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.
When John Kerry lectures us on our moral timidity, we should ask him what sort of regime he thought he was cozying up to prior to 2012. Did he think that Hama was an accident, or that the murder of Lebanese politicians was merely problematic, or that what Israel bombed in 2007 was a fake nuclear facility? When in 2009 he thundered of his mission to Bashar Assad, “Unlike the Bush administration that believed you could simply tell people what to do and walk away and wait for them to do it, we believe you have to engage in a discussion,” did anyone suggest that he was amoral, given the Assad regime’s long history of savagery, including sending killers into Iraq? Please spare us the present bottled piety.
Any war requires a logical objective, a commensurate means of achieving it, and a clear idea of a desired result that is worth the cost. Even if most wars do not play out as envisioned, there is some hope of success when we know why and how we are to fight, and little when we do not. Obama has offered no consistent objective. (Regime change? Destruction of WMD? Punishment for past use of WMD? Establishment of a new global prohibition on WMD? Restoration of presidential credibility? Recovery of America’s reputation in the Middle East? Aid for the insurgents? Hope of forcing Assad to the bargaining table?) We do not seem to have a clear methodology. (Cruise missiles? Bombing? One day? Three weeks? Time is and is not of the essence? When Congress returns and votes? When Vladimir Putin verifies that there are no more WMD in Syria?)
We do not know quite how victory would be defined. (Assad dead? weakened? or gone? Insurgents victorious? Al-Qaedists defeated? A pro-Western consensual government established? WMD blown up or sent on Russian trucks into U.N. hands?) I omit grand strategy, because there is no inkling that anyone has thought how bombing Syria would make the region more compatible with U.S. national interests. Making it up as we go along is a recipe for failure. Killing people to restore personal credibility that was foolishly squandered is a moral travesty.
Obama sold this war on two political assumptions: His liberal base would be willing to embarrass themselves by abandoning anti-war principles in favor of party loyalty to the president and the advancement of a shared progressive agenda; and interventionist Republicans would support another intervention and marginalize those who disagreed. Both assumptions were flawed. Democrats resent the predicament he has put them in, and conservative supporters of bombing Syria are in a minority in the Republican party. In other words, Obama has split both parties, and he will receive support only from their respective minority factions. He has always talked of bipartisanship, and he has achieved it at last by uniting a majority of both Republicans and Democrats against himself.
Obama seems to have become an advocate of just-war theory. As outlined by its proponents from Grotius to Walzer, it assumes that any intervention must save more lives than it will take and will limit rather than widen a conflagration. But in Syria, bombing in and around the custodians of WMD, now embedded among civilians, may kill more than the 1,000 lost to WMD. Furthermore, what reason is there to assume that these soldiers are more dangerous than the al-Qaeda factions that would gain by their death and go on to kill others, many of them Christians, Alawites, and Kurds? Bombing Syria also assumes that missiles will not fly into Israel, terrorists will not go after U.S. assets, and Iran will not react. As of now, none of those just-war expectations is certain.
Obama assumed that the American public would be divided but would not turn overwhelmingly against intervention. That too was naïve. Intervention must be nourished by prior success, or else each subsequent instance becomes a force multiplier of failure in the public eye. Swift, clear-cut success did not follow our initial intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya. So, fairly or not, the public expects stalemate or worse in Syria as well.
Obama was elected on the premise that Bush unwisely redirected resources and attention to intervening abroad at a time of budget constraints; so who now will police the police? One can admire Bush for consistency, but Obama suffers the wages of hypocrisy, and this shows in the sinking polls — both his own and the planned intervention’s. Moreover, this is happening not in late 2012, in the wake of Obama’s recent reelection, but in late 2013, after the Benghazi, IRS, AP, and NSA scandals. He badly misjudged public opinion — a serious misstep for a self-described populist on the eve of a complex war.
Obama assumes that because no major power directly challenged us after Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya, none will after Syria. Perhaps.
But the proposed Syrian intervention is unique. We either obtained or at least sought U.N. approval in the prior three interventions — of some public-relations value in dissuading mischief by enemy spectators. This time around we snubbed the U.N.
We also had allies in all three interventions; there are none so far who have pledged military assistance. And all those interventions were prior to the recent massive Pentagon cuts.
Syria sits between Israel, Lebanon, and Turkey. It is hard to imagine a more volatile place. Most of the terrorists in Iraq had to travel there; their home base is Syria and Lebanon. Russia had long ago abandoned Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya; it still considers Syria a useful and loyal client of good standing that pays its bills. That is why, as long as we preen about imminent bombing, it will off and on pose as a third-party peacemaker, humiliating the United States and boasting to the world community that for another week at least it has saved Obama from his own rash self.
Bush conducted the first two Middle East interventions; an earlier Obama, the third. Now a lame-duck and scandal-ridden Obama is considered no Bush, and weaker even than his earlier incarnation. In other words, this time around it is more likely that our enemies might try something stupid on the premise that they can take advantage of a tentative and Hamlet-like president.
Opponents of Syrian intervention must acknowledge that by standing down now the U.S. might lose credibility. It may perhaps, but the serious question is whether that loss would be lesser or greater than the loss if we bomb the country along the lines that have been so poorly articulated by the administration. In this regard, Obama, I think, is honest in swearing off a wider war, at least in the sense that he would not react to subsequent escalation on the part of our enemies and would ignore any outside players who enter his fray.
If anything, a No vote by Congress is likely to help Obama politically (and seems to be seen as such by his partisan advisers). It would save him from a disastrous intervention, transfer to Congress “blame” for the non-enforcement of his red line, and allow him the opportunity for more soapbox sermons on his own unappreciated integrity and his brave efforts that at least refocused world attention on Syria. Indeed, he already sees a way out by ceding influence and authority to Vladimir Putin, who over the next few days (or weeks) will play third-party adjudicator to ensure that Assad is protected and America flummoxed — which, even Obama is beginning to accept, is preferable to bombing for lost red lines.
By any classical standard for war — U.S. national interest, humanitarian concerns, global stability — the Syrian adventure as currently envisioned and sold is unwise. Most Americans seem to know that. If Obama would swallow his wounded pride, he might learn that too.