Obama’s Damascus Debacle

President Obama once again has stepped firmly into a disaster largely of his own making, as he now threatens Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad with military action. History is not without its sense of irony: here we have the same group of Democrats who campaigned against President Bush’s “war of choice” based on a Ba’athist dictator possessing weapons of mass destruction now advocating the very same thing. To see John Kerry forced to confront a skeptical Congress and convince them to go to war in the Middle East is like peering into Bizarro World.

President Obama is right on one thing, if only in theory. The use of weapons of mass destruction against civilians should be a categorical red line. Anyone government or non-governmental entity that launches an attack with chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons should be blown off the face of the earth, no questions asked. In a perfect world, the international community would swiftly and surely punish such violations of basic international norms.

Of course, we don’t live in anything resembling a perfect world.

Obama may feel free to argue that the use of chemical weapons is a worldwide “red line” that demands immediate action, but saying it does not make in so. Until the Chinese and the Russians feel the same way, all of these high-minded proclamations of global resolve are for naught.

President Obama discusses Syria in the Oval Office.
President Obama discusses Syria in the Oval Office.

Instead, President Obama is demonstrating his naïveté on foreign policy matters. We do not live in an age of international harmony in which the saintly United Nations will come to the aid of the suffering Syrian people. We live in a world based on realpolitik. Vladimir Putin is perfectly fine with Assad gassing Syrians by the thousands. What he cares about is expanding Russian power in the region and the globe.

Even though I’m still a believer in enforcing international norms through the judicious use of military force—exactly the sort of person that the President could convince—the problem is that we are entering into yet another Middle Eastern conflict with no clear idea of just what we are hoping to achieve. Are we trying to punish Assad for the use of chemical weapons? Exactly what is the point if the punishment will be no more than a token strike with drones or cruise missiles? That will not be an effective deterrent, and sends the message that the use of WMDs will lead to a piddling and ineffectual response.

The President has made it clear that the goal is not “regime change” or killing Assad. But that is precisely what the goal should be. If we want to effectively punish the use of weapons of mass destruction on civilians, we have to make the price unacceptably high. That means that the use of WMDs should be met with immediate, clear, and undeniable action. In short: if you want to use WMDs on civilians, the United States and its allies will hunt you down and kill you, destroy your military, and end your rule. Anything less gives tyrants like Assad the leeway to gas civilians and hope to survive the consequences.

Making this all even more complicated is that many of the Syrian rebels are tied to al-Qaeda and other Salafi groups. Even if Assad were deposed, Syria will likely end up embroiled in yet another bloody civil war in which the most likely winner will be radical Islamists. Our options are, to put it mildly, not good.

In the end, we are planning on going into Syria to try to “preserve credibility” by a series of ineffectual strikes, sending the message that if you use WMDs the United States will levy a small measure of its military might against you. Maybe. If we decide to bother.

Obviously, the Iranians are quaking in their boots.

If that were not enough, the situation is even worse. Great Britain, America’s staunchest ally in international affairs is out of the running. The French were the only coalition partners that we had going into Syria. (As an aside, this is because of France’s long interest in Syria, which was once a French protectorate.) But now, Obama’s sudden (but legally required) decision to consult Congress has left French President François Hollande in the lurch, and forcing him to go to the National Assembly in the hopes of getting permission to act against Assad. Contrast that to Iraq, where President Bush had nearly 40 coalition partners at the outbreak of the war—including the British. On Syria, the United States runs the risk of standing unnecessarily alone.

But this is a problem largely of President Obama’s own making. Despite his claim that “I didn’t set the red line,” the President’s very own words make it clear that he did set a red line with Syria. That in itself is respectable: the use of weapons of mass destruction rightly should be a red line for the United States. The problem is that Obama’s statement was made to look tough without being tough. What Obama should have done was to back up that statement with force: getting Congressional approval for a limited response targeting Assad and his military personally if there was a confirmed use of WMD.

Democratic partisans will argue that Obama would never have received the approval of the Republican House. Maybe so, maybe not. (I would guess that Obama could have squeaked it by.) But Obama is the one who decided not to even try to consult Congress until the last minute. Had this debate happened a year ago, the United States could have backed up its words with action now when it counts. But the President is openly and clearly contemptuous of working with Congress, abdicating the true source of his Presidential bully pulpit when it is needed the most.

Now, the United States faces an unnecessary crisis. Even if the President gets his approval to strike Syria, it will be too little, too late. The lesson being taught here is that the use of WMD against civilians will be tacitly tolerated, and that the United States is not to be feared, at least not under this Administration. And even if we do act in Syria, we will be acting in aid of a group of rebels closely associated with al-Qaeda who promise more bloodshed to the already ravaged Syrian people.

This is a situation that should never have been allowed to develop in the first place, but this Administration has abdicated leadership on the world stage. We have sent a message of weakness rather than resolve, and the world has taken notice. Our traditional allies are no longer with us, and we face a conflict with no clear goals, no clear resolution, and no real purpose.

While the President is right that the use of WMD is a categorical red line that should never be crossed, he lacks the political and international power to back up that statement. Even if we attack Syria, which is not a foregone conclusion, it will not achieve much. President Obama may think that it’s the credibility of Congress or the world that’s on the line, but the reality is that it was his credibility that was on the line, and he failed. Sadly, the consequences to America, Syria, and the world are likely to be severe.

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