Magazine | September 30, 2013, Issue

The Unbelievably Small Syria Strategy

Vladimir Putin exploits President Obama’s fecklessness

Whether to strike Syria is a tough choice, fraught with uncertainty and possible outcomes both dire and bright. James Schlesinger, who has served as both director of the CIA and secretary of defense, evaluates it as “a very close call.”

Every member of Congress has a right to be furious with the president. Obama could have launched his “shot across the bow,” as he has described his proposal, and gone on to other business. Instead, he exaggerated the rationale for a strike beyond all plausibility.

“I didn’t set a red line — the world set a red line,” he declared with a straight face. “The international community’s credibility is on the line. America and Congress’s credibility is on the line.”

Coming to his defense, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote, “Obama knows that if he doesn’t punish Bashar al-Assad, America and his presidency will be forever reduced.” This case for an air strike is solipsistic: Obama is America, and America is Obama, indivisible and inseparable. Despite the hyperbole, or perhaps because of it, the process of authorizing a limited strike has escalated into a major crisis.

“If the president of the United States . . . is refused authority by the Congress, . . . the impact will be enormous,” Henry Kissinger prophesied. It was Kissinger who forced South Vietnam to make concessions to the North Vietnamese army. Congress then slashed our aid to South Vietnam, and eventually Saigon fell. Jimmy Carter was elected president and did nothing when Iran seized our embassy in Tehran, but the moment Ronald Reagan took office, Iran released our diplomats. American credibility was suddenly restored.

The turbulent ’70s illustrated that national credibility depends heavily upon the executive in charge. Like Carter, Obama cannot bring himself to apply sustained, determined military force. This will remain part of his character whether or not there is a strike, and nations will make their calculations accordingly. Possibly the next president will have more credibility.

On the other hand, Obama has three more years in office, and regardless of his track record he is still our president. As a Marine who has fought in our wars, my first instinct is to say “Aye-aye, sir” to our commander-in-chief. If he is diminished, our foreign policy is diminished.

From 1982 to 1988, Iran and Iraq used hundreds of chemical shells in their war, killing thousands of civilians. Saddam Hussein also gassed Iraqi Kurds. The world community and the American press never raised a fuss about international norms or questioned Ronald Reagan’s credibility because he did not bomb.

That was then. Now, Obama vowed to bomb but did not put forward a coherent strategy. Secretary of State Kerry said “we’re not talking about war” and “we’re not going to war.” We launch 200 cruise missiles, followed by three days of air strikes — but it’s not war?

Asked in a Senate hearing what we were seeking to accomplish, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, glumly said, “I can’t answer that, what we’re seeking.” He denied that he had been ordered “to change the momentum” and said he was told “to change the calculus of the Assad regime about the use of chemical weapons.” Psychoanalysis is a mission for a psychiatrist; our military delivers death and destruction.

The strongest case for bombing was made by Senator John McCain, who hoped that the strike would deprive Assad of his air force and that Obama would arm and train a moderate rebel faction. Bombing would be only the opening tactic in a multi-step strategy to deliver a major American success in the greater Middle East.

At the insistence of Senator McCain, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee inserted into a resolution authorizing a 90-day use of force a sentence saying that it is American policy “to change the momentum of the war.” The Constitution, however, does not give Congress the authority to direct a war, or to conduct foreign policy at all. To dispel the impression that Congress was being asked to do that, Kerry declared, “The president is not asking Congress to authorize him militarily to engage in that transition [to a new regime].” He later said that the strike would be “unbelievably small.”

Well, something was unbelievable. The chances of the resolution’s passing the Senate were good, but the House looked set to vote No by a large margin. Obama thus faced a humiliating defeat.

Then came a twist in this soap opera posing as foreign policy. President Vladimir Putin of Russia stepped in as intermediary for Assad, who offered to turn control and disposal of his chemical weapons over to an international body.

“We will pursue this diplomatic track,” Obama told Fox News. “I fervently hope that this can be resolved in a non-military way.” The war or unbelievably small strike was over before it began. Putin had thrown a political lifeline to Obama. What does Putin gain?

Since 1973, Russia has been shut out of the greater Middle East. Now Putin is a major player, his stature higher than Obama’s. The U.S. goal for two years has been to remove the Assad regime, thus cutting Iran’s links to the Arab hinterland and Hezbollah, its cat’s-paw in Lebanon. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others, encouraged by the U.S., had swung all-in against Assad.

Putin has checkmated Obama. In order to remove Syria’s chemical weapons — about 5 percent of Assad’s military capabilities, albeit a horrible 5 percent — Obama and the “international community” must negotiate with Assad. Putin has ensured that his client will stay in power, while Obama has lost the larger game to eliminate Iran’s fortress inside the greater Middle East.

Russia gains prestige and influence. Assad gains security. Iran secures its links. Israel is more likely to believe it must act alone if Iran proceeds with its nuclear development.

The U.S. leaves its longstanding friends in the region angry and frustrated. The mainstream press is certain to praise Kerry and endorse Obama’s next gambit — whatever it is — as sound and reasonable. But the Syrian imbroglio is a serious setback for the U.S. It has illustrated that the Obama administration lacks coherence and common sense in carrying out foreign policy, and it has diminished our influence throughout the Middle East and beyond.

– Mr. West, a former combat Marine, was an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. He is the author of several bestellers about combat and war strategy.

Bing West — Bing West, a bestselling author and former assistant secretary of defense, served as a Marine grunt in Vietnam and later as a dean at the Naval War College. A graduate ...

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