President Barack Obama. (AP Images)
It’s up to Congress now to stop President Obama’s push for war. That ought not be encouraging, even though rogue Republican neo-isolationists and Obama-haters in the House might still vote no out of spite. The White House—not to mention the Israel lobby—will push hard for approval of a war resolution, and even staunch, liberal pro-Obama members of Congress, especially in the Senate, will probably go along.
But that doesn’t make the desire of the president and Secretary of State Kerry, who’s emerged as the administration’s über-hawk, to go to war any less insane. Striking Syria in a punishment-minded, wrath-of-God attack, driven by the president’s foolish announcement of a red line in the sand, with absolutely no strategic goal in sight—and now that Syria will have weeks to disperse its forces and its weapons—makes not a shred of sense. But as Obama said yesterday, “We do what we say.” And he’s said he intends to bomb Syria. My guess: he’ll do it even if Congress votes against the idea.
In the president’s statement yesterday, he asked: “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?” In response, I ask: “By what right does President Obama, any president, decide which dictator, strongman or bad guy anywhere in the world must be punished by the United States? Who made America the world’s policeman—not to mention the world’s judge, jury and executioner?”
Some might be willing to praise Obama for making a virtue of necessity and taking the case for his useless, strategically incompetent Syria plan to the Congress. In fact, without allies (except the French, who long for the long-gone “mission civilisatrice”), with public support, with the formerly puppylike UK, without backing from either the United Nations or the Arab League, Obama was naked before the world. So he wants congressional support for a mission that will kill civilians and accomplish, well, nothing.
As The New York Times reports in some depth, Obama is being ridiculed worldwide, and he deserves every ounce of mockery that he’s getting. No doubt, at the summit meeting of the G-20 in St. Petersburg later this week, Obama will get his head handed to him, and rightly so.
None of this means that Obama, who seems to approach every world conflict with Hamlet-like indecision—perhaps not a bad thing—is as bad as President George W. Bush. A Syrian resident of Homs, anticipating an attack, put it best when he told the Times:
“Man, I wish Bush was the president. He would have reacted right away. He may have invaded Cyprus or Jordan instead of Syria by mistake, but you know he would have done something at least.”
No, Obama isn’t Bush. But on Syria he created his own slippery slope, first by calling for the ouster of President Assad in 2011 without intending to back up his words—but, meanwhile, inciting Islamist fanatics of all kinds into an anti-Assad frenzy—and then by drawing imaginary red lines in the sands of the Middle East.
In his remarks yesterday—and in what will no doubt be the central focus of the Israel lobby’s support for Obama’s war plan in Congress—Obama made it clear that someone, perhaps Kerry, perhaps others, has convinced him that bombing Syria is really a message to Iran. As the president put it:
Make no mistake—this has implications beyond chemical warfare. If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms?
In fact, here’s what it says to Iran: We don’t care at all that you’ve elected a peace-minded new president, Hassan Rouhani, who might be able to work out a reasonable compromise on Iran’s nuclear program. Instead, Obama is saying, we’d rather bomb your ally Syria, bolster the hawks in Tehran, and go from there.
Gary Sick, a Columbia University professor and former top Middle East aide in Jimmy Carter’s White House, made an attempt to figure out Obama’s reasoning, if that’s what you can call it, and here’s what he came up with:
Imagine that you are a White House adviser and you have been asked to calibrate a military intervention that will send an unmistakable message to Assad that his use of [chemical weapons] was a serious error and persuade him that any such action in the future would be unacceptably costly to Syria generally and to the Assad government in particular.
However, the attack should not change the fundamental balance of power in the civil war—specifically it should not empower the radical Sunni opposition forces that are potentially worse than Assad. The strike should not be so great that it inspires reckless behavior by other states or parties in the region—specifically it should not provoke retaliation, for example, by either Hezbollah or Syria against Israeli targets.
The attack should be time limited, so the United States should not be required to go back again and again—to “mow the lawn” in Israeli parlance. Above all, it should not require us to escalate, regardless of how Assad or his allies may respond.
Ultimately the strike should at best encourage a shift to a negotiating track or at least not place an insuperable obstacle in the path of a non-violent solution to the problem. Within Syria, the attack should not create a new wave of refugees or make the conditions of ordinary Syrians worse than it already is.
You may have up to ten days to present your plan (depending on the Congressional calendar), but your proposal really should be available tomorrow for proper vetting in advance and possible immediate use.
As Sick implies, it’s impossible to propose a plan of attack that can’t go wrong. Will Congress understand that? Unfortunately, both Obama’s war plan and the vote in Congress will be about politics, and there the balance of power likely rests with the White House, which will make its case for war again and again, as Kerry did on television today across the networks on four Sunday shows. Right now Americans are ambivalent about Syria: most of them are more concerned about football and twerking than foreign policy. A president who campaigns for war in the United States usually wins.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has a few cautionary words before we launch airstrikes in Syria.