Attacking Syria; Yes or No?, A Panel Discussion

September 12, 2013
By Sarah Abrams, HKS Communications

Whether the United States should use military action against Syria for its use of chemical weapons drew contrasting responses from a panel of policy experts at an Institute of Politics Forum, "Attacking Syria; Yes or No? How do you vote?," at the Harvard Kennedy School Wednesday night.

Moderator Graham Allison asked the four panelists whether, if they were members of Congress, they would vote yes or no to authorize military force. Marisa Porges, an international security program fellow at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said a targeted military strike would be neither timely nor proportionate.

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“If we’re really looking to do something, we need to look toward humanitarian aid to Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, to the internally and externally displaced refugees, and to aggressively push for a diplomatic solution that would make an end to the greater problem, which is not just the 1,400 people killed in this chemical attack but the 100,00 that have died more broadly in the war,” Porges said.

Longtime foreign service officer and current professor of international relations at Harvard Kennedy School Nicholas Burns said the United States’ approach to Syria should comprise limited air strikes designed to degrade President Assad’s military capacity. Military action, however, must be followed by a diplomatic campaign with Russia, Turkey, and the Middle East states and by a massive international relief operation for Syrian refugees as well as efforts to engineer a cease fire in that war.

Offering a sharply different perspective on the Obama administration’s handling of Syria, historian Niall Ferguson, a professor of history at Harvard, drew a portrait of a president irreparably damaged by his lack of a Middle East strategy. While Ferguson said he would have voted yes as a member of Congress, it didn’t surprise him that so few people were willing to step up and support what was proposed.

"The United States should have intervened earlier and I think our aim should have been regime change,” said Ferguson. “Now, it is much too late and the consequences of this dithering are already deeply tragic not just for Syria, but for the people in all these neighboring countries that have been deeply destabilized by this.”

Former Kennedy School dean Joseph S. Nye said he supports a limited strike, but that the United States should not be involved in a regime change. “The Arab countries are going through a set of revolutions which are theirs and the more we interfere with it, the worse we’re going to make it.” The question now, said Nye, is “can we make lemonade out of this lemon.”

In response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent proposal for Syria to hand over control of its chemical weapons, Burns said the United States must be “as tough as nails.” The United States must insist on a short time frame for identifying the chemical weapons sites, the transfer of weapons to a reputable organization, and an enforcement mechanism. Reneging on this deal, concedes Burns, is very probable, in which case, “we may have to walk away from a Security Council resolution.”

With Putin’s proposal on the table, Nye said, Obama should now invoke chapter six of the U.N. Charter in requiring the Syrian president to give up his weapons. The objectives, Nye said, should be to limit those weapons and deter their use. “Obama should play his hand in such a way that doesn’t allow somebody to restrain him, whether it’s the U.N. or the Congress.”

Nye also noted the contrast in U.S. public opinion to military intervention in the Middle East from just a little over a decade ago when Congress voted to intervene in two Middle East countries. “What a remarkable shift,” he said. “Today Obama is being pulled back.”

At the Forum’s conclusion, moderator Graham Allison, former dean of the Kennedy School, the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, and director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, asked the Forum audience for its vote on whether as members of Congress they would vote to intervene. Using clickers handed out at the beginning of the event, 45 percent of the audience cast their vote in favor of military action and 55 percent voted no. The event was co-sponsored by The Middle East Initiative and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

For more information, see the center’s new resource page on Syria.

picture of panel

(From L to R) Graham Allison (moderator), Belfer Center director; R. Nicholas Burns; The Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations; Marisa Porges, international security program fellow; Niall Ferguson, professor of history at Harvard; and Joseph S. Nye, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor.

Photo Credit: Rose Lincoln

Moderator Graham Allison asked the four panelists whether, if they were members of Congress, they would vote yes or no to authorize military force.


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