Sep 10th 2013

What We Are Debating and What We Are Not

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

As a result of President Barack Obama's decision to ask the US Congress to support his call for "limited" strikes against the Assad regime, we find ourselves in the throes of a much needed, but still incomplete national debate on the wisdom of US policy toward Syria.

During the past week, several themes have emerged in this discussion over the course of American policy toward the conflict that has ravaged that country and its people. What we know is that well over 100,000 have died at the hands of both the regime and the various groups fighting against it. More than two million refugees have fled the fighting, living in miserable conditions—in some instances, threatening the stability of their host countries. Another four million have been internally displaced.  As it has evolved the conflict has taken on a worrisome sectarian dimension fracturing not only Syrian society, but the region, as well. It is an enormous tragedy, not unlike last decade's horror in Iraq, and it is tearing at the heart of the Arab World.

And now, there is clear evidence of the use of chemical weapons resulting in the deaths of over 1,000 innocent civilians, bringing the US to the point of intervention. It is at this point, that the US debate begins.

There are a few themes that have become central to the arguments supporting the President's position for military action. First and foremost among these is the fact that this horrible crime of using of chemical weapons should not go unpunished. In making the US case, Secretary of State John Kerry has presented evidence tying this attack to the Assad regime, making the Administration's argument that there must be accountability for this heinous act. The President and his supporters in Congress have argued that should the US stand by and allow this crime to go unpunished, there would be several negative consequences: the Assad regime would feel no restraint and could continue to use such weapons in the future with impunity; and the "international norm" against the use of chemical weapons would be breached, allowing other "rogue" states and non-state actors to feel that they too could act in such an unacceptable manner. Finally, the White House has argued that if the US were not to act forcefully against this violation, after having declared the use of chemical weapons to be a "red line" that must not be crossed, the credibility and leadership of US would be seriously compromised.

In making its case for action, the White House argued for "limited strikes" designed to "deter and degrade" the regime's capacity to carry out such attacks in the future. Initially the President described his intent to deliver "a shot across the bow" to send a message that would "deter" the Syrian regime from any further use of chemical weapons. But as the debate evolved, one detects the Administration placing more emphasis on their intent to "degrade” the capacity of the regime to deliver such weapons

Such is the argument made by those who are supporting the White House call for military action against Syria.

Opponents to the use of force have raised several issues, which they note have not been fully factored into the Administration's consideration. Both hawks and doves have questioned, each from their own vantage point, the advisability of "limited" strikes. Hawks have criticized the President for not doing enough, pressing their case for more decisive action. As framed by one Member of Congress, "doing more" would mean "ending the Assad regime and replacing it with a secular moderate democracy".

A leading voice among those who have been pressing the White House to do more, Senator John McCain succeeded in inserting language into the Senate bill authorizing the use of force calling for a more robust use of force (short of "boots on the ground") that would "change the momentum on the battlefield" in favor of the Syrian opposition.

For their part, doves have warned of the dangers of another US military engagement in the Arab World. They argue that the proposed limited strike would place the US on a "slippery slope" with today's calls "to do something" being followed by tomorrow's calls "to do more". They point to the "Powell Doctrine" enunciated by then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell. In 1990, Powell laid out conditions he stipulated must be met before the US should ever consider committing to military action—in essence asking that the costs, consequences, terms of engagement, and degree of support (internationally and domestically) be clearly understood. Those arguing against the strikes say that the Administration has not yet provided clear answers to Powell's terms for military engagement.

One item in Powell's list of conditions has proved especially troublesome for the Administration, and that is the need for broad international and domestic support. Public opinion polls and town meetings with Members of Congress have demonstrated that a vocal majority of Americans are profoundly weary of war. And while the Administration blames the Russians for "holding the UN hostage" with regard to Syria (a charge which Arabs might say also describes the way the US handles issues involving Israel that come before the world body), the reality is that many other nations, including some close European allies, are either skeptical or outright opposed to the use of force in Syria.

Other issues that have been considered, but not always given sufficient attention, include: the consequence to diplomacy of the US becoming a combatant in this war; the impact that even the anticipation of military action has already had on accelerating the outflow of refugees—it is now estimated, for example, that one-half of Syria's Christians have fled the country; how Syria's allies will respond—not just Iran and Hizbullah, but Iraq, as well; and how, despite their antipathy for the Assad regime, Arab public opinion will react to any US military action.

Some opponents of the use of military force propose alternatives like: securing a broad-based UN General Assembly resolution referring the Syrian leadership to the International Criminal Court for war crimes; and demanding that the Assad government join the 189 nations who have endorsed the Chemical Weapons Convention and destroy its stockpile of these banned materials. Ideas, such as these, they argue, would isolate the regime and humiliate it, without compromising the US role or further exacerbating the conflict.

In any case, the debate is on and will be decided in the coming weeks. What should be a concern is that lost in this entire conversation is the impact US military action would have on the final resolution of this two and one-half year old conflict. Both hawks and doves, alike, pay insufficient attention to the reality that the only resolution to the conflict is a negotiated settlement. This is where the emphasis should be. It is toward realization of this goal, that our pressure and diplomacy should be focused. And this is what we should be debating.

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