Between Bashar al-Assad and a Hard Place

As a Barack Obama supporter, one of my main criticisms of his foreign policy is the opposite of a lot of people: I think he is too hawkish. The latest example of this is in the case of Syria. Recently, President Obama has proposed military strikes against Syria and is seeking approval from Congress for this action. I believe that military action by the United States against Syria would be a mistake. The country’s leader, Bashar al-Assad is a tyrant, and he has treated the people of Syria in a reprehensible manner. He should be overthrown. However, he is not trying to attack our country. While it is tempting for the United States to intervene on the basis of al-Assad’s human rights record, it would set a dangerous precedent. Iran, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia are all countries with terrible human rights records where slavery and/or genocide are par for the course. If we attack Syria, we must also attack these countries. Otherwise, we are being inconsistent when it comes to intervening militarily on the basis of human rights. The reality is that far from consistently intervening militarily when a country has bad human rights policies, the U.S. often trades with and supports such countries. For example, Pakistan receives close to a billion dollars in aid from the U.S. annually. Trade between the United States and the aforementioned Saudi Arabia flourishes.

The argument that the U.S. must intervene militarily to prevent Al Quaeda from gaining access to Asaad’s nuclear weapons, like the argument that we must intervene militarily to promote human rights, is compelling but ultimately fails. As stated previously, Asaad is not planning to use these weapons to attack the United States. Al Quaeda does have a presence in Syria’s rebel forces and could potentially get their hands on Asaad’s weapons at some point. But attacking Syria to prevent that scenario is the dictionary definition of pre-emptive war. We cannot attack a country because they have weapons that might fall into enemy hands at some point. If Asaad is toppled, which would be a good thing, and a government sympathetic to Al Quaeda takes control, which would be a bad thing, should we then attack Syria? That depends. This may sound heretical, but the mere fact that a government is colluding with Al Quaeda is not enough to justify the United States militarily attacking that government. In order to justify air strikes or invasion, it has to be demonstrated that this government is actively helping Al Quaeda attempt to attack the United States. After all, the United States government colluded with Osama bin Laden at one point, so it would make little sense for us to attack another country for doing the same thing that we did.

What should be done by the United States about oppressive foreign regimes? There is no great solution, but I believe that the best one is the use of sanctions. It is especially important that the United States should establish minimum human rights qualifications, then enact embargoes against all countries that fail to meet these qualifications. While such sanctions may not always achieve the desired results, the other two alternatives–doing little to nothing or attacking–are worse.

I close this blog with two warnings. The first warning is that if Asaad’s chemical weapons are capable of inflicting as much damage on the United States as is claimed by supporters of U.S. air strikes, Asaad may decide to use them in a retaliatory attack on one of our major cities if we choose to attack him. At that point, there will almost certainly be a full scale war. The second warning is that advanced weaponry destroys everything in its path. It does not take care to avoid hitting civilians. So American air strikes may kill some of the very people that we are trying to help.

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