by James Walker
Last week, the President of the United States of America made a televised appeal to the nation, asking them to get on board with his plan to use limited military strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. President Obama laid out two main points for consideration:
1) The use of chemical weapons is a clear crime against humanity and in contravention of an accepted international norm. To let such actions go unpunished would be a green light to the dictators and terrorists of the world, and as such posed a threat to regional, global, and US security.
2) It is unacceptable for the world to stand idly by as helpless civilians are slaughtered by the thousand, akin to the stain on the consciousness of the international community over Bosnia…or Rwanda…or Darfur…
Having reached the second decade of the 21st century, what is most shocking is the notion that the focus of this debate continues to revolve around the lynchpin of chemical weapons as an unacceptable form of mass murder—in contrast to the apparently acceptable nature of conventional weapons. The President’s call to arms is, in essence, based upon the form of murder, rather than the act of murder itself.
By the time of the President’s speech on September 10th, the civil war in Syria had been ongoing for over 900 days—or almost two and a half years. In that time, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates a civilian death toll of over 40,000 people, including 5,800 children. This means that on average, 44 civilians (including 6 children) die every single day in the Syrian conflict. In other words, almost 1,000 people who were not combatants or directly involved in the war have been killed by conventional arms since the Sarin attack on August 21st. To make that point clearer in a local context, by the time UCLA holds its annual Activities Fair for incoming students on September 23rd, the death toll from good-old-fashioned flying lead ordinance will surpass the number of civilians killed in the gas attack, estimated at 1,429 people.
It is at this point that the “Bizzaro World” factor kicks into high gear. According to the latest rash of polls by CNN, the Pew Research Center, and the Washington Post, the American public opposes armed intervention in the Syrian crisis by a majority of about 63% of the population. This is an astounding figure, given the fact that since the invasion of Grenada in 1983, public opposition to bombing other countries has never risen above 45% (in the case of Bosnia). Even the extensive military intervention against Libya’s Gaddafi in 2011 only reached a high water mark of 37%! As a nation, we have never been shy about raining death from above before.
A number of commentators have suggested that the prospect of US casualties is simply too much for a post-Iraq/Afghanistan war-weary nation to accept. Given the fact that during the Libyan engagement (which consisted of considerably more involvement than the President is asking for over Syria) the US did not sustain a single military casualty, this notion is a little hard to defend. Others claim that it is a lack of tangible evidence, or possibly a lack of trust in the evidence provided, that is swelling public opposition. If that is the case, then we chose a fine time to start demanding absolute proof from our government. Where was this sense of caution in 2003? An informed electorate is, of course, a laudable thing and should be encouraged. However, most IR specialists would be happy if the majority of Americans could find the Middle East on a map. Add the fact that a recent Gallup poll found 65% of Americans were in favor of using unmanned drones to kill “terrorists” in Yemen and other countries, and you really have to wonder where the opposition to bombing Assad is coming from. Perhaps if Obama simply labeled Assad a terrorist, his PR issues would be solved.
Questions are also being posed as to the intent of the Obama plan – whether the intention is for a punitive strike, or for regime change. At a recent cultural event in Los Angeles, Middle East specialist and UC Riverside professor Reza Aslan suggested that, humanitarian ideals aside, it is not within US interests to remove Assad from power – if it were, then taking out the seven airfields that constitute the regime’s lifeline of military supplies would effectively turn the tide of the war in the rebel’s favor – and that is why we won’t do it. In fact, Obama has explicitly stated that any airstrikes would NOT target such infrastructure, even though it would be a relatively simply task to accomplish from our floating missile platforms in the Mediterranean.
If we take that position for granted and work on the basis that it is not our intention to change the course of the war, then what is the purpose of the proposed “limited military strikes”? There are any number of potential answers here, from the geo-political to the neo-realist, but is it also possible that Obama’s avowed aim to enforce an international norm is in fact the truth? Has the shame of inaction from previous debacles actually begun to sink through, at least in regards to the most heinous of atrocities? If history is any guide, then the odds are not high, but in Bizzaro World anything is apparently possible.
The Bizzaro factor ratchets up even further when you consider the fact that the reason Obama had to make a case to the nation was that the response from the International Community has been minimal, to say the least. The Syrian crisis has done more to highlight the ineffective nature of the UN Security Council (UNSC) than a thousand missives from the Teapublicans, the John Birch Society, or the “New World Order” conspiracy nuts of the world combined. It is a political truism that “politics makes strange bedfellows,” but in this instance you would expect that the “American exceptionalism” wing of the country would be in lock-step with a hawkish President, intent on flexing US military might in order to promote truth, justice, and the American way. Instead we find ourselves in a situation where President Bush’s former Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, takes the same position as the Russian delegation to the UNSC! Has the world gone mad?
If ever there was a textbook case in the international arena to invoke the notion of the “Right to Protect” (R2P), then it is hard to see how it could be any more clear-cut than the Syrian crisis. Does the state have a “responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing”? Check! Does the international community have a “responsibility to assist the state to fulfill its primary responsibility”? Check! Has the state “manifestly failed to protect its citizens from the four above mass atrocities, have peaceful measures failed, and does the international community have the responsibility to intervene through coercive measures”? Check, check, and check!
For any ardent internationalist, it is painful to acknowledge that the system as it currently stands is so deeply flawed. Russian intransigence, combined with a lack of prior political will on our part, has allowed the situation in Syria to devolve into a neo-Hobbesian nightmare. The need for consensus in military intervention is a central tenant of the post-WWII collective security ideal, but it is one that has lead to the current deadlock at the UN, and threatens to sideline the effectiveness of this vital institution. R2P was supposed to be a way of answering this issue – instead it has simply become an example of it.
If the Obama administration’s plan to initiate limited, punitive strikes against the chemical weapons capacity of the Syrian state goes ahead, we might actually find ourselves in a world where US military actions serve to reinforce “universal” collective norms, but are undertaken in opposition to the collective will, and without the legal imperator of UN legitimacy. In that case, the move to implement the essence of R2P in the face of stagnation and deadlock would become, in and of itself, a criminal act in international law!
Welcome to Bizzaro World….
James Walker is a first year MA student in Political Geography, and an Editor for The Generation. He is also an ardent internationalist, and astonished by his own position on the situation in Syria – hence the Bizzaro World analogy.