Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval to bomb Syria shouldn’t have surprised so many politicos. After all, this most political of American presidents has always approached foreign policy as an extension of domestic politics and progressive doctrine. Seeking from Congress the endorsement that U.S. history shows to be unnecessary for small-scale military action is just a way for Obama to shift blame for either backing down or for whatever result the contemplated bombing produces. Congress should just say no, for four reasons.
First, Obama’s justification is hazy and probably personal. Up to last week, Obama opposed not only U.S. military intervention in Syria but also serious support for friendlier rebel factions fighting the dictator who has gotten as many as 100,000 people killed and previously used chemical weapons once. Why does a second use of those weapons that added less than 2 percent to the conflict’s mortality suddenly warrant unilateral U.S. war? Obama said last week the intervention is necessary because America cannot “ignore violations of international norms,” but friend and foe around the world see this desultory reaction as the result of Obama painting himself into a corner by describing chemical weapons usage as a “red line” for him. Most Americans don’t see after-the-fact validation of a president’s rambling, undisciplined language as a good rationale for war.
Second, the plan mistakes tactics for strategy — a hallmark of today’s Washington. Lobbing cruise missiles at Syria is not a strategy. It may be a tactic to effect a strategy, but none has been defined for the public. The Democrats aren’t alone being deficient in this area. The no-fly zone that Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have sought for nearly three years is also not a strategy. Washington is mistaking public relations for real statecraft. Instead of clearly defining the U.S. national interests at stake — and there are many including replacing the regime that has facilitated the killing of hundreds of Americans and which maintains Hezbollah’s lifeline — and then deciding how to advance those interests, the Obama-McCain approach to statecraft basically amounts to reacting to events with chest-thumping and pageantry. They are going through the motions of statecraft — but not driving events to our national advantage. Why should Congress validate this?
Third, we don’t know which rebel faction a short-lived standoff bombing campaign will help and which it will hurt. Contrary to much analysis from Washington, the Syrian opposition is not run entirely by Islamists ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to al Qaeda. However those political and military forces are present among others. We should aid those Syrians who oppose both Assad and the Islamists who want to unify mosque and state. In particular, we should fund and arm secular defectors from Assad’s army. They can form the backbone of a Syrian state for the years it would take a real post-war republic to form. It isn’t clear this more preferable, pro-U.S. faction would be aided much by a quick bombing. Moreover, since Obama has all but said Assad will survive as he is not to be targeted, the bombing may even boost Assad by making him look resilient.
Fourth, this military strike would mark the birth of a dangerous new progressive doctrine that Congress should smother in its crib. The elevation of John Kerry to secretary of state and Samantha Power to U.S. ambassador to the U.N. reflects a progressive tack in Obama’s second term. This newly empowered group now has a shot to try their latest bad idea: the so-called “responsibility to protect.” This pet cause of Power in particular would call for U.S. intervention globally to stop genocide and war crimes. While this sounds morally correct and has a following among global-government aficionados, it is a recipe for disaster that would turn the U.S. military into a Peace Corps with guns. If U.S. presidents had based war decisions on this theory rather than national interests, America would have gone to war in places with genocide like Cambodia, Rwanda, and Sudan. Each would have been a quagmire. None involved key U.S. national interests. The progressive doctrine theoretically would have also required intervention in the prolonged Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s after Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons. In other words, the liberals’ “responsibility to protect” is a recipe for endless war that exhausts American force so it is unusable for when it is really necessary to protect our country and our way of life — another reason to vote against its trial run in Syria.
Ultimately both Beltway Democrats and Republicans have a long way to go before they have a workable foreign policy for the Middle East that passes muster with voters and is consistent with Theodore Roosevelt’s singularly American admonition to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” President Obama has yet to learn that tactics are not a substitute for a clear objective and strategy. Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham have yet to learn that their one-size-fits-all no-fly zones and their plan to embrace supposedly moderate Islamists in the region like the Muslim Brotherhood have precluded a clear alternative foreign policy based on quietly supporting secular political and military forces against Islamists and jihadists. Until a more appealing approach to the Middle East comes along, Congress should just say no.
Christian Whiton is the author of Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War. He was a senior advisor at the State Department from 2003-2009.