Op-Ed: The Problems of ‘Proportional Response’ in Military Intervention

| April 11, 2017 | 0 Comments

On Tuesday, April 4, the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad carried out a chemical attack that killed 80 people in the Idlib Province of Syria. After about 72 hours of deliberation and examination of options moving forward, President Donald Trump ordered a strike on the Assad regime’s Al Shayrat airfield, the site of the warplanes that carried out the chemical attack two days earlier. Around 7:40 p.m. on Thursday, Navy destroyers launched 60 Tomahawk missiles into Syria, 59 of which reached their targets, according to United States military officials. The missiles, targeted at Syrian aircraft, aircraft shelters, radars, air defense systems, ammunition bunkers and fuel storage sites, killed six soldiers and nine civilians, according to news outlets and Syrian Officials.

U.S. President Donald Trump, flanked by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, right, looks on as President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi of Egypt speaks in the Cabinet Room of the White House April 3, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Trump received overwhelming international praise from his friends in Britain, Germany, France, Israel, Saudi Arabia and other nations. He also managed to get the two sides of Capitol Hill to agree (for the most part) for a few hours and stand behind his strike, although some critics rebuked his actions as illegal, saying he should have run his plan through congress before making any moves. I’m sure you remember someone who did exactly that in 2013 when Assad carried out a chemical attack that killed and injured far more people than did the attack on Tuesday. Former President Barack Obama, in what is now widely considered one of his weakest moments throughout mainstream politics, was presented with an option to attack and destroy a large portion of Syria’s air force following the attack in 2013. He had, after all, drawn a red line right in front of chemical weapons, telling Assad that if he crossed that line, the United States would resort to force. After the British Parliament and the U.S. Congress both voted the plan of action down, Obama decided not to attack without the assurance of international support. He instead opted to strike a deal with Russia stipulating that Assad eliminate his stockpile of chemical weapons.

Trump, who urged Obama (via Twitter of course) not to retaliate against Syria in 2013, was presented with similar circumstances following the attack this week. Apparently swayed by pictures of the attacks and the civilians affected, Trump went ahead without the express approval of Congress or the international community. He enforced the red line that Obama drew during his tenure, while also stating, in his elusive signature style, that Syria had crossed not only that line but “many, many lines.” Some have said that the attacks and Trump’s actions put Putin in a tough spot, a spot in which he must decide whether or not to condemn his ally’s egregious actions. But Vladimir Putin seems pretty comfortable to me. The Kremlin has denied any Russian involvement in the chemical attacks and has even denied that chemical weapons were involved in the attacks at all, instead holding that the attack was “a conventional strike that hit a chemical weapons warehouse controlled by insurgents,” as was recorded in an article in the New York Times written by Peter Baker, Neil MacFarquhar and Michael R. Gordon.

In Fred Kaplan’s article published Thursday on The Slate, he contends that Trump, not Putin, is the one who is now in a tough spot. If Putin steps up Russia’s military presence in Syria, and if there are more chemical attacks, Trump must now make another important decision: does he surrender the red line and allow it to be crossed, or does he enter a civil war and jump headlong into a spiraling collision course with Russia?

Kaplan’s claim, however is not the one I want to make here. The idea I want to leave you with is that this attack should not only make Trump feel like he is in a tough position, but it should make you, me and every American and global citizen uncomfortable as well. Here is why.

The latest chemical attack and Trump’s subsequent response should make us question our own personal ethics as well as the ethics of our nation. As has been stated by Sean Spicer and echoed by international leaders in the wake of this week’s events, the actions taken by Trump were “decisive, justified, and proportional.” That word “proportional” stuck out to me and set off a few alarms in my head. Firstly, if we simply respond proportionally each time there is a human rights violation carried out by a nation (not one of our allies of course) that is egregious enough to warrant a response, are we truly acting in an ethically sound manner, or are we simply perpetuating a global war machine in which an unending series of “proportional” responses would almost certainly lead to a world entirely ravaged by conflict.

Second, if we are to draw a red line or “many, many lines” in the sand to detail exactly what a nation can and cannot do, then we must define those lines. Do we decide to allow violations of human rights up to a certain point? Do we only draw red lines when a nation is not a direct ally of ours?

If we are to draw red lines, then we need to ensure that they are not simply in place to make us feel as though we are on the side of justice, as though we are ethically sound even while we fall deeper and deeper into the pile of quicksand that is modern perpetual warfare.  We have killed thousands and thousands of citizens throughout the Middle East and if each side of every conflict in the Middle East continues to act “proportionally” in response to the other, the fighting will never end.

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Category:Opinion, Politics

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