Prolegomenon for a Decision

Capitol DomeThe Whip Count on the question of authorizing the use of military force in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons for Nevada Representatives stands at 3-1.  Representatives Amodei, Titus, and Horsford are undecided, and Representative Heck is a definite “no.” [HuffPo chart]   The “yes” and “no” votes are literally all over the map.  The quandary in the House may reflect the discombobulation of the country — 50% believe the U.S. government should not “take military action” in the Syrian Civil War, 42% believe some action should be taken. [NBC pdf]  However, when the action is specified — to the use of Cruise missiles to strike chemical weapons implementation sites, the numbers reverse: 44% would oppose that kind of operation, and 50% would be supportive.   [NBC pdf]

Rather than fall into the Either/Or Nothing Else trap, there are some calling for alternative actions, a few of which are summarized in the Reason.Com blog:

#1. Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) offers the war crimes tribunal alternative.  [WaPo]  In the interview Representative Smith also suggested the reason this won’t work:

“There is the ICC, but we’re not a party to it and neither is Syria. There is a mechanism that would allow us to refer cases to the ICC [through the U.N.], but that has been slow. So maybe some adjunct or hybrid effort could be worked out. But I’ve heard nothing from the administration about a Syrian court. And I would have thought they would come up with it sooner.”

Yes, we do have an International Criminal Court.  And no, we aren’t a member nation.  And, yes, there’s a reason we aren’t involved in it.  Republican opposition.   Consider this bit of history:

“The United States government has consistently opposed an international court that could hold US military and political leaders to a uniform global standard of justice. The Clinton administration participated actively in negotiations towards the International Criminal Court treaty, seeking Security Council screening of cases. If adopted, this would have enabled the US to veto any dockets it opposed. When other countries refused to agree to such an unequal standard of justice, the US campaigned to weaken and undermine the court. The Bush administration, coming into office in 2001 as the Court neared implementation, adopted an extremely active opposition. Washington began to negotiate bilateral agreements with other countries, insuring immunity of US nationals from prosecution by the Court. As leverage, Washington threatened termination of economic aid, withdrawal of military assistance, and other painful measures. ”  [GPO]  (emphasis added)

When the issue of participation in the ICC was discussed, and the possibility of the Rome Treaty ratification was in the news, the Republicans couldn’t run from it faster:

“The U.S. has spearheaded a series of proposals that seeks a 100 percent exemption for U.S. military personnel and nationals from the ICC’s jurisdiction. However, the U.S. position is not necessary since the Rome Statute already includes safety provisions that would protect U.S. military personnel and nationals from so called politically charged suits filed before the ICC. Under the Rome Statute for the ICC, the Court would only have jurisdiction to hear cases when national courts are unable to provide a fair trial or when national judicial courts systems do not exist. Nearly every U.S. NATO ally has signed the Rome Statute for the ICC.”  [FDN 12/4/00]

Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) made his opposition to U.S. participation in the ICC readily apparent, and strenuous:

“So what this Court proposes is this: It will sit in judgment of the national security policy of the United States. Just imagine what would have happened if this Court had been in place during the U.S. invasion of Panama? Or the U.S. invasion of Grenada? Or the United States’ bombing of Tripoli? In none of those cases did the U.S. seek permission from the UN to defend our interests. And so long as there is breath in me, the United states will never — I repeat, never — allow its national security decisions to be judged by any international Criminal Court.”  [Helms, SFRC, 4/23/98]

And there we have it.  So, as Representative Smith stumbles along, “So maybe some adjunct or hybrid effort could be worked out. But I’ve heard nothing from the administration about a Syrian court. And I would have thought they (Obama Administration) would come up with it sooner.”   The reason there’s no tribunal option available is that the United States has been singularly uncooperative with the notion of any tribunal, of any ilk, which might impinge on the independence of American military or civilian actions.  The Clinton and Obama Administrations have been partially cooperative with the ICC, up to a point — but the most vigorous and tenacious opposition to the use of war crimes tribunals has heretofore come from Republicans.  This probably explains why the Obama Administration hasn’t “come up with it sooner.” [Smith]

