Split on Syria

Now up on our homepage are two new pieces about Syria: a Commonweal editorial and a dissent to the editorial by Commonweal's editor, Paul Baumann. As Paul notes in his dissent, there is consensus among the editors about several important things but not about the central question: Is U.S. military action against the Assad regime a good idea? "The Editors"—or a majority of them—think it isn't:

[E]ven if a U.S. strike does succeed in getting Assad to stop using chemical weapons, he will likely continue killing indiscriminately with conventional weapons. And what will we do then—allow him to go ahead as long as he keeps the nerve gas locked up? What kind of message would that send? And what will happen to Assad’s chemical-weapons stockpile if our military action leads to victory for the rebels, as it may? After all, we can’t hurt Assad without helping his enemies, and some of his enemies are ours too.

In short, good intentions are necessary but not sufficient. We must also consider, insofar as we can, the likelihood of the various possible outcomes. And insofar as we can’t do this, for lack of enough information, we ought to exercise extreme caution. To borrow the language of a failed interventionist, when the known unknowns greatly outnumber the knowns, the United States should hold its fire—especially when there’s no immediate threat to our national security.

Paul acknowledges the many risks of military action, but concludes that they are outweighed by the risks of inaction:

Will there be unintended casualties? Unavoidably, just as there were in Bosnia and Kosovo. Those limited attacks, however, did bring an end to the larger slaughter, saving tens of thousands of lives. Will Assad use chemical weapons again even if attacked? He well might. On the other hand, if past behavior is any guide, he will certainly use them again if no action is taken against him. Why don’t we stop Assad’s use of conventional weapons to kill indiscriminately? Because there is simply not the political will to intervene in Syria on a large scale. More important, neither is there a plausible military solution to the current conflict. That does not mean, however, that failing to stop one kind of mass killing obliges us to turn away from every mass killing. Assad obviously thinks chemical weapons give him a tactical advantage. If at all possible, he should be deprived of that advantage.

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