President Obama was right in his initial decision to take military action against Syria. As evidence mounted that Bashar Assad of Syria had used poison gas against the civilian population of Syria, not once but repeatedly, the United States and the civilized nations of the world had to decide whether to take action or become complicit in the murders of untold thousands of innocents. The United Nations announced today that more than 2 million Syrians have become refugees from the fighting.
Though mass murders by dictatorial regimes are all too common, there has been an effective ban on the use of chemical weapons since shortly after World War I. The ban has only been broken four times. Italy used mustard gas against Abyssinia in 1935 and Japan used chemical agents in its conquest of China in 1938. In World War II, Adolf Hitler did not use poison gas against Allied soldiers for fear of retribution, but the Nazis did gas millions of people in their death camps. In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein used poison gas against the Iranian army as well as against the Kurds, an ethnic minority in Iraq.
Aside from the violation of international law and the moral implications of allowing Assad to gas innocent civilians, the U.S. also has a national interest in enforcing President Obama’s “red line.” Two of the Syrian government’s allies in the civil war are Hezbollah and Iran. Both Hezbollah and Iran have already shown willingness to take on the U.S. directly. Hezbollah, supported by Iran, was responsible for the 1983 bombings of the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut. In 1985, they hijacked TWA Flight 847 enroute from Athens to Rome. They were also allegedly responsible for the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia which targeted US military members. Iran has also tried to attack the U.S. directly. Two years ago, Iran was implicated in a plot to carry out a series of bomb attacks in Washington, D.C. In spite of the plot and continued Iranian work on nuclear weapons, the Obama Administration has resisted any punishment for Iran including additional sanctions.
Ignoring Obama’s self-imposed red line for Syrian use of chemical weapons would increase the risk that use and development of weapons of mass destruction would become more common around the world. If the Iranians determine that the U.S. is not serious, it makes it even more likely that such weapons will be used again by terrorist groups like Hezbollah for use against Americans abroad, U.S. allies, or even the American homeland. It also makes it more likely that Iran would continue to develop and feel free to use nuclear weapons.
With ample evidence of Syria’s violation of international law and a compelling U.S. interest, President Obama should have ordered an attack on Syria’s WMD facilities and airbases as well as targeting President Assad. Although President Obama has a long history of abusing executive authority such an order would have been well within his constitutional role as commander-in-chief. The Constitution does not require a declaration of war in such an instance and there is a long history, dating back to Thomas Jefferson’s attack on the Barbary pirates, of presidents taking military action without congressional approval.
Instead, President Obama flip-flopped late last week after finding strong bipartisan opposition to an attack on Syria. After dithering for days, Obama abruptly decided that he would ask Congress for authorization to attack, but stopped short of asking representatives to cut their recess short and return to Washington to address the matter. According to CBS News, Congress will return to work on September 9.
The delay can only serve hearten President Assad and his allies in Tehran. Opposition to the attack in Congress could derail President Obama’s plan to attack Syria entirely. If it doesn’t, the Syrian government will have had nearly a month to prepare and disperse its chemical weapon stocks and other high priority targets. It will also have had plenty of time to beef up its air defenses making casualties among the attacking Americans more likely. All of this means that the deterrent effect of a strike will be lessened.
In reality, Obama would probably be relieved to be able to blame Congress for his inaction in Syria. His foreign policy has been one of American withdrawal from the world. Obama’s original campaign theme was calling for an end to the Iraq War. Today, the war in Iraq continues even though American forces are gone. Obama is planning a similar withdrawal from Afghanistan. During the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the Obama was conspicuously absent from supporting democratic activists. This policy led to al Qaeda domination of the Syrian opposition forces and Islamist victories in Egypt and Tunisia. Obama had to be dragged into his unconstitutional Libyan intervention by several NATO allies. He also squandered a chance to support Iranian dissidents during 2009’s “Green Revolution.”
Nevertheless, the president announced today on NBC News that he was confident that Congress would approve his plan. At the same time, Vladimir Putin announced a Russian effort to lobby Congress against intervention in Syria according to CBS News.
Obama seems to have long held the belief that American power has caused problems throughout the world and that disengagement is a key to peace. Obama’s policy of withdrawal and “leading from behind” is how that belief was put into practice. The chaos in the Middle East is the result.