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A Retort to Ben Cohen on Syria

Banter editor Ben Cohen gets challenged on Syria. Alongside the Program Director at the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies Hart Uhl, Josh Stewart takes on some of his assertions.
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In a piece published yesterday regarding the dire situation in Syria, the senior editor of Daily Banter (both a friend and colleague) Ben Cohen made some claims that I want to address.

Cohen begins by referring to President Bashar Assad as a “ruthless despot with little regard for human rights”. This is dead on. We can all agree something bad is happening in Syria, and something must be done in the face of grave tragedy.  But then Cohen poses a question, “If a consensus cannot be reached, does America have the right to intervene in another country in the name of human rights?”  The piece argues a few points, some convincing and some tenuous.

Would US military intervention do any good?

COHEN: The answer to that isn’t clear -- it may or may not be constructive to bomb pro Assad forces and other strategic targets to quell the violence. The US hasn’t exactly had a good run of it in the past 60 years (the US exacerbated internecine warfare in both Vietnam and Iraq for example) so it’s track record should be taken into account.

There are several reasonable arguments to be made about whether or not action in Syria will result in any sort of “good” or “positive” outcome, but the more appropriate question is “What is our strategic goal?” If the mission is to punish Assad for the use of internationally-banned chemical weapons, then unleashing a barrage of Tomahawk cruise missiles on pro-Assad forces would certainly accomplish that goal. However, if the President has something else in mind, like evening the playing field between rebel and regime forces, success is anything but guaranteed. It is for this reason that the administration has been loath to wade into the Syria crisis for the last two and a half years.

Military intervention remains debatable and, we should be having a conversation about it as a nation.  However, Cohen goes on to compare the situation in Syria to the cautionary tales of Vietnam and Iraq. This is a specious argument when considering a response for the use of chemical weapons. Both Vietnam and Iraq had utterly different political, social, and historical contexts.

In Syria, the free world is confronting a  blatant use of chemical weapons by a sovereign government on its people. Yes, the U.S. has a Cold War record of unilaterally seeking to influence geopolitical environments through military force; but we now live in a different world, where coalition-building and consensus (and financial restraints) take precedent over the unilateral spread of American ideals. In fact, all of our European allies and all of our regional partners on Syria have expressed support for imminent US action.

Does the US have the moral authority to attack another country for human rights abuses?

COHEN: For anyone with the vaguest understanding of history, the answer is pretty clear. The United States has a pretty horrendous record on human rights, most recently in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yes, the U.S.’ record here is unequivocally mixed, and indeed, thus far, the United States has failed to lead morally on Syria. But it is a straw man argument when Cohen states the “answer is pretty clear”.  The answer is not clear, and with each administration comes a different set of values and principles. It is akin to reading a history book without context. Just because FDR put Japanese-Americans in internment camps in WWII does not mean that President Obama cannot be trusted to discuss issues affecting the Japanese-American community. We evolve as a country, and because of recent history it is fair to say we have evolved as a nation when it comes to interventionist policies.

What are the actual reasons why the US is considering an attack on Syria?

COHEN: Given there are war crimes being committed around the world on scales far larger than Syria it stands to reason that the US isn’t getting involved due to its compassion for the Syrian people. Although Syria does not have huge oil resources, they are substantial.

I am not hawkish by any means, but the left likes to use the “we only care about the Middle East because of oil” argument way too much. Yes, we do have strategic interests in the Middle East that would be affected by regional chaos. However, to suggest the United States is considering strikes on Syria for its oil reserves reveals a complete misunderstanding both of Obama’s Syria policy over the last two years and Saudi Arabia’s recent attempts at diplomacy with Russia on the United States’ behalf.

Obama has avoided committing to a hands-on Syria policy thus far for only one reason: the difficulty of post-conflict nation building. In the aftermath of any form of intervention, the real challenge begins in the rebuilding process. No foreign policy adviser would claim that the US could swoop in, establish a democracy, and start milking Syria for its oil. To think that such a scenario is part of Obama’s calculus now would be grossly incorrect.

Additionally, Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s recent meeting with Vladimir Putin, and the “oil deal” discussed therein, is not evidence of some international oil conspiracy over Syria. Saudi Arabia was prepared to make significant concessions to Russia regarding control of oil prices (which Russia desperately needs -- its budget will be in shambles if the price per barrel drops much further) if Russia would cooperate on bringing a hasty end to the Syria conflict. Simple carrot and stick diplomacy. Russia chose the stick; the oil deal was declined. Regardless, any time foreign policy is crafted, an array of different strategic interests are considered. Oil is one of them. However, to suggest that oil dominates the Syrian calculus is foolish and wrong.

COHEN: Obama knows the game he’s playing and understands this could be an opportunity to boost his poll numbers. Hawks like John McCain have been banging the drums for war with Syria for months, and Obama could do quite nicely parading around the country with his old nemesis after bashing up Assad.

Cohen implies that Obama is eager for military action as a way to juice his favorability numbers. Cynical as this position is, let’s entertain it. Cohen correctly argues that this move is not popular with the American people. An electorally savvy Obama, who is renowned inside the beltway for being diligent about his brand and legacy, would not enter into an unjustified quagmire, documented as unpopular with the American people. The argument (see below) that action should not be taken because the public doesn’t support it does not necessarily match Cohen’s hawkish Obama looking to boost his favorability with a patriotic war.  Our record as a nation is not perfect on this, but Obama’s record is pretty clear. This goes back to 2002, when the President, and then state-Senator stood in Chicago Federal Plaza and stated, "I don't oppose all wars. I know that in this crowd today, there is no shortage of patriots, or of patriotism. What I am opposed to is a dumb war."

COHEN: Thankfully, the American public seems to be adamantly against an intervention in Syria, with polling numbers showing that a proposed war is less popular than Congress itself - a sure sign that it’s a very, very bad idea.

Lastly, I agree with Cohen’s point that Americans should be skeptical, and I applaud a thorough debate in matters involving any and all use of the American military, but public opinion should not wholly dictate American foreign policy. Though public sentiment is a factor, it is not an end all be all.

Everyone remembers the confusing and heartbreaking run up to the Iraq war, so I ask that we elevate the debate around our potential role in Syria. Let's not cheerlead nor posit straw man arguments. There are a lot of questions still left unanswered and there is not a clear path or “smoking gun” to guide us forward. The American people should not blindly trust the Administration, but any sort of military action in Syria should be first put on trial before we issue a verdict. Not the other way around.

(Hart Uhl, Program Director at the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies assisted with background information on this piece.)