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Oil Futures Rise on Fears of U.S. Attack on Syria September 9, 2013

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Today there is heightened tension and risk of instability in the Middle East. (Oil futures are already elevated.) This development is not because Syria has used chemical weapons, but because the United States is threatening — and looking increasingly likely — to attack.

I still cannot understand why President Obama believes this is a good idea.

My Response to the “Red Line” Argument Re: Syria September 9, 2013

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The “red line” argument vis-a-vis Syria goes something like this: “Obama said the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would constitute crossing a “red line” of the United States’. Because of this, the United States must attack Syria’s chemical weapons depots. To do otherwise would render the U.S. a feckless, paper tiger, embolden Assad and other dictators to use chemical weapons by permitting a lack of accountability, and finally it will weaken the U.S. position towards Iran.”

Here is my response:

Just because Syria crossed a so-called “red line” for the United States, why must President Obama then necessarily respond with a military attack? There are other ways to provide accountability for this horrific atrocity the Syrian regime has perpetrated. Why not tighten sanctions? Ambassador Power and other officials in the Obama Administration don’t say. Why not respond in a way consistent with international law? The United States has decided not to attempt to go to the UN (there are decent reasons for this, of course. But still!). Then, even if one assumes the U.S. chooses to disregard international law in a supposed effort to uphold international law (indeed), why not allow UN inspectors to finish their work discovering evidence prior to attacking with military force?

I don’t understand why crossing a fictitious “red line” (which we supposedly have evidence Syria actually already crossed twice prior to this recent, large-scale chemical attack), necessitates a rapid military response in violation of UN rules. Furthermore, how far does this supposed “red line” extend. What if, in 2014, there is an uprising in North Korea or China and the government there uses chemical weapons to put down the rebellion?

Finally, even if one finds the “red line” argument more convincing than my rebuttal, I still believe a “realist” analysis of the underlying interests at stake for the United States in the Middle East — counter-terrorism and oil price management — will be better served by not attacking Syria. In my opinion, this “national interest” analysis should be finally devastating to any arguments in favor of striking.

Disappointed and Dumbfounded by Obama’s Syria Policy September 8, 2013

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Since last writing, my views about the normative question pertaining to Syria have changed dramatically. Through a bit more reading on the subject, thinking through my own views further, and discussing with friends, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a very poor decision to conduct even limited strikes against Syria.

Listening to United States Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power speak at the Center for American Progress, I find myself downright confused and disheartened by the arguments and statements I’m hearing from the Administration. Power and Neera Tanden (President of CAP) make an appeal for intervention that rests largely on emotional arguments, calling it “monstrous,” talking about fathers crying over their dead babies. Yes, this all horrible. Atrocious. The videos of the Syrian chemical attack are shockingly gruesome. And I don’t doubt that it was Assad and the Syrian government behind these attacks.  But ultimately, there are humanitarian atrocities the world over. Omar al-Bashir, President of Sudan has murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people. The Lords Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, is a band of rebels causing havoc in uncontrolled regions of Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic. Kony and his gang mutilate and rape their victims, while abducting children and forcing them to fight on their behalf. And the list goes on. If we accept Ambassador Power’s argument for humanitarian-based intervention, where do we draw the line? Which do we get involved it, and “how can we stomach,” in her words, sitting out and “standing idly by” while other atrocities takes place? (Side note: a fact too little known is that the US did send military personnel to fight against Kony and the LRA in October 2011.)

Furthermore, the idea that the United States is the moral international arbitrator in this situation — an argument Ambassador Power alludes to repeatedly — is patently absurd. In the 1980’s, the United States helped Sadaam Hussein massacre thousands of Iranians with chemical weapons in a calculated effort to maintain the balance of power between those two countries in the Persian Gulf region. This is not an allegation, but a fact proven by recently declassified CIA memos. Read them, they’re shocking.

Additionally, Ambassador Power claims that we must do this because it’s an international treaty. The simple yet devastating counter to this silly point that the administration is making has become almost hackneyed: since when has the United States obeyed international law, or upheld treaties?  The United States hasn’t even ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty! And why didn’t the United States care when it’s ally, Bahrain, (where the U.S. Navy 5th Fleet is harbored) was arresting doctors and other medical personal as they rushed to tend to peaceful demonstrators (who had been injured by government riot police) that were demanding democracy and a voice in their government affairs? Why didn’t the United States want to intervene to uphold the Geneva Conventions in Bahrain. So, having belabored the point, I hope I have shown how absurd Ambassador Power seems to anyone who has a conception of history, international law, and the traditional role the United State has played in world affairs.

Ambassador Power claims the United States has exhausted alternatives, yet she makes no mention about any efforts to tighten sanctions. Sanctions won’t stop chemical weapons being used on civilians, but neither will targeted strikes. And if targeted strikes do succeed in stopping further chemical weapons attacks by Assad, what is to stop Assad from decimating innocent Syrians with traditional weapons? What is the end game for the United States?

