Thursday, September 12, 2013

Phrase of the Day: PLEA FOR CAUTION

[The following is the Op-Ed letter posted yesterday in The New York Times newspaper and on its website from Russian president Vladimir Putin.  What do you think?]

A Plea for Caution From Russia

What Putin Has to Say to American About Syria


Published September 11, 2013 

MOSCOW — RECENT events surrounding Syria have prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders.  It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies. 

Relations between us have passed through different stages.  We stood against each other during the cold war. But we were also allies once, and defeated the Nazis together.  The universal international organization -- the United Nations -- was then established to prevent such devastation from ever happening again. 

The United Nations' founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter.  The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades. 

No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage.  This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization. 

The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria's borders.  A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.  It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa.  It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance. 

Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country.  There are few champions of democracy in Syria.  But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government.  The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations.  This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world. 

Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern.  Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria?  After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali.  This threatens us all. 

From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future.  We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.  We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today's complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos.  The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not.  Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council.  Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression. 

No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria.  But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists.  Reports that militants are preparing another attack -- this time against Israel -- cannot be ignored. 

It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States.  Is it in America’s long-term interest?  I doubt it.  Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan "you’re either with us or against us."

But force has proved ineffective and pointless.  Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw.  Libya is divided into tribes and clans.  In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes. 

No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect. 

The world reacts by asking: if you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security.  Thus a growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction.  This is logical: if you have the bomb, no one will touch you.  We are left with talk of the need to strengthen nonproliferation, when in reality this is being eroded. 

We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement. 

A new opportunity to avoid military action has emerged in the past few days.  The United States, Russia and all members of the international community must take advantage of the Syrian government’s willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction.  Judging by the statements of President Obama, the United States sees this as an alternative to military action. 

I welcome the president’s interest in continuing the dialogue with Russia on Syria.  We must work together to keep this hope alive, as we agreed to at the Group of 8 meeting in Lough Erne in Northern Ireland in June, and steer the discussion back toward negotiations. 

If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust.  It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues. 

My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust.  I appreciate this.  I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday.  And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States' policy is "what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional."  It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.  There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy.  Their policies differ, too.  We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.


Friday, September 6, 2013


I have been watching with great interest for the past two weeks the developments in Syria.  I have also been watching with great interest the response by President Obama to those developments.  To say that he has been banging the war drums would be an understatement.

The premise is based on the following: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is alleged to have launched a chemical weapons strike on his own people on August 21.  This was the latest action by Assad's regime against his people as part of the Syrian civil war that has been going on since 2011.  The civil war broke out as a part of the Arab Spring, which began back in 2010.  The Syrian people want political reforms, reinstatement of civil rights, and greater freedom.  Assad and his representatives have been repeatedly stating publicly that the fighting between government forces and rebel forces is due to outside involvement.

After the August 21 attack, President Obama began to call for military action against Syria.  Not all U.S. politicians were convinced.  Not all world leaders were convinced, either.  In the ensuing two weeks since the attack, the rhetoric has been ratcheted up by President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, directed to U.S. politicians and world leaders.  President Obama drew a proverbial "red line" that Assad has crossed, only to later roll back that comment by saying, "The world set a red line."

President Obama's argument is partly on moral grounds.  (More on that later.)  He has stated that several nations agreed to find the use of chemical weapons as unacceptable under international agreement.  The result of the Chemical Weapons Convention was an arms control agreement, first drafted in September of 1992, signed into ratification in January of 1993, and took effect in April of 1997.  The agreement, in effect, outlawed the use of chemical weapons, as well as their production and stockpiling, in addition to regular monitoring and inspection of chemical plants and military bases.  To date, all but seven U.N. member states have signed the agreement.  Syria is one of the seven, along with Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea, and South Sudan.  

The rhetoric being used sounds very similar to that was used in the lead up to the Iraq War.  We are certain ... We have proof ... We are convinced . . .   Britain just released a report that said clothing and soil samples taken from a patient treated for apparent chemical weapons exposure last month near Damascus showed the presence of sarin gas.  Interesting about Britain, though, was a vote in British Parliament on August 29 that was against the use of military force in Syria. 

