We are clearly on the verge of military intervention in the Syrian civil war. The precipitating factor seems to be evidence (we have been told exists) that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own civilian population. Let's assume that this atrocity is true. If so, it is indeed morally outrageous.
The developing plan, at this point, seems to be to use cruise missiles and/or drones to attack the Syrian government's command and control structure and perhaps selected military targets, such as airfields. We are told that this will be a limited engagement and that we are not seeking to kill or overthrow President Bashar al-Assad with these looming strikes.
Here are some questions we may wish to ask ourselves - and encourage President Obama and our members of Congress to answer for us - before we accept the course of action that seems increasingly imminent.
• What justifies intervention in this particular case? The answer would seem obvious, but the United States does not intervene in all nations which commit atrocities against their own people. Why is this case different?
• What is the national interest of the Untied States in this instance? George Washington set the right standard in his Farewell Address in 1796 in which he said that our interactions with other nations should be guided by "duty and interest." An argument could be made that a victory by the Syrian government in this civil war would be against the interests of the United States, but that argument is not being made. Why? Is there a concern that the use of chemical weapons is the only reason Americans would condone military intervention in Syria?
• What will intervention accomplish? Other than expressing our moral outrage - and living up to a promise to act should Syria cross the President's "red line," will our action prevent the future use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people? One test of military action should be whether it can work. If its objective is mismatched to the assets used, why engage in such action?
• What will the collateral damage? Cruise missiles and drones don't just destroy buildings, and they don't just kill those in uniform. Who else will we kill in these attacks and are we prepared for the reaction to that? Also, how will these attacks affect other interests we have in the Middle East, such as the Arab-Israeli peace process, or will some of those other interests be part of the "collateral damage"?
• Will cooler heads prevail? In the Cuban missile crisis, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson was asked by President Kennedy to play out the scenario after we bombed Cuba (the initial and almost overwhelming option). After several iterations of what the Russians would do in response, and what we would then have to do, and what they would then have to do, he said that, before it descended into nuclear war, "one hopes that cooler heads will prevail." What scenarios have the President and the military played out, especially via-a-vis Russia and Iran? Are we prepared economically, politically, and militarily for these scenarios? Are they in our interest?
• Who will pay for this intervention? We have a tendency to treat military emergencies as "off-budget." We don't raise taxes to pay for them. It seems like we are heading in that direction again - low-balling the cost, ignoring the impact on our sequestered, debt-ridden government.
• What are our strategic goals in the Middle East and how does this intervention advance them? We seem to go from crisis to crisis - Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan - without a clear statement of the strategic goals of the United States or a clearly articulated strategy. Other than the oft-expressed wish to foster democratic governments to bring peace to the region, what is our strategy to achieve this goal? Since democracy seems neither welcome (Egypt) nor terribly successful (Gaza, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan) - at least not for some time yet - what is the full range of diplomatic, economic, and military commitments we need to make and for what proximate goals in the long-range hope that democratic, peaceful governance will drive out sectarian and/or military ruthlessness? In short, is there a plan behind the military steps we seem to take from one country to another? Does the President have a strategic sense of all of this, or is he lurching from one crisis to the next?
The United States will soon be at war, again. We don't like to think of it that way. We no longer declare wars. In fact, the kind of debate that declaring war would require seems neither likely nor likeable in these days when going to war seems so easy. We fight wars increasingly at a distance, with remote weaponry. We use an all-volunteer force which means that we don't compel anyone to fight who doesn't sign-up willingly to do so. Most members of Congress - and Presidents - have no personal experience of war nor anyone in their families personally put at risk by war. And we no longer worry about paying for war.
Thankfully, the American people are still wary of war, at least according to public opinion polls. Yet they seem more willing to allow military intervention (that we don't call "war") and that is promised to be limited in lives (at least America lives) and costs. But wars are rarely predictable. If we would do our duty as citizens, we ought to demand a much better explanation for this one.