Author’s note: By the time you read this, it may all be moot as, anything could have happened since 5pm ET on Friday 30 August.
Hafez al Assad is a bad guy. You know it and I know it. He’s far more than a bad guy, but spell check won’t recognize most of the words I’d like to use to describe him, so we’ll settle with “bad” as a catch-all. The certainty he used chemical weapons on his citizens is about as certain as the sun rising tomorrow. Whether he used them 2 weeks ago or in the years earlier, shouldn’t matter but apparently it does to the international community (ahem, Great Britain). So, here we sit with America threatening, England equivocating, Russia defending and the United Nations showing their impotence.
As many readers (as well as my Jerusalem-living parents) rush to get gas masks from the angry Russian woman behind the counter at the post office, President Obama waits…and waits. As he has while over one hundred thousand people have been killed by a regime he has denounced multiple times. A regime led by a man whom over a year ago President Obama demanded a resignation from. A regime that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry laid out a clear case against for gassing 1429 of its citizens, including at least 426 children last week. With that in mind, it’s a perfectly legitimate question to ask “what the hell is the most powerful man in the world waiting for?” While I can’t peer into the mind of the commander-in-chief, I will attempt to distill the current American zeitgeist.
The average American does not need to be convinced that Assad is a bad guy, and they likely do not need to be convinced he used chemical weapons. What they need to be convinced of is why the fourteen hundred deaths caused by chemical weapons last week are different from the 99,000 deaths over the last two years. It really boils down to the question of what the phrase “in the national interest of the United States” means.
President Obama has said the need to act is to punish the “violation of well established international rules regarding chemical weapons”. He has also said the need to act is to protect American allies in the region (Israel, Turkey and Jordan). He has also said there will be no open-ended boots on the ground solution. He needs to protect America’s reputation. He laid down the “red line” of the use of chemical weapons and he knows he needs to back it up. If he doesn’t, far more important threats, like those towards Iran would lose all meaning So, what’s next?
Nearly eight-in-ten Americans say that President Obama should be “required to receive approval from Congress before taking military action in Syria” according to an NBC News poll released today. This bodes poorly, as Congress has become frighteningly isolationist with congressmen saying things (in public!) like they “[f]eel badly about the chemical attack but don’t know how they can tell their constituents that the government is going to spend billions in Syria in a conflict that has no impact on us while we let schools and roads fall apart.” Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) sent a letter to the president earlier laying out very specific questions about what will be done, what the intended result is, what the contingency plans are and how will it be paid for. Bottom line: Convincing Congress to support a strike will be difficult.
In the same NBC News poll, fifty percent of Americans said they oppose military action, while 42 percent said they would support it. However, with the added caveat that U.S. military action in Syria would be “limited to air strikes using cruise missiles launched from U.S. naval ships that were meant to destroy military units and infrastructure that have been used to carry out chemical attacks” the numbers flip.
The reality is military intervention in the Middle East is risky and difficult, as Americans have realized, as they’ve grown weary through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Doing it alone in Syria without trusted partners on the ground is reckless. Allies share the burden so our military isn’t stuck holding the bag when the bombs stop falling. The international allies are important, but on the ground allies are far more important to ensure that any limited American intervention will have an overall positive impact. Those on-the-ground allies have been the biggest impediment to American involvement in the civil war. President Obama has repeatedly said there is no coherent unified opposition and more terrifyingly, Hezbollah; al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are participants in the ant-Assad forces. America is not going to put troops on the ground in Syria, if there is not a group to support against Assad, a military strike may amount to little more than an explosive slap on the wrist. Bottom line: the facts on the ground in Syria are difficult and Americans are loath to get involved in another military conflict in the Middle East.
From Secretary Kerry’s Friday statement, the delay can’t be the United Nations. He blasted Russia for preventing anything from happening in the Security Council. He also made clear that the U.N. inspectors in Syria now will only be proving whether or not chemical weapons were used, NOT who used them. Plus, Secretary General Ban ki Moon – in classic U.N.-ness, has said he wants the U.S. to delay action and “give peace a chance”. The French want to attack while the British Parliament, apparently still voting on the Iraq war – a decade overdue, has said “nay”. The Arab League dithers, Egypt continues to implode, Lebanon slips towards chaos, so even though the Australians are gung-ho, the international community has proven unhelpful. Bottom line: the international community is as difficult as Congress.
At some point in the coming weeks, the United States will lob some cruise missiles at some specific places in Syria – with or without congressional approval or an international coalition. Who knows what’s happening at the CIA or the Pentagon but over a month ago, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey wrote a letter to the chairman of the Senate Armed Committee explain some options. In the short term, expect a lot more talk from the administration to define what the goals are and what the end game is, especially before, during and after the upcoming G-20 summit.
Is a targeted, limited missile strike on designated Syrian targets in the “national interest of the United States”? You bet it is, but it’s not enough of a response. For America to have any credibility President Obama needs to back up his “red line” threat. Prestige is one of the few things a war-tired, economically recovering, borderline dysfunctioning government United States has to rely on. To simply say “we recognize Assad is a problem, he can’t gas his people but we don’t get want to get involved” does not do justice to America. It’s insulting to the life-risking men and women in uniform. It’s insulting to the hard-working diplomatic corps. And it should be embarrassing to the average American citizen. It is long past time for America, leading the international community, to get involved in ridding the world of Assad and eliminating the terrorist aspects of the opposition forces by any means necessary. Launching missiles from a war ship in the Mediterranean should not be enough.