Obama's Syrian Quaqmire
by Jonathan Rosenblum
September 18, 2013
Sukkos is the chag of bitachon: the sukkah reminds us of the Clouds of Glory that enveloped and protected us in a howling wilderness. As has so often been the case in recent years, those of us living in Eretz Yisrael may have to summon up our stores of bitachon this Sukkos. (I'm writing five days before Yom Kippur, prior to the President's address to the nation to explain the necessity of a military strike on Syria and the congressional vote on authorization of military action.)
While it is far too early to know all the consequences of President Obama's serial fumbles with respect to Syria, it is not too early to catalogue and analyze what Adam Garfinkle of The American Interest terms "the most incompetent display of presidential foreign policymaking I have ever seen." (Garfinkle is 62 and has served in senior policy positions in several administrations.)
THE FIRST MISTAKE – though arguably the most defensible – was that not to aid the rebels during the early stages of the civil war, when they were still primarily indigenous fighters and not a motley crew of Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists drawn from around the globe. The rebels had made substantial early gains, and a defeat of Assad at that point (by no means assured) would have been a serious blow to the Iran-Syrian-Hezbollah axis, and spared many of the 100,000 casualties of the civil war to date.
For that reason, Obama's secretary of state, secretary of defense, director of the CIA, and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff all recommended providing assistance to the rebels, according to Fouad Ajami. President Obama overruled them. He was still prey to what Garfinkle calls the Neville Chamberlain School of foreign policy, according to which the use of force is always a choice of last resort. Yet, often the judicious early use of force can head off a host of later evils. A corollary to the first folly is the belief that diplomacy – think Kobi Annan's U.N.-sponsored efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement – can never do any harm. The last ten years of failed efforts to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program are sufficient to prove that dragged out diplomacy often benefits only one side and turns the other into a sucker.
Next up, Obama needlessly boxed himself into corners, without thinking about the implications or what he would do if events failed to unfold according to his bidding. Flat statements like "Assad must go," not backed by any operative plan to make that happen, only served to the empty the President's words of any force. Far worse, was the unforced error of declaring the use of chemical weapons by Assad the crossing of a "red line" that the United States would not countenance. Again, the President appears to have had no plan in place in case Assad failed to heed his warning. So the first use of chemical weapons passed without response, further debasing the President's credibility with both friends and foes. After strong evidence emerged that Assad's forces employed chemical weapons in August to kill 1,400 civilians, however, Obama's bluff was truly called.
The President failed to explain, however, why the deaths of 1,400 civilians by chemical weapons was a qualitatively different matter than the 99,000 deaths that preceded it, just as he had earlier failed to explain why the duty to protect invoked to justify American military intervention in Libya did not apply to the tens of thousands of civilians killed in Syria, many of them bombed by Assad's air force. Perhaps the fact that Libya today is an even bigger mess than under Gaddafi – a fully certified failed state serving as a magnet for jihadis – provoked reconsideration of the "duty to protect," not that the President has ever breathed a word of doubt about his Libyan policy.
(It was left to Tom Cotton, a Republican congressman from Arkansas now running for Senate, who served tours of duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan, to offer one reason for distinguishing chemical weapons: the United States has an important interest in ensuring that its soldiers do not face chemical attacks on the battlefield.)
Even after the President determined that he had no choice but to do something about the crossing of his red line, he failed to offer any coherent explanation of how Assad's actions threatened American national security, rather than his dignity. An administration official let slip to the Los Angeles Times that the administration was planning an operation "just muscular enough not to get mocked." Not exactly a rational likely to rally public opinion behind Obama's decision, but one tailor-made to achieve the feared result: mockery.
Even when Bill Clinton lobbed a few harmless cruise missiles in the direction of Osama bin Laden, just as the name Monica Lewinsky appeared in the headlines, no administration spokesperson offered changing the headlines as an off-the-record explanation for the cruise launchings.
THE LACK OF ANY RATIONALE offered for military action was followed by a series of signals to Assad and his allies that nothing serious was planned – certainly nothing that would threaten his hold on power. In discussions with The New York Times, the President outlined the type of weapons to be used – Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from offshore; the duration of the attack – no more than two to three days; a list of potential targets; and a promise not to touch a hair on Assad's head. All that was lacking, Charles Krauthamer commented archly, was the precise time of the attack so that no one's dinner hour would be disturbed in Damascus.
