President Obama is about to ask Congress to endorse military action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Over the past week momentum has been building against the Obama policy of airstrikes to punish Assad for his use of chemical weapons against civilians. It’s not that the case against the Assad regime is weak. On the contrary, it is clear that sarin was used by regime forces at Ghouta near Damascus on August 21, killing hundreds of civilians including children. (It is not known whether Assad personally ordered the use of gas, but it is virtually certain that his forces, and not the Syrian rebels, are responsible for the August 21 attack.) But a war-weary American citizenry simply sees no compelling reason to start yet another war in the Middle East. The atrocity in Ghouta does not rise above the many ghastly events that occur around the world on an almost daily basis. I have mentioned before in this space that some 7 million people have been killed in the Congo since civil war broke out there in 1996, and yet America has done nothing to stop the killing. Why then is Obama so keen to avenge what in comparison is a small-scale atrocity in Syria?
We should be clear that the president is motivated primarily by the need to shore up what’s left of his international stature and credibility. In 2012 he foolishly called the use of chemical weapons a “red line” that al-Assad must not cross. At Ghouta his bluff was called. Undoubtedly he now feels that he must strike in order to restore respect for himself and the nation he leads. He has in recent months been dissed by China (over hacking and other matters), Russia (over Edward Snowden), and Britain (where Parliament voted down a government proposal to join the US in attacking Syria). As Obama sees it, to do nothing would only further erode what remains of the respect he commands on the world stage.
A second reason for the strike is the misguided humanitarianism of the president and his closest advisors, particularly National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Secretary of State John Kerry. This past weekend Kerry bloviated ad nauseam about Bill Clinton’s regret over not intervening to stop the slaughter in Rwanda. Rice is known to believe in military action to fulfill humanitarian goals. Leaving aside the fact that there are more humanitarian crises in the world than we have forces to deploy on such missions, there is in fact no reason whatsoever to believe that lobbing a few cruise missiles into Syria will alleviate the suffering there. It may, in fact, increase suffering by intensifying and spreading the conflict. Al-Assad’s Shiite allies in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon have indicated that US and other targets in the Middle East and perhaps beyond will be hit if we act against Syria. Are they bluffing? Perhaps. But do we want to find out, given that we have already exhausted ourselves fighting terrorists and others over the past dozen years?
The president is motivated primarily by the need to shore up what’s left of his international stature and credibility.
Russia has said that it will provide advanced weaponry to Syria in the event the US goes to war. Such a move could lead to additional US strikes to knock out Syria’s augmented defenses. A spiraling escalation of the conflict, while unlikely, should not be discounted. Every war, a soldier recently said to me, is a door into the unknown. Risking a major war to restore Obama’s amour propre is simply a bad idea.
The US and the new government in Iran have been talking behind the scenes about negotiating an end to the nuclear issue that has divided them for years. The prospect of ending the danger of war in the Persian Gulf, of avoiding yet more American blood and treasure spent, will be thrown away if we attack Syria.
In recent days world opinion as well as opinion here at home has turned decisively against the idea of US intervention in Syria. It remains to be seen whether the US Congress will find the courage to stand up to the president. Obama shrewdly asked Congress for authorization to strike, which places the burden of responsibility equally on its shoulders. The leadership of both parties appears to be “on board.” A certain amount of obfuscation has been used by the administration to persuade the leadership to support war. House Speaker John Boehner and others have been told that the strikes will be limited, that we will basically be sending Assad a message. At the same time, Senate hawks were told that the strikes will be more extensive and punishing. Its prestidigitation may come back to haunt the administration in the near future, assuming that Congress does vote for war.
We will soon know whether members will follow the leadership down the primrose path. At present, members see their constituents opposing war by 10-to-1 and even 100-to-1 margins. Most of them will await the president’s speech to the nation on Tuesday to see whether the political winds shift. Opponents of war on the far Left and far Right will vote their consciences; most of the rest will vote according to what’s best for them politically. Much therefore rides on Obama’s performance Tuesday. If his speech is well received, congressional authorization will be assured, and the missiles will fly soon thereafter. For what it’s worth, this analyst is convinced that Congress will vote to authorize war.
One hopes that the strikes will be limited, and that we will then declare that Assad has been taught a lesson, followed by a return to the status quo ante. Syria’s allies will choose not to act, and the war will not spread. But in the past few days the Defense Department has expanded its list of targets, some of which will require attacks by strike aircraft. An air campaign stretching out for days or possibly even weeks could be in the offing. Such an expanded campaign is more likely to provoke a response from Syria and Syria’s friends. A longer, messier intervention by US forces could conceivably devolve into a regional war. If events spin out of control, the possibility of boots on the ground cannot be excluded.
Every war, a soldier recently said to me, is a door into the unknown. Risking a major war to restore Obama’s amour propre is simply a bad idea.
It’s pretty clear that the military dreads such a possibility. On Sept. 5 Major General Robert Scales (ret.) published a scathing op-ed in the Washington Post opposing Obama’s march to war. Within the last two days I have spoken to a retired Army colonel and a captain in the Army Reserves. Both feel Syria would be the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. The colonel in particular, a former brigade commander, spoke passionately about the need for the Army to recuperate from a dozen years of war. He told me that in his opinion, the Army is “broken,” pointing to the rise in suicides and the epidemic of sexual assault as sure proof of this. He would not exclude the possibility that another war now might end in defeat and a complete breakdown of the force.
A certain feeling of dread overhangs the movement toward war. US public and world opinion are strongly against any US action, allies are falling away, and enemies seem prepared to retaliate. The Congress is likely to endorse the war nonetheless. And the administration seems determined, come what may, to strike. Perhaps the event will prove less dramatic than one fears — a few days of bombing accompanied by shrieks of protest and threats from Assad and his friends. In that case, Obama and his friends will feel vindicated; presidential credibility will be, at least in part, restored. But nothing will have changed on the ground in Syria. The killing will continue. And there remains the possibility that we will become involved in a new war, a war that may extend beyond Syria. All this because the president chose to cavalierly lay down a “red line” he thought that a tinpot dictator wouldn’t dare to cross. Helluva way for a great power to conduct foreign policy.