As naval forces gather in the Mediterranean for the express purpose of spearheading an attack on the Assad regime in Syria, the time presents itself for some thinking about the wisdom and strategy of such a move. Not having insight into what the strategic objectives of such an attack might be, I am made uneasy by its prospect and by its potential unintended consequences.
As I have written elsewhere, President Obama's foreign policy has been one of detachment, attempting to keep the world at arm's length in order that entanglements not endanger his domestic priorities. For a portion of his Presidency, I was unsure whether his approach was the result of a wise balancing of risks and interests, or a more straightforward, ideologically based aversion to the use of American military power. As his Presidency progresses, it is clearly the latter.
The distinction is important. If the President and his team had looked at the Iranian uprisings in 2009, the turmoil of the Arab Spring, the Iranian nuclear issue, the revolution in Libya, and the civil war in Syria--and decided that the United States did not have interests worth becoming militarily involved over--I would generally tend to have agreed with those decisions. In order for such an approach to operate effectively, the President must approach each new crisis separately and evaluate it against his own risk/rewards/interests construct. But that isn't what I believe the Obama Administration has been doing. It has had an entering argument, a default position--and that is, don't get involved...don't lead....let others manage it....all of those questions had first to overcome that position before any decision to become more involved could be reached.
Not only has the default position been to avoid using military force, the Administration has actively sought to reduce our military power with nearly a trillion dollars of reductions to defense spending planned in the next decade. This would be accomplished through a previous half trillion dollar cut, and also the half trillion dollars assessed to defense as a result of sequestration, which it is generally acknowledged was a policy choice hatched in the White House with members of the Senate Majority Leader's staff.
Yet the real world continues to bedevil Mr. Obama's best laid plans. Libya showed the Europeans to be feckless and incapable, with the US having to become substantially involved in order to salvage European prestige, and US reticence exposing itself in the unfortunate choice of words of one of Mr. Obama's staffers who referred to our stance as "leading from behind". The President wanted to remain largely out of the fight, which was in my view, the right decision. But he reached the right answer for the wrong reason. He wanted to stay out of it because he didn't want the distraction; he should have wanted to stay out of it because vital American interests were not at stake.
Syria has been enmeshed in a civil war for over two years, its beginnings traceable to the much talked about "Arab Spring". In the process, some 100,000 people have died. Just over a year ago, after reports that chemical weapons had been employed in Syria (it was unclear at the time by which side), the President stated that chemical weapons use was a "red line" for the United States, and their use would bring about "enormous consequences", the nature of which was unstated. This was an unfortunate remark for the President, because at its heart, it carried with it the explicit message of US military involvement, something he clearly A) did not want and B) was not planning. It was, an idle threat. Again, this lack of planning was the result of the "default" approach to foreign affairs, the one which demanded detachment in order not to hazard domestic priorities.
One year later, the US still has not done much in Syria. And last week, chemical weapons were again used there, with the Administration asserting the existence of intelligence that clearly implicates the Assad regime. Which is where we find ourselves today. Several questions to consider:
Should a government's use of chemical weapons on its own people within its own borders be a "red line" which would trip a US military response? My view is no, it should not. Of the 100,000 killed thus far in this conflict, approximately one percent are estimated to have lost their lives to chemical attack. It is simply illogical to assign so much importance to the use of one class of weapons over another, especially when conventional arms have been so efficient in taking lives. But, if the Obama Administration had put forward a policy statement asserting such a red line, its support with more than words WOULD then become a compelling national interest. We have an interest in being seen as a world leader who backs up its words with action. Such a perception is in fact, one of the bases of power. With such a policy in place, we would have massed appropriate military power, the government would have made its case to other governments and the American Congress, and we would have been in the position to back up our words. Instead, owing to the Administration's detachment, none of this happened (a year ago). And so we find ourselves a year later, with chemical weapons again having been used, with a President with his back up against a wall and US prestige on the line. We are one year more diminished militarily, we have insufficient forces in the area for anything other than some punishment strikes, and we have very, very few other nations as of yet signed up to join us. The British Parliament dealt its Prime Minister (and the alliance with the United States) a blow by voting against UK involvement, a act of some logic. The contrast with previous administration's ability to create coalitions of friends and allies is notable.
What can we accomplish with the forces that appear to be involved? The attack would largely be cruise missile based, from ships and submarines in the Mediterranean. There would be considerable damage to key regime targets, including command and control, leadership sites, and potentially, Syrian WMD locations. The Assad regime would likely remain in place, but would be weakened enough that over time, the rebels could prevail.
What happens if Assad falls? If Assad falls, yet another Arab country with zero experience with democracy would be thrown into political upheaval as rebel elements contend for leadership. In Syria, we have the added complication of a witches brew of unsavory Islamist groups involved in the struggle. It is difficult to consider that whatever government that would emerge would be 1) MORE aligned with the US than Assad (a low bar, admittedly) or 2) less of a threat to our ally, Israel, to the south. From a cold, realistic standpoint, Assad and his Iranian backed Hezbollah mercenaries killing and being killed by Al-Qaeda inspired Islamist rebels did not exactly constitute something we have an interest in seeing end.
Does the President need Congressional approval. Probably not, but he should try and get it. More importantly, John Boehner should call the House into session to consider a resolution supporting the use of force in Syria. Let it ride...get members on the record. The American public is against this intervention; if House votes against it, perhaps the Senate will take it up. In the end, a President who acts without public or congressional approval on a matter that is tangential to our national interests is taking a considerable risk.
What are some possible unintended consequences? Where to begin? First, the creation of yet another basket case country in the Arab world populated with a surfeit of men with guns who do not like us. Next, the emergence of an openly hostile neighbor for Israel. Moving up the scale of badness, an Iranian attack on US or Israeli interests. Probably worst of all, could be an exchange at sea between the Russian Navy and the US Navy, the Russians having been sortied to the Eastern Med in order to look after Russia's interests and to shadow the US fleet.
So, what's your bottom line, Bryan? We are in a dreadful position as a result of a poor foreign and defense policy. We don't have enough force to do anything significant, so whatever we do we run the risk of looking weak and unable to achieve our aims. If we unhorse Assad (unlikely), we unleash events we cannot hope to control. There are no easy answers here, not because the problem is so hard, but because our policy dithered long enough to make it hard. I do not support an attack simply because the President needs to save face, and I don't support an attack large enough to oust Assad. We should call off the dogs of war.
And then find a new President.