There has been a lot said in the last week comparing the Congressional resolution authorizing the use of force to punish Bashar al Assad's government for using chemical weapons to the resolution authorizing the Iraq War. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As an ardent opponent of the Iraq War resolution, I am proud to say that 60 percent of the Democrats in the House of Representatives voted against authorizing the Iraq War. Today, I support the resolution authorizing force to sanction the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
There are five major differences between the current resolution and the one that authorized the Iraq War:
1). The President is asking for a narrow authorization that the U.S. exact a near-term military price for Assad's use of chemical weapons. He is not asking for a declaration of War - which is exactly what George Bush asked from Congress in Iraq.
George Bush sent thousands of U.S. troops to overthrow the government and then occupy Iraq. He spent what will ultimately be trillions of dollars to overthrow the Iraqi regime and then conduct a 10-year campaign to pacify the country.
The President's proposal to Congress is not intended to overthrow the government of Syria. And it certainly does not involve conducting an American war against Syria. This is not an action that the President would have contemplated absent the use of chemical weapons. This resolution is intended entirely to make the Assad regime pay a price for their violation of a 100-year international consensus that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable in the civilized world.
Some have argued that killing people with chemical weapons is no worse than killing them with a gun or a bomb. Both are horrible. But the difference that created a worldwide consensus against their use is that they are weapons of mass destruction. Like biological and nuclear weapons they are distinguished by two characteristics that would make their regular use much more dangerous for the future of humanity than guns and bombs:
- They can kill massive numbers of people very quickly.
- They are completely indiscriminate. They kill everything in their path. They do not discriminate between combatant and non-combatants -- between children and adults.
Those two characteristics make weapons of mass destruction different from other weapons. In the interest of our survival as a species we must make the use of all weapons of mass destruction unthinkable. That must be one of humanity's chief goals if it is to survive into the next century.
There has been talk about "other options" to punish Assad and deter him from using chemical weapons in the future. But the fact is that the only price that matters to Assad -- or to anyone who is in the midst of a military struggle -- is a military price.
There is a worldwide consensus that no matter how desperate someone's military situation, the use of chemical weapons in specific -- and weapons of mass destruction in general -- is never justified.
When combatants are in the midst of a military struggle, they don't really care about their "reputation" or even the economy of their country. They care about their military situation.
That is not true of countries like Iran or any other country that is not at war. Economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure are important levers on most countries and governments -- but not governments in the midst of military battles that threaten their survival.
As a result, to reduce the likelihood that an actor like Assad will use chemical weapons again, he has to experience a military sanction -- the degradation of his military capacity -- because at the moment, that's all he cares about. I'm sure Assad would be happy to worry about whether he is indicted by the International Criminal Court, or the state of the Syrian economy at some time in the distant future. Right now he cares about his military capacity.
If we do nothing, the odds massively increase that he will use chemical weapons again, because he knows that they work to kill huge numbers of his opponents -- and that he can do so with impunity. That would be a disastrous setback for humanity's critical priority of banning the use of weapons of mass destruction -- weapons that could easily threaten our very existence.
2). The resolution on chemical weapons explicitly limits the authorization to 90 days. The resolution on Iraq was unlimited -- and resulted in a conflict lasting over a decade.
Opponents have questioned whether short-term air strikes could be effective at substantially degrading Assad's chemical weapons infrastructure. There is no guarantee. But there is some precedent for believing they can. As Walter Pincus wrote in today's Washington Post:
...the precedent worth recalling is Operation Desert Fox in December 1998, in which the Clinton Administration went after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's facilities for weapons of mass destruction over four days.
Although the operation almost immediately faded from the American public's mind because it was followed quickly by the House impeachment debate, it did destroy Iraq's WMD infrastructure, as the Bush administration later discovered.
3). The resolution on Iraq was based on faulty -- actually fabricated -- intelligence about the supposed presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Those "intelligence" assessments turned out to be totally untrue -- much of it manufactured.
The resolution on chemical weapons is not based on anyone's estimate of the likelihood that Assad has weapons of mass destruction. It is based on their actual use -- recorded and widely distributed on video -- and intercepts that document the orders for their deployment.
4). The Iraq War Resolution involved the commitment of American troops -- on the ground -- where thousands of them died and thousands more were maimed. This resolution explicitly precludes American troops on the ground in Syria.
5). President George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and their entire team wanted to invade Iraq. The Neocons desperately wanted to finish what they started with Desert Storm. They had an imperial vision of America's role in the world that involved American domination of the Middle East through the projection of military power. That vision turned into the nightmare in Iraq. Iraq became one of the great foreign policy disasters of all time.
President Obama and his team have exactly the opposite goal. The team is composed of people who opposed the War in Iraq -- and the Neocon world-view -- including the President who was against the War in Iraq from the first day.
He has been very explicit that his aim is to end America's wars in the Middle East -- not to begin another.
Bush and his team used the false specter that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction -- and was behind the 9/11 attacks -- to drive America into a war that had nothing to do with either.
On the contrary, President Obama is motivated entirely by his goal of enforcing the international consensus against using chemical weapons -- not starting a war. In fact, he has done everything in his power for two years to avoid America's military involvement in the Syrian civil war.
Some have argued that those who opposed the Iraq War Resolution, but support the President's proposal, would have opposed a similar resolution if it had been presented by George Bush. And the answer is yes, that is clearly a factor. The motivations and world-view of the people you are empowering to use military force should matter a great deal. The fact is that while Bush and the Neocons might have tried to use a resolution to start a long war -- the Obama team will not.
Progressives may differ on whether using military action to sanction Assad is the correct course of action for the United States. But the argument that Obama's proposal to use military means to sanction the use of chemical weapons by Assad is analogous to the Bush's rush to war in Iraq is just plain wrong.