Deal with the Devil: Why Progressives are Wrong to Back Trump's Syrian Disaster

Days before Christmas, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) penned an op-ed in the Washington Post applauding Donald Trump’s abrupt, Russo-Turk friendly pullout from Syria without a plan. That might have something to do with Khanna making the list as the “most valuable House member” in a football-style ranking by The Nation magazine, a publication that spent nearly all of its time during the Obama presidency attacking the very Obama legacies Democrats are now winning elections defending.

Full disclosure here. Ro Khanna is my representative in Congress, I know him personally, and he’s a real gem when it comes to constituent services. I appreciate that. Having said that, generally speaking, I prefer productivity over bombast, compromise over ideological warfare, and light over heat.

And I prefer a foreign policy of engagement over isolationism. I believe that as the one indispensable nation on earth, America must lead by example as well as intervene when necessary to defend ourselves or to fight against a humanitarian catastrophe. As President Obama was fond of saying, I am not against all wars; I’m against dumb wars.

I am fully aware that I do not have to agree with my member of Congress on everything. In fact, I would hope they would serve their role of leadership by giving constituents some food for thought. Nevertheless, Ro Khanna’s onboarding of the Trump Train on the issue of Syria and Afghanistan - and that of many of his anti-interventionist colleagues - is a dangerous deal with the Devil, and that the characterization applies whether one ultimately believes in the legitimacy of the US mission in Syria (I do).

In the rest of this essay, I will offer a point-by-point rebuttal of Khanna’s capitulation to Trump.

Khanna starts with an argument that anti-interventionists often run to as first resort, claiming that the presence of American troops in Syria is without legal justification, because neither Congress nor the United Nations explicitly authorized this mission.

The presence of U.S. troops in the Syrian civil war was never authorized by Congress. We are also violating international law by invading Syria without the approval of the United Nations. Before any administration official can advocate keeping troops in Syria to fight the Islamic State, Congress needs to offer authorization.

This is in fact not true. Many international laws and legal principles confirm a right to popular sovereignty (as opposed to state sovereignty, meaning that ultimately the people, and not merely the government), therefore making an assault on the people’s humanitarian rights, even by their own government, a violation of such sovereignty. There is no doubt that the Syrian government, aided by Russia and Turkey, has violated the sovereignty of its own people, making it incumbent on the international community to act.

More specifically, the United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948 - which the US ratified as a treaty in 1988 - calls upon its members to punish acts of genocide, complicity in genocide, attempts, incitements and conspiracy to commit genocide. Not only has the government of Bashar al Assad targeted his own people, it is a foregone conclusion that Turkey will engage in genocide of Syrian Kurds upon the withdrawal of US forces. A US withdrawal therefore is not merely the abdication of our obligation to act during one humanitarian crisis, but in this case, a certain precipitation of another. The US acted under this convention in Iraq (the first Gulf War, not the second) and in Bosnia with NATO, and shamefully the world failed to carry out its responsibilities in Rwanda.

More recently through a series of debates and report, the United Nations member nations formally accepted the legal responsibility to protect populations against genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity in a 2005 convention. The document adopted by the General Assembly calls upon the Security Council to use its principles in deciding council actions and recognizes the Council as the principal enforcement body. Nevertheless, it does not designate the Security Council as the exclusive body capable of outside intervention. The Summit document calls the international community to action especially when a national government “manifestly fails” to protect their own populations.

In 2012, the UN High Commission on Human Rights recommended referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, and the Secretary General of the UN bluntly used the language from the 2005 convention, stating “The Government of Syria is manifestly failing to protect its populations.”

Interestingly, Khanna does not deny that Assad is guilty of war crimes.

While Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a brutal dictator and should be tried at the Hague for international war crimes, the United States should not militarily overthrow him.

Actually, according to international law, that’s exactly what the United States should do unless he is willing to surrender to a trial in Hague. Under the anti-interventionist logic, any attempt to arrest and present Assad for trial would itself be a violation of Syrian sovereignty, since someone not friendly to Assad will have to go to Syria to pick the guy up in his jumpsuit. Under Khanna’s argument, Assad would be immune to consequences of his crimes for all practical purposes.

