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'Something Else Must Be Done!'

It's tempting to characterize the Obama administration's response to the latest reports of a chemical-weapons attack in Syria as a version of the old line from the British TV series Yes Minister: "Something must be done. This is something. Therefore it must be done."

Meanwhile, some of the administration's critics have suggested it would be better to do nothing than to do the little President Obama seems to have in mind: better, they say, either to go all in and get rid of Assad or to stay out of the conflict than to content oneself with firing a "shot across the bow."

What some of these critics do not quite say is whether they themselves believe we should do more than what the president is considering or less. Are they actually in favor of getting rid of Assad even if this requires sending in troops? Or are they in favor of doing nothing—either because nothing we can do is likely to improve the situation (my own position) or because what happens in Damascus is not our concern.

These critics seem more interested in criticizing the president for lack of leadership than in proposing (and defending) a solution to the terrible problem we face in Syria. That problem is, they seem to say, above their pay grade—or beyond their special charism as pundits. It's the president's job to propose a solution, theirs to tell us why it's inadequate without commiting themselves to an alternative. They present their own ambivalence as evidence of an anguished awareness of complexity, the president's as evidence of his weakness. They dither and demand that the White House put an end to all the dithering.

They would do better to follow their own rule: If the president should do something truly effective or do nothing at all, then his critics should say something substantial or keep quiet. It's just too easy to complain that a policy falls between two stools when you're unwilling to take a seat yourself.

About the Author

Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.



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Whether you support the president or not, the core issue is that the level of engagment with foreign leaders is poor and there is no clearly articulated foreign policy position from which to determine appropriate action.

And that is a failure of leadership and it is too late to correct it now. At present, the best that can be hoped for is a piecemeal, ad hoc, hobbled together response because the reality is they are literally making it up as they go along. That is fine the best that can be expected until the next election when, hopefully, the candidates will present to the public a clearly articulated policy of engagement and then follow through with consistent relationship.

"Level of engagement with foreign leaders is poor."  What does that even mean? 

Some things aren't clear.  The worst thing that our foreign policy has done in my lifetime, in my very humble opinion, is to prescribe clear answers to unclear and complex problems.  For clear you might substitute at least some of the time, the word "stupid." I'd rather be unclear and do nothing than bold and stupid.  That prescription applies to presidents from both parties in my living memory.

If you can't decide what to do, often enought that is because acting is not the best recourse.  So imagine you have two proposals of marriage and you can't decide who you like better the answer isn't to roll the dice and marry one of them.  The answer is to wait.  Where bombs are involved I would triple down on that analogy. 


So imagine you have two proposals of marriage and you can't decide who you like better -

But that's my point. Before you even received those proposals, you would have been courting them. There would (or should) be some indication that a proposal may be in the offing. At a minimum, though, you would know whether you are prepared for a wedding and in the process of the courtship could have winnowed down your selection proactively so as not to put people in an awkward position.

If you are young, you might have consulted older women who could advise you of where this relationship appears to be going, etc. and if you were smart you might heed that advice and act proactively accordingly. That is wisdom.

By analogy, that is what I meant when I said the level of engagement with foreign leaders is poor. 

The US is 200 years old. There are some allies and relationships that run deep, are stable, and longlasting (NATO, etc.). This Syrian conflict has been going on a long enough time, for the US to have a considered, clear, approach. (e.g. who are we supporting if anyone?, who are their allies such at Russia and Iran supporting ?, if the US has no stake in it, then it can at least leverage what influence it has to get what they need in order to help secure our specific interests). The US should have had its ear to the ground long before this and already thought of a response (not reaction).

Or maybe it did. There have been rumours that Benghazi was a cover to send military weapons to the rebels against Asad. If true, and it probably is, the US was already half-assed involved already. (to extend your courtship analogy, the US was having an illicit, secret affair)

We are seeing the disastorous consequences of covert, secret operations before our eyes. Now....blowback.... The US has been here before many, many, many times before.





