That’s the answer Congress should give to President Obama, who in a surprise decision late last week reversed course and asked Congress to endorse his proposed launch of a limited air attack on Syria. The president wishes to punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons to murder more than a thousand of its citizens. But the action Mr. Obama asks Congress to endorse will not by itself advance any U.S. interest. Moreover, there is a strong likelihood that the proposed limited air attack would create challenges to American interests that the U.S. under Mr. Obama is unprepared and unwilling to meet.
The Obama administration early last week strongly indicated that the president would direct the U.S. military to strike Syrian government targets and that it would do so together with a coalition of friendly governments. But it quickly averred that the unspecified targets would not include any that could bring about the fall of the Assad regime.
If not the fall of the Assad regime, then what would be the purpose of such a mission? Would it be possible to conduct a more expansive mission whose objectives would be the collapse of the Assad regime and the succession of a new and more acceptable Syrian government? Given the reduced military capacity of the United States, the weak political resolve of the Obama administration, and the rising power of Islamists among the Syrian opposition, probably not. The question then is: What U.S. interests would be advanced by the administration’s proposed limited mission? Mr. Obama hasn’t answered any of these central questions, and he hasn’t described the objectives of the limited mission he says he wants.
Then there is the president’s vaunted “red line” — that is, his statement a year ago that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that would change his “calculus,” virtually promising that any use of such weapons would be met with a strong American response. Taken in isolation, this might be the best argument for a military intervention: An America that fails to keep its word risks the loss of its credibility worldwide. But a military attack with limited and undefined objectives short of regime change would do nothing to make subsequent U.S. threats more credible than they are now.
Unfortunately, the U.S. has done so much over the past four and a half years to undermine its credibility that it is not likely to suffer further by dint of a non-response to Assad’s crossing the Obama red line. Moreover, the notion that the United States’ injured credibility would be appreciably restored by bombing selected Syrian targets for a few days is fanciful.
We have slashed our military budget. We have cut our Navy and have plans for more cuts. We have eliminated Air Force programs to the extent that we risk the end of U.S. air dominance. We are cutting the size of our Army. When Russia attacked Georgia in late 2008 we did nothing. A year later, bowing to Russian objections, the Obama administration canceled missile-defense agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic that would have provided Europe and the East Coast of the United States with protection against nuclear missiles launched from Iran. U.S. support for its strongest ally in the Middle East, Israel, has been qualified and diminished since Mr. Obama moved into the White House. Syria reportedly used chemical weapons on at least two previous occasions since the president’s first “red line” threat in August 2012, and the U.S. did nothing.
With this record, why would a limited attack on Syria for its most recent use of chemical weapons make U.S. threats suddenly credible to potential or actual adversaries, especially if the U.S. fails to deal convincingly with resulting challenges to American interests? Surely Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and others have already got that message. Conversely, a U.S. failure to take the proposed limited military action in Syria would not make U.S. threats any less credible than they already are to these countries. The damage to U.S. credibility is done; a limited strike on Syria would not undo it.
Even friends of the U.S. have taken note of the administration’s persistent enthusiasm for weakening U.S. military capabilities, its less-than-complete support of allies such as Israel, and its aversion to confrontation with aggressive adversaries. Mr. Obama’s equivocation about the scope and objectives of his proposed mission in Syria only further undermined U.S. credibility. Members of the British Parliament who voted against Prime Minister David Cameron’s request for support of Britain’s participation in the president’s proposed military action were probably not surprised to see that Mr. Obama subsequently again changed his mind, this time about the timing of the action, now calling for it to be delayed until Congress signs on.
The U.S. has important interests at stake in the Middle East. Keeping the Suez Canal open is among them. Supporting the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt is another. Ensuring the safety and security of Israel is a third. Preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is of a similar level of importance. These are vital American interests worthy of robust U.S. military support if necessary to advance them. Congress could make it clear that it agrees. But as the administration’s proposed intervention involves none of these and advances no global U.S. interest, Congress should refuse to endorse it.
No. The moment for effective action in Syria has passed. Two years ago the U.S. might have taken limited action in Syria that would have advanced its interests in that country and in the wider Middle East. Two years ago the U.S. could have supported moderates among the Syrian opposition who had a chance of prevailing both against Assad and against their Islamist fellow rebels. A Syria run by moderates could have been friendly to Israel and to the U.S. as well as a potent foe of Iran. It could have done much to advance peace and security in the region. Regrettably, that no longer appears to be possible.
— Jack David, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, was deputy assistant secretary of defense for combating weapons of mass destruction and for negotiations policy from 2004 to 2006.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this article misstated the date of Russia’s invasion of Georgia. The invasion occurred in late 2008, not in 2009 as the article stated. The cancellation of the missile-defense agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic occurred a year after Russia’s invasion of Georgia, not one month later as the article stated. We regret the errors.