine we are going to hear him say - well, congress doesn't want it, the people of the United States don't, and very few of our allies do - so let's just forget it. And, if it's only a few shots over the bow, that would be more of a cause for laughter than to say he reconsidered. Hence, there will be an attack. The question is, in doing so, will he cause further dissension in our country and, despite all the clamor about how Pres. Bush hurt our national prestige, lower that too.
There is little doubt that this president feels he can pretty much do what he wants regardless of what a majority or congress thinks because, one, he has done it before (e.g., declaring congress in recess, attacking and then continuing to attack Libya, the health care reform) there are enough people, not to mention the media, who agree with him in general to give him the political cover he needs. And once the military goes into action and the flag is up, many citizens rally to it. That might be sufficient. As even McCain says, boots on the ground would mean impeachment, but I don't think he has any intention of that.
Don't do it. I'll jump to the conclusion first. I think striking Syria is a mistake for the reasons given below. I broke this up into sections, which do not follow a formal plan so much as just covering my thoughts:
Perspectives and biases: I like to know every author's biases and general perspectives because I find it helps me interpret their work. Therefore, I often start my own opinions that way. Generally speaking, I am more a hawk than a dove. Even when a bleeding heart liberal in my youth, I was one. I was too young when Vietnam was happening - a teenager when it ended - to have an opinion. But, from the 80s on I have been fairly hawkish.
But, being a hawk doesn't mean that I just want us to get into fights for the heck of it or that I think we should involve ourselves in military matters that are not our own concern or that I agree with every action we take. I was no! on Panama, for example and no! on Libya. I've never been in a war, but I have read more than enough from those who have been to know it is literally hell on earth and no reasonable person should seek it or glorify in it. I am no Theodore Roosevelt believing that our country will grow weak if didn't go to war every once in a while.
When I say I am a hawk I mostly mean that I believe we should have the best military on earth, that we should spend more on it than any other country, that other nations and groups should fear getting into military contests or our allies, but that we should use this power reluctantly only when necessary to defend ourselves, our allies and occasionally, when we can stop genocide or other horrific mass murders. If we do, it should be done as quickly as possible, foregoing nation building unless a country wants to be re-built and ultimately pay or side with us on account of it (and how likely is that right now). J. Q. Adams was mostly right that we shouldn't go about the earth seeking monsters to destroy - but like most policies, there's also an inexpressible rule of reason and a vague balancing of values. In other words, sometimes his statement is not right. Were he able to know the killing power of modern technology, he might agree today that those countries that can do something about genocide or monstrous behavior should not sit idly by when the worst people on earth seek to wipe out or destroy others for their own personal gain or sheer insanity.
And, hawk or not, we all know that having the most powerful military on earth doesn't make a country omnipotent or invulnerable. Our involvement in war can cripple us in many ways. Our punch is also much stronger than our chin, as 9/11 showed. And, as Muhammad Ali once put it (I think it was him, but can't find a quote online), even a baby can hurt you if it puts its finger in your eye. Maybe it was Bruce Lee. Anyway, I learned that myself when a wee lad, having tormented my little brother one time too many. He told me that I had to sleep sometime and he was right. Let's just say it was a painful lesson and if I told it in detail, male readers would be crossing their legs involuntarily.
Sure, if we put our might behind it, no country on earth could withstand us save probably Russia and China because of their own atomic weapons, military might and geographical size, ensuring that even a victory for us would be pyrrhic at best. But, leaving them aside, just because a country can't withstand us militarily doesn't mean that we can rebuild their cultures the way we want. We can't stop people from murdering each other short of a type of tyranny and control that mirrors those dictators we are so fervently opposed to. No solution to the internecine Islamic hatred between Shia and Sunni can be had by bombing or shooting, unless one side wins overwhelmingly, and that also seems too unlikely. The only way it ends is with a long period of enlightenment such as the west underwent or one side completely or almost completely destroying the other.
Being a hawk also includes wanting congress to declare war
The constitution makes it clear who declares war - Congress. Period. Amen. It has been pretty much accepted from day one though the present that the president, by virtue of being the military leader of a sovereign nation, has the power and duty to defend the country in case of attack. It would be idiotic to think you needed to wait for congress to do so before we acted in that manner. But, because the constitution names the president as commander and chief of the military (not us civilians, as some people seem to think) and in times of war, the state militias, there has been a debate as to just where the line is. Few people think FDR's secret help to Britain was crossing the line (but see, e.g., http://www.ihr.org/jhr/v04/v04p135_Weber.html). But, other decisions to go to or incite war (and, attempts to call military actions other than war are reprehensible) were dicier. So, congress passed a law near the end of the Vietnam War which they thought might help. It attempted to share power between the executive and congress, with congress having the final word. They gave the president power to act in certain circumstances for a little while before he had to come to congress and get permission. No president, including Nixon, who vetoed it only to see his veto overridden, has agreed it is constitutional. But, to some degree they have abided by it. Basically, a president has to notify congress within 48 hours of a conflict (which today means 47 hours, 59 minutes and some seconds after the first tweet from a combatant or witness goes around the world) has 60 days to act unilaterally. If not approved they have another 30 more days to withdraw, which, if just an air war, should really mean instantly.
Many in congress don't like it either because they feel it should be, absent self defense, totally congress's call. I support that. Either we trust congress for this (not that they are generally trustworthy) or we amend. But, as Senator Paul pointed out the other day in committee, the WPA does not give the president carte blanche to attack other countries. It only allows him to act if congress declares war, he has some type of statutory authority, or if he is defending the nation. With Libya none of those three were present and eventually, the Republican dominated house censored the president for his violation. That is almost forgotten now. And we know that Obama's not going to care if he gets dragged into a much longer war than he expected. Remember, he said Libya would only be a few days.
Thus, in my opinion, short of a declaration of war or similar statutory undertaking by congress, if Pres. Obama goes to war with Syria at all - it is a constitutional violation. I ask any American who thinks it is okay because he trusts or likes Obama, how he will feel when it is done by a President he or she does not support?
Gas attacks do not legally justify this act by America under international law
I cannot find a single article on Syria or politician who will tell you the following. This entire adventure is based upon a U.N. protocol that is being grossly misinterpreted. The protocol in question is the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, was initially signed in Geneva, Switzerland in 1925, five years after WWI and its horrific use of poison gas ended. John Kerry likes to say almost 100 years ago, an exaggeration. Although I guess it is the closest large rounded number we would not say that an 88 year old is almost 100. It is just the typical political hyperbole. Here are the important points with respect to Syria.
You can easily find this online. It is a protocol which countries have to sign onto. It is not self executing and it does not apply to any country that does not sign. In its opening clauses it states that it is the general opinion of the world that the use of poisonous gas is condemned by the civilized world, that it has been prohibited in many treaties and that the protocol is made to "the end" that the "prohibition shall be universally accepted." Note, it does not say that it is universally accepted or that this is some blanket prohibition against all poison gas or bacterial warfare in general.
Syria is one of the signatories (to join, a country signs and deposits it in France). But, does that mean that America or even United Nations forces is justified in attacking Syria under this protocol? No. Here's why. Read the important part of the text:
"That the High Contracting Parties, so far as they are not already Parties to Treaties prohibiting such use, accept this prohibition, agree to extend this prohibition to the use of bacteriological methods of warfare and agree to be bound as between themselves according to the terms of this declaration.
The High Contracting Parties will exert every effort to induce other States to accede to the present Protocol. . . ."
They are "bound as between themselves" and they will try and induce other states to accede to it. This means two things to me. First, there is no general international law forbidding the use of chemical weapons, only this voluntarily assumed protocol. If there was a general sort of international or customary international law, why would treaties or a protocol be necessary at all? Second, the parties "agree to be bound as between themselves," not as between themselves and the world or non-signatories. Certainly not as between themselves and their own citizens. The Syrian rebels, whatever you think of them, are not signatories. Only the Syrian nation is recognized as a member and is bound as a signatory.
There were enough deficiencies with it that a Chemical Weapons Convention was brought about in the 1990s. Almost every country in the world signed and ratified it. It has a much broader mandate - the signatory can't make, store or use chemical weapons. However, one of the very few countries which didn't sign and ratify it is Syria. Again, why pretend that it is important countries sign if we pretend they are bound when they don't?
Don't go thinking I'm pro poison gas. There's a good reason it is generally agreed upon in the world that it should not be used. I'm all for its abolition. I don't want any country using it (it can't be well controlled as Syria has shown) any more than I want them using the atom bomb. But, that is not the same as saying that a U.N. protocol for forbids it or that Syria has agreed to forego it.
If you want to say here, look, international law is what the powers that be who can enforce their will say it at any given time, then fine. Say that. And, so long as congress, not the president, declares war on our account, that's acceptable too, though I think it a bad idea. But, we don't say that. We pretend that there is international law Syria is boycotting.
But, when it comes to actual law either the U.N. 1925 protocol forbids Syria from using these weapons against its own people or it doesn't. And, it doesn't. Either Syria has signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, or it hasn't. And it hasn't.
When I hear John Kerry up there waffling about international law, pulling the wool over people's eyes, it makes me mad. Because when we make believe about international law, we weaken its importance overall.
One of the things Kerry insists on is that if we don't attack, we encourage Iran. I don't really see it that way. Let's presume they are building a bomb. I don't know that, but presume it for the moment. If we attack Syria, which really can't defend itself against us, wouldn't that tend to make Iran think it better build a bomb as fast as possible so that they have the power of atomic blackmail to call upon? It got respect for North Korea. You might argue that they are going to build one no matter what, but then you also eviscerate Kerry's argument.
