Sunday, September 1, 2013

Why we should prosecute Al-Assad instead of bombing Syria: a follow up

Well, I started this, so I'll follow through. Whenever I come up with an idea that sounds really smart to me, I tend to come up with potential arguments against it. So here's a few I've considered:

Q) Why even bother? ICC prosecutions take forever.
A) I know they do. That sucks. I wish justice was faster. It's not even fast within the same country, but it's especially slow internationally. But the question is: compared to what? Invading Syria? Launching a few random cruise missiles or drone strikes? What alternative will have an impact on what's happening right now?

Q) What if it wasn't Al-Assad's idea to launch chemical weapons? What if was some random lieutenant, or even the rebels?
A) That's why we have a trial. Instead of rushing off and launching missiles based on what we think happened, we can find out who's actually responsible, and prosecute them.

Q) But lots of American leaders have done things at least as bad.
A) I know. And if this was a just world, George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Henry Kissinger and a lot of other American leaders (maybe even You Know Who) would be sitting in cells in the Hague right now. But it's not a just world. It's the one we live in. The choice isn't between prosecuting Al-Assad and prosecuting George Bush. It's between prosecuting Al-Assad and killing some random Syrians to teach Al-Assad a lesson. So which do you like better?

Q) How do you even prosecute a person in the ICC?
A) I have no idea. I know there are people that do. I know we are the most powerful nation in the world, and if we want to make it happen we very likely can. But it won't if we don't try.

Q) Are you sure it will work?
A) No. And if it does, it won't work for a long, long time. I'm saying that there is no idea out there that is better. The reason I'm proposing this is because if you say bombing Syria is a bad idea, people who want to do it will say, "Well, what would you do?" So now you can answer the question.

If teaching Assad a lesson is our goal, let's charge him with war crimes

So, I guess good for Obama to ask Congress before he drops bombs on Syria even though: 1) they'll let him anyway and 2) he reserves the right to bomb anyway even if they say no. Maybe someday down the road it will be treated as a precedent. But just because he gets congressional approval doesn't make it okay.

Why do we have to drop bombs? Well, because he said he would. We have to kill people for "credibility." Will civilians die for that word? What's the other argument?

The other argument is that Bashar Al-Assad violated international law, and he needs to be punished. There need to be "consequences." 

Let's start with the assumption that 1) chemical weapons were used, 2) they were used by the Syrian government, and 3) it was on Bashar Al-Assad's orders and 4) killing people with gas is for whatever reason way worse than killing them with guns and bombs. Assuming that's true, then everyone agrees this Onion article describes the situation. There are no good choices, right? 

But there is an option that no one has even discussed. If the point is to punish Al-Assad, there is a choice: charge him in international court with war crimes. 

But, you will say, the Syrian regime is killing people right now. Sure, we can worry about war crimes down the road, but we have to do something today. War crimes prosecutions are great, but they take years. They're not going to stop Al-Assad right now.

Hasn't everyone agreed, however, that there is not one thing we can do to stop the killing now? At least, nothing that won't kill many more people than Al-Assad is killing. If the last fifteen years of military adventurism has taught us anything, it's taught us that. The point is to set an example for other leaders, so they won't think they should use chemical weapons as well. 

Still, what does Assad care about some court off in Netherlands? Well, Slobodan Milosevic didn't care either, but he died in jail in the Hague. 

What if Al-Assad wins the war, you might argue? He's not going to turn himself over for prosecution. But the fact that he might win is exactly why we should charge him now.

Bashar Al-Assad is in a fight for his life now, beyond doubt. Perhaps there was a time that he might have just ended up in jail like Mubarak. But not anymore. If he loses this war, he's going to do a long dance at the end of a short rope, just like Saddam Hussein. Unless they just shoot him first. 

If he wins, he'll still be in charge of the government. But what if he is convicted of war crimes? It's embarrassing to be seen with a war criminal, so other leaders won't want to visit him. If he travels to other countries, he might be arrested. He'll be cut off from most other countries.

Furthermore, it's embarrassing to have a convicted international war criminal leading your country. Assad's generals will be itching to get rid of him so they can re-establish normal relations with other countries. For the rest of his rule, Al-Assad will have knives at his back.

In other words, charging Al-Assad with war crimes is the only course of action we can take that will have a direct impact on Bashar Al-Assad, at least in the long run. Certainly it is much more likely to mean something to him than killing a few more of his soldiers or blowing up a few of his artillery with a drone or a cruise missile. 

Other countries, which are reluctant to help us with military intervention, might well be eager to help us with this. And the ICC is not in the Security Council, so Russia and China can't veto it. 

So instead of a pointless, brief intervention, let's do something that can make a difference. Let's use the international mechanisms we've created, for the purpose they're meant to be used for.