Pros and Cons of the Syrian Missile Strike

There is nothing at all uncomplicated about the crisis in Syria—to the point that I find it difficult to say anything meaningful about it. That is to say, I spent a lot of time stopping and deleting what I had written. Below are my thoughts, strewn in a mess, roughly to the effect that I am somewhat frustrated by the general liberal response, but more frustrated by the strike itself. There are plenty of understandable ethical, legal, and political reasons to oppose targeted strikes, in principle and in practice, as well as to support them circumstantially, which is where I tend to fall. Even so, I am put off by arguments that suggest the correct course of action is somehow apparent because of some dogmatic belief for or against targeted military strikes. The circumstances, the long-term effects, and the motivations which surround any strike matter. And so I definitively oppose Trump, May, and Macron’s choice to strike Assad as they have done. Anyway…

Given the lack of clear constitutional authority to use military force, on principle President Trump’s actions are hard to justify. Last year, I argued much the opposite; however, as I’ve thought more about the need for congressional approval of any armed conflict, I’ve become convinced that we as a people have become complacent about the encroaching presidential prerogative to use force in situations which may embroil us in a long-term conflict. For instance, it’s easy to imagine a military strike in Syria going sideways and escalating into war with Russia or Iran, something to which no one person should be able to unilaterally commit the country. Our Founders understood that a president in political jeopardy, or who just hopes to score political points (though I doubt they would have used such a phrase), might work to utilize the glory always attached to war to save or bolster his political career—what may be exactly what’s happening now—which is why they gave the power to declare war to Congress. Furthermore, the authorization of military force given by Congress, in the wake of 9/11 which is nominally used to justify our efforts in Syria, has been stretched beyond meaning, and it is simply disingenuous to imagine it was intended to be used in this way or that its plain text allows it to be.

Additionally, the clear lack of interest the administration and its analogues in France and the UK have shown in seeking any kind of support in the UN is disappointing. Obviously, Russia would veto any kind of authorization of force against Syria in a Security Council vote. But making the case to the UN, even if quixotic, must be done if we are to imagine ourselves as a member of the world community, as opposed to its unreliable vigilante enforcer. And while nonbinding, a vote of support in the general assembly would matter. The US, the UK, and France cannot act like lawless cowboys, if for nothing else than because it offers an implicit justification for other nations to intervene unjustly in like fashion with less moral authority.

At the same time, many arguments I’ve seen against the strike are at times underwhelming. When we talk about the evils of bombing a decently sized country such a Syria, we often forget that these targeted strikes aren’t a wholesale military bombardment. We’re not carpet-bombing their major cities, we’re not engaging in a large-scale operation. And so I wonder if we problematically reduce a whole country to a single imagined point in space, something we can only do from a(n imperializing) distance. That is to say, just as conservative hawks discount the full repercussions of military force—for instance, they tend to undervalue the heinousness of civilian deaths, something I would never want to fall prey to—because they don’t see a foreign, subaltern country as full or worthy of deep thought, liberal doves do much the same work when they talk about how we’re “bombing a people already bombed by its government”. Once we know the extent of civilian causalities (as well as military casualties, whose deaths we also tend to discount), we can better assess these claims, but in the abstract, doves also reduce the country—to its most easily empathized pieces, as though a strike on an abandoned airbase (as was last year’s) were a strike on a hospital. Our sense of scale, from a distance and often aligned with an imperial behemoth, is always askew, and we shouldn’t conflate a strike on an airbase, for instance, a strike against a chemical weapons plant, or a strike against a terrorist camp, with a strike on a refugee camp. At the same time, I’ll be the first to admit that military discourse often does similar work in reverse, acting as though attacks in a refugee camp can, through mental acrobatics, be self-servingly reclassified as an attack on a terrorist cell because a single suspected terrorist might have died among dozens of civilians, and so we have every right to be skeptical. But not to be reductive.

Obviously, people I respect often ask what gives the US, the UK, and France the authority to use force against any country. As I argue above, there is no legal authority to my knowledge, which is a gross shame. At the same time, the quietist position offered here by liberal doves is truly concerning. If Assad were gassing his people by the tens of thousands, would they still argue for inaction? Would the impossibility, due to Russia’s veto, of binding sanction by the UN thus necessarily—and acceptably for them—foreclose any possibility for intervention? The moral authority to intervene to protect innocent people when the (world’s still nascent international) law is unable to do so, even when illegal, bears some consideration. The immediate responding question would likely be, “What innocents do we protect by a random and inconsistent string of military strikes, which themselves cause very little logistical strife to the offending nation(s)?” It’s a question with whose premises I largely agree—our strikes of determent are often more for show to civilians at home and not actually aimed at determent at all. We should be more consistent in our use of force, ideally through the UN but also through other international communities, and we should more heavily inflict logistical consequences—although how to do so without increasing casualties, once again both civilian and military (who are often as much imbricated by political forces against their wills as civilians), is a heck of a question. In an ideal world, our use of target strikes would deter a figure like Assad from using chemical weapons ever again. More importantly, however, it would act to deter other would-be genocidal despots. Because our use of force is inconsistent and often only token, we’ve failed in both parts of that mission—Assad has been undeterred, and likely will remain so going forward, and other human rights abusers know the consequences tend to be small and rarely dealt and thus know they can likely act with (near) impunity. This is a structural failing, by the US, the UN, and the global community. However, if one truly believes in the necessity of avoiding genocides and crimes against humanity, it’s difficult to imagine any alternative than some sort of strong response to the use of chemical weapons, as well as other weapons of mass destruction. The form of that response, when diplomatic and economic tools prove ineffective or equally morally defective (like, is it truly super-duper ethical to endorse the starvation of millions of North Korean civilians due to international sanctions?), sometimes must be military in nature. Otherwise, we implicitly authorize the use of such weapons, both now and in the future.

On the whole, then, I am not in principle opposed to strikes against Assad. The price the Syrian people and the wider world has paid for our inaction is impossible to estimate. Had we intervened at the start of the conflict, no matter how messily, would things have devolved to this degree? It is increasingly clear to me at least that the situation has only worsened with time, and so I wonder how long we can wait until the world is forced to do /something/. Thus far, we have largely demurred, due to the complexities of the problems and the impossibility of any clear, just answer. How long we will continue to be able to do so is anyone’s guess. And while it is totally imaginable that our early intervention could have led to a situation much like Iraq, or that present intervention would also lead to commensurate catastrophes, inaction is not without its own cost. If Iraq has been our dark lesson in overeager action, Syria seems like a lesson in reticent inaction. Dogmatically choosing one strategy to use across time and circumstances, either living as a hawk or a dove, would therefore prove disastrous in the long-term, and so I am opposed to the blanket opposition offered to any and all intervention in Syria no matter the situation or context.

At the same time, due to its ineffectual nature, the disinterest in UN involvement, the lack of constitutional authority, and the presence of Donald Trump as commander-in-chief, in practice this strike deeply troubles me. I do not trust Trump to make these decisions, and the further he implicates us in this predicament, the more challenging the obstacles he will face and the more likely he is to tumble us into deep and lasting war. Consequently, while I am somewhat nonplussed by anyone who imagines that Trump is acting as bellicosely as Clinton evidently would have—which is a common thread I’ve seen online, people mocking that one headline “Donald the Dove, Hillary the Hawk”, as though Clinton wouldn’t have committed more force to Syria that Trump has (something I, again, would have likely supported her in, with probable qualms)—I agree with the host of people I follow online that Trump lacks the temperament or the capacity to lead us through this crisis. While there is a clear call to action, even had he and our allies made their case to the UN, even had Congress voted to approve targeted strikes, even were the strike more thoughtfully placed, I am more and more and more opposed across the board to Trump’s use of force, even in situations where I might otherwise support it. There is, as I have said, a cost to inaction—one that in general I am loathe for the world to pay. But in this situation, with this American president, I am much more conflicted and much less convinced.