Yuddhisthra is the eldest prince among five siblings that have been deprived of their kingdom. Now after much machination, there is a chance for Yuddhisthra to wage war against his enemies and reclaim his kingdom. Yuddhisthra however is reluctant, because he is struggling to justify fighting his enemy because of inescapable collateral damage to innocent people that an ensuing war may cause. He counsels with his trusted uncle and advisor Bhimsa. Bhimsa appeals to Yuddhisthira’s sense of justice by offering him Rules of War so to speak (or ancient code of military conduct). Attack only the soldiers, do not attack innocent people, stop attacking when enemy has stopped, etc etc. Yudhisthra is unconvinced. Bhimsa then appeals to Yuddhisthra’s virtue:
“By restraining the wicked and encouraging the virtuous, and by rites of sacrificial worship and giving gifts, kings become pure and free of taint. Kings trouble their people when they seek conquest, but after they have won the victory they make their subjects thrive once again. They drive their evil deeds away through the power of gifts, sacrifices and ascetism. Their merit increases through their kindness to their subjects. Just as the reaper of a field kills the weeds and the grain at the time he mows the field, but does not get rid of the grain; so, kings slay those they want to kill at the time they shoot their sharp bladed weapons, and the entire atonement for that is the king’s making the inhabitants flourish once again. The king who guards his subjects from the plunder of their wealth, from slaughter, from affliction by barbarians, he, because he gives life, is truly a king bestowing wealth and happiness. Worshiping with all the rites of sacrifice, giving safety as the present to the priests, that king will experience blessings and reach the same heavenly world as Indra.”
Bhimsa gives Yuddhisthra the justification for war by saying that a righteous cause can be justly pursued to it’s conclusion, no matter how much pain is entailed. Yuddhisthra is now prepared for the battle.
What we are discussing today in US Congress for the need of Syrian Intervention is nothing new. The principles of Just War go back to the 3000 year old Indian Epic Mahabharata, where the five siblings discuss and deliberate exact same conundrums we are grappling with.
New World Order
In international relations, one government defers another belligerent government’s actions to a certain extent. It happens only until that government or its assets gets attacked by the belligerent government, or there is a clear and present danger to national security. For example, America did not spring into action in World War 2 until Pearl Harbor. This has more to do with human response than international relations during wartime. Kill the threat before it kills you. But post-WW2 has changed the landscape of…everything. United Nations is established, NATO is formed, Geneva Conventions are updated, treaties are ratified. There is now a clear emphasis on preventing war from breaking out and a need for a (lack of better term) new world order. Much more importantly, there is a need for preventing loss of human lives in a grand scale. This new idea however has been exploited for reasons other than preventing death and destruction (most recently, US Invading and Occupying Iraq in 2003 under false pretenses). Remember mushroom cloud talk?
In a nutshell, what we have learned over the past 70 years is that we should make an active effort in preventing mass loss of human lives anywhere in the world, especially if it’s state sponsored military action because we’ve seen how those movies end. The problem is that the New World Order is not perfect. We have had unspeakable crimes against humanity gone unpunished in the past. Why intervene now? What about *insert war torn state in Africa*? Why the double standards? Well, good cannot become the enemy of the perfect. Just because we failed to act in the past does not mean we should never act in the future. Maybe there is a national security interest, or maybe there isn’t. But a human life that is saved does not care about the national security interest or the other motive you may have had in intervening. Let’s make it a point to be more consistent in the future, rather than be shackled by the past. We intervened in Serbian conflict despite not given authorization by US Congress or UN. We intervened solely under Just War principle. It was Bill Clinton who spearheaded the intervention. Had we became paralyzed because of our past, ethnic Kosovar Albanian Muslims could have been wiped out from Eastern Europe. Or in more recent example of intervention in 2011, the city of Benghazi could have become a bloodbath.
Weapons of Mass Destruction have significantly altered the calculus post WW2, and made the security of world a balance where deterrence is directly proportional to potential impact. For example, India and Pakistan (two countries that have gone to war 3 times since independence) have not gone to war once since nuclear armament (despite border skirmishes). Yet at the same time, the threat of destruction has catapulted to a mind numbingly catastrophic level.
Thus, when Bashar Al Assad allegedly uses Sarin gas to kill a number of his countrymen, the alarm bells go off in the government intelligence headquarters of every civilized country on earth. It is an abhorrently disproportional action, regardless of whether it was used against terrorists or innocent people. The law of proportionality dictates that as long as warring factions keep it to standard munitions, the alarm bells will not blare. In other words, US keeps the option open of giving Syrian government the benefit of doubt in their case against fighting terrorism within the parameters of conflict. Under this situation Assad could have theoretically slowly wiped out the entire Syrian population using nothing but small arms fire. But the usage of weapons like Sarin gas, nerve agent, mustard gas etc means that the parameters of conversation no longer hold true. The Syrian government is now slaughtering the civilians wholesale and making sure that the generations to come will be affected by it due to birth defects. In this modified situation, the US can no longer defer Syria’s actions. Their intentions are now clear, which no longer include the safety of it’s citizens. That is why the red line was drawn by Obama.
