On Saturday the United States and Russia announced an agreement to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. If the deal holds it will avert the proposed targeted military strike against the Syrian government. Alaskans who opposed bombing Syria can thank our Congressional delegation. Their lack of support for military action contributed to a greater debate about how America should respond to the criminal use of chemical weapons. It opened the door to a far better solution than militarily punishing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
It’s a good time to consider America’s role in policing the world. I doubt anyone believes our military was meant to be an international police force. It’s also wrong for the conclusions made by our intelligence agencies to be extrapolated by our government as justification for inflicting punishment on the accused. Has anyone forgotten the “slam dunk” case made for the war against Iraq?
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) remembers. As member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, he rightfully objected to the limits of intelligence this administration had provided to Congress. He argued that if President Obama wanted them to consider his request to use military force, they shouldn’t be expected “to accept, without question, that the proponents of a strike on Syria have accurately depicted the underlying evidence, even though the proponents refuse to show any of it to us.”
Grayson also raised concerns by former U.S. intelligence officers and suggested the administration may have “selectively used intelligence to justify military strikes in Syria.” Philip Giraldi is one of those former officials. In the American Conservative he stated “through our contacts, which include a number of active-duty intelligence officers … the admittedly fragmentary information that is currently available to us indicates that both British and American intelligence know that Bashar al-Assad did not carry out the chemical attack in Damascus on Aug. 21.”
After these stories appeared, Human Rights Watch published findings from their investigation. “Available evidence” it states “strongly suggests that Syrian government forces were responsible for chemical weapons attacks.” However they didn’t go so far as to claim they had proof that Assad ordered the attacks.
Then there’s the Russian investigation about the first chemical weapons incident that occurred in northern Syria last March. In a 100 page report to the UN, they claim the scientific evidence gathered on the ground indicates that attack was carried out by rebel forces.
Western analysts were quick to criticize the Russian findings. But for Americans to dismiss that possibility this time seems arrogant. Especially when we consider the statements made a week ago by White House chief of staff Denis McDonough. On CNN he admitted the administration didn’t have “irrefutable beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence” adding “this is not a court of law and intelligence does not work that way.”
And that’s the heart of the problem. The primary purpose of intelligence gathering should be to keep the country’s defenses prepared and alerted to possible threats. In this case the Syrian regime poses no threat to us. So it shouldn’t be used as a basis for ordering our military into action. And since the chemical weapons attack already occurred, the right use of America’s intelligence is as evidence and arguments to be presented to an internationally recognized court of law.
That may sound utopian. But recall the same idealism from Obama’s 2009 inauguration speech. “As for our common defense” he said, “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man. … Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”
For the rule of law to stretch beyond our borders, America must recognize that neither the Geneva Conventions nor our Constitution appoints the U.S. Congress to be the jury in cases of international war crimes. Nor do they empower our president to be the prosecutor, judge and executioner. If there’s any truth to the myth of American exceptionalism, then we must have the courage to truly “light the world” with our ideals and to join 122 other nations by ratifying our membership in the International Criminal Court.
• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident.