September 7, 2013
September 7, 2013
Yes: Response Is Fundamental To A World Of Civility And Justice
By Nicholas Burns
Whether you agree or disagree, President Obama’s surprising decision to ask Congress to authorize the use of force against Syria was last weekend’s question. Now that the Senate has launched a vigorous debate, the vital question is whether the United States will respond to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians.
From a foreign policy perspective, the decision isn’t even close – – the United States must act by attacking President Bashar Assad’s air force, artillery, and command and control assets within Syria. The goal is to intimidate him, degrade his military capacity, and deter him from ever using these weapons again. There are risks, to be sure, in any use of force. But this will not be another Iraq — the United States will not put ground troops into Syria. And the risks are even greater if we do nothing.
Syria isn’t a sideshow. Given its location in the heart of the Arab world, next to US friends Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq, what happens in Syria matters deeply to the United States. We have another important interest. That is to back up the commitment President Obama made more than a year ago — that if Assad used chemical weapons, there would be a price to pay. He has done so twice. We now need to act.
Here are five reasons why Congress should authorize the use of force.
First, the global ban on chemical weapons needs to be enforced. The names of some of the leaders who have ordered their use are telling — Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and now Assad. Chemical weapons have been banned since just after the First World War. Absent an effective United Nations, the only sheriff that can enforce this vital international legal prohibition is the United States. If we don’t insist on a zero tolerance standard, the chemical weapons genie will be out of the bottle forever, innocent Syrian civilians might be attacked again, and other dictators may be emboldened to use these agents with impunity.
Second, Iran is watching. The greater challenge for the next 12 months is whether we will negotiate the end of the Iranian nuclear program or strike Iran to stop it. The Iranian government will gauge how Obama deals with Assad. American resolve on Syria makes it more likely Iran will negotiate seriously on nukes rather than risk a US strike down the line. A cardinal rule in international politics is that force often aids diplomacy. We may have a much better chance of negotiating a deal with Iran on nukes if we are tough now on Syria. And the air strikes may also give Obama leverage over Assad to insist on negotiations for a ceasefire. In this way, the United States would combine force and diplomacy to try to end the fighting.
Third, striking Assad may also weaken the Iran/Hezbollah/Russia axis that forms Syria’s international lifeline. This axis is a strategic challenge to every important American interest in the region. If we can weaken its position in the region, we should do so. This is why Senator John McCain is right to argue for a strike strong enough to make a strategic difference.
Fourth, America’s credibility is at stake. Opponents of a strike question whether America’s reputation will really suffer if we fail to act. But nations, like individuals, are judged by whether they honor their promises. Credibility is a tangible commodity in international politics. It takes decades to acquire a good reputation but only a short time to see it evaporate. McCain is right again to warn that congressional failure to authorize force in Syria would be a “catastrophe” for America’s credibility.
Fifth, there is a larger issue at stake: Syria is also a test of our global leadership. The United States is, in the words of Princeton’s John Ikenberry, the “system operator” of the international order. Without American energy and attention, the world order cannot function well.
This is not a message the growing number of neo-isolationists in both political parties in Congress want to hear. But it is fundamental to our wish to live in a world that has rules, order, civility, and justice. Without constant, effective, and smart US leadership, the global order will break down. Ronald Reagan, the two Bushes, and Bill Clinton all understood this. President Obama does too. The isolationists would have us retreat from leadership — a recipe for failure in the globalized 21st century.
This is one of those moments. The United States has to act in Syria.
Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
September 7, 2013
No: Forays Into The Islamic World Have Had Bad Consequences
By Andrew J. Bacevich
The sequence of events that finds the United States on the verge of attacking Syria began on April 24, 1980, when an elite contingent of US forces surreptitiously entered Iran on a daring mission. Their purpose was not to spread democracy, advance the cause of human rights, uphold international norms, or achieve regime change. They aimed to achieve something far more modest: to free several dozen Americans being held hostage in Tehran.
Yet almost as soon as it began, Operation Eagle Claw collapsed, ending in ignominious failure. We may wonder in retrospect if the gods were whispering, “Be warned, America. Don’t take this path.”
Back in Washington, policymakers either didn’t get this message or chose to ignore it. Operation Eagle Claw became the first in an almost endless series of US military forays into the Islamic world. From that day to the present, successive administrations have persisted in the expectation that the skillful application of hard power will alleviate the problems roiling the Greater Middle East. An unspoken assumption informs that effort: As a mighty superpower, the United States possesses the wit and capacity to distinguish good from evil, to create order out of disorder, and to convert darkness into light.
The upheaval enveloping so much of the Islamic world today exposes that assumption as a vast illusion. Whatever the forces transforming that world before our eyes, Washington probably can’t decipher them and certainly can’t direct them.
Still, before adding Damascus to the list of places that US forces or American proxies have subjected to assault pursuant to America’s mission in the Greater Middle East, we ought to contemplate some of the moral complications created by our previous efforts. For the truth is that Washington has not only fallen well short of fulfilling its self-assigned mission, it has soiled itself along the way.
Here are three pertinent examples, each relevant to the Obama administration’s effort to build a case against Syria.
Our friend Saddam. During the 1980s, the United States aligned itself with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which had launched an unprovoked war of aggression against Iran. Fearful that Iran might prevail in that war, the Reagan administration intervened indirectly on Saddam’s behalf, providing him with commercial credits, “dual use” technologies, and, most importantly, intelligence. That intelligence proved invaluable in enabling Saddam to target Iranian forces with chemical agents, including the sarin gas allegedly employed by the Syrians against their own people. Saddam too used sarin gas against his own people, most notoriously at Halabja in 1988, killing many hundreds of women and children. At the time, no one in the United States government argued for the need to punish Saddam for violating the “norm” prohibiting the use of such weapons. Expedience dictated that Washington should look the other way.
Our friends the KLA. Present-day promoters of an attack against Syria cite NATO’s 1999 air campaign against Serbia as a model of what they have in mind. Yet the all-but-forgotten Operation Allied Force was not neat and not without unintended consequences. Begun with the expectation that a mere three or four days of bombing would suffice to bring Slobodan Milosevic to heel, the campaign ended up requiring 78 days of ever-intensifying assault. Before it was over, NATO forces had subjected downtown Belgrade to sustained bombing that killed an estimated 500 civilians. Milosevic did eventually throw in the towel, thereby enabling the Kosovar Liberation Army — a terrorist organization known to engage in narco-trafficking — to prevail.
Our friends the Libyan resistance. In the summer of 2011, concerns that megalomaniacal Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy was hell-bent on committing genocide prompted the United States and its allies to launch Operation Odyssey Dawn. Advertised as an effort to protect civilians, the air campaign soon morphed into an effort to eliminate Khadafy — regime change to fertilize the Arab Spring and allow democracy to blossom. The operation did lead to Khadafy’s ouster (and murder). The Tuareg mercenaries hired to protect the dictator headed home to Mali, which they proceeded to dismember by carving an Islamist republic out of the northern half of that country. A civil war ensued. Meanwhile, instead of democracy, Libya got something more akin to chaos. The Independent reported just this week that “governing authority is disintegrating in all parts of the country” with Libyans “increasingly at the mercy of militias which operate outside the law.”
Think an intervention in Syria is going to be simple? Think it will be over in just a couple of days? Think again.
Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book “Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country” will be published next week.