Commentators have struggled over the last month to find a narrative that brings clarity to the Obama administration’s wildly shifting, imprudent and feckless course in Syria. The answer was hiding in, well, plain sight.
More seasoned readers will remember Mr. Magoo, the ineffable cartoon character whose nearsightedness – and deep denial of it - created an almost comical path of destruction in his wake that, through luck or pluck, never managed to touch Magoo himself, leaving him strangely confidently serene, despite the all the damage he had caused.
It is a sad, but apt metaphor for the Obama administration’s policy on Syria which has been epitomized by poor strategic conceptualization, serial, missed opportunities, empty threats and ad hoc-ery. Now, having breezily committed to military action, but bereft of military allies, regional political cover and the support of the American people, the Administration has punted the choice to the US Congress in a frantic and desperate search for legitimacy. Congress must now decide what is the least-bad alternative from the limited choices left from POTUS’ serial miscalculations. It is an unenviable task, but one with significant repercussions, at home and abroad. Here they are, broken down:
Support POTUS and Limited Strikes on Syria: obviously the President’s choice. Chemical weapons were used on a broad scale in contravention of international law. Unless someone does something – creates some penalty for their use – it is hard not to see how Syria’s actions wouldn’t green light the potential use of WMDs by other nations, including Iran and North Korea.
And there is a historical precedent here. The catastrophe that was WWII was telegraphed six years in advance when Japan, defying world opinion, marched out of the League of Nations in 1933 when the League and the global community condemned Japan’s invasion of Manchuria. Words, unsupported by action, had a cascade effect on global events that culminated in the German invasion of Poland 74 years ago this week.
Only a select few nations have the capability to act. Only the United States has the ability to act in a manner forceful enough to send a message, as symbolic as that is. The alternative, continued use of WMD, leads down a slippery slope.
Go Big, Go Fast, Go Now: the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government is not the problem, but a symptom of the problem. If you truly want to send an unambiguous message to the world on the use of WMD, the only way to do so is to degrade the Assad regime to a point that tips the balance in favor of the Syrian rebels. A rebel victory would mean an end to the Russian and Iranian ambitions in the region, would help stabilize Lebanon and potentially provide Israel with greater strategic security by cutting of Iran’s direct access to Hezbollah.
The operation would require a limited, but longer-term military operation that targets Syrian command and control, troops barracks, artillery and air force positions. It also means creating an “exclusion zone” around Syrian WMD depots, a no-fly zone and significantly enhanced assistance to the Syrian rebels to give them a fighting chance to tip the balance.
Oppose Any Intervention in Syria: by far the most popular option right now, for Congress and the nation at large. We are near the end of 12 years of constant war; the longest period of sustained US military involvement since Vietnam. Nearly 7,000 American soldiers are dead, over 32,000 wounded. Trillions have been expended from the Treasury, yet Iraq is again gripped by sectarian fighting that threatens to tear the country apart, and Afghanistan seems perpetually tribal and unable to manage its own affairs, no matter how much American assistance is provided. At home, Detroit is bankrupt, we doubled the national debt in four years, the economy remains sluggish five years after the 2008 crash. Unemployment is stubbornly high. Middle America is in economic crisis as political America is in gridlock. In this environment, the last thing America needs is another war.
In addition, while the Obama request is framed as a very limited action, the rule of unintended consequences looms large here. No one can say with any assurance that even the most limited attack would not lead to additional military action, or require deeper military involvement, down the road. Only by not intervening can the US prevent a slide into to the Syrian quagmire.
But none of these options come without significant downsides.
To begin with, at its heart, the Administration’s request for a military strike is a plan in search of a goal.
Limited attacks will not change the hold that Assad has on power, and, in a nod to the anti-intervention crowd, there is no guarantee that the strikes will even prevent Assad from striking again. Indeed, he may very well do just that to taunt the President. After all, Assad did choose the anniversary of POTUS’s “red line” comments to launch his latest, large-scale chemical attack. That can’t be an accident.
