A Philosopher's Blog

Syria & Team America

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 30, 2013

Syria (Photo credit: ewixx)

As I write this, the United States and our allies are contemplating military action against Syria. While the Syrian government has been busy killing its people for quite some time, it is now claimed that it has crossed the red line by using chemical weapons. Thus, there is apparently a need for a military response.

The United Kingdom, which has often been the Tonto to America’s Lone Ranger, has expressed reluctance to leap into battle. Even the American congress, which rushed to authorize our attack on Iraq, has expressed opposition to Obama taking executive military action. As others have said, memories of the “slam dunk” that led up to the Iraq war are playing a significant role in these responses. Interestingly, the leadership United Kingdom seems mainly concerned with how quickly the attacks will begin as opposed to being concerned about attacking Syria. In the United States congress’s main worry seems to be that the President will rush ahead on his own and deny them what they see as their right to get us into war.

Despite the fact that the people of the United States and the United Kingdom seem opposed to attacking Syria, it seems likely that there will be an attack soon. One obvious reason is that Obama played the red line game (which, on the face of it, said to Syria that they could keep killing as long as they did not use weapons of mass destruction). If he fails to make good on his red line talk, the United States will lose credibility. From a moral standpoint, it could be claimed that the United States and the West have already lost some moral credibility by their ineffectual condemnation of the slaughter in Syria.

Assuming that we will be attacking Syria, there is the obvious question of what we should be endeavoring to accomplish and what plan we have for what will follow the attack. Iraq and Afghanistan stand as examples of what happens when we go to war without properly considering the matter and setting clear, attainable and worthwhile objectives.

One approach is a limited, punitive strike. That is, to attack Syrian targets in order to punish the government for its alleged use of chemical weapons. In this case, the obvious questions are whether or not the Syria government actually used chemical weapons and whether or not such a punishment strike would achieve its goal(s). The goal might be simple punishment: they use chemical weapons, then we blow some things up to pay them back for their misdeed. Or the goal might be deterrence via punishment: they use chemical weapons, we blow some things up. And we will keep doing it until they stop.

Morally, the Syrian government has certainly earned punishment and it would be a good thing to deter them from engaging in more killing—or to even deter them from killing with chemical weapons. However, there is the question of whether or not our attacks will be just punishment or adequate deterrence.  If the goal is deterrence, then there is the question of how long we will engage in deterrence attack and what sort of escalation we should engage in should the initial attack fail to deter.

Another approach is to strike in support of the opposition. That is, to attack Syrian targets with the primary goal of improving the opposition’s relative position. This could, of course, also be a punishment attack as well. In this case, the questions would be whether or not such intervention would be effective and whether or not the results would be desirable for the United States.

One obvious concern about the conflict in Syria is that it is not an oppressive government against plucky, freedom-loving rebels. If that was the case, then the matter would be rather easier.  Rather, it is a battle between an oppressive government and a bewildering array of opposition groups (including an Al Qaeda franchise). There are also outside forces involved, such as Iran, Russia and China.

Because of the fragmentary and problematic nature of the opposition, it is important to consider the consequences of attacking in support of the opposition (or, more accurately, the oppositions). While the Syrian government is a morally bad government and an enemy of America, it has imposed order on the state and is, obviously enough, not the worst option. If, for example, the Syrian government were to topple and the area fell into almost complete chaos, that would be worse than the current situation. Even worse for the United States and most other people would be a takeover of the state by radical forces and extremists.

It is also rather important to take into account the possible and likely reactions of the other powers that are involved in the conflict. Iran, China and Russia have a significant stake in the matter and they might actually react to an American attack. Russia, for example, is sending warships to the area. While Russia or Iran most likely would not engage American forces in the region to defend Syria, this is not an impossibility. For example, the conflict could escalate from an accident.

Unfortunately, I do not have a great deal of confidence in any of the leaders involved in this matter. After all, there are rather different skill sets involved in being a politician who wins office and being able to make effective policy and military decisions. That is, playing the political game is rather different than war. That said, I do hope that wise decisions are made. But, no matter what, many more people are going to be killed—it is mainly a question of how many and with what weapons.


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14 Responses

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  1. Douglas Moore said, on August 30, 2013 at 11:36 am

    “While Russia or Iran most likely would not engage American forces in the region to defend Syria, this is not an impossibility. For example, the conflict could escalate from an accident.”

    Clausewitz stated that all wars escalate in some form or another. We should keep that in mind in a case of dubious benefits.

    • Douglas Moore said, on August 30, 2013 at 11:37 am

      If al-Qaeda employed WMD would that also have been a red line?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 31, 2013 at 1:43 pm

      While Assad seems to be in need of being killed, I still have some doubts about who is using the chemical weapons. We have been told they have adequate evidence, but the real proof is top secret. While I do get that they might have legitimate reasons to keep the info secret, I infer that all the other major powers have a good idea about everything we do in intelligence and hence worry that the secret of the secret evidence is that it is not actually conclusive.

