A poison gas attack on the 21st of August, according to US officials, killed over 1,400 people in the Syrian capital of Damascus. The international charity Medicins sans Frontiers estimates the number of dead at 355. The government of Bashar Al-Assad is being accused by US government officials of responsibility for the attack. On the 9th September, the United States Congress will begin debate on President Obama’s proposal to intervene militarily. So far the civil war has caused approximately 100,000 deaths and produced at least 1.7 million refugees, but the use of chemical weapons may have crossed a vaguely-defined ‘red line’ which the Obama administration has articulated several times over the past year.
Intervention is difficult to justify in any case, and in this instance it would probably be a mistake. It is unclear what intervention would solve, or what it is even intended to achieve. Military action will surely add to the casualties and chaos it is ostensibly intended to prevent.
Although war naturally provokes strong emotional reactions, it is important that opposition to intervention is intellectually sound. Unfortunately, opponents of intervention too often employ suspect arguments, weakening the case against military action. Following are some such claims.
US Attorney General Eric Holder has announced that the administration will not seek to prevent the US states of Colorado and Washington from implementing regulations for legal marijuana sales. Ballot initiatives legalizing the substance passed in November of last year with 55% and 56% support, respectively. Initiative 502, the legalization measure in Washington, was passed in an election with an extremely high turnout. Eighty-one percent of registered voters in the state showed up to the polls that day. The Washington Secretary of State suggests that the initiatives on the ballot were partly responsible for this high turnout, although these did not deal only with marijuana, but also included a failed attempt to repeal the state’s gay marriage law, as well as a successful measure to make passing new tax laws more difficult.
The federal administration is presumably responding to the groundswell of public support for drug policy reform in recent years, particularly regarding marijuana. A Pew Research Center poll from this year shows that national support for legalizing the plant is now at 52%, its highest level in the 45 years for which there is polling data. The same survey suggests that 60% of Americans oppose the federal government intervening on the issue in states which have passed more liberal marijuana laws, while 72% agreed with the statement “government efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more than they are worth.” Both this shift in public opinion and the recent statements from the administration represent a significant achievement, and undoubtedly the efforts of high-profile activist groups such as Marijuana Policy Project, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Drug Policy Alliance, and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition played a large part in it.* However, there is no reason to assume that the battle is already won.