Obama is not up to the job in Syria. The gravest risk of American involvement is that his administration and Iran might find common ground in the Middle East chess game: Iran would allow Assad to fall, losing its pawn, and in exchange Obama would agree to do even less than he is doing now to stop Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, allowing Iran to protect its queen. The prospect of such a nightmare scenario, which the Europeans could well accept, is palpable.
The case of Libya provides no encouragement. Unlike Assad, Qaddafi had zero outside support. In any event, post-Qaddafi Libya is hardly something to boast about. Indeed, Libya’s prospects themselves demonstrate that the chimerical “responsibility to protect” doctrine under which Obama justified U.S. intervention is not tethered either to reality or to American interests. To extend “responsibility to protect” to Syria without contemplating the larger consequences for our interests worldwide would simply be irresponsible. Advancing those interests sensibly might make it possible to ameliorate the situation in Syria, but we must first set our logic and priorities in order.
Thus, neither U.S. military assistance to the opposition nor current administration policy, which has stumbled from failure to failure over the past year, will advance legitimate American interests. If we assume, however, that Obama wakes up to reality — or, more likely, that the conflict in Syria drags on until Governor Romney’s January 20, 2013, inauguration — what should we conclude the United States ought to do? Or must we simply watch the killing continue?
First and foremost, we should cut Syria off from its major supporters. The television images from Syria will not change permanently until the underlying strategic terrain changes permanently. Russia should be told in no uncertain terms that it can forget about sustained good relations with the United States as long as it continues to back Assad. We should resume full-scale, indeed accelerated, efforts to construct the limited missile-defense system designed by George W. Bush to protect American territory not against Russia but against rogue states such as Iran and North Korea. But we should immediately make it clear to Moscow that we will begin to consider broadening our missile-defense program to deal with Russian and Chinese ballistic-missile capabilities. We should also announce our withdrawal from the New START arms-control treaty, and our utter disinterest in negotiations to prevent an “arms race” in space. Let Moscow and Beijing think about all that for a while.
The magnitude of such a shift as a response to the conflict in Syria may seem startling, but each of these proposals is meritorious on its own terms. Wrapping several major policy redirections around the Syria problem thus advances multiple objectives simultaneously. Both Russia and China think Obama is weak, that America is declining, and that they can ignore our views on Syria and many other issues with complete impunity. It is time for a wake-up call to the Kremlin and Zhongnanhai.
Next, we should tell Iran that our patience with their decade-long ploy of using diplomacy to gain time to advance their nuclear-weapons program has ended. Tehran should face a stark choice, and we can leave to their imagination what will happen if they fail immediately to dismantle all aspects of their existing nuclear effort. We should also reverse the fantasy still trumpeted by Obama that, despite its repeated violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty over 20 years, Iran is somehow entitled to a “peaceful” nuclear program. Until there is a new, trustworthy regime in Tehran, there can be no claim to benefits or “rights” under a treaty Iran has grossly abused. We should introduce this new reality to our European friends as well, perhaps by simply being unambiguous with them.
Finally, in Syria itself, we should do now what we could have begun to do ten years ago (and what the Obama White House at least says it is doing now): find Syrian rebel leaders who are truly secular and who oppose radical Islam; who will disavow al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and other terrorist groups; and who will reject Russian and Iranian hegemony over their country. We will need some reason to believe that this opposition can prevail against not only the Assad regime but also the terrorists and fanatics who also oppose Assad. This must be not a faith-based judgment but a clear-eyed assessment of reality. Such is the kind of opposition that, assuming it exists, we should support, aiming for regime change in Damascus when — and only when — it becomes feasible on our terms. On this matter, too, we should tell our European allies that we want their support for something other than semiotic diplomacy.
If we had pursued these kinds of policies after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in 2003, we might today be in a very different place in the Middle East and have avoided much of the ongoing bloodshed. Better late than never.
– Mr. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad.