We oppose any Congressional military authorization and favor instead a forceful diplomacy based on a path to a cease-fire and power-sharing arrangements under international supervision.
To those who claim that America’s global credibility reputation is on the line, we say that we must act to save America from its recent reputation for engaging in unnecessary, unaffordable and unwinnable wars.
We appreciate President Obama’s decision to seek the advice and consent of Congress in making the decision whether to strike Syria in response to the lethal gas attacks of Aug. 21. We look forward to a full public debate as Congress fulfills its constitutional obligation. We hope that all relevant questions are answered before a decision is made, and that there will be neither a rush to judgment nor a march to folly.
President Obama’s proposed military authorization is simply too broad and open-ended. After debate and amendments, the final decision may be between  a narrower authorization limited in scope and timing, or  an authorization endorsing forceful diplomacy as the primary policy of the US towards the Syrian conflict. It is even possible that the authorization will fail due to intractable differences among the parties in Congress.
Progressive Democrats generally oppose any military escalation likely to deepen the quagmire or set off a spiral of further escalation. Progressive Democrats generally favor forceful diplomacy instead of force uncoupled from meaningful diplomacy. Progressive Democrats are mindful that every cruise missile flying towards Damascus represents one million dollars that could be invested in health care, education, or the fight against climate change. And progressive Democrats worry about the rise of an Imperial Presidency which smothers democratic decision-making in the fog of secret wars.
Therefore we oppose any Congressional military authorization and favor instead a forceful diplomacy based on a path to a cease-fire and power-sharing arrangements under international supervision.
To those who claim that America’s global credibility reputation is on the line, we say that we must act to save America from its recent reputation for unnecessary, unaffordable and unwinnable wars.
We ask why in recent days our government should be readying missiles to attack a Syrian dictatorship for massacring innocent civilians when we are funding and supporting an Egyptian dictatorship that massacres innocent civilians in Cairo. No wonder our credibility is in question. Our power is out of alignment with any discernible purpose in the eyes of most Americans.
We offer these thoughts as the debate proceeds.
First, it is necessary to complete a thorough investigation of the Syrian gas attacks using the most objective and rigorous standard of proof.
There is no question that the deployment of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians on Aug. 21 was a violation of international morality and law. But if substantial questions remain, after a thorough investigation, as to who was actually responsible for the attack, a US decision to launch military action against the Assad government, army or bases should be deferred, out of respect for what our Declaration of Independence calls the “decent opinion of mankind”.
Second, take seriously the role of multilateral alliances.
The United Nations Security Council will not approve of a military action against Syria. Nor does the UN Secretary-General who personally says there is no military solution. No does the Arab League endorse military action. The British government has been shaken by dissent. The Germans are silent. Only France, the former colonial power, favors military action. How does it benefit America power or reputation to act in such virtual isolation?
Third, do not be drawn into the trap of escalation.
Massive pressure now is being exerted to escalate the conflict in order to offset the perceived battlefield advantages of the Assad regime. But as John F. Kennedy observed, military escalation is like drinking to an alcoholic. One drink leads to another while the corpses mount. If we strike Syria, we only invite escalation and a wider war. Or as Gen. Dempsey observed in his letter to Sen. Levin, “once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.” We should ask ourselves, who benefits from deeper involvement in what could be a permanent quagmire, and at what costs?
Fourth, forceful diplomacy is more important than force without diplomacy.
We should escalate morally, politically and diplomatically against the Assad dictatorship while insisting that Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and all Assad’s allies terminate their military assistance in what has become an ugly sectarian proxy war. Congress should call for an immediate cease-fire in place and diplomacy aimed at an interim power-sharing arrangement in a new Syria. President Obama should be armed with that message in his forthcoming summits in Europe and St. Petersburg. It is striking that President Obama has suspended a summit with Vladimir Putin over the case of whistleblower Edward Snowden while applying no such pressure to cut off the flow of Russian arms to Assad in pursuit of a cease-fire. It is equally telling that US diplomatic hostility towards Iran prevents seeking an accommodation over Syria.
All talk of sovereignty aside, Syria is a broken country composed of a Sunni majority ruled over by an untenable royal dynasty representing a privileged Alawite/Shi’a minority. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot put the Assad kingdom back together again. The battle in Syria has inflamed and attracted the Sunni minority in Iraq. Al Qaeda is not the cause of these ethno-religious uprisings, but is the malignant offspring.
Fifth, begin a national conversation about the incoherence of America’s Middle East policy. Widen the conversation beyond the traditional national security elite.
The consistent thread of our policy should be towards greater democracy, equity and citizen participation in the region. But again and again, however, our policy reflects a double standard, or even multiple standards. To a certain extent, this pragmatism is understandable, but it is incomprehensible that our government funds the massacre of innocent Egyptian civilians by generals who overthrew an elected government, while at the same time threatening to bomb a Syrian dictatorship for the same massacring of civilians. We inflict drone punishment on Taliban sanctuaries while offering military protections for oil monarchies. It is this double standard which radicalizes so many people in the region towards jihad by providing evidence for what is taught in madrassas.
Democracy and conflict resolution, not religious power struggles, competition over oil, or blind support of the Israeli Right, should be the steady standard of American foreign policy.
If Congress should approve a military authorization for bombing Syria, one thing is certain. Another military action, and another congressional debate, are likely to happen again. The conversation we
need will resume again. That is why Congress should seize the opportunity, in the tradition of the Fulbright and Church hearings of decades ago, to create an accountable public forum for the public
debate over war and peace. Other forums of civic society should be energized to join the public debate in the spirit of the “teach ins” which spread across our campuses in response to the Vietnam escalation of 1965.
The conflicts in the Middle East are only the foreign policy focal point of this debate over democracy and security. At home the shadow of a new Imperial Presidency has arisen in response to the militarized foreign policy crisis. The drone wars have escalated behind a curtain of secrecy. CIA secret operations proliferate. Our government is launching offensive and defensive cyber war operations. Big Data has enabled Big Brother spying on a scale unimagined. Whistleblowers are hounded. None of this has occurred with proper Congressional debate, decision and concurrence. Instead the public sphere meant for democratic dialogue is left to the underwhelming oversight of secret courts and intelligence committees who are bound not to speak of what they know.
We need congressional resistance to this loss of democratic and constitutional power. Congress, which is closest to the voting public under our governing arrangements, is meant to share the war-making power with the executive state, raise and expend taxes for national defense, and conduct oversight over every branch of the federal bureaucracy. Congress was never meant to be a junior partner in collaboration with the executive, but an independent check on the excessive power of the state. The battle to stop an escalation over Syria is only the next chapter of the longer struggle to enrich democracy in America.