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Should U.S. Punish Syria? Debating Legality, Effectiveness and National Interest

August 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Would a possible U.S. military strike in Syria send a message that chemical weapon use is universally unacceptable or make a bad situation worse? Jeffrey Brown gets three views from Hisham Melham of Al Arabiya, Ivo Daalder of Chicago Council on Global Affairs and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: We return now to the question of Syria.

Jeffrey Brown leads a discussion over options for the Obama administration.

JEFFREY BROWN: The question: How should the U.S. respond to Syria’s alleged chemical weapons attack? We discuss that with Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO and now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya news channel. And John Mearsheimer is a professor at the University of Chicago and has written extensively on strategic issues.

Welcome to all of you.

Ivo Daalder, I will start with you.

Given the options being discussed now, what do you think the U.S. should do?

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IVO DAALDER, Chicago Council on Global Affairs: Well, I think the president sort of laid it out in the interview that we just saw.

We clearly have a case in which chemical weapons were used. I think the evidence that the administration has collected and needs to present to the American public and indeed to the world demonstrating that this was a use of chemical weapons by the regime suggests that standing still and not doing anything really isn’t an option.

I think we need to respond with a punitive strike to send a message to the regime that this kind of behavior is unacceptable. Clearly, a fundamental norm in which the use of chemical weapons effectively has been band by the Geneva protocol since 1925.

Syria is a signatory to this protocol. That norm needs to be reestablished by demonstrating that this is not acceptable behavior and also warning the regime not to do this again.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Mearsheimer, a limited, punitive strike?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER, University of Chicago: No, I disagree almost completely with what Ivo said.

I think that the United States has no strategic interest in this particular case. Our core strategic interests are not at stake. There’s no compelling moral case for intervening in Syria. And, very importantly, it’s not clear that using military force is going to do any good.

When President Obama was asked what this strike is likely to accomplish, he basically had no good answer to that question. So my bottom line is that the United States should work diplomatically to try and settle this war, but it should stay out militarily, to include a limited strike with cruise missiles.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Hisham Melhem, you have argued that a limited strike might not be enough.

HISHAM MELHEM, Al-Arabiya Television: A limited strike, a punitive strike that will keep Bashar al-Assad in government, maybe teetering a little bit, a strike without a broader strategy for the region, might embolden him, might embolden Iran and the other states in the region who are not friendly with the United States.

It will demoralize the opposition, the pro-American opposition. It will please the Iranians. So, essentially, the president is saying this is designed to punish, deter, not to bring a change of government in Syria. At the same time, he’s telling him there will be Geneva, too. So, in that sense, the administration is reassuring him that this is going to be a slap, but it’s not going to be deadly.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you think more than a slap is required at this point?

HISHAM MELHEM: The problem is, I see a huge downside to just a punitive action, without a longer, you know, broader strategy, because this is not going to solve anything.

And this will prolong the conflict. And I do believe that there are humanitarian reasons to intervene. But if you want to put the humanitarian reasons aside, if you are not interested in 23 million Syrians and if you say correctly that there are no strategic interests for the United States in Syria, there are definitely strategic interests for the United States in the stability of the five states around Syria that are very crucial for the United States.

Four of them have been historically friends of the United States, Turkey, a NATO ally, Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon. Lebanon is the most brittle one among them. Iraq historically is not friendly, but Iraq in the last ten years, we spent a huge amount of blood and treasure. And all of these countries are being affected negatively. And you don’t want Syria to turn into another Afghanistan on the Eastern Mediterranean.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, so, Ivo Daalder, a number of issues on the table, especially when it comes to a limited strike, the legality, the effectiveness and the interests for the U.S.

IVO DAALDER: Well, in terms of the legality, the U.N. Security Council will discuss a resolution that Britain has put on the table. I expect that Russia will again veto that resolution.

When it comes to the use of force in these kinds of circumstances, when it is about the internal behavior of states, there is such a thing as the responsibility that sovereign states have. They have a responsibility to behave in certain ways. And when they fail to do so, and particularly when there are strategic consequences, like the use of weapons of mass destruction and the regional implications that Hisham talked about, then if a coalition of states, a large coalition of states…

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, define — that’s what I want to — define that, because if the Arab League doesn’t give the go-ahead, if the Russians…

IVO DAALDER: Oh, the Arab — so let’s take the Arab League.

Interestingly enough, they did meet — a large, very diverse group of countries — condemned thoroughly the use of chemical weapons, didn’t say that there shouldn’t be any intervention, left that up to others.

NATO has just issued a very strong statement by the secretary-general that this kind of behavior cannot be — go unanswered. And I think the international community writ large, large numbers of nations, are standing up and saying this is the kind of behavior that, while everything else that has gone on has been unacceptable, when it comes to the use of chemical weapons, when people are being gassed in this way, which we haven’t seen in over a quarter-of-a-century, something needs to be done, and a strike like this is the appropriate response.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, John Mearsheimer, why isn’t that enough, if you have nations of the world coming together to say this isn’t right, that chemical weapons are somehow different, as we heard the president say?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, first of all, you don’t have nations of the world coming together.

