It is quite stunning to experience for the sixth time in a decade a global debate about whether Western powers should use their military superiority to attack Arab countries in order to get those Arab countries to conform to “international norms.” After the experiences of Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Mali, and the global use of drones to attack suspected Al-Qaeda militants, we are now witnessing heartfelt debates across the world about the wisdom, efficacy and legitimacy of an American-led attack against Syrian targets.It is heartening to see the best aspects of Western democracy in practice, in the British parliament’s rejection of Prime Minister David Cameron’s request to join the U.S. attack on Syria, and in the skepticism that many American congressmen and women express about the validity of the administration’s case for the attack. Not surprisingly, President Barack Obama’s administration is making the case that it does not need congressional approval for an attack, and seems determined to go ahead with it, with or without Western partners or Congressional support.
So in the coming days we are likely to see a few dozen American missiles smashing into selected Syrian targets, accompanied by passionate arguments for and against this action. Since we have witnessed this scenario several times in the past decade, and are likely to encounter it again in the years ahead (Iran? Sudan? Afghanistan and Pakistan again?), this might be a good moment to step back a bit from the din and haze of battle and focus for a moment on the core issues at hand that matter to all sides.
I see those issues very clearly as two sides of the same coin: What do we do about the criminal use of armaments by a government against its own people, especially when such action breaks prevailing global norms and conventions? And what do we do about the criminal use of armaments by a government against other countries – even ones whose governments kill their own people – in the absence of legitimate international support for such action?
Our prevailing global media- and entertainment-based society does not like to discuss such issues in a symmetrical manner that juxtaposes the criminal actions of the Syrian president against the criminal actions of the American president. Yet we must do so if we wish to reduce the recurring incidents of Western attacks against Arab or other regimes in the global South that kill their own people with impunity.
The cautious Barack Obama has now shifted into a common policy mode for American presidents who are confronted with the need to respond to a complex foreign policy issue somewhere far away and largely alien to them. This is the policy that, in political science terms, should best be called the “kicking ass policy.” It uses the United States’ massive advantages in military technology and force projection to unleash powerful missiles against virtually defenseless targets in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and Yemen, and now perhaps Syria. It aims to teach those people over there a lesson they will never forget, and push them to comply with norms of civilized behavior, but it also almost always happens without Washington fully calculating or understanding the consequences of such a policy.
The silliest arguments that some Americans use to justify such a policy are, (a) that the U.S., as the world’s strongest and most moral and liberal power, must act to enforce international norms and laws if other collective means of action are blocked, and (b) the U.S. cannot be defied and must be respected when it lays down an ultimatum, as it did when Obama said that using chemical weapons was a red line that Assad should not cross. In other words, U.S. “credibility” is at stake, and Washington must strike Assad in order to ensure that others respect the U.S. and obey its orders in future such situations.
Well, I hope the White House hires some political psychologists to help it understand why it is that after every such episode of American missile strikes against a recalcitrant dictator, the next dictator comes along and seamlessly defies the U.S., totally ignoring Washington’s military prowess and its commitment to its credibility. Is it possible then that the American policy of kicking ass is mainly a psychological tonic that makes Americans feel better about themselves, without actually promoting greater global compliance with those important international norms?
I suspect that the massive disposition of Americans against attacking Syria (over 70 percent oppose an attack) and the British parliament’s rejection of such an attack largely reflect lessons learned from the last dozen years of kicking ass around the South, and having to come back again and again to do the same thing, because this policy is a chronic failure. Yet it is also critical that we all collectively explore the legality and morality of the United States and other powers that unilaterally attack countries in the South without U.N. Security Council approval.
This debate is not only about Syrians killing Syrians, but also about Americans attacking the world at will.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.