Despite what the Russians claim, Bashar Al-Assad has used chemical weapons to brutally murder his own people. The images are horrific — they depict people choking to death alongside others whose skin has melted off. At the expense of the Syrian people, the international community has remained on the sidelines as the most violent episode of the Arab Spring unfolds in the Levant. Action is long overdue, and President Obama’s request for a limited strike on Syria should appeal to both pacifist doves and interventionist hawks.
Though Assad’s killings, rapes and tortures have been blatant human rights abuses, it was Assad’s use of chemical warfare that truly warrants doves’ support for a military response. Liberals who strongly support a transnational approach to law and global governance established a ban on chemical weapons that has been a fundamental pillar of the laws of armed conflict. What would it mean for international order if the United States did not signal to Assad that his actions were unacceptable? The doves on the left cannot clamor for adherence to international law and detest, for example, American torture policies, but also allow Assad to continue using chemical weapons to massacre his own people.
The case for hawks on the right is a bit more nuanced. The fundamental question always asked by hawks is: Does a military strike serve our national security interests? The answer is an unequivocal yes. Consider Bashar Al-Assad. He had been killing civilians for over two years — and had considerable success doing so. What interest would he have in using chemical weapons, knowingly crossing a boundary articulated by President Obama and the international community? It seems to me that Assad was pressured by the Iranian government, his biggest backer, to test the American response to this “red line.”
The Iranians are watching closely — as are the North Koreans and Russians — to see how the United States reacts. A lack of action will embolden our enemies and cause them to disregard our strong rhetoric and attempts at setting limits. A strike on Assad’s regime will not prevent the murder of more Syrians by conventional warfare but will sternly remind the world that when we draw boundaries, we stick by them. Next time it will not be chemical weapons in question, but rather Tehran’s nuclear arsenal. And that, without a doubt, is a threat to our national security. Not to mention, as Hannah Stuart articulated last week in the Wall Street Journal, inaction legitimizes Al-Qaeda’s mantra that the West does not care about the suffering of Muslims. After Bosnia, extremists claimed just that.
Naturally, skeptics of a strike point to the Iraq war, a conflict that shares undeniable similarities to the situation in Syria. But while the conflicts themselves bear some resemblance, this comparison is invalid. No American soldiers will enter Syria, and we have no plans to occupy Syria as we did Iraq. The White House’s end goal is still a diplomatic exit for Assad via political means, as the president said last week on his trip to Sweden and Russia.
Other skeptics claim we cannot violate Syrian sovereignty. But the Responsibility to Protect doctrine articulates that sovereignty has evolved from absolute control of one’s country to a responsibility to protect one’s people. I believe that through gassing his own people, Assad has forfeited his place as a legitimate sovereign.
A third brand of objectors still clings to the idea that we need approval from the United Nations Security Council. But what does it say about the United Nations that it cannot properly aid the very people it was designed to protect in the wake of the Second World War? International norms and a general humanity, as Secretary of State John Kerry said in his Senate testimony, trump the politics of the UN. The principles that the UN rests on should trump the politics of the body itself.
Just one last thought. I know this is a complicated foreign policy situation, one that I cannot possibly cover in this short space. I did not address issues of constitutionality or logistics. But as I wrote in February, this is not just another Middle Eastern civil war (“Not just another civil war,” Feb. 12). Chemical weapons have changed both the moral calculus and the security implications of sending a strong message to the world. The president is not looking to nation-build or occupy another Middle Eastern country. He is simply looking to tell those who look to use certain kinds of weaponry that no means no.
Zach Ingber ’15 thinks a vote against intervention is a vote for Assad. He would love to have a cheerful discussion about military intervention in Syria.