President Barack Obama talks with bipartisan congressional leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House. (Reuters/Larry Downing)
President Obama’s plan to have Congress approve his ill-considered war on behalf of Al Qaeda in Syria will shock everyone, when it happens, with its sheer intensity. Those expecting a “limited” strike against a handful of Syrian military installations, including those involved in delivering chemical weapons, are in for a rude awakening. Instead, what the president will order will be a lot closer to President George W. Bush’s “shock and awe” bombardment of Baghdad before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
That isn’t to say that Obama is planning an invasion of Syria. He’s not. (Although if the state collapses, and Syria descends into chaos, the United States may very well end up with “boots on the ground” and body bags for American soldiers.)
In trying to market his war plans to Congress and the American public, Obama has repeatedly stated that he’s seeking authority for a limited war, and some officials have suggested—especially at the beginning of Obama’s war push—that “the strike,” as the belligerent Secretary of State John Kerry calls it, might involve only a couple of dozen cruise missiles. Don’t believe that for a second.
Even the drafts of resolutions being circulated in Congress suggest that Obama will get the “authority” to wage war against Syria for up to sixty days, with the possibility of an extension. That’s war, folks, not a “strike.”
No longer is the Obama administration arguing that it intends merely to punish President Bashar al-Assad for his alleged use of sarin gas. Instead, the talk in Washington more and more is about the need to “degrade” Syria’s core military apparatus. In Pentagon lingo, “degrade” means “destroy.” In other words, the object of Obama’s planned war on Syria is to tilt the balance of the conflict to the rebels, many of whom are radical Islamists, extremists of all kinds and Al Qaeda types.
As the Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend, even the initial list of fifty targets to be attacked—and fifty is a lot—has been expanded. And the United States is planning to use not only cruise missiles but other weapons, including bombers, based in both the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, at least. As the Los Angeles Times report, by veteran reported David S. Cloud, puts it:
The Pentagon is preparing for a longer bombardment of Syria than it originally had planned, with a heavy barrage of missile strikes followed soon after by more attacks on targets that the opening salvos missed or failed to destroy, officials said.…
Two U.S. officers said the White House asked for an expanded target list in recent days to include many more than the 50 or so targets on the initial list. As a result, Pentagon planners are weighing whether to use Air Force bombers, in addition to five warships now on patrol in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, to launch cruise missiles and air-to-surface missiles from hundreds of miles offshore, well out of range of Syrian air defenses.
Stephen Hadley, President Bush’s national security adviser, has officially been enlisted by the White House as an advocate for the war push on Capitol Hill. As The New York Times reported, in a lengthy piece on the White House’s all-out lobbying effort to rally Congress for war—in which the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has been given a prominent role—Obama has asked Hadley and other hawks to rally Republicans:
Tailoring the pitch, the White House and Republican Congressional leaders organized another briefing just for Republican staff members to hear from Stephen Hadley, a former national security adviser to Mr. Bush, and Eric S. Edelman, a former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney.
Like the White House, Hadley argues that the real object of the war is to scare Iran by getting rid of its Syrian ally. (The title of Hadley’s op-ed in the Washington Post today is “To stop Iran, Obama must enforce red lines with Syria.”) And Hadley insists that the “strike” against Damascus be designed to topple Assad, not to punish him:
To protect these U.S. interests, U.S. military action in Syria must go beyond a few missile strikes designed to deter or degrade future chemical weapons use. It must be robust enough to erode the Syrian regime’s military advantage.… The goal is fracturing the Syrian regime so political and military elements of the regime can join with moderate and democratic elements of the opposition to establish an interim government that can begin to wind down the war, protect all Syrians (including Alawites and other minorities) and go after al-Qaeda.
Hadley, of course, has direct experience with “fracturing the…regime,” since that’s what his team did to Iraq in 2003, with catastrophic results. Hadley (and Kerry) warn that perhaps 100,000 Syrians have died—but they fail to mention that five times that many, at least, died in Iraq after the state, the army and all of Iraq’s institutions fell apart.
Last week, on September 5, The New York Times reported extensively on the administration’s war plan, noting (even then) that the list of targets was expanding, and adding:
So as the target list expands, the administration is creeping closer to carrying out military action that also could help tip the balance on the ground, even as the administration argues that that is not the primary intent.
And it added:
Among the options available are B-52 bombers, which can carry air-launched cruise missiles; B-1s that are based in Qatar and carry long-range, air-to-surface missiles; and B-2 stealth bombers, which are based in Missouri and carry satellite-guided bombs.
Part of this escalation is designed to win the support of super-hawks such as Senator John McCain, who has argued that it would useless to bomb Syria in a limited fashion, and that only a massive strike designed to topple Assad would be credible. That, of course, may push some fence-sitting liberals to oppose Obama’s war push in Congress, but it’s designed instead to win the backing of hawks and Republicans who’ve accused Obama of being too weak on Syria since 2011.
Thanks to McCain, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee-passed war resolution explicitly says that a strike ought to be aimed at getting rid of Assad, not punishing him. As The Wall Street Journal reported:
Unlike the House alternative, the version passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday also set a broader policy goal of tipping the civil war in Syria against the Assad regime—language sought by Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.).
At the American Enterprise Institute, which served as the unofficial headquarters for the neoconservative-led attack on Iraq a decade ago, the top US naval operations official boasted that the United States will deploy a “vast spectrum” of military capabilities against Syria:
Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute on Thursday that the U.S. ships are prepared for what he called a “vast spectrum of operations,” including launching Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets in Syria and protecting themselves in the event of retaliation.
Those in Congress who have to vote on war ought to keep all this in mind. An authorization to use military force (AUMF) is almost guaranteed to explode in their faces, just as the 2001 vote after 9/11 and the 2003 vote to authorize war against Iraq did.
Read The Nation’s editorial in opposition to intervention in Syria.