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More Syria Thoughts: The Case for Intervention Was Never Made

A U.S. soldier patrols in Manbij, Syria, November 1, 2018. ((Courtesy Zoe Garbarino/U.S. Army/Handout via Reuters))

My weekend column was about Syria, a topic that is raging because President Trump is pulling out, and because this seems to have been the last straw for General Jim Mattis, who resigned as secretary of defense.

I’ve been discussing this on Twitter and find myself on the other side of people with whom I normally agree — no surprise since, in my column, I am in disagreement with David French, with whom I am normally in lockstep on these kinds of issues.

And no surprise, then, that I am very sympathetic to the denunciations of President Trump for the impulsiveness of the pull-out. There is a lot to be said for this. As I observed in the column, it is especially shameful if the president decided to pull out in response to a threat from Turkey’s Islamist despot, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Even though I was against intervention in Syria, and even though I think it was playing with fire to ally with the Kurds under the circumstances (more on that in a moment), I would rather the president seek an authorization for use of military force (AUMF) to protect the Kurds than leave them to Erdogan’s tender mercies. I don’t think we should be in Syria, but I’d support it in order to show the world that we don’t let those who bleed with us get pushed around, much less annihilated.

On that subject, I’d note that the president is not the only one in this system who may seek an AUMF or a declaration of war. This is a power the Constitution vests in Congress.

While I have my differences from time to time, I like Senators Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and Tom Cotton, as well as some others who are complaining about the president’s rashness. But I object to the cynical game they are playing. They well know that their diva routine for the media is not the option the Constitution gives them.  They could, at any time, have proposed an AUMF that would legitimize combat operations against whoever they believe are our enemies in Syria — not just those who would ravage the Kurds, but those they keep saying (with great persuasive force, by the way) are our geopolitical enemies: Assad’s regime, Iran, and Russia. They still could. If they were right, it would be a great way to show how wrong Trump is.

But, of course, they won’t do that. They haven’t done it up to this point because they know Americans are broadly opposed to war against these enemies in Syria at this time. If they had been able to get the equivalent of a declaration of war from the people’s representatives, that would have meant the Syrian expedition had the backing of the public. You need that in a democratic republic to fight wars effectively. Having skipped this essential step, they naturally find it easier to complain about how Trump is mucking things up than to concede that the public did not want troops in Syria in the first place.

This, I must say, is what riles me. I understand the anger my friends are feeling now, but I don’t understand why they don’t get the anger I felt, and feel, over the fact that this intervention commenced without congressional authorization. A number of us argued that the intervention was not only lawless but reckless: We were going into a powder keg in which it was very likely we would end up in combat not just with ISIS (which may barely be covered by the rickety 17-year-old AUMF that covers al-Qaeda) but with Russia, Iran, and Syria — as, in fact, has happened, albeit on a (so far) minimal scale.

The risk of a much more significant war was patent. When you are contemplating that kind of risk, that’s when you seek congressional authorization. It is not only the constitutionally required thing to do; it is the only way to convince the public that we are protecting American interests over which it is worth expending American lives.

Syria hawks did not want to do that because they knew what the answer would be. They were not going to convince people that it was worth a single American life or a thin American dime to get in between two sets of America’s enemies who are bent on killing each other. The fact that Washington says we have “moderate” allies in this fight does not mean people who follow these things don’t know the supposed “moderates” heavily include the Muslim Brotherhood and other anti-Western Islamist factions that are content to collaborate with al-Qaeda in order to fight Assad, Iran, and Russia.

As someone who has publicly objected to the sharia-democracy project since before the 2004 election, I feel compelled to add that we have reached the impasse I warned against about a thousand times. Americans will support wars when they are convinced that American national security demands it. But if you tell them it’s about our national security, and they figure out that you’re actually conducting a giant social-engineering experiment in a society that doesn’t want what you’re selling, they are going to stop believing you when you tell them our national security is at stake. Washington has worn the public out with its “Islam is religion of peace” mantra. Because the public no longer trusts the government on these matters, there is now reluctance to support military and intelligence operations that our security actually requires. This is not Donald Trump’s fault; in fact, his election is, in part, the inevitable backlash.

Since the public case for intervention in Syria was not made, and probably could not be made, the Syria hawks decided to skip that step. They relied on President Obama to intervene without authorization, just as he did in Libya (which remains a catastrophe). They insisted, “Obama must defend his red line” — our national credibility demands it — as if presidential bloviating about red lines were a substitute for congressional authorization and public support before we dive headlong into a bloody mess with no vital American interests at stake.

And then there’s the Kurds. I know my friends are angry about the shame of abandoning them. As noted above, I am anguished about that, too. But why are we in this position? If the congressional crusaders who wanted in on this conflict had sought authorization, we could have had a public debate about whether we wanted to hop into the sack with a faction (a) the backbone of whose forces is the Marxist PKK, which is a designated terrorist organization under our law because it conducts mass-murder attacks in Turkey; and (b) with territorial aspirations that have them in long-running hostilities with Turkey, ostensibly our NATO ally. To be clear, I’d be more than willing to entertain the cases that (1) we should not be in an alliance with Islamist Turkey, (2) the PKK is not a threat to the U.S. and should not be on our terrorist list, and/or (3) even if we think the PKK is bad, we should align with the Kurds anyway because our vital interests demand it. But no one has even tried to make those cases.

It seems to me presumptuous of the people stridently denouncing Trump to expect the rest of us to assume they have carried the burden of establishing that we should be in Syria. It seems presumptuous of them to act as if Trump were undermining a cause for which we all agreed we should be fighting. At the time intervention in Syria was being considered, I argued that, without authorization, Obama shouldn’t intervene; later, I argued that Trump was wrong to bomb Syria without authorization (which putative candidate Trump had argued when Obama did it). Someone needs to explain to me why I should be outraged at Trump, but not outraged that we got into this mess without making sure the public, through Congress, was on board.

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