To support the president’s enforcement of his red line in Syria requires suspensions of disbelief. Here are several.
I wish it were not true, but there is scant evidence that the world, led by the U.S., went to war in the past over the use of weapons of mass destruction — whether by Gamel Nasser in Yemen or by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds and the Iranians. Understandably, the current West’s reaction, including Obama’s, to possible Syrian WMD use is calibrated mostly on the dangers of intervention, not the use of WMD per se. Thus Obama is now focusing on Syria in a way he is not, at least overtly, on Iran, the far greater WMD threat, because he believes the former could be handled with two days’ worth of Tomahawks and the latter could not. That would be understandable pragmatism if it were not dressed up in the current humanitarian bluster about red lines and the “international community.”
Obama, I think, is inadvertently doing the terrible arithmetic that the last 1,000 Syrians killed by the Assad regime pose a humanitarian crisis that demands his intervention in a way that the first 99,000 did not — on the theory that WMD represent an existential threat. (In fact, from the trenches of World War I to Hiroshima, WMD have never killed more than contemporary horrific conventional weaponry has.) So far Obama has not made that case. We can only wonder whether the forgotten hundreds of thousands butchered from Rwanda to Darfur — without so much as one Tomahawk or Hellfire launched on their behalf — might have been saved had only their killers begun their devilry with sarin gas.
Obama, as senator and presidential candidate, made the serial argument that U.S. military interventions, barring an “imminent threat” to our national security, are both illegal and immoral unless they have the triad of U.S. congressional support, U.N. approval, and American public support.
In the present circumstances, to make the argument for attacking Syria he must assume that congressional authorization is an eleventh-hour afterthought and not necessarily binding, that the U.N. is mostly hocus-pocus and not worth the bother, and that overwhelming public opposition does not matter.
There are so many contradictions and hypocrisies in such thinking as to render it farcical. I’ll give one, though: In 2002–03 George Bush built public opinion for an intervention, assembled an allied coalition, succeeded with the U.S. Congress, and tried at the U.N. He made the argument that Saddam Hussein’s past use of WMD, his support for terrorism, and his genocide (read all 23 congressional writs) made a good moral and realist case for intervening in a post-9/11 landscape. In response, Barack Obama launched his political career by deriding just such logic, which he is now far less impressively adopting as his own.
Going into a country to help one side and hurt another in a civil war — if that is the latest reason to go to war — assumes the administration has some wisdom about recent Middle East turmoil. Unfortunately, nothing suggests that it does.
Obama shows no interest in anything approximating victory in Afghanistan.
Leaving a residual force in Iraq to preserve a hard-fought victory in achieving a constitutional order was apparently not a good political slogan for 2012.
Libya, to the extent we know what is now going on, is probably worse off than before we led from behind there; There is no administration interest in explaining, much less avenging, our losses in Benghazi. Indeed, the administration has told us less about Benghazi than about Syria.
The common denominator among U.S. actions in Egypt has been the administration’s doing the wrong thing: abruptly junking Mubarak, then backing the Muslim Brotherhood, and then denying that the would-be reformist generals had staged a coup and are a junta.
To support the bombing of Syria, we must assume both that Obama has more knowledge of insurgencies than he did in relation to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya and that suddenly he has more stomach for intervening and sorting out good from bad. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely.
No one currently in charge of U.S. foreign policy has any record of foreign-policy success. Those who might have offered wise counsel either are dead, have left the administration, or do not exercise authority — Crocker, Eikenberry, Gates, Holbrooke, Mattis, Petraeus. In contrast, the common theme among Obama, Biden, Hagel, Rice, Kerry, and Power is not brilliance. They cannot agree in public with each other; they contradict their own past statements; they have lost the public’s confidence in their veracity; and they sermonize and pontificate rather than inspire. One day we are bombing and skipping authorization from Congress; the next day, everything is on hold while Congress vacations; the next, its vote may not even matter; the next, the “shot across the bow” is a full-fledged, non-tiny attack; and most recently, everything is on hold again while the Russians — in the middle of a civil war, no less — negotiate with Assad to account for and turn over his WMD. We are certainly not in reliable hands to make one of the most complicated interventions in recent U.S. history.