On Saturday President Barack Obama surprised most everyone in America by making the right decision and asking Congress for authority to go to war in Syria. Now Congress should make the right decision and vote no.
One of the impacts of being a superpower is that America has interests everywhere. However, most of those interests are modest, even peripheral. Conflicts and crises abound around the globe, but few significantly impact U.S. security. So it is with Syria.
The bitter civil war obviously is a human tragedy. However, the conflict is beyond repair by Washington.
Ronald Reagan’s greatest mistake was getting involved in the Lebanese civil war, which at one point contained 25 warring factions. The U.S. invasion of Iraq sparked civil conflict which killed tens or even hundreds of thousands of civilians. Allied intervention in Libya prolonged that brutal low-tech battle and left terrorism and instability in its wake. Egypt, where America has successively backed dictatorship, democracy, and military rule, seems headed towards growing violent conflict, with the possibility of terrorism and even civil war.
Civil wars are particularly resistant to outside solution. The antagonisms run deep and there often are multiple parties, none of whom may want peace. In Syria the radical Islamists appear to be gaining influence. It is not obvious how the same government officials who have made such a mess of so many other countries would fix Syria.
Nor would the fighting likely end even if the U.S. ousted the Assad regime. Insurgent factions then likely would fight for dominance of either the whole of Syria or breakaway regions. For many rebels revenge against those backing the regime, as well as members of groups noted for their support, such as Alawites and Christians, would become a top priority. Then the U.S. would have to intervene again — or ignore the bloodletting, as it did in Kosovo when ethnic Albanians exacted retribution.
Even if nation-building in Syria wasn’t such a daunting task, the U.S. government should not risk the lives of its citizens in conflicts where Americans have no substantial stake. Policymakers have no warrant to be generous with fellow citizens’ lives. Protecting this nation, its territory, people, liberty, and prosperity, remains the highest duty for Washington.
Far from advancing U.S. security, getting involved in Syria would ensnare Americans in a completely unnecessary conflict. Damascus has neither the ability nor the interest to attack the U.S. Any attempt by the Assad government to strike, including with chemical weapons, would trigger massive retaliation — perhaps even with nuclear weapons, which are true weapons of mass destruction.
While the Assad regime theoretically could target a U.S. ally, it has no incentive to do so. After all, its very survival remains threatened by a determined insurgent challenge. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey all are well heeled and well armed. All are capable of deterring attack.
The administration implausibly claims that striking the Syrian government would help protect Israel. However, President Bashar al-Assad is not suicidal, which he would be to attack Israel. Damascus did not even retaliate against Israel for destroying an apparent nuclear reactor. But Israel would be at risk if the Assad regime dissolves and insurgents, including radical Islamists, gained control of chemical weapon stockpiles. A more likely beneficiary of U.S. firepower would be Saudi Arabia, which has done more than any other nation to promote fundamental Islamic theology around the globe.
Some war advocates hope that hitting Damascus would weaken Iran. However, the administration has emphasized that it does not intend to actually weaken the Assad regime, making the attack a nearly purposeless gesture. Moreover, to the extent that Iran feels more isolated, it may press for tighter ties with Shia-dominated Iraq, which faces an increasing challenge from militant Sunnis. Tehran’s divided elites also likely would close ranks against any possible peaceful deal over its nuclear program, which would be the regime’s only sure guarantee of survival.
The Syrian conflict is destabilizing, but the Mideast never has been at rest. Most of the countries are artificial, created by British and French line-drawing a century ago. Most of the Arab states have been run by kleptocratic dictators, generals, and monarchs. Revolution has swept Egypt, Iran, Libya, and Tunisia while protests have shaken Bahrain. Iraq and Turkey confronted lengthy Kurdish insurgencies. Jordan forcibly suppressed Palestinian forces.
War consumed Libya and united two Yemens into one, which now could fall apart. Lebanon dissolved into years of civil war and recovered, but is threatened by Hezbollah’s dominant role. Iraq attacked Iran and conquered Kuwait, only to lose to a U.S.-led coalition. Later occupied by the U.S., Iraq dissolved into bitter internal conflict and now seems headed back in that direction. Israel has faced multiple wars with multiple opponents as well as resistance in the occupied territories.
And people worry about Syria destabilizing the Middle East?
The entire focus on chemical weapons is misguided. The travesty of the Syrian civil war is that more than 100,000 people apparently have died, not that some were killed with chemical weapons. The latter are not really weapons of mass destruction. They are difficult to deploy and not so deadly. Explained John Mueller of Ohio State University, in World War I “it took over a ton of gas to produce a single fatality. Only about two or three percent of those gassed on the Western front died. By contrast, wounds from a traditional weapon proved 10 to 12 times more likely to be fatal.” At least 99 percent of the millions of battlefield deaths in that conflict were caused by other means. Banning the weapon that killed one percent while ignoring the weapons which killed the other 99 percent exhibited a strange moral sense.
Entering yet another war against a Muslim nation in the Middle East is bound to create more enemies for America. The surest way to encourage future terrorists is to join other nations’ conflicts and kill other nations’ peoples. Washington is still fighting a traditional war in Afghanistan and “drone wars” in Pakistan and Yemen. The U.S. should avoid adding another conflict to the mix. It doesn’t matter whether Americans believe their actions to be justified. Those on the receiving end of U.S. weapons would believe otherwise.
Even if the administration is genuinely committed to only minor military action, Washington would find it hard to be only half in. The more limited the strikes, the less likely they are to achieve anything other than suggest the pretense of enforcement of the president’s “red line.” But even inconsequential missile attacks would represent increased U.S. investment in the Syrian civil war. Pressure on Washington to do more would steadily grow, with a warlike Greek Chorus intoning “U.S. credibility” at every turn.
However, concern over credibility does not warrant making a bad decision to enter an unnecessary war. American presidents routinely put U.S. credibility on the line without backing up their threats — how many times have we heard that North Korea cannot be allowed to possess nuclear weapons? However, the only policy worse than tolerating a North Korean nuclear weapon would be bombing Pyongyang.
The real lesson of President Obama’s throwaway comment on Syrian chemical weapons is that red lines should not be drawn unless they reflect overriding, even vital interests and are worth war to enforce. Other nations will respect American demands if Washington rarely issues ultimatums, and only for obviously core interests. Going to war for minimal, even frivolous stakes to enhance credibility is a fool’s bargain.
The president has placed the decision whether to go to war where it belongs, with Congress. Legislators should act on behalf of the American people, not the Obama administration. And the right decision is to keep the U.S. at peace.
Britain’s House of Commons has shown the way. After members rejected the government’s war policy, Prime Minister David Cameron observed: “it is clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the government will act accordingly.”
President Obama needs to “get that” and his government needs to “act accordingly.”
Syria is a tragedy. But it is not America’s tragedy. Legislators should reject war with Syria.