What Will U.S. Military Force Against Syria Accomplish?

Today President Obama announced he decided the United States will use military force against Syria for its chemical weapon use. The President said he would seek the approval of congress, but noted that he has the executive power to authorize this action without congressional approval. That is something in stark contrast to his previous stance as Senator. In 2007, while on the presidential campaign trail, Obama said, “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” I know we are supposed to believe presidents are privy to more information than us mere mortals, but this seems like a huge compromise of ethics, not to mention constitutionally questionable.

What will the use of military force in Syria accomplish? Yes, I know the rhetoric about sending a “strong message,” but apparently the world is deaf to American brute force as a tool of communication. “Paul Waldman lays out a list of significant U.S. military actions over the past 50 years,” writes Kevin Drum (Mother Jones), talking about a piece by Paul Walden on The American Prospect. “[I]t adds up to 15 separate episodes, ranging from full-scale wars (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan) to smaller incursions (Grenada, Haiti, Panama).” That’s a lot of “strong messages.” “[T]his means we’ve launched a significant overseas assault every 40 months since 1963.” As I said, the world is not listening to us.

So I ask again, what will military force in Syria change? Will President Bashar al-Assad suddenly change course, lay down his arms and stop killing his country’s citizens? Will other countries think twice before oppressing and killing their citizens out of fear of a U.S. military strike? And what if Assad continues to bomb his citizens? And what if he deploys another chemical weapon attack? Then what? We strike again?

And this entire conversation so far ignores Russia and Iran, two countries that are on Syria’s side. Does the United States risk a larger conflict on a global scale by choosing to intervene in the Syrian conflict when it does not pose any direct threat to America? President Obama said this would not be an open-ended military action, but nobody, not even the President of the United States can make such a guarantee. If previous conflicts are any measure, the United States has a poor track record on predicting the blowback of its military actions.

I know the United States has this unquenchable thirst to send “strong messages,” but a stronger message might be that the United States has decided it will no longer be the world police. That we will no longer involve ourselves in conflicts that do not directly affect us. But if we view this solely through a political lens, I’m fully aware the United States cannot win either way. I’m also not naive enough to believe we will change our ways, that is, without a large-scale revolt by American citizens. But it would be nice if we could recognize that violence is not always thwarted but more violence, that military action sometimes, many times actually, only leads to further violence along with unintended and unforeseen consequences.

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