It takes a lot to overshadow the looming fiscal battles in Washington, but President Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval for air strikes against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against his own citizens has managed to do it.
There are eight legislative days left to pass a continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown, and then seven more to avoid defaulting on Treasury bonds, so those issues would seem to trump any other—except attacking a foreign country. Members of Congress are coming back from their districts reporting that various constituency groups that never agree on anything are unified in opposition to an attack. The groups may each oppose the idea for slightly different reasons—or reach the conclusion through various paths—but they all arrive at the same place. New polling released from CNN, ABC News/Washington Post, and for USA Today by the Pew Research Center show mounting opposition. In the Pew/USA Today poll, opposition to U.S. air strikes grew 15 points from 48 percent in the Aug. 29-Sept. 1 poll to 63 percent in the Sept. 4-8 survey, while support for the strikes remained essentially the same (29 percent in the former, 28 percent in the latter), and the undecided dropped from 23 percent to 9 percent. The newer survey indicated that 45 percent strongly opposed air strikes, compared with just 16 percent who were strongly in favor. A U.S. attack on Syria at this point would seem to violate the “Powell Doctrine,” coined by former Gen. Colin Powell, in considering military conflicts: First, does the United States have a vital national security interest that is threatened? Second, does the U.S. have a clear attainable objective? Third, have all the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed? Fourth, have all other nonviolent policy options been fully exhausted? Fifth, does the U.S. have a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement? Sixth, have the consequences of our proposed action been fully considered? Seventh, do the American people support the action? Eighth, and finally, does the U.S. have genuine, broad international support for the action?
Keying off of the Powell Doctrine, the CNN poll asked respondents if they thought that an attack would or would not achieve significant goals for the U.S.; 26 percent said it would, 72 percent said it would not. When asked if it is in the national interest of the U.S. to be involved in the conflict, 29 percent said it is, 69 percent said it isn’t. If an attack on Syria were to result in—as promised—a retaliatory attack on Israel or U.S. interests around the world, an escalation without strong public support would bring back pretty horrible memories of the Vietnam conflict.
One person well worth listening to is the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, currently on the faculty of Harvard’s Kennedy School and formerly on the faculties of the Harvard Divinity School and Georgetown University, who also is the former head of Catholic Charities USA. Hehir is a renowned authority on the subject of the “just war,” which examines when a war is morally justified and when it is not. He has quite a following among military and intelligence officials for his ability to apply logic and reasoning to challenging questions on the use of military action. While Hehir believes that the actions of Assad clearly meet the criteria for a just action against him, in a phone interview Monday afternoon he was troubled when applying some of the other tests he uses to ascertain whether an attack is appropriate. Is an attack the last resort? Is the proposed attack proportional, or likely to do more good than harm? Is there a probability of success, and for that matter, what is success? If the intention is to damage, deter, and degrade the Syrian regime’s military capabilities, can a “limited” attack—with limited pretty much being a euphemism for symbolic—be successful in accomplishing that? Would two or three days of cruise-missile attacks effectively do that? Would stealth bombers need to be utilized to have a real impact, and if so, is that still limited?
Hehir is still working through those prickly questions, but he clearly seemed skeptical that all of the tests could be met to qualify a response as a “just” reaction. He is expected to release a thorough examination of these issues midday Tuesday.
Of course, if the new Russian proposal that an international organization take control of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons pans out, the whole situation could become defused and shift Congress’s focus back to fiscal issues. We can only hope.
This article appears in the September 10, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as Defining Success in Syria.