      My main concern is that we will engage in an attack without worthwhile objectives and without an effective strategy. Then we will flounder around while the killing goes on. It might be an awful truth that Assad staying in power and re-establishing stability is the least worst of the realistic options. Naturally, I’d like to see him brought down and replaced with a constitutional democracy…but the odds of that occurring are just over impossible.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on August 30, 2013 at 11:52 am

    Obama as Hamlet:

    To strike, or not to strike: that is the question:
    Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
    The slings and arrows of outrageous Assad,
    Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
    And by opposing end them? To attack: to dither
    No more; and by attack to say we end
    The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
    That Syria is heir to, ’tis a consummation
    Devoutly to be wish’d. To act, to attack;
    To attack: perchance to depose: ay, there’s the rub;
    For in its wake what next may come
    Whether or not Assad shuffles off this worldwide stage,
    Should give us pause: there’s the respect
    That makes calamity of intervention;
    For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
    The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
    The pangs of chemical war, the law’s delay,
    The insolence of office and the spurns
    That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
    When he himself might his mark make
    With a bare missile? who would tyrants bear,
    To defy the red lines that he drew?
    But that the dread of something afterward,
    The unknown consequences in whose grip
    A legacy might founder, puzzles the will
    And makes us rather bear those ills we have
    Than fly to others that we know not of?
    Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
    And thus the native hue of resolution
    Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
    And enterprises of great pith and moment
    With this regard their currents turn awry,
    And lose the name of action.–Soft you now!
    The fair MSM! Sycophants, in thy orisons
    Be all my sins forgotten.


    • WTP said, on August 31, 2013 at 8:17 am

      Yeah, but Hamlet didnt golf.

  3. ajmacdonaldjr said, on August 30, 2013 at 9:45 pm

    You still don’t have the big picture, do you?

    The US created so-called al Qaeda (“the CIA mujahideen database”) in July 1979 and has been using these US funded, armed, and trained Sunni jihadis ever since to destabilize regimes unfriendly to the US and Israel.

    Want to understand Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria?

    Then understand “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm”:

    “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm (commonly known as the “Clean Break” report) is a policy document that was prepared in 1996 by a study group led by Richard Perle for Benjamin Netanyahu, the then Prime Minister of Israel. The report explained a new approach to solving Israel’s security problems in the Middle East… Rather than pursuing a “comprehensive peace” with the entire Arab world, Israel should work jointly with Jordan and Turkey to “contain, destabilize, and roll-back” those entities that are threats to all three.”

    See: A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Clean_Break:_A_New_Strategy_for_Securing_the_Realm

    VIDEO – Engdahl: Arab Spring a western ploy to control Eurasia – http://youtu.be/ZpPspY2FP8o

    See: Egypt’s Revolution: Creative Destruction for a ’Greater Middle East’? – http://therealnewsjournal.com/?p=5692

    VIDEO – Israel sowing discord in Middle East – http://youtu.be/WCdIBwODM18

    VIDEO – Hillary Clinton: We created Al Qaeda – http://youtu.be/xd0fLAbV1cA

    VIDEO – The Revolution Business – World – http://youtu.be/lpXbA6yZY-8

    ABC News – Hezbollah and Al Qaeda Fighters Edging Closer to Full Scale Confrontation – http://abcnews.go.com/International/hezbollah-al-qaeda-fighters-edging-closer-confrontation/story?id=19144119#.UY1oOeBiilc

    CBS News – Clinton – Arming Syrian Rebels Could Help Al Qaeda – http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18563_162-57386279/clinton-arming-syrian-rebels-could-help-al-qaeda/

    VOA News – February 28, 2013 – US to Provide $60 Million for Syrian Opposition – http://www.voanews.com/content/kerry-meets-syrian-opposition/1612347.html

    Reuters – Americans are training Syria rebels in Jordan – http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/10/us-syria-crisis-rebels-usa-idUSBRE9290FI20130310

    Arms Airlift to Syria Rebels Expands, With Aid From C.I.A. – http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/25/world/middleeast/arms-airlift-to-syrian-rebels-expands-with-cia-aid.html

    John McCain, Lindsey Graham, John Kerry, and Barack Obama fund, arm, and train al Qaeda and its associates in Syria – http://wp.me/pPnn7-2kD

    “It should by now be generally accepted that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979 was deliberately provoked by the United States. In his memoir published in 1996, the former CIA director Robert Gates made it clear that the American intelligence services began to aid the mujahideen guerrillas not after the Soviet invasion, but six months before it. In an interview two years later with Le Nouvel Observateur, President Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski proudly confirmed Gate’s assertions. “According to the official version of history,” Brzezinski said, “CIA aid to the mujahideen began during 1980, that’s to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan. But the reality, kept secret until now, is completely different: on 3 July 1979 President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And on the same day I wrote a note to the president in which I explained that in my opinion this aid would lead to a Soviet military intervention.” ~ Chalmers Johnson

