Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Syria: Moral Imperatives and Rational Analyses

September 4, 2013, 9:15 a.m.
Spotting the Issues
"The fundamental shift in the character of war is illustrated by a stark statistic: in World War I, [for every] nine soldiers [killed there was one] civilian life lost. In today’s wars, [for every nine soldiers killed in battle] it is estimated that [90] civilians die . . .."
-- Greenberg Research, Inc., The People on War Report, International Committee of the Red Cross, 1999, p. iii; from "Civilian Casualty Ratio,"

"My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it."
-- Edward M. Kennedy, "Address at the Public Memorial Service for Robert F. Kennedy," June 8, 1968, American Rhetoric Top 100 Speeches.

[Chart credit: Wikipedia Commons, "Casualties of the Syrian Civil War",]

We are genetically programmed to be physically and emotionally moved by suffering. "I feel your pain" is more than politicians' casual rhetoric. Animal rights activists are not the only ones among us with empathy for suffering animals, whether a beached whale or dolphin in the wild, or a pet cat or dog in our home. Especially is this so when it is humans who are hurting. We feel a special outrage when children are unnecessarily suffering from disease or starvation, and worst of all when they are the victims of deliberate, senseless and inhumane infliction of violence by adults. Photos move us more than text, videos more than still photos, and personal witness most of all. [Photo credit: multiple sources.]

Moreover, when there is the possibility that we might be able to do something to alleviate the suffering of others, there is at least a part of what Ted Kennedy saw in his brother Robert in all of us. We come together to try to right wrong, heal suffering, and stop war.

Indeed, many would say we have a moral, religious, or philosophical obligation to do so -- sometimes with the possibility of great harm to ourselves. That's why a swimmer may dive into a river to save a drowning stranger, or quickly remove someone from an onrushing car or train, or burning building. It is also a part of what motivates the vicarious helping, in the form of charitable giving by individual Americans -- for 2011, two-thirds of the roughly $300 billion total contributions, 12% of which went to human services, with a 15% two-year increase in giving to international affairs organizations. "Charitable Giving Statistics," National Philanthropic Trust (which see for additional data).

And so it is with our feelings for the people of Syria.

We spend more on defense than the next ten countries combined. If it was possible for us to use that overwhelming military might to heal the Syrian people's suffering, and stop their war, I for one think we would have a moral obligation to do so -- however unpopular that view may be in some quarters. There are already 90,000 dead, and two million refugees from this war. We may not have the responsibility, or resources, to be "the world's police force." But I do think, when it is within our power to prevent the killing of tens of thousands more, we have a moral obligation to do so, given that we still remain the world's most powerful nation at this time in history.

The problem on this occasion, as with so many in the past and future to come, is that saving their lives is not within our power. Indeed, it is highly likely that our intervention, whether with a single missile strike or a prolonged bombardment, would increase rather than decrease the suffering and death of the Syrian people.

Of course there are many other issues surrounding President Obama's desire to send missiles to Syria. I may later itemize some of them below. Although there is a case to be made, and that the Administration has attempted to make, for this action, I do believe that any rational benefit-cost analysis finds that case decisively outweighed by the likelihood of its doing more harm than good, with risks and costs orders of magnitude greater than any possible benefits.

But that will have to wait for later. This blog essay is deliberately narrowly focused on the moral issue.

There may be, and often are, cases in which the moral obligation to prevent human death and suffering is politically, or emotionally, overridden by other considerations -- such as the Allies decision to fight World War II. As a result of that decision, some 38 to 55 million innocent civilians were killed, many of whom might have lived had Hitler been left free to take over all of Europe and more. I do not believe a civil war within a single country, at least not today's Syria -- one that has neither attacked us, nor shown present intention and ability to occupy surrounding countries, Nazi style -- is such a case.

My conclusion: If it were possible for us to stop the Syrian civil war, prevent the deaths of thousands more, and the continued suffering of hundreds of thousands more refugees and others, I think we would have a moral obligation to do so. When that is not possible, as I believe to be the case, especially given the additional harm that would probably result from our intervention, the same rationale and analysis leads me to the conclusion that we have a moral obligation to stay out.

[More on other issues, below.]

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The Other Issues

Let's put aside the moral issues for the moment, however you came out on those, and look at some of the other troublesome aspects of this venture.

A Rational Analysis of the Military Option.

One way into war, seemingly popular with some elected officials, is shouting slogans like "USA! USA!" or "Nuke 'em!" or "Let's kick some butt!" or "These colors don't run!" While energizing and possibly emotionally satisfying, it lacks something as a precise analysis.

