Update: On Saturday afternoon, U.S. President Barack Obama said he will seek the approval of Congress to take military action against Syria of “limited duration and scope.” The U.S. Congress is due to reconvene Sept. 9. “We cannot and will not take a blind eye,” Obama said in a speech from the Rose Garden.
U.S. President Barack Obama did not intend to commit his country to war when he vowed — several times since March 2012 — that the use of chemical weapons by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s forces was a “red line” and that Assad would be “held accountable” were such weapons deployed.
Obama ran for office as the anti-war candidate. His brief escalation of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan must be seen as an anomaly against an international record that otherwise consists of seeking to limit foreign military entanglements.
It’s not that Obama is a pacifist opposed to lethal force when he believes American interests are at stake. He’s ordered more drone attacks against targets in Pakistan and elsewhere than his predecessor George W. Bush did. Bush was roundly condemned for the incarceration at Guantanamo Bay of Canadian Omar Khadr, captured during a firefight in Afghanistan when he was 15. On Obama’s watch, 16-year-old American citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, son of an al-Qaeda propagandist, died in a drone strike in Yemen.
But Obama has tried to frame his foreign policy as restrained, a salve after the reckless adventurism of the Bush era. “The tide of war is receding,” he has often said, a self-congratulatory boast that bears little resemblance to reality; U.S. absence from wars doesn’t make them disappear.
Now, however, Obama finds himself and America about to join a war, precisely because Assad called his bluff. Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons before last week. But the scale of this most recent attack — more than 1,400 dead, according to American intelligence — and the degree to which its horrors were documented, made it impossible for Obama not to respond and retain any credibility about red lines in the future.
It is hard not to compare the international reaction today to that on the eve of the Iraq war 10 years ago. America, led by a president who opposed the Iraq war, is once again trying to gather a coalition that will support and perhaps participate in its impending attack.
Britain was American’s staunchest ally in Iraq. Yesterday, it withdrew expected military support for action in Syria, following an unexpected defeat for Prime Minister David Cameron in the House of Commons. France, which led opposition to war in Iraq, now stands shoulder to shoulder with America. Secretary of State John Kerry today called France America’s “oldest ally” — a reference to America’s revolutionary war against the British some 225 years ago. That remark will sting in London.
The Poles, a fighting force in Iraq, are skipping Syria. Turkey, which refused to allow American troops to invade Iraq from its territory, will back the coming attack on Syria. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who supported the invasion of Iraq from the opposition benches 10 years ago, supports military strikes against Syria, but Canada will not contribute militarily.
The war in Iraq, and Western fears about prolonged involvement in another Middle East war, will also shape the nature of coming attack on Syria. Washington has indicated that the strikes will be limited in duration and scope, and will be strictly in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. The options we are considering are not about regime change,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
This is a strategically flawed decision. Those of us who supported the war in Iraq imagined a better outcome when the war was over: a country free of a murderous tyrant and with a chance at a brighter future. One can argue this was naïve, or that the war was bungled. But at least there was a goal.
What exactly are Obama’s goals in Syria? He is proposing interrupting a bully who is beating up a weaker adversary — oh, screw the metaphor; a dictator gassing children — to hit him once and then retreat to the sidelines.
What will that accomplish? Deterrence, maybe, but only against massive chemical attacks. We’ve already established that the small-scale use of chemical weapons doesn’t merit a robust response; nor do attacks with conventional weapons. Days after the chemical attack in Damascus, regime jets dropped a napalm-like substance on a schoolyard in the north of the country, with results that are almost too horrific to watch. Why should that atrocity generate any less revulsion? A Syrian opposition member I spoke with welcomed Western intervention but wondered why the 100,000 who died before last week did not trigger it.
A limited attack will not change the course of the war. But it will link those who take part in it with the armed opposition to Assad, ensuring that, should Assad prevail, they will share in the opposition’s defeat, without doing anything to prevent it.
Then there are the moral problems with the limited strikes that appear in the works. Who is going to die? It is possible Assad himself is a reachable target. Perhaps some of the military leaders responsible for the massacre can be located. But the more likely victims are young conscripts and, inevitably, civilians. How can their deaths be justified, if the attacks do nothing to hasten Assad’s fall and prevent further slaughter at the hands of his henchmen?
Western countries should have taken firmer steps to bring down Assad years ago — including greater aid to rebels, and, as necessary, air strikes, a no-fly zone, or protected safe havens. Everything cited as reasons not to get involved — most notably the increasingly jihadist nature of the armed opposition — has gotten worse as we’ve sat on our hands.
Assad’s depravity had now reached a new low. He doesn’t need to be punished or deterred. He needs to be defeated — or at the very least forced to negotiate his withdrawal from power (followed by eventual prosecution for crimes against humanity). That’s why we should bomb Syria. And we should conduct the sort of campaign necessary to ensure that happens.