#2.  The arms embargo idea was floated by Sarah van Gelder, who realized that stopping arms sales from the Chinese and the Russians also required stopping the arms going to the rebels from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, and others.  Diminishing the arms trade is a generally nice idea, however the specific problem with the weapons being used in Syria is that They.Were.Already.There.   Some intelligence reports indicate Syria has maintained a “chemical weapons program” of some kind since the 1970’s.  Other reports assert the country has been actively engaged in stockpiling chemical weapons since the 1980s.  An August 30, 2013 Congressional Research Service briefing declares: ” An expanded Syrian effort began in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Declassified U.S. documents indicate that the Soviet Union supplied Syria with chemical agents, delivery systems, and training related to chemical weapons use. Syria is likely to have procured equipment and precursor chemicals from private companies in Western Europe. ”

If the purpose of U.S. action is to degrade and damage the implementation of current chemical warfare tactics by the Syrian government, then the real problem is how to deal with what the Syrians are using NOW, not what they may be able to procure for future use.

#3. There was a time when the Peace Conference idea had some traction.  However, that was back in May, 2013. [NYT]  A few voices are still clinging to this fragile vessel. [LAT]  The fly in this amphora of ointment is that the Russians have already made it abundantly clear that no actions against the Syrian regime will be acceptable.   There’s another reason as well, and as old as the history of human conflict — neither side wants a peace conference while there is a chance that it’s winning.  Why risk giving away at the negotiations table what you’ve won on the battlefield?

If we conclude that at this juncture neither side of the conflict is particularly interested in a negotiated settlement, the some other problems must be addressed.  If neither side is willing to volunteer to negotiate, then who can apply the necessary leverage to get the parties to the table?  The hopeful among us suggest that the United Nations could do this. Really? With the Russians and the Chinese supporting the Assad Regime? With the Saudis unperturbed about supporting the rebels?   Peace conference proposals tend to rely on some form of unblemished humanitarian motives informing the foreign policy of nations.  Not to be entirely cynical, but — is it even remotely conceivable in the current situation that the Russians, the Chinese, the Americans, and the Saudis will strike down their banners and force the opponents in Syria to the table?   And, after they get to the table — then what?

Peace talks, however well intended, and however ultimately successful, take time.  Negotiations to end the Viet Nam War began in 1968 and didn’t conclude until January 27, 1973.  The Russians will remember that they began their exit strategy from Afghanistan in April 1985 but weren’t able to extract themselves until February of 1989.  We can only wonder if those calling for peace talks are willing to watch another 4 years of military/insurgent operations in Syria?

#4. The United Nations options, these vary from the call for a peace conference to admonitions that the UN should send peace-keepers, sanction limited military operations, including the notion that the western powers should “force the Chinese and the Russians” to openly declare their support for the Assad Regime — officially.  What, pray tell, would be the benefit of a public “vote” showing support for  the Assad forces in Syria, a position  the Russians and Chinese have already make clear as day?   Given the frangible structure and utility of International Condemnation, what else could the UN do?  The Russian Prime Minister has a proposal — the use of chemical weapons in Syrian could justify the use of force but IF and ONLY IF the United Nations approves the moves. [JPost]

That’s convenient.  The Russians will approve, if the UN approves, and the Russians have a veto in the UN Security Council.  A safer proposition may never have been set forth.

#5. Send humanitarian aid. This is a good idea.  However, it risks climbing into the Ignoratio Elenchi  Category of human fallacies.  There is, indeed, a humanitarian problem of epic proportions emanating from the Syrian conflict.  The world should be paying a great deal more attention to, and providing more support for, the refugees of this miserable conflict.  However, sending aid to refugee operations both official and NGOs, doesn’t solve the military problem.

Little wonder there are so many undecideds?

2 Comments

Filed under Foreign Policy

2 responses to “Prolegomenon for a Decision

  1. This is Iraq 2.0

    We should absolutely NOT go to war with Syria.

    PS- Anyone who says cruise missle strikes are not war should ask if Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor was not war.

    President Obama is selling us the EXACT SAME policy of President Bush, namely that we be the Judge, Jury, and Executioner in the case for assad. We are good at executioner, but not good at judge and jury. just look at Iraq. And anyway, at this stage we need a policeman to separate the two sides in the civil war. THEN someone can be the judge and jury. Not before.

    If you look at Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc, we’re not good at being policeman either. Obama, just like Bush, is trying to sell us promises that the US government is not equipped to deliver.

    We should know better.

  2. Pingback: Invigilating the Syrian Test | Desert Beacon