An alternative is an approach I used in a column prior to the Iraq War: Nicholas Johnson, "Ten Questions for Bush Before War," The Daily Iowan, February 4, 2003, p. A6. Not all of those ten questions are specifically applicable to sending missiles to Syria, of course, but the approach is similar.

1. What is our goal, our purpose, in intervening in Syria? As I used to put it to my school board colleagues, "How would we know if we'd ever been successful?" Our purpose seems to have included, at various times, regime change, humanitarian aid for the innocent suffering Syrians, providing weapons to the insurgents, creating a no-fly zone to protect Syrians from aerial attack, punishing the leadership for gassing its citizens while warning other nations never to do it, and most recently, knocking out the government's command and control facilities -- as the Senate puts it, "shifting the momentum on the battlefield," over a period of 60 days with a 30-day extension.

It's hard to critique a proposed attack of some kind on Syria without knowing the nature of that attack, the purpose it's designed to serve, and how long it's gong to last.

2. Whatever the answers to those questions may be, once those answers are obtained the next question is, "Why do we think the military exercise we've envisioned will produce the result we desire?" Are there alternative approaches that might be more effective, cheaper, and less likely to have negative consequences -- diplomacy, economic sanctions, charging Assad with war crimes in the International Criminal Court?

3. After our attack, will the people of Syria be better or worse off than they were before we took whatever action we end up taking? In particular, to the extent our goal is regime change, what is the likelihood that the new, replacement regime will be better for the Syrian people -- and us? Indeed, given all the disparate groups jockeying for dominant control, and likely to continue fighting if and when Assad is ever replaced, what are the odds of any "regime" emerging?

4. Do the American people, and their elected representatives, support this military action, and if they do now, how long can that support be sustained? Do the people of Syria? Does the Obama Administration have the support of the United Nations, NATO, the Arab League? It would appear not. The British House of Commons voted to stay out. Polls indicate most Americans are opposed, and the House of Representatives is unlikely to authorize the President's new "war." The Russian and Chinese veto pretty much prevents any United Nations action. The "Arab street" seems at best split over the desirability of "Western intervention."

5. The total costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, including lifetime support of those who've served, looks something like $2-3 trillion. What are the economic and political consequences of adding to that debt?

6. Once we have identified our goal, and if it involves the betterment of the Syrian people, and if we are successful in achieving it, what will be required to secure and maintain those gains? How long will we need to be involved in some way, even if it does not involve American military personnel inside Syria? It's not clear whether the promise to not put any "boots on the ground" only refers to "combat troops," or really means we will keep all American CIA and military personnel out of Syria.

7. And finally we come to "exit strategy." How do we get out? What happens when we do? Why will our gains, our achievement of our goal (if it was ever precisely identified and ultimately reached), be maintained after we are no longer there?

Inconsistencies and Other Troubling Features of the Operation

8. Why now? Put aside the chemical attacks for the moment. Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has killed 90,000 of his people the old fashioned way. If a part of our motivation is to protect the Syrian people from their government, why did those deaths not move the Administration to action months ago? Why not wait for the report of the UN investigators regarding the cause of death, and whatever evidence can be found regarding who was responsible for it?

9. Now let's address the chemical warfare. I get it; that's a violation of international law. Conventional weapons are usually legal under international law. Personally, I find killing your own people, innocent civilians, to be pretty disgusting regardless of the means used. But even if the only thing that moves you to action is the use of chemical weapons, why was that not a concern the 14 prior times he used them? Why were we so totally unconcerned when Saddam Hussein used them on his Kurds and the Iranians, and suddenly concerned enough to go to war now? Why do we think it's OK for us to possess them?

10. What's with this "red line" of Obama's? If he's going to throw down challenges, doesn't he realize he needs to be prepared to act, and quickly, when Assad crosses his line? Why didn't he act the first time Assad used chemical weapons once the red line was drawn? How much of the "urgency of now" with regard to this attack on Syria is driven by the president's personal embarrassment from his new-found awareness that failing to follow up on threats is extraordinarily damaging to our national interests? Isn't this behavior reminiscent of President George W. Bush's complaint that Saddam Hussein "tried to kill my daddy" -- injecting a president's personal involvement, reputation, or embarrassment, into what ought to be depersonalized analysis?

11. Beyond a reasonable doubt. It is not enough for a jury to find a defendant guilty of a routine crime because "he probably did it." They need to find his guilt proven "beyond a reasonable doubt." Based on the photos and video we've seen, the likelihood is that chemical weapons were the cause of the recent death and suffering. But when it comes to finding Assad "guilty," basically all we have is "he probably did it." That may be enough for some responses, like diplomacy, and our intuition is certainly more solidly grounded in this case than when the last president wanted to go to war with Iraq because it was a "slam dunk" that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. But is it enough to go to war?

