As a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll shows, support for further U.S. military involvement in Syria—whether called by its real name, "war," or the government's preferred euphemism, "intervention"—stands at a mere 9 percent.
Well aware of its own citizens' reluctance to embark on yet another military misadventure in the Middle East region after more than a decade of wars, it appears that the Obama administration, led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday is eager to try its hand at shifting public opinion by employing what war critics see as familiar arguments and lofty rhetoric.
But as the Independent's Patrick Cockburn writes, "only a peace conference, not air strikes, can stop further bloodshed."
Claiming the U.S. now has "evidence" that the alleged chemical attack in Syria last week was perpetrated by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, Kerry claimed the high ground for the "consequences" which according to many sources will come in the form of cruise missiles aimed at targets in the country's densely-populated capital of Damascus.
"There is a reason why no matter what you believe about Syria, all peoples and all nations who believe in the cause of our common humanity must stand up to assure that there is accountability for the use of chemical weapons so that it never happens again," Kerry said, seeming to infer that those who favor "common humanity" should now come to support U.S. airstrikes on the country.
But Phyllis Bennis, from the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington, together with David Wildman of Human Rights & Racial Justice for the Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church reject that suggestion, saying that cruise missiles will make the important work of diplomacy an impossibility. "What’s needed now," Bennis and Wildman write, "is tough diplomacy, not politically-motivated military strikes that will make a horrific war even worse."
"Let’s be clear," they continued. "Any US military attack, cruise missiles or anything else, will not be to protect civilians—it will mean taking sides once again in a bloody, complicated civil war.
In addition, as media outlets parrot administration claims about intelligence with little adversarial questioning from the Washington press corps, one question receiving at least some scrutiny amid the drum beat of war is whether or not Obama will seek to obtain either Congressional approval or a UN mandate for missile attacks or airstrikes against Syrian forces.
As McClatchy reports, however:
The Obama administration [...] has already shown a willingness to dance around legal restraints.
In March 2011, for instance, U.S. ships and warplanes began participating in an international air assault on Libya. The U.S. contribution to the six-month-long campaign included cruise missiles, drone strikes, bombers, fighters and more. Nonetheless, the State Department’s top legal adviser insisted the actions didn’t amount to “hostilities,” a legally significant term.
Using logic that could recur with Syria, then-legal adviser Harold Koh told a skeptical Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June 2011 that the “limited exposure for U.S. troops, limited risk of serious escalation and . . . limited military means” meant the Libyan campaign didn’t amount to hostile action. As a result, Obama asserted that he didn’t have to comply with the War Powers Resolution’s requirement that U.S. troops be withdrawn within 60 days of the start of hostilities unless Congress authorizes action.
But as foreign policy expert Robert Naiman wrote on the pages of Common Dreams Monday, these legal arguments are an affront to the Constitution and set in place a dangerous precedent. "There must be no U.S. military action in Syria without Congressional debate and authorization," Naiman wrote.
"If Congress doesn't count, then the American people don't count," Naiman continued, arguing that there's no emergency in Syria and that even if there was, Congress can simply be called into session. "It's no accident that the permanent war party wants the President to go around Congress when the majority of Americans are strongly opposed to a new war. If Congress and the American people can be evaded in this case, it's a body blow to the principle that U.S. foreign policy should be subordinate to democracy and the rule of law."
As Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor of international law at the University of Notre Dame, told McClatchy, “The president and his close advisers talk a lot about international law, so I don’t see how the president can ignore that now without seeming to be hypocritical.”
She pointed out that in the international arena, only two circumstances generally permit war making: either a claim of national self-defense or an authorization given by the U.N. Security Council.
Self-defense doesn’t apply in the Syrian case, O’Connell said, because “the use of chemical weapons within Syria is not an armed attack on the United States.” And as has been widely acknowledged, the UN Security Council is likely a dead end for the U.S. and its European allies eager to strike Syria because Russia will likely veto any resolution calling for direct military action.
Of course, just gaining approval or sanction for military action does not necessarily justify what peace advocates would still consider a misguided approach to bringing an ultimate end to the violence in Syria.
As The Nation's Bob Dreyfuss argued Monday, even if the Assad regime is proven to have used chemical weapons on its own people—a terrible and horrific crime—it does not follow that US or NATO airstrikes will rectify the problem or help save lives in the long-term.
The proper response by the United States," said Dreyfuss, "is an all-out effort to achieve a ceasefire in the Syrian civil war. It’s late in the game but it can be done."
According to polling, nearly 91 percent of Americans would likely support that.