Satirist Andy Borowitz, writing in the formerly Obama-besotted New Yorker, caught the thrust of the President's message: "Let me clear," he said in an interview with CNN. "Our goal will not be to effect regime change, or alter the balance of power in Syria, or bring the civil war there to an end. We will simply do something there for one or two days and then leave. I want to reassure our allies and the people of Syria that what we are about to undertake, if we undertake it at all, will have no purpose or goal," he said. Borowitz quoted White House press secretary Jay Carney as saying that no matter what the duration of the military action one thing would not change: "This mission will have no point."
Just about everything possible was wrong with the administration's announcement in advance of the limited nature of the planned attack and lack of any sense of urgency. First, it gave the Syrians ample time to disperse potential targets and to find ways to put human shields around those that could not be completely hidden. If large numbers of civilians are killed in the attacks, even if placed in harm's way by Assad, the United States could lose whatever moral high ground it gained by its response to the use of chemical weapons. If the purpose of the attack is to preserve or restore American credibility, a symbolic attack that leaves Assad unbowed and in a position to claim that he faced down the mighty United States, could actually damage the President's reputation for resolve more than no attack at all.
And if the purpose of the attack is deter any future use of chemical weapons, then why did the President begin by eschewing the single most potent deterrent? The best way to deter Assad from employing chemical weapons again is to convince him that the cost of doing so could well be his life. One of the reasons that Israeli strategists do not expect a missile attack from Syria no matter what happens is that Assad knows that Israel's first response would be to level his presidential palace. Targeted killings of terrorist leaders in Gaza by Israel have proven effective in reducing terrorist attacks for much the same reason.
And while it might be comforting to Obama's violence-abhorring supporters to know that any action will be "limited . . . limited . . . limited," once the Tomahawks are launched, it is impossible to know what the repercussions would be. Iran might employ sleeper cells against soft American targets around the world or launch a missile attack on Israel or order Hezbollah to do so. Syria might decide to widen the conflict by targeting Jordan and/or Turkey, and thereby potentially trigger a Middle East conflagration? Or the Russian warships off the coast of Syria might turn out to be there for a reason.
And if the scope of the military action proved to be wider than the President is currently indicating, what would the consequences be? One needs no great imagination to know things could get worse, lots worse. As Andrew McCarthy has pointed out, Al Qaeda and its affiliates have long been trying to get their hands on chemical weapons and would not hesitate to use them. Were Assad to fall or lose control of his chemical weapons stores, they could easily fall into the hands of international terrorists for whom they would be a weapon of choice and great equalizer in the battle versus greater American firepower. In other words, if chemical weapons are your primary concern, you better take into account that a military attack on Syria could easily lead to the wider dissemination of chemical weapons to some of the world's most dangerous terrorists.
SO WEAK WAS PRESIDENT OBAMA'S PRESENTATION of the case for military action and so lacking in any sense of urgency that as a matter of constitutional law, it could be argued that he had no choice but to go to Congress. The Constitution clearly places the power to declare war with the Congress, not the president. While there is an implicit exemption in the case of a direct and immediate threat to the United States or her citizens, when there is no time to convene Congress or action must be taken without alerting the enemy in advance, no such exception is applicable to the Syrian case.
Not that constitutional arguments had much to do with Obama's decision to seek congressional authorization. Little more than a year earlier, he sought no such Congressional support for American military intervention in Libya, just as Bill Clinton did not for large-scale air campaigns in the Balkans or four days of bombing of Iraq in 1998.
The manner in which the President announced his decision to seek congressional authorization again conveyed no urgency. He did not call Congress back from vacation for an emergency session, and immediately after announcing that he would seek congressional authorization, he headed abroad. Perhaps he saw the extra time required for congressional debate as an opportunity to contrive a sufficient strategic justification for military action.
Clearly, political calculation, not constitutional principle, caused Obama to seek congressional authorization. Whether he considered the possibility that he would fail to garner sufficient congressional support is unclear. A number of serious commentators have suggested that he actually hoped that Congress would tie his hands and get him off the hook for ill-considered enunciation of red lines that he has no taste for enforcing.