12. Congress. So the president is asking Congress to sign off on his war. Never hurts to follow the Constitution from time to time. It would be nice if presidents would always do that. (It would also be nice if presidents and Congress would impose extra pay-as-you-go taxes to pay for wars before the wars, rather than putting them on our grand children's credit cards.) But I'm not sure it's accurate or fair to say congressional approval, if it comes, can be fairly said to represent the support of the American people. For starters all but about 10-to-15% of the American people are disgusted with Congress. And roughly two-thirds of Americans (depending on how they are asked the question) oppose going to war with, or lobbing missiles over, Syria.

13. Find a better place for war. The Middle East is probably the worst possible place to start lobbing missiles toward someone. It is as likely to harden Assad's resolve as to weaken it. It will certainly continue to accelerate our very successful program of increasing the number and ferociousness of al-Qaeda recruits -- who may very well be the ones to take over and rule Syria if we were to be successful at "regime change." And there is no credible scenario that I have seen as to why it is not likely to bring in the Russians and Iranians, possibly provoke attacks on Israel, and otherwise spread to other neighbors of Syria. On the assumption our actions don't provoke a World War III, and we just risk attacks on Israel, and further alienation of China and Russia, we next explore what other blowback is possible.

14. Blowback. How have those missile attacks been working out for us in the past? Not so well. (a) In 1983 we shelled military forces engaged in a civil war in Lebanon, in that case in an effort to support the Lebanese army. What was the reaction? A month later suicide bombers blew up our Marine barracks, killing 241 Marines. We brought the survivors home, and the civil war continued until 1990. (b) In 1998 al-Qaeda bombed our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The U.S. answered with missile hits on al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, and, with erroneous intelligence (that it was a chemical weapons plant), a plant in Sudan producing medicine for the Sudanese people. The blowback? The USS Cole was attacked, and a year later we were dealing with 9/11.

It wasn't long ago we closed numerous embassies, especially in the Middle East and Africa, out of concern they might be attacked. After we lob missiles at Syria is it more, or less, likely that those concerns will prove to have been well-founded? (Apparently, intercepts have already revealed plans to attack the U.S. embassy in Bagdad if we attack Syria.) By what standard can an increased risk of attack on Americans, as we have experienced in the past, be said to improve our national security?

15. "Collaterally damaged" civilians. As the quote at the top of this blog essay reveals, war produces as many as ten times the number of civilian casualties as military. This is not a very effective way to "win hearts and minds."

There's more to be said -- but not by me. This is enough to give you a sense of my thinking on the matter. What's yours? "Not in my name" says little without the backup of some reasoning. American citizens still have some credibility and respect abroad on the part of those in other countries who are willing to say, "It's not the American people, it's their government." However, unless we all speak up, it will be done in our name, and it will be the American people who will be properly faulted, not just our government.

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john said...

You make several excellent points. One is that we should establish - and subsequently retain - benchmarks for determining success. Another is that we should then imagine if what we propose is highly likely to achieve that. To answer that we must consider that America hasn't had need to stage a victory parade for almost 70 years.

But the "elephant in the room", as a recent WSJ piece offered, is Iran. For several reasons, the gas attack rational has an odor. One is that the publicized results (at least) of US intel are unreliable. Another is America's previous complicity in the gassing of Iranians.

Let us hold our noses and accept that the poison gas issue is the necessary subterfuge for gaining support to slap Iran. Is THAT a good reason to attack, then? In my view it is not. We are emerging from the two GWB wars wherein the defacto victor is, however unintentionally, Iran. We just have to accept that we are the coyote to Iran's roadrunner.

WHATEVER happens in Syria, it is likely to remain a client of Iran, so why put our prestige on the line there?!

BTW, I do have one issue with the blog. I think it is inappropriate to require courtroom standards of evidence to judge people like Assad.

Melissa said...

I support due process--even for dictators who are leaders of legitimate nationstates. It shows an ability to rise above their poor methods of leadership. It shows an ability to respect our democratic values of three branches of governance--executive, legislative, and judicial.

Milosevic had a trial. Saddam had a trial. They were established heads of state--no matter how they obtained power they were heads of state (distinguished from say, Osama--head of a squirmy terrorist organization). The rule of law and respect for democratic values is an essential part distinguishing "us" from "them" and allowing us to choose the path to justifying war--a path never taken lightly by politicians, bureaucrats and military leaders alike. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.