Even if I weren’t opposed to American intervention on the side of Sunni Islamic supremacists in Syria, I’d be inclined to agree with the bottom line of John O’Sullivan’s characteristically wise weekend column: the United States should not act unless we are willing to act decisively. There is clearly no public appetite for doing so. I believe this is prudent on the public’s part.
John seems more agnostic on that point. He packs some telling observations in the thrust of his argument that are very much worth considering further:
President Obama seems to have reached the conclusions that American voters will go no further than supplying lighter and less advanced weaponry to the rebels. Others — Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, and former president Clinton — argue that they would support a higher level of intervention once the president (any president, apparently) ordered it. But experience suggests that even if that were so, public support would evaporate unless the rebels looked like scoring a victory in reasonable time. And that would be a plausible outcome only if U.S. intervention were bold and substantial[.]…
Three noteworthy things here. First, Obama probably has concluded that voters will go no further than supplying insignificant arms. This, however, is not to say that voters affirmatively support such a policy. Rather, it means that this is the most Obama believes he can get away with given that the public is overwhelmingly opposed to any U.S. military action (almost 3-to-1 according to Gallup).
Second, notice the joint position of McCain, Graham and Clinton (as I’ve argued repeatedly, the transnational progressivism that steers U.S. foreign policy is a bipartisan phenomenon). It is reminiscent of the same arguments made by the GOP’s McCain wing and the Obama administration in connection with the Libyan debacle: No need for the president to go to Congress for authorization to launch an unpopular war; he should just order it and the public will come along.
This is how we get into, and double down on, so many failed foreign policy experiments: The president unilaterally orders them and then those who favor them say, regardless of the naysayers’ misgivings or the objective foolishness of the policy, that we are now obliged to support it because presidential (and thus, American) credibility is on the line. This is especially the case when American troops are put in harm’s way — even those who oppose the commitment of our forces do not want to undermine them, no matter how wayward the mission.
The answer to this is to go to Congress. If there is a congressional debate – such as the ones President Bush 41 and President Bush 43 wisely encouraged rather than unilaterally using force against Saddam Hussein’s regime – the interventionists can make their case and, should they prevail, rally crucial political support for their cause. As I noted elsewhere over the weekend, GOP Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee have joined two Democratic counterparts, Senators Chris Murphy and Tom Udall, in offering legislation that would block direct or indirect aid for military or paramilitary operations in Syria. The debate is thus already on – the one we should have had over Libyan intervention. If I may quote the argument I made this weekend:
The Congress abdicated its responsibility by failing to press for a vigorous debate on Libyan intervention, and by failing to pull the plug on that wayward initiative when Obama went ahead unilaterally. We should not need another Benghazi massacre to learn our lesson.
President Obama and his interventionist allies should be pressed to define the mission, be transparent about the forces opposing Assad, explain why helping them is in America’s vital interests, and persuade the Congress to authorize the use of military force. I do not believe they can do it in a convincing way, but they should have that opportunity. And it should not be optional – if they cannot garner public support and persuade Congress to authorize the war (as President Bush did with respect to Iraq), then Congress must take decisive action to forbid American intervention.
Third, John points out that even if McCain & Co. were correct that public support would materialize once the president ordered aggressive intervention, support would evaporate unless it appeared the rebels would win reasonably rapidly. John may be right that this conclusion is supported by past experience. I respectfully submit, however, that public perceptions have changed in a manner that renders past experience less useful than usual.
For one thing, not only the Benghazi massacre but the slew of controversies engulfing the Obama administration – the scandals involving abuse of bureaucratic power and public outrage at the extent of government monitoring of Americans – are prompting a backlash. A unilateral presidential ordering of force in this climate is more likely to harden and increase opposition than to result in grudging support.
Relatedly, there is the growing sense – in the country if not in the Beltway – that Obama is on the wrong side in the Middle East. This is not to say there is a “right side” in Syria. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, there is not – the conflict pits anti-Americans against anti-Americans. Still, read the news from Syria on any given day and you’re apt to find reports like this one from last week (my thanks to Robert Spencer):
Members of al-Nusra Front, affiliated to Al Qaeda terrorist network, set Syrian-Christian al-Waha church on fire, in Deir Ezzor city today, about 460 kilometers northeastern Damascus, reported local press. The fire destroyed all the furniture and valuable objects inside the facility, which was seriously damaged, broadcast official news television channel.
The armed opposition groups fighting here for overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad, with the approval of regional and western governments, have destroyed mosques, shrines, and religious buildings during the over two years of conflict.
In April, insurgents blew off the emblematic minaret of the Grand Mosque of the Omeyas in Allepo city, and the Omari Mosque, on eof [sic] the oldest of the Islamic world, located in the southern Deraa city.
Americans do not want to support these savages, even if they are anti-Iranian and not beholden to Moscow. They are also anti-American and contemptuous of Western civilization.
John suggests that there may have been a time – and perhaps it is still possible – that the United States could have strengthened the pro-Western elements of Assad’s opposition, such that they could have taken the leadership role in a post-Assad order. This is a variation of the argument that Obama’s failure to intervene decisively earlier on created a leadership vacuum that Islamic supermacists have now filled. As I’ve contended repeatedly here, this is a hopeful theory about the Middle East that forever searches in vain for real-world corroboration. (This theory is the target of my book, Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy.) Sunni sharia supremacists – not just the al Qaeda variety but also the more insidiously sophisticated Muslim Brotherhood brand – dominate Assad’s opposition. As in Egypt (from which Muslims are now flocking to Syria, as they are from other Sunni countries, to join the jihad against Assad), the pro-Western factions in Syria have never been strong or determined enough to topple Assad or lead a post-Assad order.
That is why Assad is supported not only by Putin, the Iranian mullahs, and Hezbollah but also by Syrian Christians and other religious minorities. Christians are already being persecuted by the “rebels.” They obviously don’t love Assad, who is despicable. Instead, they see the anti-Christian pogrom underway in Egypt, hear the deafening silence about it from the White House and the West, and understand well what is in store for them if the current dictator is replaced by a Brotherhood-heavy regime.
The United States should only use force when our vital interests compel doing so. In those instances, as John asserts, we should act decisively. I do not believe Syria – and specifically, the interest in seeing one collection of our enemies prevail over another – presents one of those instances. I also believe those pushing for U.S. intervention understand that they cannot convince us otherwise, which is why they will continue to sidestep a debate in Congress.