Robert E. PraschBy Robert E. Prasch

Congress Gets to Vote on a War!

Our most gracious sovereign – Barack Obama — has condescended to allow the elected representatives of the American people to engage in what his Administration openly states is a “non-binding” vote over whether or not the armed forces of the United States should enter into hostilities with yet another Middle East nation. This, it goes without saying, is a significant development. After all, our representatives have never been asked to debate or authorize the ongoing bombing campaigns being conducted in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, or any other of a number of nations with substantial Muslim populations. No wonder the Washington establishment is all aflutter.

The Principle at Stake

What has brought about this historic occasion? Well, if we can believe the Administration (and given this Administration’s penchant for prevarication, this is a big “if”), Syria has broken a long-standing taboo. Indeed, the Syrian government may have violated a long-standing principle that is well-known among nations. What is this principle?  It is that only nations working in concert with the United States, and advancing an agenda pre-approved by the United States, may deploy lethal gas against its enemies (or alternatively, against its own civilians as occurred in Halabja). If we can believe the Administration, Syria has violated this taboo.

While Saddam Hussein conducted the gas attacks described above, he was neither then nor now deemed to have been in violation of the principle as stated. Why? Because at the time he was de facto allied with the CIA and the upper echelons of the Reagan Administration in a conflict with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The United States was, then as now, preoccupied with weakening Iran for having had the temerity to overthrow the ruler the CIA had installed after orchestrating a coup in 1954. By the logic of the Washington foreign policy establishment, the Iranians had displayed arrogance on a grand scale. For that reason the CIA was complicit in the Iraqi Army’s deployment of lethal gases against the Iranian Army in the 1980s. Emboldened by what he could only perceive to have been a “green light” from the Reagan Administration, Saddam Hussein later gassed approximately 100,000 Kurdish civilians, whose transgression was to either be in the wrong place at the wrong time (that is to say their own villages) or for taking an anti-Saddam Hussein stance before such a position had been formally sanctified by the United States.

Three Options in Syria

This brings us back to what should be done about Syria’s transgression. In effect, the Obama Administration has indicated that we have three options: (1) do nothing other than express outrage, (2) engage in a serious bombing effort, one designed to significantly reduce the fighting capability of the Syrian Army so that it becomes vulnerable to succumbing to the several rebel forces now in the field, or (3) engage in “limited strikes” wherein targets are selected in a manner that “teaches a lesson” without disturbing the current balance of power of the ongoing civil war (although interestingly, the actual wording of the letter sent by the President to Congress requesting authorization is very open-ended on the use of force). Before continuing, let us take a moment to think through option (3). Given the size and severity of the rebellion it is hard to imagine what targets would actually qualify. Perhaps the United States could bomb some lonely outposts or check-points outside of the combat zones, military vehicles or aircraft that are undergoing repairs and/or about to be replaced, or perhaps we would demolish Syria’s Department of Motor Vehicles office. Seriously, it is hard to say which targets would fall under this third category.

As things stand, if we care about bringing an end to the war and the stopping the death and destruction along with the alarming rise in the number of refugees, choice (1) or (2) should almost self-evidently dominate (3). After all, (3) simply brings the United States into another conflict in a manner designed to ensure that nothing is done that might change the situation on the ground and thereby move the combatants toward a resolution of the war. Again, by design, the point of such a bombing campaign would be to solely and singularly express the United States government’s willingness to uphold the less-than-glorious principle expressed above. Worse, it defends this principle by killing or maiming a number of low-ranking Syrian Army troops and whichever civilians happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. My guess is that neither of these groups would have been enthusiasts of gassing civilians in the event that they had been asked. However, Bashar al-Assad has shown that he is as inclined to be as concerned with the public’s position on decisions related to war and peace as … well, never mind.

