Morality and Practicality: America’s Syrian Intervention

What if Obama’s plan — to punish Bashar al-Assad for his criminal use of chemical weapons by destroying his capability to employ them again — is too much of a success? The answer hinges on what Washington considers a victory.

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[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s President Obama makes his case to the American Congress about intervention in Syria, his administration must confront contingencies and plan for unforeseeable challenges. Yet the most pressing question is not what might happen if something goes wrong. Quite the opposite. What if Obama’s plan — to punish Bashar al-Assad for his criminal use of chemical weapons by destroying his capability to employ them again — is too much of a success? The answer hinges on what Washington considers a victory.

On 3 September US Secretary of State muddied the waters of intervention, sending what TIME magazine called “mixed messages” against a congressional prohibition on the use of American soldiers in Syria: the feared “boots on the ground” option. In front of Congress, Kerry testified that “in the event Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of al-Nusra or someone else and it was clearly in the interest of our allies and all of us, the British, the French and others, to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements, I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country.”

There is a real chance that airstrikes, if targeted effectively, could help topple Assad’s government, at the very least providing a much needed morale boost and significant breathing room for the mixed rebel front. Such inputs, when factored into the complexities of war in Syria, may lead to unforeseeable and magnified results. In such an environment of uncertainty, a clear definition of American objectives is needed. Yet such a framework has not been debated adequately.

What does the White House count as a “success” in its proposed intervention plan? Knocking out Assad’s future capability to employ his heinous arsenal, a strategic military objective? Or punishing the Syrian regime, a moral goal? Although subtle, the difference between these two outcomes is important, and has been confused in both Congress and the broader discussion. One can be achieved without extensive military involvement, the other cannot. If the answer lies in a murky middle ground — as it seems to be for now — the implications could be deep.

Discussion of a moral imperative to intervene in response to Assad’s most recent chemical war crime — since when has the killing 100,000 citizens, over two years, not been a war crime? — is dangerous because of this ambiguity. When morality becomes intermingled with strategy the result is a tendency towards escalation, as recent American history in Iraq has shown. And when the phrases “humanitarian intervention” and “protecting American interests” are used in the same breath, there is little doubt that such a co-mingling of objectives has arisen.

Limits become fuzzy when generals and politicians are fueled by lofty and noble principles. What is in the national interest, and what is in the human interest, drift closer together until two become one. True humanists must demand full intervention, the destruction of Assad’s military capability so that he will release his murderous grasp on power: No man who willingly kills 100,000 of his citizens has a right to rule. If humanity is national policy, as Washington’s rhetoric implies, where does the national interest end?

It is in this unsuspectingly ambiguous environment that Kerry’s statements become incredibly pertinent. If the United States goes through with its plans for intervention, it will be faced with the tough task of placing limits on its action. The hybrid policy of morality and military practicality handicaps this process, and could lead to an overstepping of acceptable boundaries. A few more tomahawk missiles in key sites could mean the difference between Assad’s survival or his end. If the latter becomes reality, the feared Syrian power vacuum becomes reality as well and with it serious questions of who controls the regime’s remaining military technologies. If such a possibility comes to pass, Kerry’s intimations may become all too concrete, as the spiral of American “national interest” unwinds.

Before Obama, his cabinet, and the American Congress make any decision regarding intervention in Syria, they must confront their own definitions of success. They need to grapple with their motivations for involvement, and their ultimate objectives. For if they continue to confuse morality with strategy, and work in the middle, the results could be just as Kerry described.

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Photo Credit: stephen_medlock

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