Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Why is Obama Considering Military Force Against Syria?

I caught Barack Obama's recent interview with PBS NewsHour. There, while cautioning that he hasn't decided on deploying force against Syria, he did give a justification for doing so. His reasoning is surprising, at least to me. Obama didn't mention regime change. He didn't emphasize assisting the rebel factions in their fight against Bashar al-Assad. Even the notion of American national interests, as vague as that term can be, wasn't really a major rationale for U.S. intervention. Instead, front and center was the idea of upholding the international norm proscribing the use of chemical weapons (and WMD more generally) domestically and internationally.

Ostensibly, here's the logic, which is two-fold: one, the US would aim to punish Assad (and his cohorts) for using chemical weapons against Syrian citizens. Two, that punishment, it is hoped, would put bad guys around the world on notice, and deter these characters from using their chemical weapons arsenals in the future.

These political objectives seem to align with the rumblings of the type of military campaign that's likely to be waged by the U.S. Word is that military force, if deployed, will be limited, in both duration and intensity. It will focus mainly on taking out Syria's chemical weapons facilities, thus neutering Assad's ability to commit the kind of massacres that he's already carried out twice this year against his fellow Syrians.

Such limited aims and tactics have caused analysts and pundits and media types to shake their heads in disbelief. In their view, they won't tip the balance toward the rebels; and it probably won't destabilize the Assad government. And there's also the concern that history tells us it can be difficult for states to get out of military conflicts. All of this is troubling, certainly. But in my view, there's a large overlooked issue at stake, one that Americans ought to be talking about right now. In brief, should the US president authorize the use of military force to endorse and reaffirm international norms?

Should the American president deploy force--which is costly, no matter how limited the conflict, and risks the lives of soldiers-- for reasons that have little to do with direct or indirect U.S. national security? Is Obama's argument a strong enough justification to wage military conflict against a foreign state? And would this be a good, judicious use of American resources?

These aren't easy questions to answer. And at the moment, I'm not sure I have clear answers to them. But they are things Americans should be talking about--at work, school, home, wherever--right now. Let the conversation begin.

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