Kerry Op-Ed: “The Costs of Inaction [in Syria] Are Much Greater Than the Costs of Action”

Daniel Doherty

9/8/2013 8:30:00 AM - Daniel Doherty

Lately several of my colleagues and I have raised significant concerns about the prospect of going to war in Syria. And I stand by what I wrote. But in support of fairness and balance, I’d also like to play devil’s advocate for a minute and raise a series of pro-interventionism arguments originating from the pen of our illustrious Secretary of State: John Forbes Kerry. It’s instructive to hear both sides, no?

Writing for the Huffington Post on Friday, Secretary Kerry laid out the administration’s case for “limited military action” in Syria. And while you may completely disagree with his conclusions, perhaps you will benefit from debating and discussing what he had to say.

First of all, he argues, launching a limited bombing campaign against Assad would in no way, shape or form resemble the war in Vietnam -- a conflict he quite famously opposed -- thus parlaying charges that his “evolution” from anti-war activist to hawkish interventionist is somehow motivated by politics:

I'm sometimes asked how, as someone who testified 42 years ago against the Vietnam War in which I had fought, I could testify in favor of action to hold the Assad regime accountable today.

The answer is, I spoke my conscience in 1971 and I'm speaking my conscience now in 2013.

Secretary Hagel and I support limited military action against Syrian regime targets not because we've forgotten the lessons and horrors of war -- but because we remember them.

Make no mistake: If another Vietnam or another Iraq were on the table in the Situation Room, I wouldn't be sitting at the witness table before Congress advocating for action.

I spent two years of my life working to stop the war in Vietnam, and made enemies and lost friends because of my decision to speak my mind.

So I don't come to my view on the use of military force anywhere without real reflection. I do so with an eye towards facts and reason.

Second, he reiterated (again) and assured the public (again) that no American service members will be put into harm’s way. He also argued that the public’s growing fears that Syria will perhaps devolve into another Iraq quagmire are overblown and misplaced:

I understand the temptation to remember Vietnam and Iraq and reflexively paint any subsequent possible military action with the same brush.

But to do so ignores what Syria is, and what it isn't.

There will be no boots on the ground in Syria. There will be no open-ended commitment. There will be no assuming responsibility for another country's civil war.

These and other differences with Iraq are the exact reasons why many members of Congress who opposed that war and voted against it are supporting this action against Syria today.

So what is Syria? It would be a tailored action to make clear that the world will not stand by and allow the international norm against the use of chemical weapons to be violated with impunity by a brutal dictator willing to gas hundreds of children to death while they sleep. Our action would be a limited and targeted military action, against military targets in Syria, designed to deter Syria's use of chemical weapons and degrade the Assad regime's capabilities to use or transfer such weapons in the future.

Thirdly, if nothing is done, he added, Assad will no doubt continue to use chemical weapons on his own people. This, he insists, would only make it harder for the U.S and her allies in the long run to bring stability to Syria through diplomatic “peace talks” and negotiations:

Let me be clear: I have no doubt that Assad will use chemical weapons again and again unless we take action.

I have no doubt that we will never get to the negotiating table for the peace talks we have pushed for if Assad believes he can gas his way out of his predicament, just as we'd never have gotten to the peace talks that lead to the Dayton Accords if military action hadn't been part of the equation.

I have no doubt that if we look the other way, we risk not only Assad's repeated use of chemical weapons within Syria, but downstream consequences for our allies and friends in the region including Israel, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq.

When I hear firsthand about panicked parents in Israel rushing to buy gas masks for their children, I am reminded of so many who live so close to Assad's reign of terror.

And I have no doubt that for anyone who wants to see a diplomatic solution to two of the world's most pressing proliferation challenges -- Iran and North Korea -- ask yourselves: Are these two countries more or less likely to plunge ahead with proliferation and provocation if they see Assad's actions go unanswered? I would argue that we all know the answer to this question: They are more likely to do so.

The costs of inaction here are much greater than the costs of action.

The last point is perhaps Kerry’s most persuasive argument for intervention. What kind of message does it send to the world that the United States -- the same country that that stood up to fascism, communism and Stalinism -- would allow such atrocities to go unpunished? Iran and North Korea are certainly waiting and watching with bated breath to see how the United States reacts. So doesn’t Mr. Kerry have a point? And indeed, if you trust him enough when he unequivocally affirms that the government’s boots-on-the-ground contingency plan is completely off the table, isn’t it better to at least Do Something rather than nothing at all when there are seemingly minimal risks involved?

Parting question: Are Kerry’s arguments sufficient enough and persuasive enough to justify limited military air strike against Assad? Cleary the president himself hasn’t taken the time to build public support for his own war, so Secretary Kerry must do it. Most people (including members of Congress, the public at large and even the French) seem overwhelming opposed to the idea. But does that necessarily mean Kerry’s arguments are without merit? Hardly.

Read the whole thing here.