by Ellen Lindeen
Dear President Obama,
I supported you in both elections, with my vote and financial giving. When you were elected, I was overjoyed that the US had a leader in the White House who was bright, articulate and honest. After the Bush years, many of us were very discouraged about our country, but you brought hope. Now in 2013, you are faced with a difficult situation.
Chemical weapons have been used Syria. Although no one is certain who instigated this unconscionable act, this is illegal, immoral and demands a response. However, the answer need not be limited to "doing nothing" or "a military strike." Clearly, this situation demands a reaction, and I commend you for waiting to make a decision until after consulting Congress. I imagine you are hearing comparisons to Iraq, and nothing could be more painful. However, the US must not consider any action before the UN completes its report and without the support of the international community. Additionally, even if Congress votes to authorize military action, I urge you to consider other options. Many of your advisors seem to see solutions only in terms of military operations.
We must think of the Syrian civilian population, whose protection is cited as our motivation for a response. Two million people in Syria have fled the country and another five million are internally displaced. How does bombing Syria stop the killing of more people? Despite the fact that so-called targeted strikes are focused on destroying or degrading regime capacity, there are no guarantees. Bombs do not discriminate. Many people may be killed. I remember after you were elected, your wife, Michelle, said she was proud again to be an American after eight difficult years. Although she was criticized for this, I agreed with her completely and felt the same way. We were free of having a president all too easily manipulated by military voices.
At this point in your presidency, the situation may seem far too similar to the events that led to President Bush's misguided responses to September 11 and disastrously illogical decision to also invade Iraq.
We do need to respond, but is a military comeback the solution? If you are unsure if military violence is the correct response, you must listen to your own people and the people of the world. Britain's Parliament has voted down military action, the majority of the American public is against a military response, and the French people, although President Hollande is being cooperative, are against a military strike. The majority of the leaders in St. Petersburg also did not support a military response.
A punitive response to the use of chemicals is problematic because we have stood by for two years while the government has killed 110,000 people in what began as a nonviolent protest against a repressive regime. Michael Scherer explains in his September 6 article, in Time that "White House officials have ... made clear that ...[you do]... not embrace a humanitarian mission in Syria with the goal of saving lives. The goal...is to prevent the loss of life by chemical attack." If we want the Syrian government to stop killing its own people, we are to start now but only to prevent killing by chemical weapons?
We must consider the consequences of this potential action. If a brutal United States president killed some of his own people, would the best solution be another country bombing the US? If we do bomb Syria, Iran and Russia and potentially Israel may feel compelled to get involved. There are other options. The Arab League agrees that Assad must be stopped from harming his own people. We need exhaustive diplomacy, not a rush to violence. Iranian President Rouhani has condemned the use of chemical weapons; have we reached out to him? A huge change in political rhetoric has taken place since this new president has taken power. There is a potential opening for dialogue here but not if the bombing of Syria is inevitable. How do we react when an ally of ours is attacked?
Have you considered talking to or convening major signatories of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention? The response cannot and should not be the sole responsibility of the US. How will we be able to go to the International Criminal Court for action if we do not work with the UN for international support for our actions? The Oxford Research Group (Sept 2013) calls for more talks, perhaps even an exit and exile strategy for the Assad regime, and pressure on Iran and Russia. There are many possibilities other than military responses. If we want others to follow international law, such as the ban on chemical weapons, we need to follow it as well. Much of the rest of the world will see us as an aggressor and invader again, an image you have been working hard to dissolve since the last president.
The justification for war of "if you only knew what we know" no longer works. The American people have heard that and later learned that they were duped with an untruth. "No boots on the ground now" does not mean they will not be demanded in the future. What if, instead of US leadership spending the amount of time and energy they are spending on getting a positive vote on a military action in Congress, they tried to figure out a way to deal with this situation without resorting to bombing?
Changing direction and trying another tactic would be the ultimate sign of strong leadership. Your predecessor would not have been capable of this, but you are. It is not too late. You are a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, waiting to act in the eyes of US and global citizens. You must decide if you want your legacy to be one of making war or ending war. Thank you for your consideration in this matter of grave importance.
(signed) Ellen Lindeen, associate professor of English, Waubonsee Community College, Sugar Grove, IL