Tag Archives: chemical weapons convention of 1992

The Real Conflict: Ethics and American Values Versus Realpolitik

Syria03_GQ_07Dec12_getty_b_642x390

“A country that demands moral perfection in its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor security” Henry Kissinger

There are a times in a nation’s life that its leaders are confronted with situations that present conflicts between a nation’s values and realpolitik.

The fact is that there are “tribes” in foreign policy and national security debates. Some are the idealists, others pragmatists and some realists. There are gradients between the levels and sometimes depending on the situation an idealist might gravitate toward pragmatism or even realpolitik and visa versa. Sometimes it is a matter of politics, sometimes ideology and sometimes even  and no leader of no political is immune from these tensions.

The situation in Syria is one of those times where the conflicting agendas of the different foreign policy tribes conflict and where no matter what happens in Syria the conflicts between the tribes will remain and perhaps even grow more pronounced. The fact is that I often can find myself on several sides of the same argument. It might be the PTSD “Mad Cow” is causing these conflicts but it could also be that there are good arguments to be made on all sides of the argument. What is ultimately the right course or the wrong course is actually hard to say.

If we argue for the idealist position, which would argue that American values of stopping human rights violations and the use of chemical weapons, something prohibited under the Hague convention and the more recent Chemical Weapons Convention of 1992 against the realpolitik of what are the actual National Security interests of the United States, the vital interests which involve the survival of the nation itself, major interests which could impact national security or tertiary interests which might have some importance but do not threaten the survival of the nation, even of they are terrible crimes against humanity.

Whether one likes it or not these are legitimate ethical and policy conflicts. On one hand there is the position that the United States has taken following World War Two and the Nuremberg trials as well as its participation in the International Criminal Courts has a moral obligation to confront the use of chemical weapons even if other nations or international bodies stand aside. On the other hand the argument that what happens in Syria is not in the vital interests of the United States and that the United States should not take military action to stop the use of those weapons. The fact is that those that advocate military action in Syria be they politicians, pundits, preachers or profiteers need to remember the words of Carl Von Clausewitz that “No one starts a war – or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so – without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” I really don’t think that we have thought this through as a nation.

Of course these two positions are not exclusive. There are also ranges of action which span the full spectrum of action between the either or situation that most Americans seem to find themselves caught between. The fact is that the National Security Strategy of the United States is not based on military might alone, no matter how much it has been used as the first choice by American leaders. The reality is that military force is only one element, and perhaps the weakest element of the elements of national security police known as the “DIME.” That is the Diplomatic, the Informational, the Military and the Economic power of the nation. What we seem to have forgotten is that the other elements of the DIME other than the gut level military response have value and are perhaps even more important.

I think that a large part of this conundrum is found in the reflexive use of military force as the preferred means of action since the attacks of September 11th 2001. On that day the United States was attacked by the terrorist attacks of Al Qaeda militants and while the victims of those attacks were overwhelmingly American the citizens of over 60 other nations we killed in the attacks.

Those attacks demonstrated the vulnerabilities of this nation. When one looks at our actual national security policy it is clear that those vulnerabilities are not always fixed by military action in other countries. In fact they sometimes can become even more glaring as resources required for Homeland Defense and economic recovery are spent on military operations of dubious strategic value and which at times undermine efforts to build trust with other nations, build coalitions based on shared values and to undercut the efforts of extremists using diplomacy, information and economic power.

What we have to answer now is how we address a situation in Syria that is both a violation of international law but which military force alone cannot solve. Of course there is a conflict between our ideals and what are vital national security concerns. I would suggest that the real threat of military action can be a part of the answer if it helps the United States and the world make the case through diplomacy, information and economic pressure not only to stop the slaughter but to hold those responsible for it accountable in International Criminal Courts for the commission of war crimes. At the same time the reality is that the United States and the world cannot allow an Al Qaeda dominated organization such as the Al Nursa Front gain control of Syria.

The fact is that despite how clear cut we want things to be as Americans that much of what happens in the world takes place in a world of more than 50 shades of gray. Unfortunately American conservatives and liberals alike prefer to see foreign policy in the “either or” world of using pure military force or doing nothing, neither of which of themselves are the answer. The full continuum of national and international power must be brought to bear in these kind of situations, recognizing that not everyone shares our values or has the same strategic interests.

It may not be comfortable for anyone but it is reality. How we navigate it is key, maintaining our values while ensuring that our nation survives. If military action is decided on one has to remember what Clausewitz said: “The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and the means can never be considered in isolation from their purposes.”

To make a decision without understanding this or as we did in Iraq ignoring it is to risk disaster. Such are the stakes. I personally would rather see more negotiation in the hopes that the Syrian chemical and biological weapons are secured and those responsible for using them, be they Assad, his government or even the rebels attempting to frame the Syrians and deceive the United States against the Syrian people are brought to justice.

