No War is Humanitarian War

From the October 2013 PNL #828

by Ben Kuebrich and Amelia Ramsey-Lefevre

SPC Staff Note: This article is commentary by some members of the PNL Editorial Committee on the actions of the Obama administration and the US government from the time the Obama administration seriously discussed bombing Syria through the decision to back off from an imminent attack. The Peace Council does not have an updated statement on the wider situation in Syria. In the process of trying to update our September 2012 consensus statement on Syria (see, we found that some new points are an easy consensus (no US attack on Syria) while others are not. The situation is complex, and sorting through what has been written on Syria—articles which differ in quality and come from a wide range of perspectives—is challenging. We have posted links to a variety of articles, commentary, and interviews on our website. We are holding a two-part teach-in on Syria, so we can all learn and talk together. Keep checking the website for updates on articles, activities and our position.


“I’m disturbed by this notion that every time we see something bad in the world, we should bomb it.”  


- Alan Grayson, Florida Representative


“Killing people to prevent their being killed with the wrong kind of weapons is a policy that must come out of some sort of sickness.” 

- David Swanson, Green Party Secretary of Peace


At the time of printing, the Obama administration had bowed to US citizens and the international community and decided not to bomb Syria, at least for the moment. With a recent report showing that US military personnel are also against the war by a three-to-one margin, this would have been a unilateral attack in every sense—the Obama administration and the military industrial complex dancing alone amidst a jeering crowd of detractors.

The administration’s next move was to ask Congress for authorization, a constitutional necessity that became plan B. With little apparent congressional support, it seemed as if we were heading toward a vote against military intervention when John Kerry stumbled upon what might be a viable diplomatic solution: the Assad regime can hand over their chemical weapons stockpile to be destroyed by the international community. Spoken as a hypothetical that Kerry said “can’t be done,” Russia and Syria quickly agreed to the concept. Under an agreement brokered by the UN, Syria is to give up its chemical weapons by the middle of 2014, and as of September 14 they have become an official signatory of the international treaty against chemical weapons.

We hope this effort will satisfy those who would bomb Syria, even while the Obama administration maintains that military intervention remains “on the table.” We also hope that any future US efforts can be limited to providing food, shelter, and medical care to refugees and further diplomacy that might stop the violence that rages in Syria.


How did we get here?

Barack Obama and John Kerry faced the US public and stated with utter conviction that Bashar Al-Assad had perpetrated a horrific sarin gas attack. This pronouncement came before the UN had even been able to confirm that a chemical weapon attack occurred. The Obama administration, already threatening to use “targeted military force,” requested that the UN leave the country before completing their investigation. The UN refused to leave and did confirm that sarin gas had been used, although their report did not determine who was responsible for the attack.

The use of chemical weapons by anyone is reprehensible. Yet it is also reprehensible that the Obama administration played into the fears and sympathies of US citizens in order to rush toward an attack that would have inevitably killed more civilians and would likely have added fuel to the violence in Syria and possibly the region.

By claiming that Assad had crossed an “international red line,” reference to an off-the-cuff remark made by Obama in March, the administration has framed the bombing as part of a humanitarian effort meant to “send a message” about “international norms.” When going to Congress, Obama stated that “America and Congress’s credibility is on the line” because these “international norms are important.”


No Moral or Legal Authority

Let’s be clear: potential US military involvement in Syria has nothing to do with humanitarianism. And while bombs may enforce an “international red line,” it has to be said that the US does not have much moral authority when it comes to practicing international law or the use of chemical weapons on civilians. As the historical record indicates, the resounding “message” of a unilateral attack would have been hypocrisy, not the good will of the US government to protect civilians.

 A recent report of declassified documents shows that the US provided intelligence to Iraq in 1988 as it killed thousands of Iranians with sarin gas. In 2012, the Red Cross reported that one million Vietnamese live with disabilities from the six pounds of Agent Orange that the United States dumped for every man, woman, and child in the country during the Vietnam War. In 2004, the United States used white phosphorus and depleted uranium in Iraq, two weapons that are banned by international treaties and norms. Meanwhile, Israel, the United States’ main ally in the Middle East and a threat to Syria, has not ratified the ban on chemical weapons. Still, the US continues to provide Israel with over three billion dollars per year in military aid. Given this history, one has to ask where the international standard against chemical weapons came from—certainly not US military actions.

Furthermore, in the case of Syria, the Obama administration has brazenly promoted its right to a unilateral attack. Without UN approval and without Syria posing a direct threat to the US, an attack is a violation of international law, so the Obama administration has been talking incessantly about an international red line while preparing to violate one. It seems like the best message the US could send when it comes to international law is to lead by example and start abiding by it.


Another way?

If humanitarianism were in fact the goal of the United States in Syria, would bombing be the first option? Even with ongoing negotiations, there are reportedly at least 96 cruise missiles positioned off the coast of Syria. Alone these bombs are valued at $461 million. For the moment let’s ignore other costs associated with striking Syria and just consider the cost of these bombs. The UN has raised just 40% of the $4.4 billion dollars it has asked for to address the humanitarian crisis in Syria. The price of those 96 missiles could close the approximately $400 million aid gap for food programs within Syria, or the $330 million gap for emergency non-food items and shelter. That is, with the cost of the bombs alone, we could not only “send a message” but actually bring life instead of death to other human beings.



A US military strike on Syria would have sent the message that if anyone is going to recklessly attack civilians in the face of international laws and norms, it will be this government. Following the logic of the so-called “war on terror,” which kills civilians with brutal regularity in the face of international law, a unilateral attack on Syria would have been completely in line with US foreign policy.

Thankfully, public pressure has forced Obama to change course on Syria, but progressives and peace activists must stay vigilant. Before Bush invaded Iraq on false pretenses, he first asked that the Iraqi Army allow the US to enter and “eliminate weapons of mass destruction.” Ten years later, the US has been through a three trillion dollar war, over 100,000 Iraqi civilians lost their lives, and nearly 5,000 US soldiers died, all based on false information and the notion that the United States must bomb its way to democracy and human rights around the world.

In remembering this history, we should know that no war can be humanitarian and realize that when the US confuses peace with war, everyone loses.