Our Justified Upcoming Action in Syria; Lots of Folks will oppose it for the wrong reasons

The war powers of the President are back in the news this week in two critical stories.  The most prominent, of course, is President Obama’s saber-rattling over Syria.  While he will face serious opposition from at least four camps, any action he takes will hardly be without precedent.  The other story surrounds the Department of Justice seeking to grant George W. Bush immunity from prosecution over war crimes in Iraq.   The first story is getting a lot more attention than the second, and that is a big disappointment.

In evaluating the Syria crisis, opposition to the President will come vociferously from peace advocates who reject nearly all military solutions.  As we have seen far too often, the military solution most often leads to more shattered lives than problems solved.  Peace advocates will stress non-military solutions and at least as much concern for the human cost of war as concern over economic and strategic goals. Peace advocates rarely get their way.

The second group is the observers of so many failed military missions in recent years.  It is becoming quite clear that imposing American values on countries through military might just not work so well.  You can go back 50 years to Vietnam to see the danger of a hegemonic state attempting to impose its values on people who largely reject those values.  You can also go back 20 years, and 10 years, and on and on to see how difficult it is force people to act the way we’d like them to act.  To this group, military action is not anathema, but doomed military missions are.  They can see no way to “win” Syria since many of our prospective allies in any military operation are also sworn enemies to Western values.  Once we defeat Assad, we’re going to put into power a group of people that not only despise us, but are willing to do more than just talk about it.

The third group is the self-styled “Constitutionalists” who claim that the President may not act in Syria without a declaration of war from Congress.  While it is very clear that the intent of our founders was to prevent a military dictator from running the country, we have seen Presidents use military force at their discretion many times.  In the 20th century alone, US troops were used forty-three times in Latin America to protect our strategic and economic interests.  Forty-three!  Not one was done through a declaration of war by Congress.   So while it is true that the President may not declare war on a country, there is clear precedent for him to act as Commander-in-Chief and protect US interests with military might.  Some presidents have so abused their powers that Congress has tried to steer war-fighting authority back to Congress.   The War Powers Act was one such attempt, and since its passage in the 1960’s, every President has chosen to pretty much ignore it.

The fourth group is the “Anything but Obama” group and they, as usual, should be soundly ignored.  Despite a large majority of Americans who want the Affordable Care Act implemented and funded, the ABO’s continue to spend millions trying to defeat it, defund it, or overturn it.   It is my solemn belief that if President Obama found a way to eliminate the national debt, pay every American $1,000,000 in cash without increasing inflation, cured cancer, solved the Middle East crisis, and got the Cubs to win a World Series, the ABO’s would criticize all of it.  The ABO’s bore the President and they bore me.  They clutter legitimate discussion with their foolishness.   We get it, you hate President Obama for no reason you can articulate.  Move on.

With all this opposition, will the President still move against Assad in Syria?  More importantly, should he?    When the United States sees its economic and strategic interests being threatened, Congress and the American people almost unanimously support whatever military power the President might use to protect those interests.  If you’re like 99.9% of Americans, you had no idea that Presidents from Teddy Roosevelt through GW Bush intervened militarily 43 times in Latin America over 100 years.  Clearly this has not been a big enough deal to alarm anyone (except the Latin Americans, of course.)

When GW Bush got his wish to depose Saddam Hussein, nearly all of Congress and the majority of Americans supported the military action.  President Reagan invaded Grenada and deposed a leader, George HW Bush did the same in Panama.   Eisenhower took out the leader of Iran, and Nixon did the same in Chile.  Kennedy tried but failed in Cuba and succeeded in South Vietnam.   While the excuse used in all of these invasions and coups was “the preservation of democracy,” the truth lies far closer to the realities of strategic and economic interests.   Americans by and large don’t have a problem with the US flexing its muscles to protect trade, resources, and military interests.  What we do have a real problem with is using our power to protect non-American lives.

The common refrain from many opponents of action in Syria is “We can’t be the world’s policeman.”  This of course is simply false.   We ARE the world’s policeman and it’s a job we have fought since the end of World War II to hang on to.   Being the world’s sole super power comes with a huge price.  If we are to maintain the status quo (which is in our best interest), we must be willing to pay any price to defend it.  If we only use our military might to protect our economic and strategic interests, then our supposed moral superiority over our enemies is really pretty hollow.

In recent years the United States has done precious little to come to the humanitarian aid of people being slaughtered by their own leaders.  The list is long, bloody, and shameful.  In Iraq, Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and now Syria, the US has used whatever diplomatic and political capital it could muster to end genocide.  But sadly our diplomatic and political capital isn’t worth much if tyrants know we are not willing to back up our words.

I will always advocate non-violent solutions to international problems, but I am no longer naïve enough to believe that every once in a while, people, including Americans, must die to serve a greater good that may not actually result in financial or strategic gain for our country.   Sometimes, it’s just the right thing to do.   I expect President Obama to finally act in Syria albeit after an untold number of deaths that could have been avoided.  I expect a lot of people will oppose it, many of them my friends.  But I also know that if we want to claim the moral high ground internationally, every once in a while we’re going to have to prove it.

This brings us back to the second story this week.  President Obama’s Department of Justice is seeking a way to grant George W Bush immunity over war crimes in Iraq.  Just a few months ago, a Congressional committee (majority Republicans) decided that Bush and his advisors lied to the American people about motives in Iraq and that essentially the war was illegal.  The deaths of hundreds of thousands of people including more than 4,000 Americans resulted from these lies.   That Congress essentially wrote Bush a blank check through nearly unanimous approval of the 2003 invasion speaks more about Congressional ineptitude than it does about Bush’s agenda.   A LOT of Americans spoke out against an invasion of Iraq.  Credible people questioned the presence of weapons of mass destruction.  For every objection raised by opponents of an invasion, the Bush administration fabricated more data to garner popular support from an already compliant Congress and a skeptical public.

So why should the current president grant immunity for the past president?  Perhaps it’s just a professional courtesy.  President Ford pardoned Nixon of crimes for which he clearly committed but hadn’t even been charged for yet.  President George HW Bush did the same for Reagan who had also committed crimes during the Iran-Contra scandal that deserved prosecution.  Maybe it’s just the way things are.  Maybe sitting presidents see that if they fail to pardon their predecessors, then another president down the line will not let them off the hook.  And since the “Anything but Obama” folks are likely to outlive January 2017, our current president is going to need all the help he can get once he leaves office.


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