Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Moralistic political theater

I had the misfortune this afternoon to watch and listen to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on Syria. Before the committee were Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Martin Dempsey. Of these three, the only one whose remarks and answers were coherent was Gen. Dempsey. No case could really be made as to why we should attack Syria apart from standing up to the tyrant Bashir Assad who crossed an administration-imposed "red line" by using chemical weapons on his own people. But the concern expressed by those senators not deprived of their critical faculties for political reasons was, What would such an attack mean for the people of Syria, who are fleeing and flooding as refugees into neighboring countries at an alarming rate, or, even more, for those who have not fled? What would this mean for the U.S., whose stated intention is dislodging Assad, but according to Kerry and Hagel, not by means of this military strike, which, they seemed to insist, would be done for purely moral reasons, as punishment and with the hope of inflicting damage on Syria's command and control infrastructure, thus preventing future use of such weapons?

According to some open sources, like Juan Cole, writing on the blog "Informed Consent," the decision to employ these weapons may not have flowed through the national chain-of-command, but were likely made by a local commander with access to these weapons. We're certainly not planning to destroy chemical weapons with kinetic strikes.

The same case Kerry and Hagel were trying to make was made in the British House of Commons last week by Prime Minister David Cameron, only more forcefully and more eloquently than the self-contradictory bumblings that passed for making an argument today at the U.S. Capitol. Commenting on Cameron's case, which he lost, the Parliament refusing to give the go-ahead for a strike, Peter Hitchens, who nobody can accuse of being a soft leftist, writing about these "moral" arguments, said, "these days, our moral worth is not judged by such things as constancy and trust close to home, but by our noisy readiness to bomb people for their own good." He went on to note that "[t]he moral bomber is one of the scourges of our age. He gets it into his head that he is so good that he is allowed to kill people (accidentally of course) in a noble cause."

Even as this hearing was in progress, the Obama Administration was busily preparing to provide more aid to the Syrian rebels, most of whom are Islamists, who represent for Syria what the former opposition now governing Libya is for that beleaguered and betrayed country, which is actually worse off as a result of our armed intervention. Syria, with its proximity to Israel and Iraq, it's complicated relationship with Iran, it's involvement in Lebanon, is far more strategic than Libya.

Secretaries Kerry and Hagel before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, photo by Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Unlike Libya, there is too much at stake in Syria to screw this up. In this context, it is important to mention that we have been aiding Syrian rebels for quite sometime in an attempt to bring about the collapse of the Assad regime. In December 2012 the U.S. even went as far as to recognize the Syrian opposition as Syria's "legitimate" government, only then to see this same opposition, now with U.S. recognition, refuse to participate in peace negotiations this past March. The Assad regime also balked at these negotiations, not seeing the U.S. as an honest broker. This is not the path to peace! While Assad and/or his minions bear full moral and legal responsibility for using chemical weapons, morally, we need to ask how much the success of the opposition, which coalition consists mostly of Islamist groups, brought about the level of desperation.

Senator Rand Paul, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, appearing Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press, noted, as he did when this same Senate Committee incomprehensibly voted to provide aid for the Syrian opposition, which he voted against, pointed out that "the Islamic rebels winning is a bad idea for the Christians. All of a sudden we'll have another Islamic state where Christians are persecuted." There is a lot more that could be said about all this, including the insistence of both cabinet secretaries that the president does not require Congressional approval to launch a strike, which, forces the question, Then why, apart from seeking to mitigate political risk, is the president, especially a president who has eschewed working through the Congress whenever he has been able, asking for a go-ahead? But these are political questions, which increasingly do not interest me very much.

During the hearing Secretary Kerry floated what I would call the most improbable outcome of such an action- making him arguably an even greater fantasist than PM Cameron- getting Assad to the bargaining table to negotiate a peaceful transfer of power. If the consequences of such constant warfare were not so dire, this would be funny stuff coming from a man, who as a senator voted for and then later opposed military action in Iraq, claiming during his 2004 presidential run to have been bamboozled by the Bush Administration (famously summarized as "He was for it before he was against it"). Given that the administration issued an ultimatum (i.e., "red line"), isn't it safe to assume that they will feel obligated to follow through, with or without Congressional approval?

As with Libya, where we "led from behind," I thought we could expect better from President Obama, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for "extraordinary effort promoting diplomacy and nuclear disarmament."

Even as we prepare for our fasting and prayer for peace this Saturday, let's pray that Congress, like the British House of Commons, will be resistant to the propaganda they are being fed and insist on a different, even more strenuous course of action, in concert with our allies, and vote not approve such a strike. This Saturday, 7 September, let's gather together, as the Holy Father has asked, "in prayer and in a spirit of penance, invoking God’s great gift of peace upon the beloved nation of Syria and upon each situation of conflict and violence around the world. Humanity needs to see these gestures of peace and to hear words of hope and peace!"

1 comment:

  1. Scott, this is so well-written and, in my opinion, spot on. Thank you.


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