The Silence of the Nonprofits: Where Are Charities on the Proposed Attack on Syria?

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September 4, 2013; Robert Reich’s Blog


It is hard to believe that the U.S. Congress will follow the lead of the British Parliament and deny President Obama its approval of his plan to launch a punitive missile strike on Syria. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has already voted 10 to 7 to recommend military action. The leadership of the House of Representatives, normally opposed to nearly anything from President Obama, has already endorsed military action consistent with the President’s plans. The juggernaut seems to be marching toward an inexorable launch of missiles in response to the chemical attack on August 21st, which Secretary of State John Kerry asserted as strongly as he could was unleashed by the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich describes the unremitting Obama agenda to convince Congress and the American public to support his plan of attack as “mystifying.” What mystifies the former secretary is that the president’s “domestic agenda is already precarious: implementing the Affordable Care Act, ensuring the Dodd-Frank Act adequately constrains Wall Street, raising the minimum wage, saving Social Security and Medicare from the Republican right as well as deficit hawks in the Democratic Party, ending the sequester and reviving programs critical to America’s poor, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, and, above all, crafting a strong recovery.”

Reich suggests that domestic agendas often “succumb to military adventures abroad—both because the military-industrial-congressional complex drains money that might otherwise be used for domestic goals, and because the public’s attention is diverted from urgent problems at home to exigencies elsewhere around the globe.”

He challenges Kerry’s argument that failing to act would be the wrong signal to countries such as Iran, “send[ing] a signal to Iran that the United States would tolerate the fielding of a nuclear device.” He calls this argument “specious,” similar to the justifications that President George W. Bush used for Iraq and President Lyndon Johnson for Vietnam.

By now, readers have seen lots of stuff, pro and con, regarding the impending attack on Syria, much of it quite articulate and erudite. Kerry’s testimony was a thorough explanation of the Obama administration’s thinking, sufficient to sway enough senators to take the resolution authorizing the use of military force to the floor of the Senate for a vote that may occur, ironically enough, on September 11th. The president is now in Saint Petersburg at the G20 summit, but the discussions of regulating international financial markets and devising means of deterring tax avoidance are overshadowed by the looming attack on Syria, at the moment opposed by Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. Syria is the issue of the moment.

Some nonprofits are actively engaged in the Syria debate, particularly those NGOs that work in international humanitarian relief and the anti-war groups that have mobilized against the military attack, like Code Pink, whose members, led by co-founder Medea Benjamin, sat behind Kerry during his testimony before the House Foreign Relations Committee, conducting a silent protest by waving red-stained hands. But how do other nonprofits feel about the issue of the Syria attack? How are nonprofit leaders and staff personally weighing in on the impending military action? Does it matter that most Americans probably can’t find Syria on a map? That, despite Kerry’s contentions, most countries are not supporting, much less joining, the proposed military actions against Syria? That the U.S. government is hinting that the attack will be a no-cost action to be financed by wealthy Arab states?

Tell us here. We want to hear from the nonprofit sector writ large. Is the chemical weapons controversy in Syria important to you? Should the U.S. attack Syria to punish the rogue nation? What will an attack accomplish—positively and negatively? How would you vote on the authorization resolution?—Rick Cohen