The False Choices on Syria - "Spend the Money at Home" and "There's No Military Solution"


With the president meeting with Congressional leaders and garnering their support on a resolution to give him specific legislative authority to respond militarily to Syria's use of chemical weapons on civilians, the likelihood that Congress will give its ascent increased. Much of the debate on the liberal side on Syria is framed as a choice: a choice between diplomacy vs. military action, and a choice between using our national resources (namely, money) to respond in Syria vs. rebuilding and improving American social and infrastructure investment.

I respectfully submit that these are false choices. One of the first economics classes I took taught me a valuable lesson: hunger and starvation are not a food problem; they are an economic problem. The world does not have a food shortage; it has a food surplus. Yet, people suffer from hunger. Why? People do not starve because they don't have food; they starve because they do not have the money to buy the food.

Why am I blathering about the world food surplus in the middle of a post about Syria? Because the same sort of false choices are presented in the debate, and the counterpoints are also comparable. The reason that we have got crumbling bridges and falling-apart schools is not because we don't have the money to pay for it; it is that the Republican led House refuses to pay for it. President Obama has proposed, for years now, a plan to invest in American infrastructure, education, job training and job creation, and every penny in his plan is paid for. The reason that we don't have all those plans in place isn't that Congress couldn't find the funds for it, it is that it won't.

Whatever resources and money it would take to launch a limited air strike on Syria, the idea that if we weren't launching such strike, that money would instead be used to rebuild America is preposterous. Such an argument requires the belief that Boehner's Tea Party filled House will somehow get around to approving funds for American infrastructure if only we don't attack Syria. If that were the case, the Republican House has had two-and-a-half years to make those investments, and they have chosen instead to freak out the country with their abject lies "overspending."

Investing in America's infrastructure is not mutually exclusive of our response in Syria. There is absolutely no case to be made that the present Congress, were it not considering a resolution to authorize strikes in Syria, would instead be funding a needed jobs program at home. If you want, as a liberal, to invest in America, the most important thing you can do is not stop the military strike on Syria, but replace Speaker Boehner with Speaker Pelosi in 2014.

The issue is similar when we talk about the Syria problem - or the vast majority of conflicts in the world - and creates a false choice between either having a military response, or having no military solution. There seems to be a presumption that should the United States carry out a surgical strike, it therefore closes all diplomatic windows that will be needed to ultimately solve the conflict in Syria. Taking military action to make it clear to the world that use of chemical weapons on civilians will not be tolerated as well as to protect US strategic interest in nonproliferation and ban on chemical weapons does not in any way preclude before, simultaneously, and after, continuing to pursue diplomatic channels. Over the weekend, Secretary Kerry had it exactly right:
The President has been clear: Any action that he might decide to take will be a limited and tailored response to ensure that a despot’s brutal and flagrant use of chemical weapons is held accountable. And ultimately, ultimately, we are committed – we remain committed, we believe it’s the primary objective – is to have a diplomatic process that can resolve this through negotiation, because we know there is no ultimate military solution. It has to be political. It has to happen at the negotiating table, and we are deeply committed to getting there.
Still, why launch military strikes at all if there is no ultimate military solution? Because the world isn't black and white. Sometimes, runaway dictators who believe they can gas innocent civilians with impunity need a reminder that they can't - precisely so that they can be brought back to the table. That's why force needs to remain a resort, even though it must only be the last resort.

There are those who will argue that while military action won't necessarily close off the door to a possible negotiated, political solution, it may well make it more difficult, give Russia and China's closeness with Syria and their backing being a necessity for any UN resolution. I may argue the opposite. Real-world, military consequences of chemical attacks may well make Syria and its friends rethink its strategy that it could simply massacre its own people while the world looks the other way. They may well be better persuaded to come to the table and be more amicable to a negotiated settlement.

Further, there are also no reasons to think that should the United States refrain from a response to the grotesque acts of the Syrian government, a negotiated settlement will arrive any sooner.

One point of debate here may be whether a military strike itself merits to be a good use of our resources (I believe it is) independently - but to conflate it with investment at home creates a false choice that we do not have to make, and nor can we make. Similarly, it's a false choice between a military strike and still seeking an ultimate diplomatic solution.


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