Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Syria: Where Have We Ended Up?

It looks like there may be a diplomatic settlement to the threat of a U.S. attack on Syria.

Before we get too far away from this moment, let's list several things that we don't want to forget and/or that remain unresolved.

(1) We still don't know whether Congress has any war powers

The biggest thing that promised to emerge from the U.S. threat against Syria was clarity on whether Congress would reclaim its authority over U.S. acts of war.

And the biggest part of that biggest thing was the clear-cut decision that Congress faced: obey constituents who uniformly told them to vote AGAINST a U.S. attack? Or disregard the will of the people they purport to represent?

(A secondary question was: what would Congress do if there WAS a Congressional vote against an attack, and President Obama disobeyed it? Would Congress impeach a president?)

This question remains unresolved. That is a big problem.

(See Obama's Syria "Vote" in Congress: Democracy? or Theater? )

(2) . . . but at least we now know how much we care whether Congress has any war powers

A month ago, there were many people who would have said, "There is no point paying attention to Congress. They're irrelevant."

For better or worse, what the threat against Syria has shown is that, given the opportunity to have some democratic participation in the process -- to NOT just be powerless in the face of an imperial presidency -- we all hastened to join in the Congressional process.

This has big implications.

(See Election 2014: The Moment of Truth for the US Antiwar Movement? )

(3) "Principles" and "rules" are under discussion again

As a consequence of the sell job that the Obama administration had to do on Congress, they brought certain principles into high relief. Those included principles relating to conventions on chemical weapons, and on international enforcement of such conventions.

There was still a lot of emotion ("over 1,400 killed") and aggressive rhetoric ("Assad should step aside") and circular argument ("the American people haven't seen the classified reports I've seen") mixed in, but the process did provide opportunities to keep bringing the debate back to principles. (Somewhat.)

We're not done talking about these principles yet. And before we're done, we may find the U.S. itself under the microscope on account of the same (or similar) principles that it invoked in this case.

(See OK, You Have Our Attention. Let's Put a Stop to ALL These Criminal Weapons!)

(4) . . . but the principle of non-violence is still in critical condition

Now that an agreement is being forged with respect to Syria's chemical weapons, and the immediate threat of a U.S. attack is on hold, it is necessary for those of us in the antiwar movement to confront and evaluate a problem: did the threat of U.S. force contribute to moving the parties toward an agreement?

There is a risk that people consciously or unconsciously adopt "the 'threat of force' conclusion" -- namely, that conflict can be resolved (and can only be resolved) by threat of force -- and that the possibility that force might end up being used following the threat is an irrelevant factor in the matter. In other words, they believe that concession happens if (and only if) there is a threat of force; and stalemate happens if (and only if) there is an absence of threat of force.

It is important for the antiwar movement to look at this question . . .

(See "OR ELSE!" - What the U.S. threat of force against Syria teaches us)

(5) There are still the same three or four 800-lb gorillas in the room (We need a big room)

Though there was a brief window of time where it seemed that we were able to focus on the situation in Syria itself (see "principles" - (3) above), in reality there were several lurking issues that were always conditioning the discourse. And nothing has been done to mitigate this situation.

One is Israel.

Another is Iran.

Yet another is islamophobia.

And the 800-lb. gorilla to which we probably gave shortest shrift was Russia and its concerns. If we don't do anything else as a result of this little adventure, the U.S. had better develop a more informed way of relating to Russia, particular in the parts of the world that lie in Russia's backyard.

(6) Our empathy is still missing in action

Perhaps the most troubling residue of the Syria crisis is that so much of our national discussion was centered on what our interests are, and whether we can force others to do what we want, and who our friends and who our enemies are.

What's missing in all this is the question: what can we do to alleviate the suffering of the people of Syria?

Not coincidentally, tomorrow is the anniversary of 9/11. And while empathy has never been our strong suit, it is certainly the case that it has been conspicuously AWOL since that event.

(See Syria - Strange and Dangerous? or Familiar and Beautiful? )

Maybe now that the crisis seems to be passing, we will take the opportunity to reflect on these points. In fact, now feels like a very good time to do so. Before the next crisis starts . . . .

Related posts

"Humanitarian intervention" -- the great pretext for US intervention in Africa. Glenn Greenwald gave an outstanding talk in Chicago in May, 2012, in which he warned against humanitarian interventions: "The US -- no, everybody -- always says the reason for military intervention is 'humanitarian.'  . . . "

(See Greenwald Was Right: "Humanitarian" War in Syria? It's Just More War)

Isn't now a moment when, instead of falling back into our existing habits of trying to change America's war-making ways, we should put our recent experience under a microscope? And ask what we can learn from this experience? Can we make 2014 the year that we sort the wheat from the chaff in Congress? And get the control over war and peace back into our own hands?

(See Election 2014: The Moment of Truth for the US Antiwar Movement?)

People in Illinois made it clear they didn't want an attack on Syria.  Based on what I was able to detect, some representatives in Congress were listening, and some weren't:

Looks Strong -7
Question Mark - 4
Looks Weak - 3