This is a messy business and not for the faint of heart. Lives of thousands of people in Syria, the region and potentially around the world are at stake and a military strike that fails to accomplish the political object would be worse than none at all.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Foreign Policy, History, middle east, Military, national security, News and current events

Injustice in Syria and the Impotence of the World

syria-unleashes-massive-gas-chemical-attack-on-damascus

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”  Ellie Wiesel 

I do not think that any surgical strike against Syrian military forces and chemical weapons facilities by a handful of US Navy ships and submarines will stop the unrelenting bloodbath that is the Syrian Civil War. It would be nice if it would but realistically it will not.

What is going on in that country fits every definition of war crimes and crimes against humanity as defined by Nuremberg, the Hague and Geneva Conventions, the Geneva protocols of 1925 which Syria is a signatory to specifically state that “the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices, has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world.” This message was strengthened in the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1992, a document that 98% of the nations of the world are signatories to, although Syria  is not one of them.

There are strong moral and legal arguments to be made for intervention in Syria. Unfortunately morality and legal arguments against crimes against humanity seem to have very little weight in the world. But then they never have. It is only when nations decide that the threat extends beyond the deaths of unfortunate people that they really could not care less who lived or died, but directly threaten the economic and security interests of the great powers then the vast majority of people and nations would rather not get involved.

This is especially true after the American led coalition invaded Iraq on the basis of the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The intelligence about the threat has been widely discredited, Iraq remains devastated, Iran empowered and the United States military hamstrung by 12 years of war. The Iraq War and its aftermath, the casualties, the costs and the loss of credibility of the United States as a result of it haunt the actions of the Obama Administration and will haunt future presidencies. As Harry Callahan noted “there are always results.” 

As Barbara Tuchman so well put it: “An event of great agony is bearable only in the belief that it will bring about a better world. When it does not, as in the aftermath of another vast calamity in 1914-18, disillusion is deep and moves on to self-doubt and self-disgust.” 

That was the result of the Iraq war. Though the vast majority of Americans had no direct link to the war that was fought by a small minority of military personnel the effects linger. Our politicians, pundits and preachers talk about us being “war weary” but that really can only be applied to the tiny number of men and women who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan and in numerous other places that no one knows or cares about. I think that people are less war weary than they are apathetic to anything that they do not believe directly effects them.

Bertold Brecht wrote:

“The first time it was reported that our friends were being butchered there was a cry of horror. Then a hundred were butchered. But when a thousand were butchered and there was no end to the butchery, a blanket of silence spread. 

When evil-doing comes like falling rain, nobody calls out “stop!”

When crimes begin to pile up they become invisible. When sufferings become unendurable the cries are no longer heard. The cries, too, fall like rain in summer.”

That being said the consequences of a military action that not only does not destroy the Assad regime’s military capacity to kill innocents could make matters even worse than they are now, a thought that is hard to imagine. Likewise the possibilities of the action going awry  and the situation escalating and even expanding outside the borders of Syria bringing are quite high.

The arguments against intervention as far as military consequences and the low probabilities of success of surgical strikes is a strong argument for non-intervention. Realistically unless there is the participation of major military forces from many nations back by the UN, the Arab League and NATO with boots on the ground to find, secure and destroy the chemical weapons a military strike may achieve a modicum of success but most likely fail in its ultimate goal. The result would be that the situation would continue to escalate and a broader intervention ensue.

I am not happy with the way this has played out. The moral thing would have been for the UN Security Council take strong action against the Syrian regime and the world join in. However that will not happen, too many nations see this as an opportunity to advance their own agendas in the region using both the Syrian government and the rebel forces, some of which are allied with the Al Qaida organization. Some of the Syrian Rebels are as bad as Assad when it comes to indiscriminate killing of innocents and the commission of war crimes.

This week there will be votes in the Senate and House of Representatives regarding a Senate resolution for limited military action against the Assad regime requested by the Obama White House. The political posturing of many opponents as well as supporters of intervention has been nothing but shameful. In many cases it is not about actual foreign policy but on politics dictated by gerrymandered districts and the politics of mutual assured destruction. There is a good chance that the resolutions will not pass and one or both houses of Congress. However there is a strong chance that even without Congressional approval that the Obama administration will most likely attempt to do the morally right thing with inadequate means.

I am torn on this. I do think that as Secretary of State John Kerry said this week that we are at a “Munich moment.” The consequences of inaction and limited action alike are potentially disastrous. The hope of many for the Arab Spring has turned into a nightmare. The question is how bad the nightmare will get.

Honestly I cannot say what is I think should be done. I can make the case for intervention based on moral, legal and ethical grounds and I can make the case against based on realpolitik.

All that being said, for the sake of humanity echo the words of Ellie Wiesel“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under ethics, Foreign Policy, History, national security