Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Say No to Syria Intervention!

Secretary of State John Kerry leads the war faction in the Obama administration, insisting that American warplanes should begin bombing Syria right away.
In the past few days, the White house announced that it will begin sending military materiel to Syrian rebels. This decision comes in the wake of the administration's determination that Syria's ruling Assad regime had used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on the insurgents. This use constituted Assad crossing one of the Obama administration's "red lines," so named because crossing them would be seen as an intolerable act that could not be passively encountered by the United States.

International agencies estimate that the chemical attacks killed 100-150 people. As IBD puts it, "That's in addition to the more than 90,000 Syrians killed by conventional weapons that didn't seem to prompt any action."

Government Executive reports that Secretary of State John Kerry pushed hard for the United States to bomb key Syrian targets after the chemical use was confirmed.
On Thursday, President Obama confirmed what reports had been speculating for a few weeks: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons, notably sarin gas, on his own people, and tripping the president's "red line" that would rouse the United States to greater action. The response includes arming and training the rebels. It turns out that Secretary of State John Kerry also wanted the response to include an air strike on Syrian airfields, according to Jeffery Goldberg at Bloomberg View. 
According to Goldberg, Kerry's "vociferous" thoughts on the matter were not received well by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey during a meeting in the situation room last Wednesday.
(My own experience of working in the Pentagon from 1990-1993 is that the state department is considerably quicker to reach for the sword than the defense department.) The reason Kerry's push did not prevail is that Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey made it clear that a few runs on target would do no good, that if the bombing was not be be merely symbolic, it would require a sustained, large effort of no short duration.

Secretary Kerry lost the debate that day, but the desire is out in the open: there is a powerful faction within the Obama administration that wants direct military action by the United States against the Assad regime.

My position is that no just rationale can be proffered for American intervention in the civil war, whether by supply, air campaign or boots on the ground. Such action fails to meet the standards of the two major influences that have shaped American military action since the country's founding: Just War theory and Realpolitik, or foreign-affairs Realism.

Realpolitik and the national interests

Realpolitik is the easier of the two to deal with, so I'll start with it. Realpolitik "refers to politics or diplomacy based primarily on power and on practical and material factors and considerations, rather than ideological notions or moralistic or ethical premises." The United States has (let us be thankful) not been skilled in its practice - both the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam War come to mind as two prominent, recent examples.

In Syria, however, even if the Obama administration was inclined toward Realpolitik it would find there is no upside for American power interests in intervention. Simply put, the outcome of the  civil war there is wholly immaterial to the national-security interests of the United States. The fight is not a fight between repressed Jeffersonian democrats and their cruel oppressors. It is a fight between what we may understand as a Stalinist regime in power and a fascist movement that wants to replace it.

There are no good guys in this war. It is not a war about repression vs. liberty. It is a war about who will do the repressing. As Atlantic Council managing editor James Joyner puts it, "Syrian Rebels Today, Syrian Taliban Tomorrow."
Radical Islamists now dominate the Syrian opposition. And you’re arming them. Reuters (“Syria’s Islamists seize control as moderates dither“):
During a 10-day journey through rebel-held territory in Syria, Reuters journalists found that radical Islamist units are sidelining more moderate groups that do not share the Islamists’ goal of establishing a supreme religious leadership in the country. 
The moderates, often underfunded, fragmented and chaotic, appear no match for Islamist units, which include fighters from organizations designated “terrorist” by the United States.
The Syrian resistance, such as it is, is dominated by foreign al Qaeda elements. If the resistance loses, Assad's Syria will become even more of an Iranian client than it already is. If the resistance wins, Syria will be a a Muslim Brotherhood client with a strong share of Saudi Salfism thrown in for good measure.

So what is the Syrian civil war really about? It is another round in the centuries-old conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims (in which Assad is ironically neither). Understand, the conflict between Sunnis and Shias is not a religious conflict, it is political. The Islamic-theological differences are actually rather minor. They dispute who should be authoritative in setting doctrinal standards for Muslims, but this springs from a centuries-old schism over Mohammed's successors as leaders of Islam. Islam itself is basically identical for both.

The center of Shia Islam is Iran, which named the United States the Great Satan in 1979 (Israel, by contrast, was only named the Little Satan). Al Qaeda began as a Sunni movement arising from the local jihad against the Soviet army declared by a Palestinian Sunni cleric living in Saudi Arabia. The occasion was the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Out of the Islamic resistance to the USSR, led by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, was born the organization that Osama bin Laden would use to form al Qaeda, whose hatred of all things American need not be explained further.

This history helps illuminate why both sides in Syria can each hate the United States as much (or more) as they hate one another. Whether the rebels prevail or Assad, neither outcome is inherently more desirable for the United States than the other. So simply from a Realpolitik point of view, there is no upside for the United States to intervene in any fashion.

There is, however, considerable downside, not least would be the expenditure of American blood and treasure to achieve goals that are unclear, mostly undefined, in a campaign of of indefinite duration, for no possible outcome that benefits the security of the country.

