Press Pause on the Rush to War

Obama's fierce urgency when it comes to Syria is misguided.

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Syria's welcoming this week of Russia's proposal to put its chemical weapons under international control should put a pause on the Obama administration's frenzied full court press this week – vis-à-vis invasion – which includes six television network interviews, a live address to the American people, extensive lobby visits and calls to Congress, think-tank talks and even pressure on non-governmental organizations (ours included). 

There are serious holes in the administration's argument for urgency. The urgency has little to do with America's national security – despite protestations by Secretary of State John Kerry that our allies in the region are under threat (a threat that is more likely realized if we attack Syria rather than abstain). The urgency also has little to do with preventing Syrians from death and destruction, because the rush to war has emerged from within the administration only recently, long after 100,000 Syrians had already died.  

Nor is this urgency really about the weapon in question, despite claims to the contrary, because America has certainly used chemicals in war before, from Vietnam to Iraq, with no apparent qualms. It is also worth noting – irrespective of how deplorable the killing of 355 Syrians is – that the verdict is still out on the evidence, as a recent McClatchy investigation has shown, inspiring former U.S. intelligence officers to officially question it.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

The Pentagon's plan of attack, moreover, doesn't appear to have any political solution supporting it, no plan for a ceasefire between the Syrian government and the rebels (as the U.S.-stalled Geneva II peace process aimed to achieve), no strategy for transitional governance, no appetite for international law, no ability to ferret out the myriad fractious rebel groups and no engagement with the very adversaries that might be able to motivate Assad to act differently.

This administration's entire agenda, in fact, seems more like an attempt to reassert America's moral weight in the world as the official arbiter of good versus bad behavior than a legitimate attempt at creating stability in Syria and saving Syrian lives. 

If a renewed effort at global policeman, then, is Obama's goal, he is very much at odds with the international community, with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon saying that "the use of force is lawful only when in exercise of self-defense in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter and/or when the Security Council approves such action," putting America directly at odds with the entire post-World War II multilateral, consensus-based international relations system. 

At the G-20 Summit last week, Ban took it one step further, criticizing the idea of U.S. military strikes against Syria, saying that any additional use of force would exacerbate the country's civil war and violate international law, adding, "I must warn that ill-considered military action could cause serious and tragic consequences, and with an increased threat of further sectarian violence."

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

If America wants to reassert its moral weight in the world, there are more efficient and effective exercises that are less expensive and less likely to result in increased chaos, escalated violence and additional chemical weapons usage. Factoring in every Tomahawk missile America might use in Syria, at cost estimates ranging from $607,000 to $1.4 million or more, and calculating the total cost of the war based on Libya calculations at over $1 billion (assuming it's a short engagement and not a protracted one, which is no guarantee), or in the billions according to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey for extended operations, that's a serious amount of money spent destroying stuff.

This is hardly the way to win the hearts and minds of those in the Middle East. A better approach would be to help fix the water security crisis in Yemen, the energy crisis in Egypt, or better yet, the infrastructure problem in America.

If America wants to ensure that Syria's dictator Bashar Assad plays by the rules of the international community, then so must we; otherwise, we are setting a poor precedent for every other nation, including the rogue ones, to follow.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

To be clear, no one wants Syria using chemical weapons. Not Russia, who, as previously mentioned, is pushing Syria to relinquish control its chemical arsenal. Not Iran, as Iran's President Hasan Rouhani has condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Not even China, as the latest Congressional Research Service report on Syria noted that Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on August 28 that "China firmly opposes any use, by anyone, of chemical weapons in Syria." Given these positive signs, we should let the U.N. handle this job, working within the Security Council and/or the International Criminal Court, while America plays an appropriate supporting role.

America's attention and assets, instead, should be focused on issues of national security that are impacting the American public, who are, as the  president noted, war weary. Collectively, we have heard from none of our constituents who want U.S. military action in Syria and, given a choice, they would much rather have their hard-earned dollars devoted to that which will make our country and economy stronger – everything from eliminating the debt, which Admiral Mike Mullen infamously called the biggest threat to our national security, to fixing our infrastructure. 

This is how you protect America and this is what should be our most urgent task today.

Michael Shank is the director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Follow him on Twitter: @Michael_Shank.

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