Ultimately, I don’t buy the argument that this is a humanitarian ground for the reasons stated above. Rather, I think (but I have no evidence for this claim) that America’s national security apparatus is exaggerating the “threat” to America’s national security, to global stability, or to any of our non-core interests, in order to work to take out Assad. This is exactly what happened in Iraq in 2003. And Libya in 2011 was very similar. The common theme in all 3 cases is that a decent pretense (9-11 with Iraq, the Libyan Spring, and sarin gas now in Syria) is used as an excuse to achieve a longstanding goal — getting rid of a dictator we don’t like. But why must we do it again!? In both Libya and Iraq, the outcomes were terrible for the United States! In Libya the outcome was good for Al-Qaeda and very bad for the U.S. embassy and the estimable Ambassador Christopher Stevens; in Iraq today there is no democracy, internecine sectarian violence continues, and in many important ways Iran’s position in the region was strengthened by the US intervention. So, assuming we even could somehow take out, or weaken, Assad, what could the national security apparatus of the United States possibly expect as a productive outcome for US interests!? The U.S. knows it doesn’t like the opposition forces (that’s why the Obama Administration has been reluctant to provide lethal military support). The United States fears that the opposition is sympathetic to Al-Qaeda or other extreme Muslim groups. I’m struggling to see what good for the United States will come from an attack on Syria.

I think this intervention plays perfectly into Al-Qaeda’s narrative and will undermine our global counter-terrorism efforts. It will surely increase instability in the Middle East possibly increasing the price of oil. Counter-terrorism and oil price management are the primary core national interests of United States in the Middle East. Limited strikes on Syria will undermine both of those goals.

So what is President Obama doing? I am dumbfounded.

The US Turns Its Eyes to Syria September 4, 2013

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A couple quick thoughts on the impending Syria intervention by the United States:

Over the weekend the President stated that while he has the legal authority to proceed unilaterally and without Congressional approval, he will seek Congressional approval prior to engaging the armed forces in Syria. The legal authority for the President to engage — both from an international law standpoint, and a domestic law standpoint — is very ambiguous, and I would be very curious to read the administration’s legal memos on the subject. But ultimately the gray areas are where law is created, right!? I have written previously about the War Powers Act and the legality of the Libyan operation, so I’ll put this issue aside for now.

Unlike the Libyan operations — where the President did not seek Congressional approval, but Congress attempted (and failed) to assert its authority — the President with Syria is affirmatively seeking authority from Congress. The President argues in his speech that having a national debate, through our Congressional leaders, is the right thing for our democracy. Then he proceeded to lay out the case for why intervention in Syria is a good idea.

Seeking congressional approval is a good thing, whether or not Congress “rubber stamps” the issue, unquestioningly providing the authority to intervene, because it inherently demands that a deeper debate occur. I’m happy to see that this is already happening. Moreover, I would argue that Congress is not merely “rubber stamping” but rather they are providing meaningful checks on the executive: a limit on the duration of engagement to either 2-3 months, no boots on the ground, and the requirement that the President submit to Congress a report detailing U.S. aid to opposition groups in Syria. This is valuable, and it is to Mr. Obama’s credit that he jump-started this debate.

Again, the proposals coming out of Congress lead us back to whether any of this matters because ultimately if the President doesn’t need Congressional authority in the first place, then what meaningful checks can Congress place on the Executive? This is the stuff that gets decided in the court of public opinion. Precedent is being set here, and the judgment of public opinion will affect the “legality” of future interventions. (Precedent was set in Kosovo in 1999 even when President Clinton affirmatively stated that the intervention should not set precedent.)

Lastly, I’ll say that Congressional leaders would do themselves and the institution of Congress well by making sure to come up with reconciled language that authorizes the President to conduct a limited intervention. It’s clear that President Obama is going to intervene on a certain scale. If Congress wants to avoid its authority as an institution from being further undermined, it should produce a reconciled resolution authorizing the use of limited force in Syria, and it should do so fairly quickly.

I’ve yet to address the normative question of whether or not this is actually a good idea. I tend to think a limited intervention in Syria is, in fact, a good idea for the United States and the world. I’m persuaded by the argument that the chemical attack was tragically heinous and the world should not stand idly by. I believe we need to bolster the rule of law in the international community, and I think a small-scale intervention, hopefully with Arab, Asian, and European partners, bolsters a rules-based international regime (though I acknowledge that there are arguments supporting the view that this merely undermines the rule of law internationally). In general, though, I’d rather stay away from this normative question because, ultimately, I am so far from being in a proper position to address this question with any sort of accuracy or informed opinion. For better or worse, foreign policy is a facet of policy-making where we must trust our leaders.