The Pros and Cons on Syria
The Syria civil war has been going on for 30 months and despite “red line” threats from Obama he has not sought to insert the US into that conflict. Even the promise of weapons to the rebels has yet to produce the delivery of one rifle. The war’s toll is estimated to have caused over 100,000 deaths and over two million refugees thus far. But last month’s alleged use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, killing between 500 and 1,500 civilians and insurgents, raised the table stakes and forced Obama to make good on his red line threat or look feckless in the eyes of the world, which include eyes in Iran and Russia.
I use the term “alleged” because several analyses of the photos and videos believe them to be staged. Moreover, the intelligence is suspect that the deaths, if indeed they occurred, were the result of chemical weapons because the ratio of survivors to deaths is 10:1 – unheard of in a chemical attack. The videos of the attack showed people “dying” unlike they die in gas attacks, and the people shown handling the corpses and survivors did so without any protection. The White House “evidence” is detailed in a carefully-worded statement available online.
Oddly, when Obama and Friends were persuaded that Assad had violated the Chemical Weapons Convention – a curious piece of morality that specifies the right and wrong way of killing one’s enemies – there was no move to call Congress back into session to collaborate on a red line response. Instead, Obama took in a round of golf and then hopped on Air Force One to go abroad for a while, as he is wont to do when confronted with a dilemma. Abroad he denied he had set a red line, blaming the world for setting it. And while denying that he needed congressional approval for him to commit an act of war against Syria, the US Constitution notwithstanding, Obama asked for speedy congressional approval for him to commit an act of war against Syria. Helping the insurgency topple Assad, whom Obama says must go, would ally America with al-Qaeda, against whom we’ve declared war, because AQ fighters are fighting with the Free Syrian Army.
Are you following all of this?
Meanwhile Secretary of Bumbling, John Kerry, held up his end of this Keystone Kops routine. In London he put his size 13½ in his mouth by saying Syria could avoid an American attack by handing over its chemical weapons to international authority. Russia said, “I’ll take that bet,” and Syria seconded the motion. Oops. Checkmate. The attack is on hold while Syria and Russia pretend to negotiate the international control agreement – for a couple of years. Stunned, the State Department tried to walk back what Kerry said, calling it “rhetorical” and “hypothetical.” Kerry rhetorically gave Assad one week to turn over his chemical arsenal.
After calling Assad a “thug” and a “murderer” and comparing him to Hitler, Kerry parried a London reporter’s thrust about involving America in another war, Kerry said that what his boss had in mind was “a very limited, very targeted, very short-term effort” attack that would be “unbelievably small.” Unbelievably small? You mean compared to Hiroshima? Like a wrist slapping maybe? And an unbelievably small attack is going to make Assad behave and be a good boy? Kerry is being relentlessly mocked for his unbelievably unconvincing rationale for doing anything against Syria and Obama’s chances of getting congressional approval went from slim to none.
The Syrian situation is a mess, made worse by the incompetence of Obama’s non-existent Middle East policy. When your enemy (and friends) can’t predict what you’ll do, you’ll be tested – a lot. Whether a chemical weapon attack happened or not, Obama and Friends have signaled they believe it happened. Now what? What are the pros and cons for taking action now?
First the pros.
There is a consequence for doing nothing. With Obama’s red line rhetoric, he loses credibility if he does nothing. Worse, America loses credibility with allies and potential allies around the world. Future presidents will assume office with Obama’s credibility gap and will be forced to prove themselves. Given the choice between the world – friends and foes – fearing the US or not, I’ll take fear every time. You tend to be left alone when feared. So high on the pros list would be that as a country, we don’t win with a weakened president, even one whose performance is unacceptable to 57% of the people. We still have 40 more months to put up with this guy.
Another pro, somewhat related, is that our enemies – notably Iran and Russia which have high stakes in the Middle East – are watching our response to a violation of the International Chemical Weapons Convention. Syria is not a signatory, but we are and so are most of the 190 countries in the world. I fail to see the distinction between killing people with bullets or gas – they are just as dead either way – but if opponents are going to fight to the death both sides ought to have an equal chance to die. If bad guys can use chemicals and get away with it, a new normal is established.
An argument in favor of toppling Assad is that he does possess a known chemical arsenal. For all of its other nasty attributes, chemical weapons are instruments of terror as much or more weapons for killing. The knowledge that they can be used has force in the balance of power. As a client of Iran and Russia, Assad is a threat that weapons of this ilk will proliferate in the region if not beyond and threaten regional stability including American military assets in the region.
Another pro for intervention in the Syrian war is that it is spilling over into neighboring countries that are our allies – Jordan and Turkey, for example. The al-Qaeda jihadists who are fighting alongside of the Free Syrian Army cannot be allowed to establish a presence in these other countries. If they do, they will cause instability which could ultimately topple governments that are on “our side” more than the side of the region’s bad guys.
America is the world’s only super-power. With that arguably comes the responsibility to keep the global neighborhood safe and away from US shores. Thus, another possible pro is that there is no practical way to be isolationist in today’s world. A threat to peace that is allowed to flourish and gain power like a hurricane at sea ultimately comes ashore as a threat to US interests. Think about the rise of Nazism between 1933 and 1940 which went unchallenged, swallowed almost all of Europe, and became a threat to the free world. Conquering it required almost five years and cost 60 million lives, half of them Russian.