John Kerry Speaking of the Secretary of State, I make no bones about it, he has long been one of my least favorite politicians. On the right, only Newt Gingrich matches him in my low estimation. Although they have different aspects to them, both shine in hubris, backstabbing, overt partisanship and dishonesty departments. As bad a president as I thought George Bush to be, I could not consider voting for Kerry in 2004, even though I thought his being "swift-boated" was reprehensible too. I generally don't trust Kerry and though I hardly think he is evil or anti-American, but I would prefer if he wasn't in government at all. As bad a president as I think Obama is, given the choice only between him and Kerry, I'd prefer Obama. And that is a pretty low standard. While I do not approve of ad hominem arguments to debate actual points, when the subject is the speaker himself, I have no problem with characterizing individuals by appraising their character or credibility, etc.
I have listened to Kerry for over a week now on this topic. He has a resonant, unique and powerful voice and commands attention when he speaks. So what? So did Hitler and Mussolini. Even with Kerry, of course, the comparison to them ends there. But, everything he says seems sly to me or a given with a wink or promise to back it up later or is based on secret information. I listened to his initial speech regarding Syria's use of chemical weapons and he was so emphatic that it sounded so much more convincing than General Powell's disreputable speech at the U.N. to promote the war against Iraq. Then I remembered that it was Kerry speaking and thought about it again. There were no facts, just conclusions.
Asked in the Senate if he could guarantee the outcome if we attacked, he admitted no, he couldn't. But, he couldn't leave it at that. He said if we don't go, he guaranteed it would be done again by Syria. Perhaps he has secret wiretaps of Assad saying, If the U.S. backs off we will use these weapons again. I wouldn't know. But, even that does not permit a guarantee it will be done, just the likelihood. No one can guarantee that. Why couldn't he merely say, we have a lot of evidence it would get worse if we do not punish the behavior? Because he is Kerry. And he has the hubris of Agamemnon.
Kerry said today that a political solution is required in Syria. I don't think so. While there have been political solutions in the middle east, they are rare. It seems that there is relative peace only when one side wins outright. That might lead to tyranny, but, unfortunately, it seems to be the way things work over there. This will be over when Assad is dead or jailed and some group, possibly a jihadist one, fights its way to the top, or, Assad prevails, destroying and intimidating his enemies. An international force coming in to do the job, as in Libya, is also a possibility, but would probably require another foolish chemical attack.
Putin says Kerry is a liar. Perhaps it is only national chauvinism right now prevents me from taking Putin's word over Kerry's. I actually trust him less because he does not even remotely have U.S. interests at heart and routinely backs the bad guys in the world. Us mere mortals do not get to see the evidence Kerry says he has. However, whatever that evidence is, it does not seem to have particularly persuaded all that many congresspersons. Makes you wonder. While it seems hard to believe that Syria, which is virtually an outlaw nation with respect to chemical weapons has not used them, we all know the power of the media and our government to persuade us of the certainty of events that just aren't so. We saw that at the beginning of the Zimmerman case recently. This is part of the problem when we have politicians in power we just can't trust.
Even as Kerry managed to sink lower in my estimation during this debate, Sen. Paul rose in it. I am not a convinced supporter, though I think right now he is the most interesting potential presidential candidate. I was pleased to see that he appeared measured and reasonable. More, he made arguments rather than used hyperbole. He seems to have actually read not only the constitution but the war powers act. I have hopes he might have actually read the relevant U.N. protocol and convention too but asking a Senator to read something for a few minutes is probably not very reasonable. I was encouraged he has sought to clarify the war powers of the president. But that has been tabled by the foreign affairs committee he sits on for now (which might mean forever or a long time).
This debate might help Paul as he moves towards 2016. It's a long way away, of course, and it might be long forgotten by 2015. And, there are still some things I am not in love with about him. I once listened to him argue against a proposed bill in the Senate in a way I thought dishonest, pretending it threatened acts that were expressly prohibited. Nor am I sure he will be able to hold off the religious mania that grasps the GOP every presidential election season. There's time to determine all that though.
But, I liked what I saw in this debate.
A few quickies - This is getting longish, so I'll wrap it up.
WWII paradigm rules
It is not surprising that past experience colors what we do now, hoping not to repeat history. The experiences in the run ups to WWII, now over 70 years in the past, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan still have an enormous effect on us. Munich and the fear of encouragement through appeasement is brought up again and again. Countering that is the sobering fear of the endless morass and the failure of nation building, such as in the latter wars.
Watch Obama, Boehner and Pelosi
Want to see something funny? Recently Pres. Obama was recently flanked by Boehner and Pelosi, both who are supporting him with respect to Syria. But, as Obama did a What me worry? Boehner had a ever changing look of contempt, suspicion and discomfort on his face. Pelosi had a frozen look that looked like it was the product of more than a little surgery. It was just weird. But funny. The video was funnier but this photo is the best I can do.
Anyone who ever reads my political posts knows how I feel about mindless partisanship. Sometimes it seems like that is all I care about. I'm happy to say that so far, though you cannot expect to avoid it altogether, there has been a lot less of it in debating this issue than is common. Congressmen, whatever they decide, actually seem to be thinking about it. That could disappear in a moment particularly if it seems to mean advantage to one party or the other. But, for right now, it's nice to see.