Quick, with more money at stake than you would care to lose and no lifeline calls to experts, what should the United States do about Syria? Surgical missile strikes are on offer, but the fear is they will lead to more.
Bzzzzz. Time’s up. You lose. Fortunately, your getting it wrong does not matter.
It is different if President Obama gets it wrong, and he will because Syria is a no win situation. “Tohu wabohu” – chaos and tumult – as the Hebrew Bible admonishes.
Syria is a convenience not a country. It is about the size of South Carolina but with 22 million people, a fair bit of natural gas and a Russian military base. The scatter pattern of colors on the map shows the different sects and groups (a.k.a. tribes) that were cobbled together by England and France less than a century ago. It is run by the Alawites, a tiny minority led by Bashar, the latest of the al-Assad dynasty. It is strategic planning 101 for tiny minorities to run countries like Syria because, if they don’t, they get exterminated.
To avoid extermination, the al-Assad dynasty has been heavy-handed, and a civil war has broken out. This civil war is not limited to Syrians, however. Thanks to viral marketing, social networking and the decentralization of al-Qaeda, the Syrian civil war has drawn fighters from all over the Middle East. Al-Assad versus al-Qaeda, first with traditional bullets but now allegedly with chemical weapons — an equal opportunity killer but a far better attention getter. For some reason, gas is a “moral obscenity” while bombs and bullets are not.
Here are some of the justifications for the United States to jump into yet another Middle East conflict.
- R2P – This is the acronym for the doctrine of “responsibility to protect,” a rule (or maybe just a norm) of international law that first requires the sovereign to protect its citizens and then, with the approval of the United Nations Security Council, permits other countries to step in. This rationale finds support in the Samantha Power – Valerie Jarrett – Susan Rice humanitarian wing of the Obama administration. They must be experiencing cognitive dissonance both because it is a war and because it will be illegal when the Russians and the Chinese exercise their Security Council vetoes.
- Send a message to Iran – Iran’s only real friend in the region is al-Assad and there are many, not least Israel, who want to send Iran a message. What Israel wants Israel tends to get, at least here in Washington.
- Red Lines – In 2012, President Obama said that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that would have consequences if crossed. Though he might like to walk that back, he fears looking like a wimp if he does nothing.
- Strategic Interests – Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel want us to fulfill our “world policeman” role and, though not disclosed, it might be pay back time for earlier favors.
- Domino Effect – Spare us all from such silliness or at least give it a new name.
And here are some of the reasons not to.
- Democracy — According to a recent poll, 60% of Americans don’t want to get involved while only 9% do. Even if Bashar al-Assad did use chemical weapons on his own people, support for our involvement rises only to 25% with 46% still saying no. 35% of Americans approve of the President’s handling of the situation while 44% do not. Inconvenient for those who believe the United States is a Democracy.
- Powder Keg – The conflict is a civil war that will not result in the ouster of al-Assad or, if it does, will replace him with something worse. The rebels are largely al-Qaeda, who are unlikely to sit around the post-war campfire singing Kumbaya and roasting marshmallows with us. It will only end when the combatants tire of the carnage.
- Danger to Others – Iran threatens to retaliate against Israel, Russia threatens to retaliate against Saudi Arabia and everyone threatens Lebanon and the Hashemite rule of Jordan, all of whom are our friends. Yet another American assault on Muslims could result in retaliation in this country.
- War of Choice – With $17 trillion of debt, we cannot afford a war that is likely to be longer and costlier than expected, and the timing is terrible for our already-overstretched military. Bombing campaigns have poor track records and we should expect the words “boots on the ground” to follow.
- World’s Policeman – With the UK Parliament slapping down Prime Minister Cameron by voting “no,” Italy opting out and nobody being silly enough to ask Germany, where Angela Merkel faces a September election, the US will be going it pretty much alone unless you count France.
- Military Industrial Complex, Big Oil – Enough said.
- Wag The Dog – Though deep into the land of tinfoil hats, some believe this is a distraction from Obamacare, debt limits, fibbing about unemployment and other initiatives that might not be going so well. For the record, the tinfoil hatters are on a roll with Area 51 now conceded to be real.
If we go to war, how should we do it?
The Constitution requires the Congress to approve going to war. Likely, such approval could not be obtained without a titanic battle. If the Congress did approve, it would have a significant impact on the 2014 election.
In response to the question, “Do you think that President Obama should or should not be required to receive approval from Congress before taking military action in Syria,” 67% of Americans said yes and 16% said no.
Should the President proceed without Congressional approval – and many have – remember his words about President Bush while campaigning in 2007: “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”
The British Parliament did not believe the “tosh and rubbish” expressed by the coalition government and it voted “no.” This has been depicted as a humiliation for Prime Minister Cameron but one wonders if he is not secretly pleased to have dodged a bullet.
There are worse outcomes than following the Constitution by involving the Congress and international law by involving the UN Security Council.