One obvious question pertains to the US course of action if WMDs are used again after a US strike. Do we keep attacking with cruise missiles until Syria stops? Escalation becomes the only logical option. But escalation is the one thing the President has promised over and over again that he would will not do. The US position quickly devolves into a Gordian Kno.
If there has to be military action, ”Go Big-Go Fast” comes the closest to having a viable military objective that meets strategic and humanitarian goals. Pentagon protestations to the contrary, such an operation is not beyond US military capability, and the Syrian threat – air defense in particular - is vastly overstated. In 1991 the US demolished Iraq’s Russian made air defense system and so dominated the skies that the Iraqi air force fled en mass to Iran, simply to save their aircraft. There is no reason to believe that US could do less today with Syria.
But such a course does not come without risk, cost or possible American casualties. That is complicated by the fact that there is simply no popular support from the American people for such a large operation.
Worse, active US military assistance that tilted the battlefield in favor of the Syrian rebels would, by inference, align the US with the interests of jihadists – including Al Qaeda – that are fighting their own sectarian war against the Shia (Alawite) leadership in Syria, alongside the Free Syrian Army rebels. In today’s dynamic and fluid situation in Syria, no one knows what kind of regime would emerge if US support triggered a collapse of the Assad regime. Specifically there is no guarantee that we would not have unintentionally helped create a Sunni version of Iran in Syria, which could conceivably serve as a catalyst for the final destabilization of Iraq, with its Sunni minority population, bristling at Shia control in Baghdad.
That said, doing nothing is no better option.
It’s the easiest path to understand, and for a war-weary nation, the most tempting. And with all the companion uncertainties already detailed, this is the only air tight solution that prevents a cascade of unknowns that draws the US deeper into the conflict. It’s where the overwhelming number of American people are.
But for better or worse, it is not a realistic path.
What happens in Syria does matter to the United States, but in a mnner that relates to geo-politics, not more easily undertandable immiment threats to the US homeland or interests abroad.
The battle in Syria affects Iranian power in the region. That in turn affects the Gulf states and the Saudis upon whom we depend of our oil. It impacts our ally, Israel, whose security is impacted by the massive instabiliy of the Syrian civil war. It affects the politics and security of every nation that borders Syria (Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon), all in one way or another, US allies. And the religious battle that is playing out in Syria will have significant knock-on impacts across the greater Middle East, starting in Egypt and working its way west.
Non-interventionists say that it makes no sense for the US to interfere in Syria. But that misses the point completely by implying that the US does not have interests in Syria. The facts speak to the opposite. Thus the choice is actually whether we are going to assert our position or abandon it, allowing others - most of whom have interests that are in amicable to those of the US – create a balance of power to their own choosing.
With these choices, what is the context?
First, beware of motives.
Above all else, make sure the intel is right. The evidence as presented appears compelling, but we simply cannot allow another US military engagement to unfold based on bad information. It would destroy what credibility is left on American views of the intel community and it would have a profound impact on the link between leaders and the governed. To that end, there are voices – disparate, but with credentials, that believe the Syrian opposition staged the attacks to trigger American participation, just as we are debating now. That posit must be put to bed beyond a shadow of a doubt before any decision to attack is undertaken.
Second, beware of the Obama administration.
The decision to ask Congress for authority to strike goes against at least 30 years of history. Ford, Reagan, Bush 41 and Clinton all undertook closed-end military operations without seeking prior congressional approval based on their authority as Commander-in-Chief (Bush 43 is a paragon of constitutional virtue having sought and received congressional authorization well in advance of military attacks, having garnered large, bipartisan majorities). In some of those instances, the War Powers Act was a useful vehicle to provide congressional legitimacy for ongoing military operations, after the president had taken initial action.
