Marching As To War?

President Obama Departs The White House

This morning, I finally watched the visual evidence of the Assad regime’s chemical attack on hundreds of children. There is a reason, these awful videos prove, behind our fear of these kinds of weapons, even if they follow over 100,000 far bloodier deaths. They kill silently in the dark. Heavier than air, poison gas can sink into the basements and cellars civilians use for protection during wartime. The crippling efficacy of such weapons, once used to propel the mass extermination of European Jews, should draw us all short. It is not that the victims of chemical attacks are any more dead or crippled than the 120,000 or so other victims of the sectarian bloodbath in Syria. It is that the use of such weapons signals that the regime is now prepared to use this final trump card, if it suits its purposes. The Alawites have always had the power to kill their sectarian foes (Hafez al Assad committed a mass murder of 10,000 civilians); but now we know they also have the will to use the most silently lethal chemicals at their disposal. There’s a reason so many millions are now fleeing. The prospect of a sectarian Holocaust from the skies is no longer a dystopian illusion. It is an historical fact.

This makes Obama’s shift explicable, whatever the debating points scored at various junctures in the Syria debate in the last few years. I don’t buy the criticism that he should have intervened much earlier in Syria (there would have been zero public support); and the principle of forbidding chemical weapons use against civilians and rebel fighters is a vital one for the future of civilization. To do or say nothing now would have given Assad a green light to exterminate more people without any cost. So the core question really emerges: what would doing something look like?

Obama has proposed doing something and nothing at the same time. And, sure, a military strike on Syria will exact a cost for Assad for his sectarian extermination program. But it is highly unlikely to bring him down or, unless I am mistaken about the situation on the ground, shift the course of the war. After the dust settles, a US strike may even give Assad more lee-way to use his poison gases against his foes, and enable him to portray himself as a victim of Western intervention. If he got away with it once, and gained ground in the war, why not again and again? And what then?

The McCain faction is obviously right about one thing: the only option that would ensure Assad’s ouster would be a full scale war and invasion conducted by some kind of alliance between the US and the rebel groups. And they are obviously wrong, it seems to me, on one thing as well: there is no way on earth that this country or its armed forces should jump into such a brutal, sectarian vortex of violence, with only the goal of deposing a dictator. Have we learned nothing from Iraq? Our core interests are not affected by the result of the Syrian civil war, and we have simply no assurance that the replacement for Assad would be less monstrous than he is. If our concern is the security of chemical weapons stockpiles – and Syria has the third most in the world – then it seems to me that our cold interests actually lie with Assad’s victory. At this point, his faltering regime is more stable than the opposition and less allied with Sunni Jihadists.

But here, it seems to me, is where we should stop, and demand more clarity and transparency from the president. The Congressional debate – in my view, a constitutionally indispensable procedure – is a great opportunity for this. We all get the gravity of chemical weapons use – and Kerry can stop embarrassing himself by calling his former dining companion another Hitler. What we don’t yet fully know is what the Obama administration has already been doing in Syria and what it hopes specifically to achieve now – by militarily joining one side in Syria’s sectarian meltdown.

I want, first up, a better explanation for this quantum leap in the use of chemical weapons by Assad. My impression is that he was winning this brutal war slowly. Why play your trump card then – with all the risks associated with it? More to the point, why do it when UN inspectors are close by? Yes, Assad is evil – but he has long been that and the Ghouta mass murder has scrambled the situation in ways that indicate reckless, even desperate, stake-raising. So, first up, what I’d want first of all is a clear statement that the US has not been engaged in a covert war in Syria that might in any way have prompted this horror. I would like a clear, emphatic and truthful refutation of the reporting in Le Figaro that implies that a new anti-Assad offensive was launched at the start of last month, as part of a covert war, headed up by the US’s covert war machine. Is this paranoid? Maybe. But I remember Iraq and, forgive me, I have learned the value of deep skepticism about various US administrations’ accounts of reality.

Second, I want a clear explanation of what the goals are of this proposed strike.

If it is merely a symbolic act, then we should understand that we are risking American lives, money and values for moral optics, with no clear goal. If it is an attempt to shift the direction of the civil war, then we should know how the US attempts to win this sectarian struggle in the Middle East, when it could not impose sectarian peace in a country it occupied with over 100,000 troops for a decade (and where the sectarian murderousness endures and thrives). If we “win”, are we sure this isn’t just another move in an eternal cycle of sectarian vengeance? Look at Libya – the other place Obama decided to intervene. Obama’s reward? The attack on the Benghazi CIA facility and a fractured non-state that has allowed al Qaeda to regroup in north Africa. You can more easily see how a rebel victory on Syria could turn into a worse nightmare. If Jihadist nutcases end up in control of the third largest chemical weapons stockpile in the world, the first step toward that result would be this war against Assad.

I’m not denying the moral atrocity. I’m not denying the gravity of this breach of international norms. But military intervention in Syria? For me, the administration hasn’t even begin to present a coherent, let alone a persuasive argument. The congressional debate is absolutely the best forum for this debate to take place – just as the House of Commons was in Britain. If the Congress votes no – which, given the current arguments, it obviously should – then the president should accede to the wishes of the American people as voiced by their representatives. If he were to do that, the kind of transformation Obama promised in America’s foreign policy would be given a huge boost. This would be a president who brought Congress back into the key decisions of war and peace as the ultimate authority on them, as the Founders intended. It would be seen by history as the first key step away from the imperial presidency and the beginning of democratic accountability for the permanent war machine.

This could, in other words, be the dawn of a new, realist and constitutional age. Or the final death-throes of an empire that won’t quit until it bankrupts us both fiscally and morally. That’s why next week’s debate is so critical. And why Obama can still come out ahead on this, even as the conventional Washington wisdom will surely be all about his humiliation in a zero-sum narrative whose attention span is the next five minutes. If he defers to Congress on a new war in the Middle East, we are definitively in a new era.

It’s called 21st Century democracy. And not a minute too soon.

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)