We hear that the situation in Syria is 'complex'. Perhaps complexity, not patriotism, is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Health and education are complex; does that mean we shouldn't get involved with them? Can't complex situations contain problems which have simple solutions? No doubt the reasons a child is being tortured by his parents may be very complex: that complexity does little to complicate or obscure the response. The same may hold for a child being tortured by Assad.
This survey of bad reasons tries to make 'the problem', or at least the solution, seem a little less complex. Here's hoping it succeeds.
"It's all for show. It won't be effective."
This is unfounded. Any strike at all proves US willingness to strike. This gives Assad much more reason to expect future US actions than he had before. So even a cosmetic strike has deterrent power.
"No US interests are at stake."
It's true that no direct interests are at stake. The US has less and less need for Middle East oil, and in any case the Gulf States' oil is not in danger. But the US has vital interests stemming from its pronouncements, alliances and commitments in the region. Very simply, it frequently approves and disapproves of goings on there. But even in the recent past, it attempts to enforce its wishes have basically failed. Iraq was a humiliation and Afghanistan is another, in progress. So already the US was perceived as ineffectual. Now its long-standing 'outrage' against Assad and its utter inability to give that outrage some substance has made it a laughing-stock. This has to be very dangerous. It essentially says you can do what you like without regard to the US and get away with it, not only in the region but in the world.
You might conceivably argue that the US would have had no vital interests if it had shut up about Syria, but even that is implausible.
Whatever the real strategic importance of US influence in the Mediterranean, the US has always assigned that region great importance. This means the US has to be interested in what's going on in Syria. To have that interest and lack any ability to assert it is, again, dangerous, because, again, it shows weakness.
"Congress must approve going to war."
Yes, but there is no conceivable way to construe any of the proposed attacks as a war. Against such a weak opponent, they can't even be considered likely to cause a war. Even if they could, nothing says that the Executive can't pursue a course of action that might lead to war. Maybe this should be illegal, but it isn't.
Any claim to illegality therefore has to rest on the War Powers Resolution of 1973. This does require Congressional authorization for what Obama has in mind. However no president has accepted the constitutionality of the Resolution, some have violated it, and none of the violators have been sanctioned. So the legalities are moot.
Most important, this 'reason' in no way implies that the US should stay out of Syria. It simply implies that, if the US should get involved, Congress should approve, and if it shouldn't, Congress shouldn't. It doesn't even address which of these alternatives is desirable.
"The strike would be illegal under international law."
Sometimes international law deserves respect. The adjudicating bodies that resolve trade and boundary dispute have proven their worth and, for practical reasons, gained something a bit like real authority. Here international law rests on a 'concert of nations'. When addressing these less than life-and-death issues, it's practical to suppose that, if the parties agree - that is, if the governments of the countries agree - that's good enough.
Unfortunately the 'concert of nations' approach becomes a bitter joke when there's slaughter within a single nation's boundaries. If the UN's involved in such situations, 'international' often becomes 'at the good pleasure of murderous dictatorships'. The UN started life by giving both Stalin and Chiang Kai-shek permanent Security Council veto power over all important matters. The concert-of-nations approach perpetuates this sort of absurdity and is illegitimate twice over.
For one thing, if the assent of 'nations' is supposed to confer legitimacy, it should really be the nations that do the assenting, not, for instance, tyrants who claim to represent a nation. So the assenting governments would themselves have to be politically legitimate. Political legitimacy is normally thought to obtain when the government rests on the consent of the governed.
Well of course we have no international institutions of any sort that can claim political legitimacy in this sense. All these institutions are either the work of a few legitimate governments, leaving much of the world's population unrepresented, or of the often illegitimate governments of 'all nations'. So it would be absurd to suppose that we have anything like authoritative international institutions for matters that go beyond trade and boundary disputes.
That isn't all. On matters of life and death, political legitimacy wouldn't really be enough. Even if a concert of legitimate 'nations' agreed to outlaw mass slaughter, the details of adjudication and enforcement would depend on the consent of these nations. And the peoples of these nations may ignore or consent to atrocities as they please. The interests of populations themselves can clash dramatically, even on matters of life and death. Western nations, for instance, might and do establish 'international' institutions that reflect their own interests, with possibly fatal consequences for others. So the idea that conventions dependent on states accountable only to their own populations are somehow legitimate the world over is absurd.
But even if current international institutions had some form of popular legitimacy, and even if popular legitimacy was considered adequate authority, these institutions couldn't be considered authoritative in any practical sense. International law has no settled method of enforcement or adjudication outside the more commercial side of things. War crimes tribunals, for instance, pretty much make up rules of evidence and procedure as they go along. Judges are unaccountable; no authority reviews their conduct. Standards of evidence rest on sheer caprice. The offences are identified in vague documents never subject to serious interpretation, much less refinement through case law. How such institutions are supposed capable of conferring legitimacy on anything having to do with catastrophic horror is a complete mystery.
Some would object that international institutions, though imperfect, are the best we have, and must be respected if we are to get anything better. But one could just as well say they must be disrespected - not accepted - if we are to get anything better. It's not clear what wars or genocides 'the international community' has ever stopped or prevented. They've been stopped due to the unilateral actions of single nations, like Vietnam in Cambodia, or France in Rwanda. International institutions have done little more than count the bodies and conduct generally inconclusive trials of a comically tiny proportion of the offenders. Fans of existing international institutions should explain why respect for them should prevail over preventing the murder of many tens of thousands of innocent people.
