Syriously

A few days ago we posted our arguments against an attack on Syria, primarily presented through the letters we sent to our Congresspeople and the White House. Given the disproportionately loud voices of the corporate elite and their lobbyists who stand to benefit from blowing people up around the world, we also strongly encouraged y’all to send letters or phone calls as well. Our friend Dylan gave a thoughtful reply that elicited such an in-depth response I thought it warranted its own entry. It’s lengthy, much to the chagrin of some, but at the least there are some great hyperlinks. I mean, not everything can be tackled in 140 characters or less.

You can read the original post and comment(s) here.

Also, it seems, to our pleasant surprise, that Congressional approval of a strike is increasingly unlikely. This is encouraging, especially given how many representatives and mainstream media outlets have cited citizen input as a primary reason to cast a ‘no’ vote. So for those who doubt the value of contacting your representatives, take note! The entire tone of the media (whether they were beating the drums of war or banging their heads against the wall in cynical despair) has shifted in less than a week’s time and an authorization that seemed very likely to pass a week ago now seems quite likely to fail.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Our contributions, modest as they are, do something. Like it or not, hey, you’re part of it.

And now, lots of words.

Hey Dylan,

Thanks for the thoughtful response. Sorry we’re not always great about replying promptly.

We also have a fair amount of ambivalence on this issue, as well as the greater questions regarding when violence ought to be countered with violence. Still, as the introduction to this post mentions, we think it’s important to take action even when we feel less than 100% about something. I think in our game of relations at the ARC we talked about the “probability of correctness.” My probability of correctness regarding my stance against missile strikes in Syria is less than it is for other issues I argue passionately for and against, but that doesn’t mean asserting my preference isn’t important. There has certainly been no shortage of outspoken support for an attack (now in Syria, as in many other places over the years), and the pro-war argument almost always gets a disproportionate amount of publicity in the media and has a disproportionate ability to influence people in Washington. So given both my preference against an attack, however far from 100% it may be, and the lack of regard given to my preference (despite a majority of people also sharing my stance on the issue, according to polls), I find it even more important to speak about it loudly.

Having read dozens of articles explaining and debating this specific issue, while also possessing a general disposition against violence, I oppose an attack in Syria and feel I have good reasoning to counter (at least most of) the points made by the person you’ve quoted. So… here we go…

Most of the first paragraph makes assertions I at least partially question, but I don’t think the points raised are the meat and potatoes of what we’re trying to address here and I don’t want to dwell too much on semantics. There is this though:

But for most of the country, nobody is going to shed a tear over dead brown people. If you think I’m wrong, try to imagine what the response would be if 1500 jews had been gassed in Israel, or if 1500 people had been gassed in London or Paris.

Racism, like many things, is a huge problem. But the fact that we’re in the position to stop this attack because it isn’t linked to the white people our political elites (and society at large) pay more attention to, only means that this goal should be easier to accomplish. I hardly see how people’s prejudicial disregard for brown people is a reason to strike Syria. And for people like us, the argument here is that a strike likely leads to more dead brown people, something we do care about.

The fact that a lot of people (like, say, Rep. Paul Broun who “represents” my district in Athens, GA) are against the war for the wrong reasons or with skewed priorities (economic reasons rather than humanitarian ones, party politics and anti-Obama-ism, et al) doesn’t illegitamize the stance against an attack. Indeed, we need to be cautious when we espouse the tactic of “an enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The Nazis needed to be stopped, and teaming up with Stalin’s forces was probably the right move, even though it doesn’t make Stalin any less of a piece of shit for killing 20 million people in his own nation. The problem isn’t that Hitler was stopped with the help of Stalin, but rather that more wasn’t done to also stop Stalin. Similarly, Broun joining the anti-war vote is good, even though it doesn’t make him any less of a douchebag for his plethora of horribly backwards and racist stances and policies. This shouldn’t keep us from taking advantage of his no-missile-murder-in-Syria vote, though we should also continue to protest his ridiculousness. As an unfortunate aside, we need more of these “right-votes-for-the-wrong-reason” from people like Broun, because people like Barbara Boxer (despite her usually doing things I laud) are going to vote yes.

Honestly, I think they should have intervened in Syria a year ago. Had they established a no fly zone as they did in Libya, this war would have been over 6 months ago and 10s of thousands of lives could have been saved.

This is pure speculation. We don’t know if Syria would have gone the same way that Libya did. It’s also a gross simplification and misrepresentation of what happened in Libya to call it a success. Much like Iraq, people murdering each other in the region continues to happen daily. And while it may not be carried out by an easily-identifiable regime, it’s unclear that intervention has actually decreased the overall amount of violence that has happened or will happen. The only thing we can be sure of is that we’ve changed how the violence happens, and who it’s happening between. Which is a perfect segue to this:

But chemical weapons *are* different. The difference between chemical and conventional weapons isn’t just that they are illegal, or that the people they kill are any more dead. It’s the *rate* at which people can be killed by WMDs that makes them so dangerous. Its true, 100,000 people have died in Syria so far. 10s of thousands have died in North Korea and Burma and all over the world. What Assad has the capability to do is gas half a million people in a weekend. Conventional weapons have no parallel.

I think the argument that chemical weapons are different and somehow worse is a really weak one. Whether it’s hanging or the guillotine or lethal injection, I’m against capital punishment. And whether it’s bombs or bullets or gases, I’m against militaries murdering civilians. Scroll past the cynical introduction of this article and you’ll get an argument I pretty much completely agree with on that matter.

Conventional weapons are a parallel. Carpet bombs, napalm, machine guns, drones, et al kill massive amounts of people quickly. I’m unconvinced that it happening over a month or a year is any less bad than if it happened over a weekend. Granted, this still doesn’t settle the debate over whether and when intervention against massive killing is a good idea.

That is what the US is trying to prevent.

I think this is a dangerously, naively, optimistically simplified speculation on what people in Washington are motivated by. If this were Bush instead of Obama, I doubt people would be as inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to Washington on their reasons for an attack. The fact is both of our parties, and this president just like the last, are very supportive of the same bad things. They both utilize and do essentially nothing to downsize the gargantuan military and the economic boon it provides. Both parties are primarily influenced by money. Obama, like his predecessors, is empowered by a terrible electoral process, the sponsorship of opaque super-PACs, and the ubiquitous influence of corporate personhood. Arms manufacturers and bankers alike make lots of money off war and they are lobbying heavily for this. Both parties have over the years extended the powers of the executive branch further and further while passing Orwellian and Draconian legislation. Renewing the Patriot Act is hardly different from passing it in the first place. Boldly stating that acting unilaterally would be fine (especially after calling it an impeachable offense four years ago) is the same story ever since WWII. This administration is prosecuting more whistle-blowers than all other previous administrations combined. Suppression of information, government surveillance, and media distortion are as rampant as ever. Given all this, I don’t see why we should trust that this administration, or anyone in Washington, has our best interests in mind (nevermind the interests of brown people across the ocean).

If this could be prevented with sanctions or stern letters or the UN Obama would have done it a long time ago, but this can’t be prevented in those ways.

Again, this assumes a lot about Obama’s intentions and would-be actions. But that aside, this argument doesn’t mean that missile strikes will actually help either. There are heaps of historical evidence that they won’t. Yes, the situation in Syria is fucked. Yes, it’s a shame that the UN hasn’t been able to stop it. Maybe if we did things differently before, things would be different now. But our failure to take action in the past doesn’t make any current action good just by virtue of being an action. Only doing something isn’t good enough. Doing something good would be good enough. But that’s not what’s being proposed.

In fact, the premise of this argument is misleading, because the White House itself hasn’t framed the proposed attack as a means to curbing Assad’s murdering spree (maybe his methods, but not their results) nor stopping the civil war. The White House has, however, consistently referred to this as a limited strike designed to be punitive rather than preventative. But we have little if any evidence or good reason to believe that what’s being proposed will actually prevent anything at all. “Punitive” targeted murders are essentially eye-for-an-eye, old-minded craziness.

If we let this stand, if there are no consequences for doing this, then every junta and dictator in the world will know that the international community is toothless and utterly devoid of moral conviction on this matter.

Oh boy, then this very common conclusion. I am utterly disappointed by how often this is the wrap-up argument for why we should strike. The dialogue in the United States is such that any “response” is presented as synonymous with a violent military attack. We hear that if we don’t want to be isolationist, if we want to “engage,” then we must do so with missiles and bombs. (And of course they’re always referred to as precise bombs, even though the fact is that many many many many humans die in horrible ways only to be euphemistically glossed over as “collateral damage.”)

The United States is essentially the most powerful economic force in the world. When will we finally change our approach to international engagement from one centered on military might, to one founded on humanitarian compassion? Imagine if our Peace Corps was the size of the Marine Corps! Imagine if (even a fraction of) the trillions of dollars spent on arms were instead spent on assistance for the refugees in these crises, anti-malarial bed-nets, medicine, well-digging, school-building, etc. I’m not convinced that we should be sticking our hands in everyone else’s cookie jars in the first place, but if we’re going to do it at all, I think it’s time that we do more building and less blowing up. Syria, like lots of places, is fucked. And people will continue to kill each other regardless. Instead of taking sides in battles (and making lots of money off of it), maybe we should consistently take the stance of non-violent, humanitarian assistance. And hell, maybe in the long-run we’ll have a world with less desperation and more education, and the motivation for people to kill each other will fade.

– Jesse
from the living room of our wonderful hosts in Val d’Or, QC, Canada

PS For lots of well-cited, well-articulated articles that generally coincide with my stance(s), I highly recommend this guy’s recent apropos writings.

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