    Source: Chalmers Johnson: Dismantling the Empire (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010) pp. 11-12

    Chalmers Johnson: Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope – http://www.amazon.com/Dismantling-Empire-Americas-American-Project/dp/0805093036

    VIDEO – Conversations with History: Chalmers Johnson – http://youtu.be/sQi4-97GXrI

    VIDEO – Conversations With History – Peter Dale Scott – http://youtu.be/4YFBzjlFuFQ

  4. WTP said, on September 1, 2013 at 11:17 am

    After all, there are rather different skill sets involved in being a politician who wins office and being able to make effective policy and military decisions.

    He says without a hint of irony.

  5. hadeelnaeem said, on September 1, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    Well said.

    • WTP said, on September 1, 2013 at 10:06 pm

      He didn’t say anything. Curious to know, what specifically do you think was “we’ll said”?

  6. WTP said, on September 4, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    Obama’s decision to bomb Syria has been greeted with criticism from both the left an the right. One point of criticism is that he would be acting unconstitutionally. The basis for this claim is, of course, Article I, Section 8 which makes it clear that Congress shall have the power to declare War.

    Considering this alone, it would seem that Obama has overstepped the legitimate limits of his power by sending the military into action against a foreign sovereign state. This is, interestingly enough, consistent with what Senator Obama said in 2007: “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation. As commander in chief, the president does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defense, the president would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent.”

    While it is tempting to fall victim to an ad hominem tu quoque here, the fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true – but both can be false). As such, while Obama has made at least one false claim it is not automatically the case that he is wrong now. After all, he could have been wrong in 2007.

    Obama can, of course, refer to Article II, Section2 which states that “the President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States…” This could be used to justify his actions. After all, he did not declare war on Syria (nor did they declare war on the United States). He merely plans to launch a few bombs and missiles. While people may call this an act of war, this is different from making a declaration of war. As such, it could be concluded that Obama is acting within the limits of his legitimate powers.

    Interestingly, he also seems to be acting in a way that is perfectly legal, at least in accord with the War Powers Act of 1973. This act was passed, obviously enough, in response to the undeclared war in Vietnam. The gist of the act is that the President can send forces abroad only under two conditions: 1) by the authorization of congress or 2) if the country is under attack or subject to a serious threat. There are, of course, some loopholes that can be exploited. The first is that the president has 48 hours in which to notify congress of such actions and the forces can remain up to 6o days (with 30 more days for withdrawal) before a declaration of war or authorization must be provided by congress. Given that this act is law, Obama seems to have authority to act in a way that is perfectly legal.

    Not surprisingly, this act has been subject to challenges from presidents and there are doubts about is constitutionality. After all, it seems to restrict the president’s role as commander in chief while simultaneously allowing the president to, in effect, wage war for three months without approval from congress or a declaration of war. Both of these concerns do certainly seem to have merit.

    A somewhat more philosophical approach to the matter would involve considering the matter of what it means to declare war. One way to look at it is to take it as the formal declaration of war. On this view, Obama would seem to be acting in a legitimate way. As noted above, he has not issued a declaration of war. Rather, he simply plans to launch attacks within the territory of another sovereign nation-which has become something of a tradition among American presidents.
    A second way to look at it is that the act of attacking another sovereign state could be seen as a declaration of war via action. In Locke’s discussion of what creates a state of war, such a state can be created by a statement of intent but also by actions (such as attacking). On this view, Obama’s attack would seem to be an act of war and thus could be taken as a declaration of war. If so, he would be acting unconstitutionally.
    A third way to look at the matter is to take the view that congress’s power to declare war is not merely a matter of formally declaring a war, but the power to create a state of war that legitimately allows the military actions of war to be taken. While the President is commander in chief, he does not have the right to create the state of war via his actions. This, of course, does not entail that American forces have to simply take being shot at until congress gets around to declaring war. Nor does it entail that the president cannot order military actions that are short of war. This, of course, raises the rather difficult question of sorting out what counts as a war. That, however, must be the subject of another discussion.
    My considered opinion is that Obama is acting legally in that he would be acting within the letter of the existing laws, congressional approval or not. However, on a more philosophical level, I believe (as apparently he did in 2007) that the congress must declare war before the president can legitimately wage a war. As such, Obama is acting in what appears to be a violation of the constitution. However, I am willing to admit that my position is not strongly supported and can no doubt be easily countered by an actual constitutional scholar.

  7. magus71 said, on September 4, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    “I did not set a read line”

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