If there is one good thing to come out of President Obama’s proposal to bomb Syria, it is that it has Americans talking like Americans, instead of just Republicans or Democrats.
The issue has fractured the long-standing loggerheads in which the two parties have found themselves, with both parties finding thoughtful positions on both sides of the issue.
A second good thing that has come out of it is that the president is finally acknowledging that constitutional limits exist to his war-making power.
The fact is that ever since Vietnam, U.S. presidents have been using military force whenever they think they can get away with it, instead of asking the Congress to declare war first.
The Congress, of course, made up mostly of careerists who don’t like to cast votes of any great consequence, has been happy with this arrangement. Better to let the president do whatever he deems best, and then undermine the decision.
A third good thing that could — but probably won’t — come out of this episode is that the interests of both the United States and civilized people everywhere will be advanced.
That has become unlikely because Obama has revealed himself to be unserious as a strategist in global politics. Looking for political cover in case things go south on this effort, the president tried to persuade the Congress to permit him to lob a few bombs “across the bow.”
The purpose, we are told, is to moralize against the use of chemical weapons. The argument for lobbying moralized explosives at the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad would be more persuasive if the president, in particular, and Secretary of State John Kerry, when running for president in his own right in 2004, hadn’t been so enthusiastic in their objections to the war to oust Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Saddam killed 10 times as many people with chemical weapons as Assad has.
Twelve years ago, I was among those who bought into the false intelligence briefings from the CIA and NSA that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Since he had also tried to assassinate the first President Bush and had no compunction about slowly turning to hamburger any Iraqis who made the mistake of looking at him cross-eyed, it is hard to understand why the Iraq War was unjustified, but a Syrian War would be.
Still, one of the biggest mistakes that nations make is to fight the next war on the basis of the last one. Just because the intelligence was wrong doesn’t exonerate Saddam. Just because it took us a decade to create the flimsy democracy that Iraq now has doesn’t mean it would take that long in Syria. Just because the U.S. is financially broke, not to mention war-weary, doesn’t mean that a compelling national purpose is non-existent.
Every war is different.
In this instance, I see more similarities to World War I than to the Iraq War. The last time “civilized” armies used poison gas on each other was in that War to End All Wars. In addition, that war began when a heretofore relatively inconsequential nobleman, Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, and his wife were assassinated. As a result, various treaties and alliances fell into place, and suddenly most of Europe was at war.
Syria is relatively inconsequential in geopolitics unless Obama completely misplays his hand.
Now, thanks to a stumbling statement by Kerry that Assad needs to turn over all of his chemical weapons, Obama may avoid being humiliated by a Congress which looked away when he refused to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, lobbed a few bombs into Libya and unilaterally delayed parts of the Affordable Care Act. Instead, however, we find ourselves negotiating with the pariah Assad and the Russians, saying if he turns over his remaining stockpiles of poison, then we’ll pretend no harm, no foul.
The administration can spin it however it wants, but the world sees Obama revealed as a paper tiger, thus encouraging adventurism by other anti-U.S. interests, like nuclear wanna-be Iran.
Obama has made it clear that he doesn’t intend to overthrow Assad or establish a democratic republic, as Bush II did in Iraq.
Instead, Obama established that this is all about moralizing, nothing more.
My belief is that if the president were serious, he would put the nation on full alert, ask — as Bush never did — for all Americans to sacrifice in some way, send in enough troops to obliterate all opposition, and be prepared for any fall out if any of Assad’s allies, such as Russia and Iran, decide to join the fray.
To me, the only reason to go to war is for self-defense. That’s easier to say than it is to define what constitutes “self-defense.” (i.e. Self-defense when facing a mugger on a sidewalk is one thing. Self-defense when one’s enemies are conspiring against you but have yet to attack is another.)
Obama is correct that there are “red lines” out there that other nations ought not cross. Where he overspoke, however, was in saying that the use of chemical weapons by a tinpot dictator like Assad was consequential to a superpower.
Now he’s in a position where, if he does nothing or even if he fires a shot “across the bow,” the nation and he are seen as weak.
The United States ought to go to war only if the effort is winnable and serves a clear national purpose based in self-defense. Throwing some cruise missiles at the problem or even confiscating the remaining supplies won’t stop the next chemical attack if Assad continues to hold power.
Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. Reach him at (320) 632-2345 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.