International law is squarely on the side of US and coalition intervention in Syria, as is America’s treaty obligations, which, according to the US Constitution, constitute with the Constitution itself, the Supreme Law of the land.

It is also unclear whether Khanna believes his own argument that the intervention in Syria lacks domestic legal basis because it requires a separate Congressional authorization. Khanna has himself declared on Twitter that the 2001 Congressional Authorization to Use Military Force legally authorized “endless war”, which would certainly seem to include the intervention in Syria in his eyes.

From his support for abandoning Syrian children to the man who uses chemical weapons on children without a second thought, Khanna jumps to a full-throated endorsement of Trump’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. While this may be a more defensible position than what appears to truly be a cruel approach to Syrian civilians, Khanna surrenders himself to bad talking points instead of sound arguments.

Our military approach has not worked. After the 2008 surge, the Taliban now exerts influence or maintains control over 70 percent of Afghan territory instead of just 40 percent.

This line is bandied about often by anti-interventionists, but this is like saying that Republicans control the vast majority of the the western coastal states because they control Alaska, which covers more land mass than California, Oregon, Washington state, and Hawaii combined. Just because the Taliban controls a lot of the land doesn’t mean they control most of the population.

This “statistic” should qualify for four Pinocchios. It comes from a BBC report that actually shows that the Taliban only actually controls 4% of the country, while they have a “presence” in nearly two-thirds of the rest. The government in Kabul fully controls 30% of the country. Not a passing grade by any means, but miles better than the Taliban’s 4%. The 70% number also belies the fact that only about half of the Afghan population resides in areas that are prone to Taliban attacks. Again, no passing grade, but let’s call a spade a spade. While the Taliban are a threat to large swaths of Afghanistan, they are “in control” of a very tiny part of the population.

The next point will appear disjointed from the rest of the essay, precisely because Khanna himself makes a disjointed and seemingly gratuitous - and false - point about China.

A few days ago, I was with Trump as he signed one of my bills. I said, “Mr. President, China has not been in a war since 1979. If we want to win the race against them, we should not get bogged down in war.” He nodded and then observed that they have enriched themselves without firing a shot.

This portrayal of the Chinese communist regime as a pacifist economic competitor is not simply morally shocking, factually incorrect or naively dangerous, it is a horrifying affront to those suffering under Chinese oppression, civil and military, inside China and out.

Before declaring a power that has systematically censored speech, engaged in blatant racism and religious persecution against many of China’s own subcultures and yes, used the force of its police and military to enforce its aura a pacifist global good actor, one ought to ask Tibetans about China’s aversion to war. One should ask China’s neighbors in the South China Sea about China’s wielding of military power to commandeer international waters and even exclusive economic zones of other sovereign countries. One ought to ask Taiwan whether the vast military might of China plays any part in its inability to leave the control of the Chinese government.

As for the period since 1979, one ought really ask those dead and bloodied at the hands of the Chinese military in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. That the government of China massacred over 10,000 of its own, unarmed people as opposed to invading a foreign land in this case does not give it moral - or legal - superiority over foreign intervention. In fact, the Chinese regime’s very control over the 1.5 billion people - many of whom are forced to be a part of China - can itself be termed a vast military occupation.

It is important in this country to have a debate on foreign policy, on commitments of American troops, and on what role the US should play in what often seems like a world consumed by humanitarian strife. We should debate both our responsibilities as a global leader that is capable of using its power for good and the unintended consequences of such use of power. We should no more shy away from protesting wars of aggression like Iraq and Vietnam than stand up for fulfilling our obligations - including with military intervention - under international law and principles.

Democrats must focus on returning America to its moral leadership in the world, and we cannot do so by supporting Donald Trump’s acquiescence to Russia, Turkey and Assad’s goal of ethnic cleansing in Syria. We certainly should not be trying to do so by citing false statistics about Afghanistan or cozying up to inhumane, oppressive, aggressive powers like China.

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