"We shouldn't attack a sovereign nation."
Sure we should, sometimes - the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia was 'naked aggression'. Besides, this allegedly sacred principle doesn't apply in Syria, any more than it did in Libya.
When the government has lost territorial control - not episodically, but for over two years - it has become a mere party in a civil conflict, not a genuine government. An attack on that party is not an attack on a nation, or even the government of a nation. Of course this has to be considered when it's said than such an attack 'violates international law' or constitutes 'aggression'.
Legalities aside, even an attack on a sovereign government shouldn't be considered an attack on the nation unless the government represents the nation. Attacking me isn't an attack on my country just because I claim to represent my country; I must really be their representative. Of course lots of governments don't, and Assad's, if considered sovereign, would be one of them.
"It will only make things worse."
This is insidious because the truth is no one knows the ultimate effects of any sort of intervention. It gets plausibility from imagining all sorts of terrible but possible outcomes. But if you imagine such outcomes, rationality also commands that you imagine no less probable good outcomes
Maybe Assad is on the verge of collapse, and his fall will be followed by the establishment of a democratic state, with minimal strife. Maybe there will be strife, but neighboring and Western powers will easily find allies in Syria and contain it. Maybe the 'Al Qaeda' Islamists will dissolve because much of their membership simply joined up to fight Assad, and the rest fritter away their strength in infighting. Maybe a successful revolution in Syria will re-kindle the 'Arab Spring' and re-invigorate the whole region. Or maybe not, but these are no less plausible outcomes than the doom-and-gloom scenarios, some of which will be examined below.
It's also worth asking just what is meant by 'making things worse'. If the US delivers substantial support to the Free Syrian Army, OF COURSE things will get worse, because they will win, and before they win the fighting will intensify. After that it will get much much better, because the fighting will end. As for sectarian warfare, see below, on Islamists.
"Look at the US track record on intervention."
"The US" is an abstraction - the objection is an abstract way of saying that past administrations have done badly on intervention. That's not very compelling: there is no reason to expect an intervention conducted by a moderately intelligent coward to go the same way as one conducted by a dim-witted John Wayne wannabe. Besides, if you're going to arm-wave in the general direction of 'history', you should pay some mind to changing circumstances. It's not just that the US isn't very concerned about energy security any more. It's also that Israel no longer needs US support; that the Red Menace has vanished; and that the US is no longer sees itself in a life-and-death struggle against 'terror'. The country and its circumstances have changed. A track record doesn't mean much if both the runners and the track have changed.
"It's a quagmire" or "we'll be sucked in to an open-ended conflict".
Again, how is this supposed to work? The US has never been 'sucked in' to anything; it has freely decided to get more and more involved. What exactly would prevent the US from packing up and going home when it pleased? In the past, it's been presidential hubris. However the current president has done nothing but (a) get out
of quagmires, in Afghanistan and Iraq and (b) not get into
them, as in Libya. So this worry is the product of an evidence-free perspective.
Sometimes we're told how terrible it is that the US doesn't 'have a plan' for Syria. Because Syria's future is so uncertain, you can't expect much of a plan - as is often the case in war, plans need to be revised in the light of changing circumstances. But this is part of the reason that fears of a quagmire are exaggerated. Part of the reason the US got stuck in Vietnam and later, Afghanistan, is because it did have plans with clear objectives - to prevent the domino effect, to build a democratic nation - and the plans were too rigid. The 'no-plan' complaints suggest that this mistake isn't likely to be repeated.
"This will empower Islamists."
When Western anti-intervention types say this, it's much less persuasive than it looks. Syrian revolutionaries understandably fear this prospect, because they believe it to be terrible for Syrians. But of course Western anti-interventionists don't give too much of a shit about Syrians, which is why they oppose intervention. But for non-Syrians, empowering Islamists in Syria is not much of a problem at all.
Syrian Islamists may harm Syrians, but they are no danger to others. Before the defeat of Assad, they couldn't possibly do much elsewhere. But after the defeat of Assad, assuming that happens, pretty much every country in the world, from Turkey and Jordan and Israel and Iraq to Russia and China and Iran and the Western powers, will be dead set on eliminating or containing the Syrian Islamists. The idea that the Islamists would overcome all this opposition is a non-starter.
"Assad will react."
Really? Like he reacted to two powerful Israeli air strikes?
"We should seek a political solution."
This doesn't deserve refutation, but it carries dishonesty to the point of sadism. Perhaps if you have a psychopath who's taken over a school and has already shot, singly and in groups, 200 of 1000 children, what's required is more negotiation. But it's even worse than that, because Assad isn't just a mass murderer. He has also shown himself completely immune to keeping promises or agreements of any sort. In two and a half years, he and his allies have shown nothing but contempt for any 'solution'. What's stunning here is not just the persistence of this patent nonsense in the face of extensive experience. It's also the repulsive sense of leisure that informs its every utterance. (After two and a half years, we still hear concerns about 'rushing in'.) These negotiation-lovers might not be so laid back were the murder and torture closer to home.
"We should focus on the humanitarian crisis, not on making war."
There is indeed a terrible humanitarian crisis and yes, it is vitally important to help the refugees. But this is the most cynical of maneuvers. If your heart really bleeds for the refugees, get rid of Assad, so they can all can go home. It's not as if you can't aid the refugees and also topple Assad.