Congress returns this week, not to wrestle with budget resolutions and debt ceilings as
expected, but to decide whether to authorize a war with Syria. That came as a surprise last week as Senators and Representatives prepared to come back into session after the August recess, after President Barack Obama reversed course on Friday and said he would ask Congress for authorization to use military force.
The White House had spent most of the preceding week arguing that Obama had the authority to initiate military strikes under the War Powers Act, which made the eleventh-hour turnabout somewhat inexplicable, even to his own aides.
To be sure, the White House doesn’t want Americans to get the impression that Obama wants war. Secretary of State John Kerry went to the Senate this week to make the case for a military response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, arguing that a lack of response would send the message that the Syrian dictator could use WMDs against his own people “with impunity.”
At the same time, though, the former anti-war activist bristled at the notion that bombing Syria amounted to war. In response to pointed questions from Senator Rand Paul, Kerry insisted that dropping bombs on Syria’s military was not “war in the classic sense.”
“He is simply saying we need to take an action that can degrade the capacity of a man who has been willing to kill his own people by breaking a nearly 100-year-old prohibition, and will we stand up and be counted to say we won’t do that,” Kerry added. “You know, I just don’t consider that going to war in the classic sense of coming to congress and asking for a declaration of war and training troops and sending people abroad and putting young Americans in harm’s way. That is not what the president is asking for here.”
This is one of the most dishonest arguments put forward in this push for military action, and one of the most revealing. If another nation launched missiles and bombs at our military installations in order to degrade our capabilities, even without putting a boot on the ground, we certainly would consider it an act of war.
In fact, we did – in December 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in response to our oil embargo. Of course bombing another country is an act of war, especially one that hasn’t attacked the interests of America or its allies.
Kerry’s distinction here relies on an assumption that Syria won’t retaliate and that its patron state Iran will remain on the sidelines, too, so none of our armed forces will be put into any danger. That, however, is a dangerous assumption, especially considering our track record in the region. The President might not be formally requesting that kind of war, but military strikes on Syria might well produce it, regardless of how sanitary or contained Congress might assume that strategy to be.
The next day, Barack Obama himself challenged Kerry for the title on disingenuous statements. In a press conference in Stockholm, Obama insisted that he didn’t set the “red line” in regard to Syrian chemical-weapons use, but that “the world set a red line.” A year earlier, Obama surprised the White House press briefing with a personal appearance to emphasize his red-line policy, stating that any significant use of chemical weapons “would change my calculus – that would change my equation,” emphasis added.
Obama has yet to go to the United Nations to ask for enforcement of what he sees as the global “red line,” which Russia will block in any case. UN Secretary General Ban-ki Moon insisted that while the use of chemical weapons violated international law, so too would an unsanctioned military attack on the perpetrator.
The idea that the “world” has set a red line requiring military intervention after the use of chemical weapons is rather strange, and has no historical precedent. Chemical weapons have had a number of deployments since the 1925 Geneva Protocol (affirmed unanimously by the UN General Assembly in 1966) that first banned their use without any such response.
Iraq used chemical weapons in two 1987 attacks during their eight-year war against Iran without any outside intervention. Libya used chemical weapons against Chad in the same year, again with no outside intervention. Most infamously, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons as a means of genocide against the Kurds in Halabja in 1988, killing more than 5,000 non-combatants, without any international military response (although it was one of the many justifications used by the US and UN in 1991 for Operation Desert Storm and in 2003’s second invasion of Iraq). One can certainly argue that all of these incidents called for American or global intervention, but not that the world laid down a red line for armed response to their use.
This, then, has to rest on whether America has any interests in the Syrian conflict in which these weapons were used. On that basis, there are no grounds for military action. One side in the conflict is a client state of Iran and a brutal dictatorship; the other side is dominated by radical Islamist networks affiliated with al-Qaeda, especially the most effective of them, Jabhat al-Nusra, which declared its allegiance to AQ last year. The US State Department lists it as a terrorist group, which means any aid to the group would violate American law. Any action degrading Assad by definition bolsters the Islamist-dominated rebellion, and vice versa, and the US has no interest in bolstering either one.
What about our other allies? Kerry told Congress this week that American inaction threatens Israel’s security – a characterization which Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, almost immediately disputed. "In response, I say unequivocally that Israel can defend itself and will respond forcefully to any aggression by Syria." An attack on Syria might precipitate an Iranian attack on Israel – the Iranians hinted at that – but no one thinks that the US would stay out of that conflict, including the Iranians.
Furthermore, the range of options presented during the debate have all been tried in the past and failed. The US imposed a no-fly zone over Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War to bring Saddam Hussein to heel, and imposed massive sanctions to provoke a popular revolt. Hussein continued his defiance, continued murdering his own people on a massive scale, and made billions of dollars gaming the Oil for Food program that circumvented the sanctions.
Twelve years later, we had to conduct another massive invasion to put an end to Hussein’s depredations and our own lack of influence on the direction of Iraq. The most recent attempt at intervention on the cheap, the decapitation of Moammar Qaddafi regime in Libya, has turned into such an utter disaster that the successor government is now threatening to bomb its own harbors to keep pirated oil from leaving the country, and the military can’t even clear the street in front of its own defense ministry in Tripoli.
Finally, we come to the argument that Obama’s red line requires us to salvage his credibility, or risk rogue nations like Iran assuming that the US is nothing but a paper tiger. This is really the only argument that makes any sense at all; there is little doubt that damage to our credibility, especially in that region, is dangerous and could cost lives. However, that argument requires us to conduct acts of war literally for the sake of conducting acts of war, while announcing that we don’t intend to actually change the conditions in Syria as a result.
That’s not an argument that will restore American credibility, especially since our stated policy toward Syria is that of regime change. If we lob bombs into Damascus and claim that we aren’t trying to change the regime, not only will no one take that seriously, Assad’s potential survival would compound the problem that Obama seeks to cure through military action now.
The root of Obama’s credibility problem cannot be solved by cruise missiles. Obama offered a boast a year ago with his red-line statement, and then clearly did nothing in the following year to set the stage for an international response to Assad for crossing it. As this week has proven, Obama didn’t even bother to engage Congress until it became clear that voters overwhelmingly oppose his rush to military action. Isolated on the international stage and under political fire at home, Obama now won’t even claim ownership of his own red line.
Cruise missiles can’t solve that kind of credibility crisis, and we do not need to tie the US to another Arab civil war with an ill-advised intervention that seeks to rescue the Obama administration from its own incompetence.