September 5th, 2013
There is no such thing as a “limited surgical strike.” There is only one thing you can be sure of. If we send tens or hundreds of cruise missiles into Syria, innocent people will be killed. Where it stops is not in our control.
I perceive a peculiar frivolity in Obama’s assurances that just retribution for Assad’s atrocity will be accomplished without putting any American “boots on the ground.” It is tantamount to saying, we care about what you did deeply enough to kill somebody for it, only not if it involves any risk to ourselves. The message it sends to the world is not that there are firm limits on the means with which nations may perpetrate violence, but rather that the United States exercises its power in a manner that is unserious, fearful, and confused; we lack the courage of our convictions, but we are willing to see others suffer for them.
If Bashar Al-Assad has committed what amounts to a felony in international law, of sufficient gravity to warrant the death penalty (we are after all talking about killing people as punishment for it), then a “limited response” that does not accomplish regime change is inadequate and beside the point. I am not suggesting that we should invade Syria and depose Assad. I am saying that anything less is senseless.
I do not understand the moral calculus whereby our slaughter of innocent people is just retribution for Assad’s slaughter of innocents. Since World War II, the entire civilized world has condemned the practice of mass retaliation, of punishing an entire group or community for acts of some of its putative members, that was a major compenent of the Nazi evil. Now we are going to punish “Syria.” Or the “Syrian government.” Or somebody.
A “limited, surgical strike” carefully avoiding regime change and targeted at degrading Syrain military capabilities ensures that the one person in Syria whom we deem most culpable is the one person in Syria who is safest from us.
Among the most depressing things I have heard recently is Obama’s statement that a limited military attack is not an act of war. I would not have believed him capable of such hypocricy. Imagine his response if Syria were to conduct a “limited” bombing strike against certain industrial facilities in the U.S. intended “only” to degrade our capacity to use drones.
Why is it necessary to act militarily at this moment against this particular violation of international law? The entire world stood by and watched Rwanda sink into genocide, and did nothing. China’s treatment of Tibet is atrocious. Israel has been committing violations of international law, including war crimes and arguably crimes against humanity, for decades. I’m not advocating that we attack Israel or China, nor that we merely ignore atrocities. But why is Assad’s atrocity suddenly the intolerable one? Why has Obama drawn a “red line” here, and only here? And who appointed him to draw it?
This is vigilante justice.
If Obama really wants to uphold international law and international norms of conduct, he should get this country to sign on to the International Criminal Court and work to provide the U.N. with real enforcement power. The U.S. isn’t the world’s policeman, and shouldn’t be, but the U.N. could be. The U.N. should have standing armed forces with the capability of going anywhere and arresting even heads of state. Haul Assad before the I.C.C. to answer charges of mass murder against his own people.
Oh – we’re afraid that the I.C.C.’s power would be turned against us. This is the lame excuse we’ve heard for years for the U.S.’s refusal to ratify the treaty. Well, that’s what those of us who work in law enforcement call a deterrent. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. I wouldn’t mind being the citizen of a country that is deterred from launching unprovoked murderous assaults upon other nations. I wouldn’t mind living in such a world.