September 8, 2013

Barney Frank: U.S. should punish Assad but limit its intervention

Public opposition to a U.S. strike is a good sign, but responding to the barbarism of chemical weapons' use is needed.

I have mixed emotions about the fact that a majority of the American people are apparently opposed to any retaliation against President Assad of Syria for his undeniable use of chemical weapons to kill so many of his people.

On this specific issue, I disagree with that majority. But more generally, as someone who has been critical for a long time of our intervening militarily in the internal affairs of other nations, and of the hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars we have spent on that largely futile purpose, I am encouraged that the public has become legitimately skeptical of the notion that it is America's duty to police the world.

Making substantial progress in reducing our annual deficits without savaging our ability to protect our quality of life depends on substantial reductions in that military budget.

A prompt and total withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan -- ahead of the president's announced schedule -- is a better way to save money than penalizing Social Security recipients who are trying to live on $2,000 or less per month.

But what the president proposed to do in Syria is not Afghanistan, and it is certainly not Iraq. If he wanted to intervene directly on behalf of the Syrian opponents of Assad in an ongoing way, as Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham advocate, I would have opposed it.

Their initial announcement that they would vote against what the president planned reassured me that it was a sensible approach that avoided the grave problems that would result from following their advice. Unfortunately, to get McCain's vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee broadened the mission in the resolution adopted. I hope the House rejects that approach.

Syria's use of chemical weapons to kill large numbers of people, mostly noncombatants (although the use of such weapons even in combat calls for condemnation), should be punished. If it is not, given the unfortunate efficacy of such weapons, it is certain to lead other regimes to follow suit.

A world in which combatants feel free to use chemical weapons without any fear of sanction is an increasingly dangerous one. Given the global interest in maintaining strong barriers to this, a strike that is limited in time and strictly targeted to Syrian weaponry is a prudent response to this breach of one of the few remaining international rules restraining barbarism.

It would be better if this could be done through the United Nations, but allowing Putin's affinity for a fellow autocrat to immunize Assad from paying any price for this action would be a terrible mistake.

It is important for members of Congress to make sure that the resolution authorizing this one-time attack is properly drawn.

We do have an unfortunate history of presidents proposing resolutions on the grounds that retaliation is called for against a specific act, but drafting them to enable a far broader and less justifiable set of actions.

Lyndon Johnson's Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 was one example. George W. Bush's resolution after 9/11 is another. In that case, the atmosphere in the country made it very hard to guard against this problem, and I acknowledge being one of those who voted to authorize the attack on Afghanistan (all but one member of Congress did the same, not expecting it to be used as it was, for example, to detain people within the U.S.).

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