Like most Americans, I’m wary about President Obama’s proposal to bomb Syria as punishment for Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons to massacre civilians in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. I’m glad, and relieved, that Obama decided to ask Congress for approval before ordering the military to let the missiles fly. Except when the nation is under attack, a president should always do that when he or she wants to use deadly force abroad. It’s not just the democratic way, it is required by the Constitution and the War Powers Act – despite the fact that every president since Harry Truman has disregarded one or both legal documents.
However, the kind of opposition to Obama’s plan being voiced by most commentators on the left lacks common sense and moral conviction. In The Nation, Robert Dreyfuss calls the president and John Kerry, his “uber-hawk” secretary of state, “insane” for wanting to intervene in Syria in this fashion. David Bromwich, in an article cross-posted on this website, intones that “the way out of war is always peace” and wonders why Obama doesn’t try negotiating with Assad’s regime. Some bloggers are even calling for impeachment.
What the president hopes to do may not prevent future gas attacks and may backfire, enraging the very people in the Mideast whom he seeks to help. But it is not insane to want to punish the Syrian government for violating an ban on the first weapon which nearly every nation agreed, back in the 1920s, never to use again. Would Dreyfuss continue to oppose US action if Assad killed another thousand of his people in this way? Or ten thousand? Is there any point in the escalation of such atrocities at which he would change his mind?
Bromwich’s general point is quite sensible – as long as there is a negotiating partner willing, in theory, to moderate or curb his actions, which is the whole purpose of negotiations. But Assad flatly denies having used such weapons and has shown, over the past two years, that he is determined to kill as many of his people as necessary in order to retain power in at least part of his nation. Why would he agree to negotiate with the United States and what would his diplomats and ours be talking about?
American leftists are certainly correct to oppose sending troops outside our borders to “free” other people from a regime or insurgent group whose beliefs our government simply doesn’t like. For more than a century—from the Philippines to Nicaragua to Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan—that has never worked out well, either for the United States or for the nations we’ve invaded.
However, attempts to stop a massacre or a murderous violation of international law are and ought to be different. NATO’s bombing of Serbia helped secure the independence of Kosovo. And the US failure to try to stop the genocide in Rwanda was, as Bill Clinton later acknowledged, a horrible mistake. I am not sure the gassing in Ghouta fits that standard and look forward to hearing the debate between the Obama administration and its critics, in and outside Congress. But to call such an action “insane” or worthy of throwing a president out of office is not a serious response to a humanitarian crisis. It dishonors the vision of a left which, at its best, has always adhered, in essence, to the motto of the late, great New York City daily PM: “We are against people who push other people around, just for the fun of pushing, whether they flourish in this country or abroad.”
Michael Kazin is the editor of Dissent.