On Syria, Congress asks the wrong questions too late
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Tuesday’s Senate hearing on Syria was essentially a success for President Barack Obama. Democrat Rob Menendez and Republican Bob Corker collaborated to draft a resolution that would limit U.S. military involvement in Syria to 60 days, with room for a 30-day extension. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the resolution, which will keep U.S. troops out of Syria, on Wednesday.
But the bar for success on Syria is low. Nearly 1,500 people are dead from an apparent chemical attack, most likely carried out by the government on its own people, including civilians. This comes more than two years after Syria’s fight with rebel forces began. Questions pitting the interests of the United States against humanitarian interests of preventing another similar attack in Syria are astounding, given that roughly 100,000 people have died in the conflict since March 2011.
A 15-year-old Free Syrian Army fighter takes position in a house in Salah al-Din neighborhood in central Aleppo, August 22, 2013. REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman
Yet the questions persisted in the Senate and the House of Representatives. At the Tuesday Senate hearing, Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey fielded questions on how to protect U.S. interests and on the integrity of global treaties, specifically one condemning chemical warfare. The administration officials answered on script: The United States must defend its credibility, U.S. interests must come first, and finally, what’s the point of having a global treaty banning chemical attacks if we don’t enforce it?
The one question worth asking was left unanswered – what is the goal of a military strike now, after so many lives have been lost? We don’t want a war with Syria, we don’t want an extensive engagement, and we don’t want to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from office. We want to issue a warning strike. To what end? Even if our objective in striking Syria were to remove Assad, Syria’s citizens would not be safe. Governance could fall to the most organized of the rebel factions – extremist Islamists, backed by al Qaeda and Hezbollah.
The most perceptive statement about the near absurdity of having debates on Capitol Hill of this nature, at this time came from Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio. After outlining in detail why Syrian security affects U.S. national interests, Rubio said:
Most, if not all of this, was true two years ago, when I joined other voices on this committee and in the Senate and beyond that advocated that at that time, when Assad was on the ropes, the United States should engage in trying to identify moderate elements and equip them so that they became the predominant rebel force in Syria, and not others.
Rubio is offering an interventionist stance that most liberals find viscerally disturbing. Still, he presents a perspective that is dangerously undervalued in shaping policy: preventative measures are the most effective, and short term solutions are given precedence over long-term goals. Acknowledging that the crisis in Syria is no longer surmountable points to a larger flaw in U.S. attitudes towards foreign policy – the idea that global humanitarian concerns are not germane to the U.S. until they pose an immediate threat, at which point it’s often too late to devise a solution.
The notion that the world’s humanitarian concerns are separate from U.S. interests was repeated throughout the hearing. Arguments in favor of a strike defend it for being “not only” essential for humanitarian reasons, “but also,” necessary for national security, implying that the motivations are mutually exclusive. But distinguishing between U.S. and humanitarian interests, making one course of action about selflessness and one about self-protection, is fundamentally wrong. Selflessness and self-protection merge when the definition of “self” expands to include a global community.
Shaping foreign policy under the assumption that the United States is remote from what goes on in Syria, Egypt or North Korea is dangerous, and leads to Senate hearings that come years too late and in which a positive political outcome is all but off the table. The question of whether the United States – in the name of national interest – can defend a non-interventionist stance in favor of allowing infighting in Syria to lead to the deaths tens of thousands is morally obscene. And the decision to only take action once the death toll is high enough should be more disturbing than it appears to be.
There is no way to win on Syria now – too much has already been lost. But there may be lessons to be learned in addressing other crises, by rethinking who should be included when we talk about “our interests.” The bar for success will be much higher when we start.