The Arab League has not sanctioned an attack. You can’t get Security Council approval. The Russians and the Chinese will veto it. And, in fact, if we do go to war, it will not be a legal war. This is why President Obama talked about norms ad nauseam in his comments and didn’t talk about international law, because he knows he can’t do this legally.

But the fact is that the United States has no vested interest in what is going on in Syria. This is not a strategically important country. It’s deeply regrettable that people are being killed. It’s deeply regrettable that’s there’s a civil war going on, but it’s not the United States’ responsibility to get into the middle of it, because every time we do this, we end up in a situation like Afghanistan, a situation like Iraq.

We take a situation that’s bad and we just make it worse. The idea that we have some magic formula that can fix these problems is simply not the case. And the historical record is very clear on this. So my bottom line is, stay out militarily, and do everything that we can to shut it down diplomatically.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hisham?

HISHAM MELHEM: We left Afghanistan after the Soviet Union left, right, and we left it to its own devices, and then what happened? The Taliban took over.

And then you had a refuge place for al-Qaida. And then al-Qaida visited us in New York.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, that’s how you define the U.S. responsibility to do something?

HISHAM MELHEM: Absolutely. Absolutely. You don’t know want Syria to become the place where, in the case — when you have something similar to a soft partition, when these jihadi Islamists establish themselves in the Eastern Mediterranean, close to Southern Europe.

They have almost a million refugees. Lebanon could snap at any moment. Turkey, a NATO ally, is having serious problems. And then you have Iraq under tremendous pressure from Iran to allow volunteers to go and fight there. So, Syria is going to be the Spain of the Arab world. From 1936 to 1939, all European countries fought on Spanish soil.

Now what you’re having here is a civil war. And the president talks about a civil war in the context of a growing Sunni-Shia divide. And I know we cannot solve this, but there are strategic interests for the United States in the Eastern Mediterranean, and they are going to be negatively affected.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Ivo Daalder, it goes to Gwen’s question to the president of the preparation for — or the awareness of the consequences of the Arab spring. Where — what’s the scenario now, or even a worst-case scenario, given what’s happening in Syria?

IVO DAALDER: Well, I mean, clearly, we do have strategic interests in what happens.

The question is, are those large enough for to us have a major military intervention of the kind that we had in Iraq and Afghanistan? And I think the president rightly has concluded that our engagement in this way is not necessarily going to help the situation on the ground, and we shouldn’t be engaged in that kind of turmoil.

And turmoil, there will be, and there will be in this region for a whole variety of regions — reasons. But when one regime uses chemical weapons, the kinds of weapons that weren’t used in World War II because of the horror of their use in World War I, then — and we can punish — through punishing strikes, do something about that, in order also to send the message don’t do it again, then I think it is incumbent on the president and those who support him, as NATO has done — by the way, NATO as a — Turkey is a NATO ally, a neighboring part of the alliance.

The Arab League didn’t say, don’t do it. They condemned the use of chemical weapons. Then, having a punishing strike of the kind that the president talked about is the right thing to do at this point in time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, John Mearsheimer, is there any scenario in which either in Syria or a larger eruption in the region as we’re talking about in which you could see a stronger U.S. responsibility, a stronger interest?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Not at this point in time.

But I would like to point out that all of this discourse about chemical weapons being so special is, I think, wrong. I think it’s, again, regrettable that chemical weapons have been used. But chemical weapons are not weapons of mass destruction, like nuclear weapons are. The reason that chemical weapons were not used in World War II wasn’t because someone like Adolf Hitler was above using them for moral reasons.

They weren’t used because they have very little military utility. Anybody who has been in the Army knows that chemical weapons just don’t buy you much on the battlefield. And, in fact, the United States used nuclear weapons in World War II. So the norms could not have been very powerful in that war.

And what we have here in Syria is a case where it appears that about 1,000 people were killed by chemical weapons. But I would estimate that roughly 40,000 people have been killed by conventional weapons before these thousand people were regrettably killed by chemical weapons.

I ask you, what’s the difference between killing somebody with shrapnel or bullets vs. killing them with chemical weapons? I don’t see any meaningful difference. If we’re so concerned about the fact that people have been killed, we should have intervened a long time ago in Syria. And, of course, we didn’t because we don’t want to get in the middle of this situation because we have no way to fix it.

And the idea that chemical weapons have suddenly changed the nature of the game and therefore we should get involved now, I think, is a specious argument.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we’re going to have to leave that question. And this debate will, of course, continue.

John Mearsheimer, Ivo Daalder, Hisham Melhem, thank you, all three.