Finally, Americans are a compassionate people. We can’t right every wrong, but it’s hard to sit on the sidelines while a petty despot slaughters his people or warring factions kill each other as happened in Rwanda and Darfur, and until UN sanctions, Bosnia.
Now for the cons.
There are no American interests involved in the Syrian civil war. After 2½ years of fighting neither side can claim victory and no end is in sight. While Assad has the military assets, his army is becoming demoralized. Desertions and defections are a growing risk as the war goes on. The chemical weapons attack may have been an act of desperation by Assad since he has been unable to land a knockout punch. We should all be repelled that a despot would kill his own people, but the chemical attack killed between 500 and 1,500 allegedly. Over 100,000 have been killed since the war started which failed to move the Obama administration (or the UN) to act.
When Obama made his Rose Garden announcement at the beginning of this month arguing that Assad’s use of chemical weapons was a threat to our national security and justified a US military strike, it apparently was not enough of a threat to justify calling Congress back into session. Schlepping off to Sweden and a meaningless G-20 meeting for three days in which most of his time was spent sightseeing didn’t signal that this new threat to national security was keeping him awake at night.
The second con, in my opinion, is that the insurgency fighting against Assad has become radicalized since the war started. Al-Qaeda jihadists are pouring into the fight. Look at Libya and Egypt to see how this is likely to turn out with Assad gone. We should ask ourselves if life is better for the Egyptians and Libyans now than it was under Mubarak and Gaddafi. If Assad is toppled the chemical weapons are in play. We would be compelled to intervene to prevent their ending up in al-Qaeda hands.
Unintended consequences – my third con – always follow intervention into the affairs of another country. Our batting average for interventions in this part of the world isn’t good. Saddam Hussein’s army was defeated in months; we spent years dealing with the insurgency. So let’s say we lob a few missiles into Syria. What are we going to do if Assad uses chemical weapons again? What will we do if all of the Israel-haters in the region rain hell on that country in retaliation? What if our naval assets in the region are attacked, Middle Eastern oil is disrupted, sleeper cells in the US repeat Boston bombings, and/or Russia, Iran, or China enter the fray we cause? There are real threats that these things can happen today without our intervention in Syria. Will we increase their likelihood with an intervention?
How effective will an “unbelievably small” strike be? Obama has practically given Assad the date, time, and targets. Everything that can be hidden among the civilian population will be. Our strike will surely kill civilians. What then is the difference in our killing Syrian civilians and Assad doing it? Images – real and fake – of the collateral damage caused by our attacks will be streamed to the world. Our image in the world, already in tatters, will become even worse.
Another con is Obama himself. Who has confidence in his leadership, especially in things military? He has no grand strategy for the Middle East. What he says and what he ultimately does are often different. He is a politician turned amateur president whose silver-tongued oratory and two elections confirmed H. L. Menken’s famous observation: “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public” – at least the majority that voted for him twice.
With a job approval rating in the low 40s he is not likely to risk his reputation further in bold strikes. The strike he has in mind will be mostly symbolic. Last week’s Reuters poll had 56% of the public opposed and 19% for Syrian intervention. Congressional phone-ins are running ten to one against intervention. Only 33% of this week’s Wall Street Journal poll favored congressional authorization of a strike and less than one in four believed military action was in the nation’s interest.
Obama the dove is suddenly Obama the hawk. The UN, which Obama has argued repeatedly should always sanction US interventions, hasn’t authorized US action and isn’t likely to with Russia and China on the National Security Council. The British Parliament embarrassed its Prime Minister by turning thumbs down on any involvement in a Syrian retaliation – the first time a Prime Minister’s request has been rejected by Parliament since the 18th century. Only the vast military armada and fighting resolve of France stands with us. Bottom line. We go it alone – another con. We are trying to be the world cop even as Obama is stripping the military to feed money into his domestic agenda.
With the IRS scandal, the NSA snooping, the unanswered questions on Benghazi, the looming debt ceiling debate, and government spending, among many domestic issues dogging Obama, one has to wonder if Syrian intervention is a “wag the dog” deflection of the public’s attention. Too cynical? Remember when Clinton ordered a missile attack on an aspirin factory in the Sudan on the same day Monica Lewinsky appeared before Ken Starr’s grand jury? Stranger things have happened.
Since a Tunisian street vendor immolated himself in late 2010 igniting the “Arab spring,” Obama and Friends have been behind the power curve – paralyzed by if and how to provide leadership in the developing situation. Obama’s paralysis has not gone unnoticed by Russia’s Putin, who threw our amateur president a life line this week by playing the chemical weapons control chip.
Russia is no longer a world super power, but unlike Obama’s faux red line, Russia’s red line for sustaining the Assad regime has teeth in it. Among other reasons, Russia’s only Mediterranean seaport is in Syria – a deal sealed in 1971 when big daddy Assad was running the family business. Its anchorage there may only be rusting Soviet era ships but it is symbolic that Russia is still a player to be reckoned with in Middle East politics. Putin won’t stand aside for another ally to be toppled as happened with Gaddafi in Libya.
Candidate Obama promised to transform America if elected president. Criticizing America’s so-called colonial past, as reflected in its intervention in foreign countries, he went on an apology tour and shocked Americans by bowing to foreign leaders as if bent on destroying this country’s power and influence in the world.
At least in one commentator’s mind, he has succeeded. A week ago Conrad Black began his weekly column with these words:
Not since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, and before that the fall of France in 1940, has there been so swift an erosion of the world influence of a Great Power as we are witnessing with the United States.
I’ll second that.