But what of the principle being upheld?  Surely it is important to establish that only regimes working to advance ends pre-approved by the United States government have the right to deploy lethal gases. Not many people living outside the United States support the principle summarized above. True, many people across the globe do favor a complete ban on the use of lethal gasses as weapons, but if the United States were to adhere to this latter principle, it would be necessary to mount an investigation and prosecution of the Reagan-era officials and agencies that actively assisted and/or covered up for Saddam Hussein’s use of lethal gas during the Iran-Iraq War. The Obama Administration has demonstrated that it can be feckless on its campaign promises, but no one can claim that they have not vigorously stood by the principle that any and all American officials who engage in war crimes should be favored with absolute legal impunity. If we believe the news reports, this last decision was taken because the Administration was pained to discover that there was low morale amongst those who claimed that they were “just following orders” when they knowingly committed war crimes.

Why Does the Administration Favor a “Limited Strike”?

Let us assume that a decision to bomb Syria has been or will be taken. Why would the Administration elect to limit the scope of such a strike before it begins? The answer is actually right in front of us – the Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration before it, wishes to preserve the Assad regime or something that looks and acts very much like it. Why? The reason is that, despite formal enmity, the United States has something of a “working relationship” with Assad. We also know that a genuinely democratic Syrian government, even if largely free of fundamentalist influence, would want the return of the Golan Heights (and the all-important right of access to water from the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee that comes with it), support Palestinian claims over substantially more of the Occupied territories than the current Israeli government is inclined to cede, and will generally take “awkward” or “unsettling” positions on a variety of other regional issues. Worse, it could do so with all of the legitimacy that the world tends to confer on democratically elected governments.

Moreover, Assad has long proven his willingness to work with the United States on what might be described as “delicate matters.”  One could say that the United States and Syria share an implicit understanding about several matters of mutual importance. For example, we rarely hear of attacks on Israel from Syria, even by irregular forces (Israel, by contrast, periodically bombs Syria). Consider another example. In September 2002, the United States government was anxious to have a Canadian citizen of Syrian descent questioned under torture. At the time it was thought that it would be awkward for the United States government to do the job, so the intended victim was flown by private plane to Jordan where the wonderfully cooperative and “enlightened” King had Maher Arar transferred to Syria for a year of utterly inhumane treatment accompanied by extended torture. A year later Syrian officials apologetically reported that, despite their best efforts, they had found Arar absolutely innocent of any wrongdoing. Needless to say, the Bush and Obama Administrations, along with the US judiciary, will never forgive Arar for being innocent, which explains why to this day he cannot enter the United States and remains on the No-Fly list despite a formal apology and $10 million settlement from the Canadian government.

This, I submit, is the crux of the problem. Barack Obama probably doesn’t like Assad. As well, it is likely true that Sec. of State John Kerry really believes that the President of Syria is like Hitler (although not so much like him as to ruin the lovely dinner that then Sen. Kerry and his wife enjoyed with President Assad and his wife). We can safely assume that they would like to see a world in which Assad did not play a part. But, as with the case of Egypt, the Washington foreign policy establishment generally and the Obama Administration in particular have a deep and visceral fear of the Syrian and Egyptian publics. Their concern is that the peoples of the Middle East have shown a disconcerting tendency to make up their own minds when voting for representatives, rather than selecting those whom the United States government wants them to want. Until the peoples of the Middle East learn to vote “correctly,” the United States government can be counted upon to resist the emergence of democracy across the region.

This, ultimately, is the logic of Option (3). The United States government, when push comes to shove, wants Assad or someone very much like him to rule over Syria. A disdain or contempt for public opinion across the Middle East is the underlying reason why there has long been a bi-partisan consensus in support of military rule in Egypt, in support of the violent repression of the people of Bahrain, in support of the extreme fundamentalists who have long miss-ruled Saudi Arabia, and in support of a policy of relentless hostility directed towards Iran.

Worse of all, from the perspective of the Washington establishment, Assad fully understands the situation and the leverage that it inadvertently grants him. This was the reason that Assad demonstrated his contempt for President Obama’s implied threat of a “Red Line” by deploying lethal gas. The Administration is especially angry because in their hearts they already know that they are going to let Assad get away with it.

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Robert E. Prasch is Professor of Economics at Middlebury College.