President Obama’s distaste for military action and his preference for empty words over real policy is made clear by his administration’s intent to do the bare minimum in Syria.
The president’s incoherent foreign policy has provoked scorn and ridicule from foreign policy gurus. David Rothkopf writes:
We have clearly waited too long to act in Syria. The international community bears at least some responsibility for the losses associated with this most recent gas attack, because in failing to respond to prior attacks it sent a message to Assad that such abuses would be tolerated. (Russia’s role as enabler and protector of Assad has earned it a much greater share of culpability.) And while our guilt over the massive death toll and the suffering caused by the broader humanitarian crisis in Syria is clear, we’ve done precious little to effectively abate it. It is remarkable how little shame there is among U.S. officials, such that even the paltry commitments we made to assist those fighting the criminal regime in Damascus — including providing light weapons and equipment support — have yet to make their way to the conflict zone.
There is a chorus of criticism over the pending action from those who argue that it will not resolve the conflict in Syria and fear that any action taken will lead to the kind of protracted on-the-ground involvement that has proved so costly and fruitless in Iraq and Afghanistan. These critiques are misguided. There is no reason why targeted and carefully proscribed, but nonetheless potent, air attacks could not effectively deliver a message to Assad that these abuses must stop. His air defenses can be targeted. His weapons stores can be targeted. Economic assets associated with his closest associates, upon which his regime depends, can be targeted.
Even if the president’s rationale for U.S. action is based purely on use of chemical weapons, a limited strike that eliminates neither the weapons nor Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will not be sufficient.
In fact, it is hard to decipher exactly what the president’s rationale is, as Walter Russell Meade observes: “Is President Obama trying to bomb Assad to the bargaining table? Weaken him enough so that he gets on a plane to retire in Sochi? Bomb him just hard enough so that Assad only massacres Syrians in the many ways that don’t involve testing President Obama’s red lines? Can Assad kill another 50,000, 100,000 or more Syrians as long as he keeps his hands off the chemical weapons?” It is hard to argue with his conclusion: “The President needs a goal in Syria for bombing to be more than an act of moral pique; it’s not clear that he has one.”
But action in Syria is unpopular, in no small part because the president, until now, made it clear he didn’t think the situation required U.S. action. That, however, is tempting for opportunists and genuine isolationists on the right to deplore U.S. military action. At times, they are less intelligible than the president.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who seems to have decided to be a Paul (Ron and Rand) Republican instead of a Reagan Republican, sounds like an MSNBC host. He proclaims that “the United States Armed Forces doesn’t exist to be a policeman for the world.” Well, that’s actually one of its prime functions, as Bill Clinton found in Bosnia. A policeman still chooses where to prioritize his efforts, but the absence of a strong U.S. presence in the Middle East is precisely how we got into the current mess. But Cruz immediately contradicts himself: “The focus should be the only justifiable reason for U.S. military forces to be engaged is to protect our national security and sadly, that has been the missing variable from this administration’s approach from the beginning as they allowed Assad to slaughter over 100,000 of his people.” So which is it, senator? The advantage of being a freshman senator in the minority is that you are not obliged to act or even to be logical.
We’ve come to the natural conclusion for an administration that has retrenched, belittled the use of military force, failed to grasp that soft power is effective when backed up by hard power and encouraged a to-hell-with-the-world sentiment among the American people.
What the president and the anti-interventionist right haven’t grasped is, as Elliott Abrams put it, “real American security interests are at stake in Syria and have been from the start.” A victory for Assad is one for Russia, Hezbollah and Iran — and an invitation for anti-American forces to run wild. Moreover, the president who pledged to return America’s moral standing in the world and support a revived “international community” is revealed to be appallingly uninterested in the fate of the oppressed. Abrams, again:
[T]here are 100,000 or more dead, and that is ignored if our strikes focus narrowly on the chemical-weapons infrastructure. Most were killed by bullets or artillery; are we content to watch another 100,000 killed the same way? One need not be a supporter of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine to wonder if mass killing in this strategically important region should elicit zero response from the United States while a use of chemical weapons that kills 1,000 people elicits a military intervention.
Those in the administration who may be serious about human rights — yes, I’m referring to Samantha Power — should be disgusted, as should all people who believe the phrase “never again” is more than words. The tragedy is compounded by the fact that we have low-risk options for effective action (air power to destroy Syria’s air force, chemical weapons cache and regime infrastructure) and moderate rebels (who surround Damascus for now) in whose favor we can tip the balance.
The president should stop play-acting the role of Martin Luther King Jr. and start acting like commander in chief and leader of the West. This is no time to confirm that he is over his head and without a moral or strategic clue.