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We must think before we strike

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SEPTEMBER 10, 2013

Although public skepticism of President Obama’s call for military intervention in Syria is mounting, California’s two senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, are supporting military intervention in Syria. The former is a confirmed neoconservative, and the latter is known for her opposition to the war in Iraq. Their support is disturbing, because however admirable the president’s motivations might be, he and his team have failed to explain either how a targeted military intervention would protect Syrian civilians or why they think they can successfully engineer a regime change in Syria when our track record suggests otherwise. Instead of presenting Congress with a plan, the administration is demanding unconditional backing, and instead of asking tough questions, California’s senators are rushing to sign up for an undefined conflict.

The threshold for military action that violates international law should be high indeed and must at a minimum be actually capable of helping Syrian citizens who are victims of civil war. (“primum non nocere” seems like a good guideline for any humanitarian intervention)  The administration seems driven by a compulsion to act, irrespective of either the consequences of its actions or the likelihood of achieving its objectives — objectives that are conspicuous by their absence, either because the administration has none or because it has not deigned to share them with the public. The problems with mounting an intervention when you don’t know what it is you’re trying to achieve seem blindingly obvious, yet California’s senators don’t appear to see them as they prepare to endorse a military attack.

Over the weekend, the president claimed that there is no danger of intervention in Syria drawing us into a quagmire like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. But how can he possibly know that if he can’t articulate objectives or a strategy? “What we’re talking about is not an open-ended intervention,” he said. And yet if he were serious about a humanitarian goal, he would understand that an open-ended commitment is precisely what such humanitarianism would require.

Feinstein is trying to guilt her colleagues into war by bludgeoning them with videos of the horrific chemical attack — without establishing that the culprit behind the attacks is the government she is asking those colleagues to bomb. A humanitarian intervention should be motivated by the prospect of success rather than blind emotion. And if Feinstein is peddling the premise that we need to act to protect civilians and also making the argument that there will only be limited engagement, she’s also selling an untruth. I wouldn’t want anyone to be on the exploding end of an intervention riddled with so many inconsistencies.

Feinstein dismissed concerned constituents, saying that “they have not seen what I have seen or heard what I have heard.” Nor are we likely to, for Feinstein is both an architect and defender of the rogue military-intelligence complex which is assailing civil liberties at home and unleashing terror abroad. The senator added that she has “some skills in separating the wheat from the chaff.”  But her record — support for the war in Iraq, agitation for an escalation of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a defense of the administration’s domestic spying program and a failure to exert adequate oversight over the rogue intelligence agencies — suggests otherwise.

Our track record matters in this scenario. The atrocities in Syria are no more horrific than the many bombing campaigns launched by the U.S. over many years, often for transparently self-interested and immoral reasons. This does not excuse whoever launched the chemical attack (and if the administration has intelligence proving that it was Assad, it should release this to the public and our allies). But it does explain why the administration lacks moral legitimacy and why people remain suspicious of its motives. To me, it looks as though Syria is in danger of becoming the first hot battle of a new cold war, in which the U.S., Russia, Iran and Israel ransack another country in pursuit of their twisted power politics.

Neither our interests nor those of Syrians are served by careless military action. In irresponsibly writing the president a black check, Feinstein and Boxer are failing in their duties to their constituents and are endorsing an aimless intervention that will likely have catastrophic consequences for Syrians, will diminish the moral stature of the U.S., may well provoke a backlash or even a wider war and will undermine future humanitarian efforts when it fails for a lack of clarity, purpose and resources.

Taking these factors into account, both senators need to reconsider their ill-advised support for the president’s request and should instead demand that the administration devote its efforts to humanitarian relief and diplomacy aimed both at securing a peaceful settlement within Syria and, if necessary, achieving a consensus for an international rather than unilateral intervention as last resort.

Members of the campus community should be proactive in making it clear to our senators that we do not support an undefined military intervention that contains only one certainty: that it would escalate rather than reduce violence in Syria.

Jeff Schauer is a graduate student in the UC Berkeley department of history.

Contact Jeff Schauer at 


SEPTEMBER 11, 2013