Moments ago, the White House announced that although President Obama has concluded that the U.S. "should take military action" against the Syrian regime for alleged use of chemical weapons, he will nonetheless seek authorization from Congress before taking any such action. In his announcement, the president said he had the authority to act on his own, but believed it is important for the country to have a debate. This is a bit of welcome news for those of us who have been holding our collective breath. I for one congratulate the president for inviting Congress to participate in a national dialogue, but fear the debate could easily devolve into yet another exercise in partisan political posturing. I can envision many of those who bought into Saddam Hussein's Weapons of Mass Destruction rationale and gladly voted for war in Iraq, questioning whether Assad really gassed his own people and then voting against military action in Syria -- and for no better reason than that this is Obama, not Bush. Make no mistake about it: such a partisan political free-for-all would be a tragedy of epic proportions. For an intelligent, purposive debate is absolutely essential. We are in desperate need of a dialogue which examines every piece, every player, every possible strategy on the international political chessboard.
Geopolitical strategist Robert D. Kaplan has noted that " . . . each war is a unique universe unto its own and thus comparisons with previous wars, while useful, may also prove illusory." This is a crucial point to keep in mind for the upcoming debate. In debating what is to be done about Syria, the haunting spectre of wars past and present -- Kosovo, Gulf War I, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya -- each will no doubt lurk about the periphery; each promising to provide great guidance for shaping our future actions. But as Kaplan correctly notes, each war is unique. In the case of Libya, as an example, Russia, China and the Arab League gave its blessing; they all wanted Colonel Gadaffi taken out. In the case of Syria, the League has maintained a steadfast silence; Russia and China are on the side of Assad. In Kosovo, replacing Slobdan Milosevic with elements of the Kosovo Liberation Army wasn't nearly as risky as replacing Assad with . . . with whom . . . Muslimist Jihadists? Sunnis spoiling for revenge against Alawites? Irani-sponsored Shiites? Removing Milosevic wasn't about to destabilize the Southern Balkans; striking against Assad could easily destabilize the entire Middle East, thereby further imperiling Israel and acting as an even greater goad to Iran's nuclear ambitions.
It is both good and reasonable to question why President Obama is so intent on taking some kind of military action against Assad's Syria. Is it solely because Assad has allegedly killed 1,429 Syrians -- including 426 children -- with chemical weapons? Hell, he's been killing Syrians by the tens of thousands with conventional weapons for nearly two years. Is President Obama's decision to take military action the result of his being caught on the horns of a self-made rhetorical dilemma? Remember, he did draw a rhetorical "red line" in the sand some months ago - a line which has now been crossed.
The general consensus is that Syrian President Bashar al--Assad ordered the use of chemical weapons against his enemies. The problem I have is trying to figure out why in the world he would do it. He was not losing the civil war. In fact, he had achieved some limited military success recently. Like everyone else on the planet, he heard President Obama declare that the use of chemical weapons would cross a red line. Yet Assad did it.
Or did he? Part of the national debate should include asking that question. Is it possible the rebels staged the attack in order to draw in an attack on al-Assad? Could the pictures have been faked? Could a third party, hoping to bog the United States down in another war, have done it? The answers to these questions -- although potentially illusive -- are important, because they guide the U.S. and its allies’ response. The official explanation could be absolutely true–or not.
I for one truly do not know what we should do. I for one am slightly wary of those who at this point are solidly, unreservedly behind taking -- or not taking -- military action against Syria. This international game of chess is so complex, so fraught with danger, that utter certainty -- at least at this pre-national debate point -- is a path which leads to fool's mate.
What is to be done?
I for one am conflicted. At present -- and unless someone can present me with a strongly compelling argument -- I really cannot see a great reason for taking military action. "A shot across the bow?" What a poor metaphor; when you fire across a ship's bow, you inflict no damage. Rather, you're trying to make a point by scaring the daylights out of the enemy.
But this assumes that the enemy is rational . . .
The British writer Ian Leslie has noted that some issues are so complex that they can understandably lead to feelings of ambivalence. "Sometimes it's best to have conflicted feelings," Leslie wrote in a recent essay. F. Scott Fitzgerald believed that a capacity for ambivalence indicated intellectual ability: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas
in mind at the same time and still
retain the ability to function.” Even Freud saw emotional ambivalence as an intrinsic part of the human condition.
"What Is to Be Done?" isn't just the title of this essay. It is also the title of a seminal -- though very poorly written -- 19th century novel by the Russian writer Nikolai Chernyshevsky (1828-1889). I remember reading the novel back in the mid-1960s when I spent nearly a year reading as much Russian lit as I could stomach -- Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Gorki, Tolstoy Sholokhov. Despite containing some great progressive ideas about freedom, equality and women's rights, Chernyshevsky's didactic novel was poorly written and had a hopelessly meandering plot. Even Chernyshevsky himself admitted in the introduction to What Is to Be Done? that he wasn't that a very good novelist. To this day I remember what a trial it was getting through the entire novel, and what a revelation it was contemplating the author's idealism. In other words, I was both conflicted and ambivalent about What Is to Be Done?
Just as I am about Syria.
So you tell me: what is to be done?
©2013 Kurt F. Stone