Most people, certainly the media, assume that "doing something" means doing something military, and the only other response is doing nothing.  A number of commentators are calling for other kinds of responses.  Here are several examples:

Patrick Cockburn in the Independent:

Phyllis Bennis on Democracy Now:

Mgr. Antoine Audo, Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo:

The bishop does not lay out the specifics that you call for, but his 'no' to military intervention and his plea for 'real dialogue' carries a certain moral authority in that he lives with the consequences of this conflict.  He cries no!  That 'no' is what the US needs to hold us back from the brink and give political leaders the impetus to use their diplomatic skills.  I for one don't believe our leaders are fully and honestly engaged in that arena. 

George, it is unreal to ask for a clear policy. You can say the US will never intervene in certain cases. Then you take options off the table. I hardly see any justification for having a policy that you will definitely intervene with chemical weapons. I agree with what Barbara wrote.

Geprge D. =

The U. S. cannot engage a dictator who refuses to be engaged.  George D. --

There is no engaging someone who refuses to be engaged.


Josie S. --

Cockburn's proposal of a peace conference sounds interesting.  If it resulted only in a truce with both sides retaining the areas where they dominate already, that wouldn't be ideal, but it would be an improvement.  What would such a status quo be like?  I suspect it would be a lot like the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.  But that beats war.


I wonder if the meeting of Pope Francis and King Abdullah of jordan might lead to some regional talks.  I suspect that only a local (regional) solution has any hope of succeeding.  I mean that the Middle Eastern countries themselves have to decide on just what the solutions will be.  The problems are not simply Israel but conflicts among other native groups. 

The U. S. and Europe are really quite irrelevant to the most basic issues that fester among them.   American and European interests basically concern only oil -- we need to buy it from them, but they also need to sell it to us.


I agree that these issues are primarily regional and ethnic and the parties involved need to sort it out.

Your point about our interests being oil relates to my point about clarity around foreign policy. I disagree that you cannot be clear around foreign policy. The US is engaged already through arming and providing material support to the rebels. The US is enaged with drones. The issue, therefore is not whether the US will be involved, they already are. The issue is why and on what basis.

Simply because the US does not have so called boots on the ground does not mean that there is not robust involvement in the forms of drones, proxies, etc. , etc.

And now this attack, if it does happen, will weaken Asad's capability and will level the playing field and give the rebels further opportunity to organize and move. It will empower them more and perpetuate the war. But the goal is not regime change (Huh?!?). Is the goal to let the kill each other and let Allah sort it out as Sarah Palin said. It looks like this move is a step in that direction.

And finally, I do not agree that a dictator does not want to be engaged. Everybody has interests and it is on the basis of interests that we engage in a dialogue. But again, clarify what those interests are.

Syria has been listed as a state sponsor of terrorism by our State Department for the better part of over a decade.  What kind of "relationship" are we talking about having with them if our policy is to not engage with terrorist nations?  What leverage do we have?  Seriously???

Also, most of the religious minorities in Syria (including the Christian one) support the Assad regime; because they are afraid of what a majority Muslim rebel leadership will bring (note the burning of churches there).  There are no good options for any kind of intervention there.  Only less terrible than others. 

And, here is an article about the burnings in Syria which quotes Mother Agnes Mariam about what Syrian rebels are doing and the unbalanced coverage there...

From the editor’s desk:  First, answer the questions


31 August 2013

It seems beyond doubt that chemical weapons were used last week against the people of Syria in residential areas of Damascus which had seen heavy fighting. It is almost beyond doubt that Syrian armed forces were responsible for this massacre, though the Russian Government, one of Syria’s few friends, has insisted that the evidence is insufficient.

Revulsion at the use of poison gas against civilian populations is entirely justified, but it does not follow, even if the facts are clear, that the international community has an automatic duty to intervene. There is a list of conditions that need to be satisfied first, not least that the civilian population at risk should gain some tangible benefit by way of additional protection. That has yet to be demonstrated.

