September 5th, 2013

Tactical Tomahawk Block IV Cruise Missile TestKilling a bunch of Syrians by dropping bombs on them does not seem to me to be an appropriate way to express disapproval of the means chosen by Bashar Al-Assad for killing a bunch of Syrians.

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.

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 5th, 2013 at 10:04 pm and is filed under Current events, Foreign Policy. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “Syria”

  1. Richard Says:

    he author is (sadly) re-writing history in condemning “Nazis”. He must be unaware that in World War II the U.S. and British Air Forces bombed Germany’s cities into rubble killing hundreds of thousands. And the U.S., all by itself, burned all but a few of Japan’s cities to the ground, again killng civilians by the hundreds of thousands. “Mass Retaliation” and “Slaughter of Innocents” is our Moral Calculus. The winners hold the war crimes trials. Sort of the same thing today.

  2. Seth Steinzor Says:

    The author let himself get carried away making a rhetorical point. It is a vice of the author’s that he regrets. Thanks, Uncle Dick, for the all too sobering correction.

  3. Upton O. Good Says:

    Question for Richard. Say you are the Commander in Chief of the United States in the early 1940’s. The Nazi’s (not in quotes) have just overrun more-or-less all of Europe, North Africa and a large chunk of Asia. Their allies, who are just as evil, have overrun most of what is left. They have broken every pledge, promise and treaty ever committed to, and have violated even the vaguest rules of war, to the extent there is such a thing. Many millions have already died in death camps, and tens of millions have already died on one battlefield or another. They are more scientifically advanced than you, and building working rockets and well on their way to a nuclear bomb. The only thing standing between them and their thousand year worldwide empire is a nearly-exhausted Britain, it’s former colonies – and you. One of the very few, ironic advantages you have is that the best minority scientists – like Fermi and Einstein – that they have spent years chasing out of Europe, are publicly begging you to build a nuclear bomb first. The question, without the benefit of our proverbial armchairs, and lacking the insight and safety of seventy years experience, is “What would you have done given those same circumstances?”

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