It seemed to many observers, as well as current Prime Minister James Cameron, that it was a foregone conclusion that Britain would stand side-by-side with the U.S. on this matter -- considering former Prime Minister Tony Blair's walking in lockstep with former President George W. Bush regarding Iraq -- but they did not.  (At least for now.)  France seems to be the closest ally to the U.S. on this matter.  (Considering the past historical relationship between France and the U.S. on matters of military engagement, this is quite the historical development, in and of itself.)  

The talk of coalitions has resurfaced.  It has been mentioned by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry that all of those who signed the Chemical Weapons Agreement are in opposition to Assad's actions in Syria.  Thus, they are part of a coalition.  If so many other countries and nation-states are against what's been happening in Syria, then why aren't any of them stepping out to the forefront on this matter?  It has been suggested that the U.S., being the superpower that it is, should take the lead.  Okay, fine.  The U.S. has taken the lead on this and, so far, no one is else, save for France, is jumping on the bandwagon.  So, where is the coalition?  If President is at the G-20 Summit in Russia attempting to drum up international support, then where is the coalition?  The pushback and lack of gung ho attitude in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives shows that Iraq is still fresh in peoples' minds.

Let me return to the idea mentioned earlier of attacking Syria as the morally correct thing to do.  That is a tricky argument, at best.  Yes, the use of chemical weapons is immoral.  No, it should not be treated with impunity.  Yes, the use of chemical weapons is an act of aggression, but so is the use of any weapons.  I do not find merit in the use of missiles fired by U.S. warships as a deterrent to the use of chemical weapons fired within Syria, since both are weapons of mass destruction.  Or do the American people think (or do our politicians want us to think) that only countries that are not our allies possess "weapons of mass destruction"?  Not to mention the civil war going on, and how likely we are to get embroiled in that, as well as the likelihood of Iran jumping into the fray.

I do not believe our military involvement is warranted here.  Something needs to be done, but not militarily.  To that end, let me posit the following scenario: (You can use 9/11 or the attack on Pearl Harbor for an example, if you wish, but I mean this in the broadest possible sense.)  We are attacked by another country's missiles.  Wouldn't a likely response be retribution?  Wouldn't we see that as an act of war against us?  Of course we would.  

If our government used chemical weapons against us and another country was thinking about bombing our country, albeit military and chemical locations, would we, the masses, see that as an act of war?  Some would; some would not.  (Depends on where the bombs and collateral damage end up.)  Would our government see it that way?  Of course it would.  

The point is not that President Obama is using chemical weapons against U.S. citizens, just as Syrian President Assad is doing against his people.  The point is that any government, attacking its citizens or not, is going to see this as an act of war.  Yes, they are 100% in the wrong and on the side of immorality in the Syrian government, but their government will still see it that way, just as our government would.  (In both cases of 9/11 and the attack on Pearl Harbor, the actions of Al-Qaeda and the Japanese were seen as acts of war.)

I am not siding with Assad.  The reality is that those doing such immoral atrocities don't want to be found out and attacked themselves, and those not doing such immoral atrocities have no reason to be attacked.

I have learned how our government got us into the Vietnam War, to my chagrin.  I saw how our country was viciously attacked on 9/11, to my chagrin.  I saw how our country destroyed the goodwill shown to it in the shadow of 9/11 by engaging in an ongoing "war" against an ideology, including the use of preemptive strikes, to my chagrin.  

If Syria has not attacked us and has not said (or it hasn't been discovered) that these attacks are a precursor to attacks on the U.S., then where is the imminent threat to the U.S. that could lead to a military response?  In short, a bombing campaign that sounds as though it might rival "shock and awe", even if intended for military and chemical locations, will have collateral damage.  There is no such thing as a "surgical strike"!  I am unconvinced to the merit of President Obama's argument, except to the military industrial complex.  (And even if Congress votes against action, the President is likely to proceed, anyway.)  Sadly, very sadly, Eisenhower remains 100% correct.

My plea is for restraint in the midst of this crisis.  We are becoming what we stood against for generations.  In addition to being seen as such, our military action will be an act of war.