And now America faces yet another war

Published 9:15 am Friday, September 6, 2013

Column: Notes from Home, by David Behling

The past couple of weeks have been filled with tension for hundreds of millions of people around the world, including many here in southern Minnesota. All of us held our breath waiting, worrying about the destructive steps a dictator might take next in his attempts to maintain power and credibility.

All of us were asking the same question: Would President Barack Obama send missiles to rain fire upon military installations in Syria?

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Wait, you say, that’s not the dictator in this story. I must be confused. The dictator in this story must be Bashar al-Assad, or, if not him, then possibly his protector, Vladimir Putin, the tyrant currently ruling Russia. Certainly I can’t mean the president of the United States?

Sorry about that confusion, but sometimes U.S. presidents — from Lyndon Johnson to Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Obama — look like authoritarian leaders, or close enough that it’s difficult to tell the difference between them and the self-appointed ones.

Obama created this current flashpoint and power play when, two years ago, he drew a line and dared one of the world’s bullies to cross it. The bully did cross it, of course. So now there has to be a fight, and for a while it looked as if Obama got to decide all by himself when it started. Those are the rules in the game of war.

Apparently quite a few politicians in Washington like those rules, both Republicans and Democrats. To be taken seriously in the world, apparently we have to let our leaders decide to fire weapons and kill people in other countries when those other leaders do things we tell them not to. Obviously that’s how China got to be so powerful and Switzerland so rich. And how Nordic nations like Norway and Finland got to be so influential across the planet.

Saturday, of course, Obama pulled back from some of that macho posturing when he deferred the threatened attack until after a congressional vote. Maybe he noticed both the lack of logic and unintended consequences of acting against Syria unilaterally.

Of course, turning the decision over to Congress entails taking a tremendous risk. But the risk isn’t that Congress might or might not support an attack; the risk is that the debate will just open up another front in the political war between Obama and Tea Party Republicans in the House and Senate.

What guarantee do any of us have that they won’t turn this decision into more political games? Over the past six years, when has the Tea Party demonstrated the ability to think about the nation as a whole instead of their own anti-Obama agenda?

There’s more to this situation with Syria, however, than the possibility of political brinksmanship in Washington — much, much more. In the shadows of a possible punitive attack on Syria there stands another, bigger problem to which we aren’t paying much attention: Even as we ponder and debate a vote about attacking Syria in Congress, behind that Syrian despot stands a Russia ruled by a tyrant unchecked by a politburo.

For decades, the Soviet Union was a threat to democracy and human rights around the world, but except for the years it was ruled by Stalin, it was a bureaucratic, party-controlled dictatorship. There was a kind of stability in its hegemony because even the men at the top lived with boundaries. In Putin’s Russia, that is no longer the case, and his government is determined to protect Bashar al-Assad’s regime no matter how far the Syrian military goes in its attempts to win that civil war. They are enabling the war crimes the Syrian military carries out.

A vote to send missiles to Damascus does nothing to solve the problem posed by a dictator in Moscow who sneers at morality, international law and state-sponsored killings of innocent civilians. But I don’t have a lot of confidence that politicians in Washington, obsessed with squabbling about taxes and forcing their narrow left-wing or right-wing agendas on America, are equipped or even interested in confronting it.

Their selfishness means that, even if we somehow manage to get through the confrontation of Assad without war, we probably will face another one somewhere else soon enough.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.