Syria Intervention and Just War theory

The failure of Realpolitik being understood, we may confront the moral issue with greater probity. The issue is simply stated: Does the violence and deaths of non-combatants in Syria justify the United States to kill Syrian soldiers (an inevitably civilians) and raise the level of violence there to even greater heights (there being no more violent or destructive military on the face of the earth than America's)?

That is really the central question of the use of force within the framework of Just War theory, devised by the Roman Catholic Church over the centuries between St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, who gave the theory its final polish. JWT, as I will short-type it henceforth, holds that there are only two circumstances in which war may be justly fought:
  • Actual self defense against aggression
  • To defend the innocent and otherwise defenseless against aggression
Catholic author Nicholas G. Hahn III says that Syria meets the latter criterion. In trying to rebut Senator Rand Paul's speech against intervention, Hahn writes,
Should Paul know anything about Augustine or Aquinas, he would know that war is sometimes necessary and a moral obligation. 
Aquinas quotes Augustine approvingly that a just war is "one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly." Even the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in its 1993 statement, defined casus belli where force may be employed to "correct a grave, public evil." 
Perhaps Paul should also read George Weigel's First Things primer on how pre-emption is simply another word for defense -- and defense, after all, fits perfectly within the just war tradition.
Now, I have been reading George Weigel's tomes on JWT and related issues for many years and I join Mr. Hahn in my admiration for his insights. But Hahn and his ideological allies simply fail to make a case here. Here is why.

JWT conceptually exists in three parts:
  1. Just cause for starting the war.
  2. Just conduct of the war.
  3. Just ending of the war.
Criterion 1 simply means a nation may not justly go to war for selfish gain hiding behind a smokescreen of moral language. That Mr. Hahn injected the word "pre-emption" into a discussion of moral necessity sort of gives the game away. Preemption (hit them before they can hit you) is not wholly without moral content but it is mainly a tactic of Realpolitik. Just whom would the United States be pre-empting? Assad? Al Qaeda? Iran? Russia?

Criterion 2 usually understood to mean that conducting the war may not be done more unjustly than the injustice sought to be remedied. This is not a matter of counting corpses killed by one side or the other and saying (as American critics of our entry into Afghanistan post-9/11 did) that we may not take more lives protecting the innocent than the number of innocent lives lost at the hands of the aggressors.

As my friend, Catholic cleric (and US Army War College graduate) John Krenson explained to me, if the cause is just and the objectives are just, then just conduct is the minimum violence necessary to attain the just objective. And that minimum violence might be very great, indeed.

This is known as the problem of the "Sanguinary Calculus," meaning how much suffering and death we may justly inflict in order to bring about the objective we desire. I would appeal to my readers to consider the years of American fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and ponder whether they give us any cause for confidence. Would we still be in Syria eight to 10 years from now?

Let us remember Douglas MacArthur's warning that, "Prolonged indecision is never a just aim of war."

The sanguinary calculus must also include American lives. I would like to hear advocates of intervention tell me the plea they give to their own children why they should join the Marines to go fight Assad in Syria and what they will say when their children are killed or maimed. (For the record, I thought that invading Iraq was clearly justified by JWT and my eldest son did fight in Iraq as a Marine. My second son is today an officer in the Air Force Reserve.)

Or is this moral crusade only to be fought by children of others? As there is no American national-security interest at stake at all, I believe I am justified in insisting that intervention advocates put their own blood on the line and not simply outsource their morality.

I have not yet encountered an intervention advocate explain exactly why Syria is a special case. If Syria is a "yes," why would North Korea be a no? After all, the Kims' successive regimes have literally starved to death millions of their own subjects. Does not that call more strongly for American direct action to rescue?

In fact, the list of places in the world where the US would be morally justified in mounting military action to defend the innocent is very long. But it would be impossible for us to do so. And that requires exercising another principle of war, distinction or discrimination. If not everyone, then who and why? If there is an especially compelling reason we should intervene in Syria and not Lower Zambezi, then let advocates make it. But they do not even attempt.

There is neither a strong moral nor national security case to be made for US intervention. Intervention fails both just war theory and Realpolitik.

Endnote: On the other hand, Foreign Policy's Daniel Drezner says that in fact the Obama administration has been engaged in Realpolitik in Syria and that the recently-announced plan to send arms to the rebels is the logical extension of it.
[T]his is simply the next iteration of the unspoken, brutally realpolitik policy towards Syria that’s been going on for the past two years.  To recap, the goal of that policy is to ensnare Iran and Hezbollah into a protracted, resource-draining civil war, with as minimal costs as possible.  This is exactly what the last two years have accomplished…. at an appalling toll in lives lost
This policy doesn’t require any course correction… so long as rebels are holding their own or winning. A faltering Assad simply forces Iran et al into doubling down and committing even more resources.  A faltering rebel movement, on the other hand, does require some external support, lest the Iranians actually win the conflict.  In a related matter, arming the rebels also prevents relations with U.S. allies in the region from fraying any further.
Unlike Mr. Drezner, I don't think the administration is clever enough for this.

Update: David Goldman in an Asia Times op-ed points out that there is no good end in Syria no matter what the Western powers do.

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