President Obama will address the nation on Syria tonight hoping to stem opposition that is rising both at home and abroad. Polls show the broad majority of Americans oppose getting further involved in Syria.
Despite his best efforts, the president could not persuade even a majority of the G-20 nations — the largest economies in the world — to declare support for a strike on Syria.
In Congress, the Senate seems split, but in the House the number of representatives expressing their opposition or doubts about striking Syria far exceeds those indicating support.
Americans are weary of war, still waiting for American troops to come home from Afghanistan, now one of the longest wars in U.S. history. I applaud the president for respecting the Constitution and taking the issue to the Congress. Pundits say that rejection by that body would damage his credibility. But it would accurately reflect deep American skepticism about continued military intrusion into the civil and sectarian conflicts of that region.
The largest concern should be a question of conscience. The administration’s call to intervene is described as an act of humanity, championed by those who are called “humanitarian interventionists.” They cite a “duty to protect” and emphasize the importance of enforcing the international ban on chemical weapons. The strike, the president says, is “a shot across the bow,” not designed to dislodge the regime or change the course of the brutal civil war in that nation.
But firing cruise missiles also raises questions of conscience. Dr. Martin Luther King broke with Lyndon Johnson over the war in Vietnam, in part because he believed that violence would only beget more violence. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth would leave us all blind and toothless. The cruise missiles will surely strike some who had nothing to do with the chemical attacks.
The president would be wiser to detail his evidence to the international community, mobilize a global condemnation of the act, and define a course of further isolating the Syrian regime, turning those who ordered the use of chemical weapons into international pariahs. Killing more innocent people in an arbitrary punitive act settles nothing, while adding to the violence. More than 2 million people, including 1 million children, have already fled the country. Millions more have been displaced internally. Adding to the violence will only add to this shame.
The administration is now engaged in a full-court press diplomatically to gain support for its strike. Surely, it would be both more effective and more productive to use that energy to engage nations — from Russia to China, Saudi Arabia, even Iran — to press Syria to put its chemical weapons under international control. Instead of uniting international opinion against these weapons, the administration is dividing it over our proposed missile strikes.
The second concern is one of cost. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel argues that even a limited military strike against Syria would cost tens of millions of dollars. But the cost surely will be much higher, while the U.S. is cutting children out of Head Start and depriving disabled seniors of hot meals.
The costs of the unintended consequences are likely to be greater. But the real cost may well be in the distraction from our challenges here at home. We have over 20 million people in need of full-time work. The economy is limping; Europe is barely inching out of recession. The G-20 meetings should have been devoted to the measures needed to generate greater growth. Instead, they were focused on Syria.
The congressional debate — in light of the fact that Congress has only has nine days in session to pass a budget to keep the government open next month — should be devoted to the jobs program we need, while passing a budget and lifting the debt ceiling to pay our debts. Instead, this next week at least will be Syria 24/7.
The third concern is one of credibility. The pundits say the president’s credibility and the credibility of this nation are on the line. He has called for us to act; now we must do so, no matter how wrong-headed the plan. But the real credibility gap precedes this president.
The credibility of American intelligence was shattered in the distortions and lies used to sell our intervention in Iraq. That credibility gap grew wider with the revelations that the NSA was collecting data on Americans and allies in ways its leaders had denied in congressional testimony. Across the world, citizens and leaders are skeptical about American claims.
That a loathsome use of chemical weapons murdered thousands of people in Syria seems clear. But finding evidence that Syrian President Assad ordered the strike is, according to AP intelligence sources, “no slam dunk.”
In the Congress, they call the vote on bombing in Syria a vote of “conscience.” Each member is told to vote his or her conscience. Party leaders say they will not try to whip their caucuses. But the pressure on Democrats to support their president and on Republicans to support the military will intensify. The dictates of constituents, conscience, cost and credibility all argue for a vote against striking Syria.
It is time to challenge the cycle of violence and escalation in the Middle East. Legislators will surely be held accountable for the choice they make.