WHAT ARE THE LONG RANGE CONSEQUENCES of this diplomatic fecklessness. The United States's status as the leader of the free world has been severely damaged – not that any replacement as policeman of international order lurks in the wings. The confidence of American allies in the quality of its leadership has been greatly diminished. The Saudis for one have apparently decided that President Obama has no clue as to what he is doing. In July, Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia met with Russian president Putin. According to news reports, he offered to help Russia hold up commodity prices, if the Russians would drop their support for Assad in return. That the Saudis would turn to Russia indicates, writes Walter Russell Mead, how rudderless they consider American policy in the region to be.
Those hostile to American and Western interests have surely been emboldened. Repeated assertions of the limited scope of the contemplated military action by the President and Secretary of State Kerry can only have further convinced Iran how lacking is the administration's resolve and willingness to use force.
So bad has the administration's presentation of its case for action been that the strongest argument for voting to authorize military action in Syria – ironically, advanced by some of the President's harshest foreign policy critics – is that the United States and the world cannot afford what would in effect be a vote of no confidence in the President that would reveal for the whole world to see that the United States is now effectively leaderless.
Obama came into office smug with his theories of how "smart power" – winning friends and influencing people – is more important that projecting strength and determination, like his cowboy predecessor. Well, he has not turned out to be so smart, and he has far less ability to command the support of European and other allies than his predecessor, while having reduced American ability to influence events to a post-War nadir. Norman Podhoretz argues in the Wall Street Journal that was Obama's real goal all along, as in his world view, the exercise of American power has almost always been negative. According to Podhoretz, what is widely perceived as bumbling has actually been a success of the highest order from Obama's point of view. Sadly, that theory explains all the known facts.
Not only has the President lost the confidence of the world, he has further shattered the confidence of the American people that their leaders will not involve them in foreign ventures without an articulated strategic goal, clear planning, and consideration of all possible exigencies that may arise.
That loss of public confidence will surely lessen support for an American strike at Iran's nuclear facilities, which has hitherto enjoyed a comfortable margin of support in most public opinion polls. The brilliant David Goldman suggests that Republicans perform political jujitsu on Obama and demand a resolution authorizing not only military action in Syria but against Iran's nuclear program, in return for their support. In this case, however, I would argue that Goldman has outsmarted himself. Any linkage between Syria and Iran would likely serve to dramatically decrease public support for military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
WHILE THOSE WHO ARGUE that Obama's serial failures to show minimal competence in Syria have further emboldened Iran are surely right, it would be a mistake to view the result in Syria as determining that in Iran. Assad's chemical weapons do not self-evidently threaten anyone outside Syria's borders. Nuclear weapons, by contrast, are a threat only abroad. A nuclear Iran would threaten Israel and Saudi Arabia immediately, and Europe and the United States within a few years. It is not difficult to explain just how dangerous and destabilizing Iranian nukes would be.
Further, President Obama has been far more explicit that Iran must not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons than he ever was about Syria's use of chemical weapons, and on numerous occasions.
Moreover, any military attack on Iran would require the maintenance of secrecy about the timing and nature of such an attack, in contrast to the loquacious lead-up to Syria. For that reason, there is little reason to think that Obama would seek congressional approval before acting, and certainly not without knowing for sure that he had the votes in advance.
Finally, there is one small consolation from recent events. Obama, the liberal internationalist, who has always viewed U.N. Security Council approval as the necessary condition for American military action has been forced to confront the fact that doing so allows Russia and China to ties America's hands in ways that are unacceptable. That a left-wing Democrat has moved ahead without Security Council approval or other international backing will hopefully encourage future administration's not to accept self-inflicted restrictions on American sovereignty in deciding when to use military force and when not.
That, however, is pretty slim consolation for what Walter Russell Mead describes as a second Bay of Pigs in slow motion, played out on front pages and television screens around the world, revealing a total policy meltdown. "If there really is a special providence for drunks, fools, and Americans," he writes, "this would be an excellent time for it to put in an appearance."
"If there is really a special providence for drunks, fools, and the United States of America," writes Mead, "this would be a good time for it to put in an appearance. Otherwise, we will be left watching a total policy meltdown, a slow motion Bay of Pigs, unfold before the whole world.
Related Topics: American Government & Politics
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