09/05/2013 02:04 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2013

No Coherent Reasons for Syria Strike

Yesterday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee hosted Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey for a hearing on the proposed military strike against Syria. It was, in the case of the arguments of the proponents, largely a logic-free zone. Pro-war speakers continually made slippery slope arguments that elevated saving face and "credibility" to the level of justification for war. Americans should continue to pressure their elected representatives to reject President Obama's request for authorization to use military force against Syria

 An outside observer might be forgiven if he/she thought that the hearing and the proposal were about how to deter an Iranian nuclear program -- something the president has not asserted as a major plank of his public case for his proposed act of war against Syria. All four of the opening statements: Chairman Ed Royce's (R-Calif.), U.S. Rep. Elliot Engel's (D-N.Y.) and those of Secretaries Kerry and Hagel, mentioned the utility of attacking Syria to send a message (or avoid sending a message?) to Iran. This set a tone throughout the hearing, an underlying message that a vote against making war on Assad is tantamount to green-lighting an Iranian nuclear weapon. You can see the opening statements here

This line of reasoning is nonsensical. Paraphrasing Matthew Yglesias, nothing says, "Get a nuclear weapon as quickly as possible," quite like the U.S. flouting international norms to wage war against a weaker country that hasn't attacked us.

From Iran's perspective, I'm sure there's nothing quite like the world's most prominent nuclear-weapons-enabled nation, who is also the world's top arms exporter, stomping around your neighborhood demanding everyone else not pick up nuclear weapons (well, not everyone).

The bottom line is, President Obama let himself get boxed in through loose tough talk ("red lines"), and if this is a problem regarding Damascus or Tehran, then maybe this and future presidents should be more wary about letting their mouths write checks the American people aren't willing to cash. I know of no credible formulation of just war theory that says "maintaining credibility of threats" or "saving face" justifies the use of military force when direct threats to your country do not exist. 

Speaking of nuclear war, though: Secretary Hagel outright accused Russia of supplying chemical weapons to Syria. One might want to review the proposed text for the authorization to use military force in Syria. President Obama's push for this war is dangerous in a variety of ways, not least of which is escalating tensions with Russia. (Hagel's DoD handlers have since tried to walk back his statement, but it was clear what he meant when he said it at the hearing.)

War proponents also pushed the ludicrous idea that Syria's chemical weapons stockpile would be used against U.S. troops or citizens if we decline to make war against Assad, coupled with a less hyperbolic argument that failure to enforce international norms against the use of chemical weapons would lead to a weakening of battlefield norms that protect American troops.

On the former point: No regime harbors doubts about what the American military reaction would be should chemical weapons be used in terror attacks on the United States. Setting aside the fact that is was a terrible decision, in the wake of the September 11th attacks, the United States launched a string of wars and covert operations around the world breathtaking in scope in terms of brute force and resource expenditures. In the wreckage of our global rampage, saying we must get involved in another nation's civil war due to one side's use of chemical weapons to telegraph what our response would be should those weapons be somehow passed to terrorists to use against us -- this is a somewhat unhinged line of thinking, no?

Maybe a little bit... panicky?

Do you think they didn't get the memo? 

On the latter point, that we have to enforce battlefield norms to protect U.S. troops from chemical weapons: not using chemical weapons ourselves might be a better place to start.

The U.S. admitted to using white phosphorus (WP) in Iraq in "shake and bake" munitions in which the chemical was mixed with conventional explosives to exacerbate the injuries to personnel hit with the blast. Some defenders of this sort of use of WP counter that we weren't signatories of the Chemical Weapons Convention until after these events took place, but Assad isn't a signatory of the Chemical Weapons Convention at all. Beyond that, though, it's awfully convenient to trot out "preserving battlefield norms" now, when pushing for another war, after the U.S. has openly violated international norms against torture, enforced disappearance, and extrajudicial killings. (Speaking of Iran, we were perfectly willing to watch them get gassed by Saddam Hussein.) Who gets to invade Guantanamo Bay, or Bagram Air Field, or Langley, or facilities from which our killer drone war is directed, or Washington, D.C.? 

The Assad regime in Syria is reprehensible. The use of chemical weapons by any actor is unacceptable. Violence as a tool to effect political change is a monstrosity. All of these things are true, but none justify the United States taking the role of an avenging god punishing with fire violations of a code of conduct to which we do not ourselves faithfully adhere in a conflict among monstrous actors.

President Obama has admitted that these strikes are not meant to tip the balance of the conflict in Syria (an admission reinforced again and again throughout yesterday's hearings), meaning, if the U.S. goes ahead with the strikes, that we will be taking up the role of a missile-wielding referee in someone else's civil war. There is no defensive action here for the United States, no direct national interest, and no credible moral justification that jives with broader U.S. behavior. 

After more than a decade of warmongering, the American people are wise to the game. Maybe public opinion will eventually fall to the onslaught of war propaganda, but their initial instincts were sound. We have no business launching missiles or perpetrating other acts of war against Syria.