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David Gaul
Shelby County Democratic Party Co-Chair


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David Gaul
Donna Clothier
Kathleen Cue

THIS IS WHO WE ARE

And so here we are in September of 2013, debating in Congress the issue of whether or not we should punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons against its own civilian population.  At this juncture, it's good to remember why we're here and having this debate.  It started back on June 17th, 1925, with this solemn declaration:

The Undersigned Plenipotentiaries, in the name of their respective Governments: Whereas the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices, has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world; and Whereas the prohibition of such use has been declared in Treaties to which the majority of Powers of the world are Parties; and To the end that this prohibition shall be universally accepted as a part of International Law, binding alike the conscience and the practice of nations; Declare: That the High Contracting Parties, so far as they are not already Parties to Treaties prohibiting such use, accept this prohibition, agree to extend this prohibition to the use of bacteriological methods of warfare and agree to be bound as between themselves according to the terms of this declaration.

But now we have forgotten?  Originally this protocol had been crafted as a consequence of the First World War. In that war, widespread use of mustard gas and other chemical agents such as phosgene caused nearly 1.3 million casualties and 91,000 deaths.  One third of all U.S. casualties in WWI were a result of chemical weapon attacks.  In the aftermath of the war, the United States and the nations of Europe chose to ban the use of these weapons in those Geneva accords of 1925.

On the 21st of August, the chemical attack launched in Syria killed 1429 civilians, including 426 children.  Read the assessment prepared by the White House.  It's compelling.  It's convincing.  Further, not many are disputing its claims.  (Both John Kerry's statement to the media and his full statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee can be seen here in the Media Center).

When 20 children were gunned down at the Sandy Hook Elementary School last December 14th, our nation was outraged and shocked, and while we did not take steps to pass gun restrictions, we were still collectively outraged by what happened at that school to the point of it dominating the national conversation for several weeks.  When a gunman in Norway gunned down 55 youths eighteen and under in a mass shooting on July 22nd, 2011, the world was shocked and outraged.  So, why do so many in our country and the world today blithely gloss over the chemical murders of so many children in Syria on August 21st.  Why? 

Is it just because they were Syrian children?  Does their heritage disqualify them from our concern?  Have we grown so cynical and jaded and self-centered?  I would hope not, but listening to the debate thus far makes we wonder.     

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have and are making the case for us taking a punitive military action against the Syrian regime, but there's a problem--a sizeable elephant in the room... 

Iraq. 

President Obama's hands have been tied by George Bush and that Administration's signature foreign policy disaster.  It is through the prism of that disaster that current events are now being viewed.  It's unfortunate because the two are not analogous. 

I'm also disappointed with members of my party who doubt the President and his foreign policy team.  Their second-guessing of the President in a matter of foreign policy runs the real risk of crippling the Obama Presidency for the remainder of the second term and weakening his standing not only in this country by around the world.  Progressives are essentially doing the bidding of the far right and the tea party, and the tea party is gleefully rubbing its hands together, envisioning a wounded President Obama who has no influence here and abroad.  Progressives must cease the second guessing and the hand wringing.  It makes us look weak and feckless rather than smart and strong.

Furthermore, it's galling to see Republicans and Democrats alike criticizing the President in this matter, while leaving Vladimir Putin off the hook.  Putin is the one obstructing non-military, political solutions to the Syrian problem.  Putin is blocking efforts by the U.N. Security Council to address the situation.  Putin is in league with the one most powerful villian in Syria, Bashar al-Assad.  It's Putin's Russia that has recently clamped down on basic civil rights, contravailing what most of the rest of the industrialized world is doing.  And Barack Obama gets the criticism?  How crazy and ridiculous is that? 

There was a time in this country when the President, during a foreign policy crisis, received political support from both parties, but such integrity and unity in this current, fractured political environment is extinct.  Gamesmanship has taken the place of such notions.  Who can score points?  Who can position himself or herself best for the next two elections?  That's all that motivates today's politicians, not some dead kids in war-torn Syria. 

Much of what I'm hearing on progressive talk radio shows and television sounds a bit heavy on hyperbole and short on common sense.  As I've stated, Syria and Iraq are not analogous.  In 2003, Iraq was not embroiled in a civil war as Syria is now.  Say what you want about Saddam Hussein, his country in 2003 was at peace.  Shites and Sunnis weren't blowing each other up.  The lights were on.  Running water was flowing.  They weren't aiding terrorists.  The economy in spite of sanctions was functioning, and Hussein wasn't using any chemical weapons on his own people.  He had used chemical weapons back in the 1980s when President Reagan and his Administration were supporting him in his war against Iran, but he hadn't repeated this horrid transgression in the years leading up to 2003.

Contrast that with Syria today.  They are embroiled in a civil war that's taken the lives of 100,000 people.  Assad has murdered his own civilians, and now he has gassed them, too.  We've seen the video.  We've seen the convulsing.  Soon the United Nations inspectors will make their report.  I suspect they will confirm what happened.  It was an act of brutality and barbarism, brazenly carried out for the entire world to see.  And the world doesn't care? 

Well, we do.  Our country has an issue with brutality--or at least it should have.  We are the United States of America, and our ideals say an act like this should not stand.  Granted, we haven't always lived up to those ideals as with Hussein in the 1980s and his gassing of the Kurds or with Rwanda in the 1990s, but the negligence of the past doesn't mean we should stand idly by in the present. 

Barack Obama is not George Bush.  Joe Biden is not Dick Cheney.  John Kerry is not Colin Powell.  Chuck Hagel is not Donald Rumsfeld.  Susan Rice is not Condoleezza Rice.  And Samantha Power at the United Nations is definely not John R. Bolten.  The punitive action we contemplate does not involve ground troops.  It involves elements of our air and naval power.  We civilians do not know the targeting plans, but I suspect they have been well chosen.  Expert pundits can speculate all they want, but they're still speculating.  They're not in the room.

The consequences of not punishing the Assad regime for what it has done could have far-reaching implications for the world.  Not acting would essentially declare the 1925 Geneva accords and subsequent amendments to them null and void.  It would signal to every despot the world over that it's okay to use sarin on your own people in order to control them and stifle opposition.  It's okay to kill kids in a most horrible fashion.  The United States will standby and convulse politically.  European governments will twirl their thumbs. Talk radio will spew nonsensical verbiage and bluster, and despots will get away with war crimes and mass murder. 

Non-action is clearly tantamount to appeasement--appeasement, long the dirty word in foreign policy discussions.  Progressives need reassurance.  Okay.  Back in the 1990s the United States and NATO used air power to end the Bosnian War; a war in which ethnic cleansing was practiced and genocide took place.  Critics at the time fretted about what President Clinton and the United States and NATO undertook.  They said air power wouldn't work.  They said Clinton would have to send in ground troops.  He didn't.  Air power did work.  Not a single American life was lost.  The Dayton Peace Accords were drafted.  Critics like George Will said the peace would never last.  Eighteen years later the peace in central Europe still reigns.

Military intervention can work.  It can make a positive difference.  Is it clean and neat?  No.  Never.  But it doesn't always go horribly wrong as in Iraq.  The Obama Administration is a smarter administration than that of George Bush.  They know the lessons of Iraq.  I firmly believe that, and I will not be cowed by voices on the right who claim otherwise with their preposterous pronouncements about Obama's competency.  President Obama has demonstrated throughout his years in office that he is a deliberative man.  He's a cool customer.  He does nothing precipitously.  His actions are well considered, borne of a thought process not present with the previous man who occupied the Oval Office.  He's the smartest guy in the room, and we should give him the benefit of the doubt in this matter.




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