International law and Just War theory both require legitimacy, which means either a UN Security Council resolution or some previously established binding principle. Both the 1925 Geneva Convention and the United Nations “Responsibility to Protect” resolution of 2005 have been cited as alternative legal grounds for action in the event of a Security Council vote being vetoed by a permanent member who is an interested party.

There are some instances where civilised norms have been so clearly and grossly violated that morality is reason enough. Nevertheless, international law is too important to the peace of the planet to be set lightly aside. The cavalier treatment of international law by Britain and America over Iraq still casts its shadow. The real difficulty about any intervention against Syria concerns proportionality, which both law and Just War theory insist on. The means must be proportional to the end. The end in this case has to be to discourage or deter further attacks of the same kind. Merely to extract a price from the Assad regime by way of punitive missile strikes is not sufficient and the ruthless and vicious way it has treated the civilian population in the past, leaving chemical attacks aside, suggests it is well beyond the possibility of being influenced by the threat of further punishment.

Opinion in the West has a particular horror of poison gas as a legacy of the First World War, but someone like Assad does not share that memory. The same may apply to Russia – gas was mainly used on the Western Front, where Russia was not involved. The case against intervention becomes stronger when outcomes are as unpredictable as they are in this case, which makes proportionality – balancing ends against means – almost impossible to compute. What is the strategic aim? The Syrian situation is fluid and complicated, with bad people on both sides. The possibilities of escalation are incalculable, including the risk of drawing Israel into the conflict.

Is it a Western objective to remove President Assad and hand the country to his enemies? Would that deliver chemical weapons into the hands of jihadist fighters, who are growing in strength among the rebel forces and who are aligned to al-Qaeda? How does the West resist being drawn further and further into the Syrian morass, without an end in sight or indeed without knowing which side to favour? And fundamentally, what course of action by the West would help bring peace at last to the suffering people of Syria?

Those are key questions that need to be answered if armed intervention is to be justified, and at the moment it does not seem likely they can be.


One obvious question that needs to be answered before doing anything: assume Assad did use chemical weapons. That's a new step, a new level of violence. Why did he take that step?

"Is it a western objective to remove President Assad and hand the country to his enemies?"

Perhaps it should be, but I don't think in fact it is. Given the much-vaunted (and probably accurate) stories about the capabilities of US intelligence agencies, is it likely that we don't know where he is -- at least most of the time? Presumably the reason one of our famous drones doesn't take him out with a lethal strike is either:

a) that even we recoil at the idea of using such measures against a legitimate (if that's the word) head of state;  or

b) more likely that we fear what would become of Syria if he fell, even more than we fear the current situation.

I imagine that the US, and the west in general, would most like the kind of negotiated settlement whereby Assad could be shipped off to Monte Carlo or some such place, with all his favorate sycophants and bank accounts, and a new leader could be found who would restore as much stability as possible to that poor country. Unfortunately it may well be too late for that now, and any new leader would find his position rapidly undercut both by Assad holdovers on the one hand, and jihadists on the other.

The new Economist, for what it's worth, has a photo of Assad on the cover overlain by a line reading "Hit him Hard," and the leader calls for strong punitive action after an ultimatum (by Obama, of course -- none others mentioned) telling Assad to hand over his entire stock of chemical weapons.  If he refuses, and "if an American missle then hits Mr. Assad himself, so be it. He and his henchmen have only themselves to blame."

There must be much harrumphing among the Hon. Members of the House of Commons (those, at least, who read the magazine) at this.

Is it a Western objective to remove President Assad and hand the country to his enemies? - See more at:

Is it a Western objective to remove President Assad and hand the country to his enemies? - See more at:

President Obama has just wisely announced that he will seek formal Congressional approval before making any military strike on Syria!

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