What makes President Obama’s chosen course so bizarre is that he could easily have followed the Executive Athority precedent here, ordering the strike, and then reporting it to Congress through the War Powers Act, preserving Executive prerogative as well as congressional involvement. Given POTUS’ near obsessive efforts to expand his power at every turn over the last four and a half years, at the expense of Congress and the judiciary, Obama’s pivot to Congress makes his choice not to follow the course of his predecessorss the most revealing development of the last week
That is compounded by the precedent of the Libyan operation in 2011. Not once during the lengthy operation did the Administration even bother to seek authority for its military actions. Obama advisors were nearly contemptuous of former Senator Richard Lugar and others who noted that the Chief Executive cannot simply run an expensive multi-month war without congressional input. But now, suddenly, the President is seeking authority for a limited attack well less than US involvement that defined Libya?
It makes no sense.
Many see partisan motives here. Intervention in Syria divides Republicans, and if Congress fails to provide POTUS with authority to attack, it will be blaned as a failure in the GOP controlled House. As a result, the Republicans become – again – useful foils for the President’s political team – caricatured as a Party dedicated to crushing the middle class in favor of the wealthy and privileged, as well as determined to undermine America’s historic role in support of international laws and conventions. Democrats need 17 seats to take back the House next year. Could this be an Obama plan to neutralize the coming Republican onslaught against Obamacare that is custom-made to pad the GOP’s margin in the House and perhaps take the Senate as well in 2014?
It is hard to believe that such breathtaking cynicism is possible, but there you have it.
So what should we do?
Remember that President Obama is a temporary steward of America’s actions and reputation. There can be little doubt that his Administration has squandered the power of his office, but also, and more importantly, the credibility of the United States. In the coming debate, it would be easy to finally hold the President accountable for his Magoo-ism, but we can only do this by creating even greater damage to America’s reputation and prestige abroad. By his own hubris, the President has landed us in this unhappy place. But the stakes of the vote are not limited to President Obama and his blame shifting, but extend to the credibility of America in the challenges that come in the next two and a half years, challenges that may occur specifically because of this coming vote. And it will likely impact future presidencies.
Someone has to be the adult in the room, to be the bigger person, to see the bigger picture. It is uniquely unfair that Republicans, who have been roasted and reviled by the President for almost every American problem, must now pick up the slack that his failing leadership has created, but to not do so, only doubles down on a course that hurts the credibility of the nation for the longer term.
President Obama has thoughtlessly issued the attack threat before all the pieces were in place militarily, diplomatically and politically. If we don’t follow through – even with the token attacks that are anticipated – what does that say to the far bigger threats on the horizon? Can any American threat of force against the Iranian nuclear program be credible if the US refuses to back this limited operation against Syria? What about the next time North Korea bangs its war drums?
This is what is at stake.
So, get the intel down pat. Draw up a resolution that mirrors the War Powers Act as closely as possible. This preserves Executive prerogative for the future, while creating the necessary structure of restraint that the American public (and most Republicans) will insist upon. Don’t dictate the attack. Simply require the President to report on tailored military action that had been approved by Congress. Hold Democrats accountable. Vulnerable Dems don’t get a pass on this vote. If the President wants it, he’s going to have to get Harry and Nancy to come up with adequate support. That limits the damage of Syrian action to 2014.
But perhaps most importantly, use this as a pivot point to force the Administration to get serious.
American foreign policy under President Obama is as frivolous as it is uncertain. It claims no mantle, it abides by no overriding principle. It is as deeply ambivalent espsousing the fundamental truths that are the wellspring of our nation, as it is uncomfortable with the tableau of our national history - a litany of actions and collective sacrifice on behalf of others, that has done more for freedom and human dignity than any other nation on earth. It is afraid to be proud. It is awkward to be strong. It is embarrassed to be confident. It is ashamed to be American.
From depths of this Magoo-ism let there be a new compact that restores our good name and is worthy of our promise.
President Obama is in charge of America for the next 869 days. America the country must and will go on long after his term ends.
At the end of the day, that is what this Syria vote is about. Preserving America’s standing through an uncertain but finite period, to be serious in the midst of breathtaking unseriousness. To have clarity of purpose, to stand up for our ideals and to protect our national inheritance for our children.