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Hynes/My Turn: Down the same rut

Fifty years after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech — the inspired vision of an America of freedom and racial harmony — we are preparing to wage another war in the now-inflamed Middle East, this time against Syria.

The “limited” Tomahawk Cruise missile strikes with “no boots on the ground” originally proposed by President Obama are quickly expanding to “boots on the ground if necessary” and “a broader strategy” to arm and strengthen opposition rebels. As the White House forcefully lobbies Congress for their approval for military action, we the people must parse the reasons why going to war against Syria is a moral and political failure. Among the multitude of reasons, here are three.

First, our three preceding wars during the last 12 years in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya — all sold as quick, decisive victories relying on massive air assault — have left humanitarian disasters in those countries. Iraq is disintegrating with sectarian warfare; Afghanistan has a virulently corrupt government, with the Taliban intact and al-Qaida having spread to the Middle East; and Libya is in chaos, with strengthened radical Islamist power.

In July 2013, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, warned in a letter to the Senate Arms Committee regarding a missile attack on Syria, “Once we take (military) action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.” Who is listening?

Second, Washington’s rush to war is based on circumstantial and vague evidence, evidence which has allegedly been bolstered, but cannot be disclosed to the American public. Why? Fear of public opinion? For many citizens, this reeks of the Bush administration’s multiple deceptions about alleged weapons of mass destruction that took us to war in Iraq, destroyed that country and left hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers injured for life.

Third, what possibly can be the “moral weight” of our air strike against Syria for its suspected use of chemical weapons against its people, when the United States has a long history of much more extensive and deadly use of chemical and radiological weapons in war?

We used napalm, which burns through the skin to bone, in World War II. In Vietnam, American soldiers employed napalm and the dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange in Vietnam, for which there are millions of Vietnamese and American veteran victims. U.S. troops used white phosphorus, which burns human tissue like napalm and causes organ damage and death, in the 2004 battle of Fallujah in Iraq. Depleted uranium-tipped bullets and armor piercing munitions, used by the U.S. and Britain in the 1991 Gulf War and more extensively in the 2003 Iraq war, have littered Iraq with radioactive waste. Since these wars, Iraqi children are now suffering extreme rates of hideous birth abnormalities, cancers and heart defects. Finally, our government gave technical assistance to Saddam Hussein in his use of mustard gas and nerve agents against Iran in the late 1980s.

Between military force and doing nothing, there are strategic choices. Many experienced policy, intelligence and military strategists have proposed alternatives to our government’s headlong rush to war. Chief among them is that the House and Senate urge the president to engage in forceful diplomacy with Russia and all the regional countries and parties involved in the Syrian conflict, under the aegis of the U.N., an effort that was tried and must be tried again. The principal goals would be an immediate cease fire and the formation of an interim authority comprising representatives from Assad’s Baath Party, the legitimate rebels and independent individuals. The interim authority would draft a new constitution providing for elections of parliament followed by a presidential election. Hans Blix, the former U.N.-appointed weapons inspector in Iraq, adds that the countries supplying weapons, munitions and money to the Syrian rebels and to Syria have much leverage over the possibility of a cease fire; and they must be part of securing it.

In the lifetimes of all living Americans, our history has been one of using armed force to resolve conflict, often in violation of international law and the U.N. Charter that requires U.N. Security Council authorization, except in self-defense. But this militaristic mode of winning peace has entailed destroying villages, towns, environments and people in other countries with horrific weapons “in order to save them.”

President Obama’s path to war follows in this same rut, with no moral and political imagination. The funds that would be spent on Tomahawk Cruise missiles should be allocated to U.N. Syrian refugee programs, given the humanitarian crisis and the serious shortfall in monies pledged by our and other countries. The same energy going into strong arming Congress to agree to war should be spent on forceful diplomacy for a cease fire.

Pat Hynes chairs the board of the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice. She is a retired Professor of Environmental Health and lives in Montague.

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