The purpose of missile strikes, according to the corporate U.S. media is, of course, not the reduction of chemical weapons use, but the maintenance of "credibility."
We don't all teach our children that when they disagree with another child on the playground they must either murder that child or lose their credibility. But our televisions and newspapers feed that type of message to us nonetheless, through news about the next possible war. Julie Pace of the Associated Press warns:
"For more than a week, the White House had been barreling toward imminent military action against Syria. But President Barack Obama's abrupt decision to instead ask Congress for permission left him with a high-risk gamble that could devastate his credibility if no action is ultimately taken in response to a deadly chemical weapons attack that crossed his own 'red line'."
And here I would have thought that bombing countries in the name of "democracy" against the will of an overwhelming majority at home was costing our government what little credibility it might have had. Didn't Britain gain in credibility when its Parliament represented its people and said "No" to war on Syria? Doesn't that step do more for the image of democracy in Western Asia than a decade of destabilizing Iraq has done? Couldn't the U.S. government do more for democracy by leaving Syria alone and dropping its support for brutal governments in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, etc.?
THE LAW PROBLEM
And shouldn't a credible enforcer of the rule of law obey the law? Under no possible conception is it legal for the United States to send missiles into Syria. The Kellogg-Briand Pact bans any such action. The most common excuse for ignoring that ban is the U.N. Charter and its loopholes for wars (wars that are defensive or U.N.-authorized). A U.S. attack on Syria is not defensive, and the White House isn't seriously pretending it is. A U.S. attack on Syria is not U.N. authorized, and the White House isn't pretending it is or pursuing such authorization in any way. Other U.S. wars carried out in violation of these laws have put up a pretense of internationalism by cajoling some other countries to help out in minimal ways. In this case, that isn't happening. President Obama is proposing to uphold international norms through an action that the international community of nations is against. France looks like the only possible, and at this point unlikely, partner -- not counting al Qaeda, of course.
A president also cannot go to war without Congress. So, it is encouraging that President Obama has now suggested he will try to rise to the standard of George W. Bush and bother to lie to Congress before launching a war. But if Congress were to say yes, the war would remain illegal under both the U.N. Charter and the Kellogg-Briand Pact. And if Congress were to say no, President Obama has indicated that he might just launch the war anyway.
If you look at the resolution that Obama has proposed that Congress pass, it doesn't grant permission for a specific limited missile strike on a particular country at a particular time, but for limitless warfare, as long as some connection can be made to weapons of mass destruction in the Syrian conflict. The White House has made clear that it believes this will add exactly nothing to its powers, as it already possesses open-ended authorizations for war in the never-repealed Afghanistan and Iraq authorizations, which themselves added exactly nothing to White House war powers, because the president is given total war power through the Constitution in invisible ink that only the White House can see.
Already, there are moves in Congress to re-write Obama's draft, in order to -- in fact -- give him limited powers to strike Syria. But those limited powers will allow exactly the disastrous action discussed above. And there is no reason to believe the limitation will hold. President Obama used a limited U.N. resolution to do things it never authorized in Libya. Missiles into Syria that provoke a response from Iran will provoke screams for blood out of Congress and the White House, and all laws be damned.
THE LYING PROBLEM
All of the above remains the same whether the Syrian government used chemical weapons or not. The way to end a war is to arrange a cease-fire, de-escalate, disarm, cool tensions, and start talking. Pouring gasoline on a fire doesn't put it out. The way to uphold the rule of law is by consistent example and through prosecutions by courts, not vigilantism. This remains the case whether the Syrian government has done what President Obama claims or not.
It is important, however, that so few people around the world and in the United States are willing to take Obama's word for it. If Obama's goal is to "send a message," but most people in the Middle East disagree with him on the facts, what kind of message will he possibly be sending? That is, even if his claims happen to be true, what good is that if nobody believes U.S. war justifications anymore?
The super-healthy skepticism that has now been created is not all attributable to Iraq. The world has been flooded with false claims from the U.S. government during the wars on Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and even Syria, as well as during the drone wars. Past claims that the Syrian government used chemical weapons have fallen flat. And the current claims come packages in lies, including lies about the Syrian government's willingness to allow U.N. inspections, and the speed with which it allowed them. The U.S. government discouraged the use of inspectors, seeking to rush into war on the basis of its own assertions. The White House has produced a dodgy dossier lacking in hard evidence. Analysts see little basis for confidence in White House claims. Insiders are risking "espionage!" accusations to voice their doubts.
And should it be true that someone in the Syrian military used chemical weapons, the White House clearly has nothing but its own suspicions and desires to suggest that the order came from the top, rather than from some rogue officer with an interest in provoking an attack. Circumstantial evidence, of course, makes that more likely, given the bizarre circumstance of the incident occurring less than 10 miles from the U.N. inspectors' hotel on the day they arrived.
Maybe it's just too difficult to hold a proper investigation during a war. If so, that is not something to be deeply regretted. Obama's proposed response would be disastrous. Our priority should be avoiding it and ending the war. Creating a better climate for criminal investigations is just one more reason to bring the war to an end.
THE MILITARY PROBLEM