The situation right now isn’t clear cut because of the complexity of the issue, Russia and China’s stonewalling. Lack of evidence is no longer an issue. The majority of countries on the NATO Security Council agree that it was Syrian government that used the chemical weapon, along with Germany and other important EU nations. The fact that Assad could have used the chemical attack against his people not in spite of Obama’s warning, but because of it is also a unique factor in this conflict. He could have done so under the shelter of Russia’s protection, in order to show his friends in Iran and Lebanon that he was able to poke a dragon in it’s nose and get away with it. Maybe he will do it again because he knows the dragon is shackled by the weight of public cynicism and the current president’s confrontational relationship with the opposition in Congress. Also, the Arab League and OIC are both in favor of a military strike. These are the two largest and important regional bodies outside of UN, and one of them kicked out the Syrian seat.
Isolationism is a perfectly valid philosophy of how your country should behave with respect to other countries. It might sound opposite of what I am suggesting in this post, but it’s a respectable default position. I would rather a country have a default isolationist policy rather than default interventionist policy. The sweet spot however is finding the right balance obviously. But in my view, a judicious interventionist action is not mutually exclusive with a default isolationist country. There always has to be “all options on the table” leverage for a President to exercise his executive authority. But however, there has to be reconciliation with the moral quotient when it comes to isolationism. Does the death and suffering of a group of people be neglected, simply because they don’t share the same passport as you? Please keep in mind that we are looking at situation where all other peaceful options have failed. Diplomacy can only work if both sides can come to a common goal. Rwandan genocide provides a macabre case study for isolationism where an intervention could have possibly prevented or reduced the number of lives that were lost. When you look at the full historical context of the massacre, then there is even a more need for intervention. The power structure in place in Rwanda was created by Rwanda’s Colonial Master Belgium, which was the leading institutional culprit that led to the uprising against Tutsis. The west has created uneven power structures during it’s colonial period that have since become highly unstable and a powder keg of disillusionment waiting to be set off.
I am not suggesting that all colonial masters should go to their ex-colonies and fix everything. What I am saying is that the colonial masters do shoulder some responsibility as to what happens in their ex-colonies. The main culprits are the perpetrators themselves, let’s not deny that. But washing your hands of colonialism does not expiate all the injustice that may have happened or carried on since the freedom movements. At least France understands this concept.
Yet, America was not a colonial power and did not own any colonies, so why should America have picked up Belgium’s slack? Simple answer is because it was in a position to. Ginormous military spending is an old addiction from Cold War that we cannot quit. America spends more on the Military than the next 3 countries combined, so at least put that effort to good use. I understand that the money can be argued to be better spent at home in education, infrastructure and healthcare, but I ask why not both? Are we really deluding ourselves into thinking that each $1.2m spent on a tomahawk missile can be just as easily directed to our public school system? It’s not like there is a limited set of money America can play with. America has it’s very own money printer. If our collective nation was concerned about the infrastructure, public education and healthcare, we would have printed enough money to last 100 years to fix them. But sadly, our priorities are directed elsewhere (thanks to the lifestyle that we have had to become used to due to corporate money in politics). If we are going to argue against intervention, let’s not use this excuse.
Whether America does intervene or not in Syria, that is for the President to decide. We should keep in mind that not all conflicts are exactly alike with same set of factors, externalities and outcomes, even if some of the actors look familiar. It’s simply ignorant to compare Iraq war fiasco with Syrian intervention. It’s also wrong to compare it with Operation Allied Force. Or Somalian intervention. Or even Libyan intervention. It’s fine to draw comparisons or look for patterns, but it’s wrong to arrive at same conclusions. It is a perfectly valid question to ask what we are trying to achieve. Just weapons degradation, or a complete government capitulation? For now, we are saying we simply want weapons degradation. This will result in just enough tipping in balance scales for rebels to gain momentum, but we are not the rebel’s Airforce. The US does not even recognize the National Transitional Council, let alone the Free Syrian Army. As a matter of fact, the US will likely also strike at what it perceives to be Al Qaida or elements that sponsor terrorism, which is why Al Nusra and friends have already packed their bags and are checking out. The best case scenario for US is that the rebels overthrow the government, and NTC takes over the command smoothly. The worst case scenario is the more unsavory types getting hold of the government reins and pushing aside moderates and NTC. I don’t see the worst case scenario happening, because the extremist elements do not have the Syrian mandate. Only Free Syrian Army does, and they are tolerating the extremists because they are both opposed to Assad. No rebellion is going to let a minority that gets its orders from foreigners take over the country after sacrificing so much blood and money. Syria will not become the Afghanistan of 1996. The conditions are not there for it to occur. For one, Syria has much higher literacy rate, standard of living and human development index than Afghanistan. Three important factors that work against extremism and descent into tribal chaos. There is also the National Transitional Council which will get the backing of every western nation, because there is no other suitable alternative. In any case, the situation would be lot better if chemical stockpiles were taken out of the equation so neither Assad nor the rebels have access to them.
The political solution will likely look something like from neighboring Iraq or Egypt, where majority Islamic parties will form a coalition with minorities. But, the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt’s political sphere has sent shockwaves throughout the middle-east, and every elected leader is going to be wary of taking drastic power-consolidation steps through executive branch.
I started my post with the 3000 year old epic Mahabharata. The questions our country is grappling with are complicated, tough and with no clear answers. If this problem was clear cut with simple “never intervene” or “always intervene” solutions, then who really cares for detail, minutiae and other nuanced discussion? The world does not fit into neatly cropped boxes. What we can do is understand the world that we live in is an unregulated mess. We know on a macro level no system can regulate itself. Laissez Faire theory has been an utter disaster for 80% of the country, while a godsend for the few, the powerful. In the same way, if we let the world regulate itself, the few, the powerful will consolidate gains and tilt the system in their favor.