Syria: No Good Options

Posted on September 4, 2013 by

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Syria is a mess. I am not pretending to be expert on this, so let’s be clear about expectations. I am not speaking from authority, but just as an interested observer. The United States seems to have few options, and none are good.

As of now, the debate surrounds our decision to use military force against the Syrian government due to its purported use of chemical weapons against its own civilians. President Obama has decided to seek congressional approval of military action. A separate, but related issue, seems to be the degree of force needed to achieve whatever outcome is most desired.

The arguments are all over the place.

First, Max Fisher’s blog at The Washington Post answers 9 Questions About Syria You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask. It is a quick way to get up to speed on the basic conflict and the recent history. Fisher also puts the civil war in the context of international affairs in a quick, rudimentary fashion.

Some progressives, like Robert Creamer, support the use of force for moral purposes. In his mind, the U.S. must respond to these sorts of attacks to maintain the international community’s commitment to limiting these kinds of weapons. Even if the United Nations refuses to act (and it will), the U.S. may have to act alone to uphold the standard.

John Boehner, Speaker of the U.S. House (R-OH), seems to agree with President Obama on very little, but is supporting the President’s use of force and is willing to help push it through the House. For him, America should deter the future use of such weapons by making an example of the Syrian regime.

Other conservatives, like John Fund, see this as part of President Obama’s general indecisiveness, an unwillingness to make hard decisions and stick by them.

Charles Krauthammer takes a different approach, arguing that even if President Obama uses force, there is no coherent goal, and the means he plans to use (air strikes) have little chance to achieve whatever the objective might be.

Politically, the issue is explosive because it challenges settled alliances. Republicans, in recent years, have been willing to intervene abroad, even to the point of nation-building in the hopes of planting the seeds of democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, they sense an opportunity to embarrass the President, however, their general tendency is to support presidential uses of force when asked. There is a growing wing of the party, call them the “Paulites,” who argue against such interventionist policies due to either an impossibility of success or to a basic desire to refrain from policing global disputes where American interests are marginal.

Democrats initially supported President Bush’s plans in Iraq and Afghanistan, but grew wary and weary. President Obama, as a Senator, criticized the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy. As President, Mr. Obama seeks congressional approval for his own use of force in a case that makes Iraq appear simple. In some ways, Obama’s success in this endeavor may rest on his own party’s support in the U.S. House.

What do we make of all this? I am conflicted.

America should pursue its ideals in the foreign policy arena. At the same time, there should be some relationship between our interests and our ideals and that seems tenuous for Syria. While our ideals are in play, our interests appear to be minimal or indirect. Perhaps more critically, there should be a clear military objective and a reasonable path toward achieving that objective. Using force for the sake of force, just to save face, is not good enough and probably undermines our position in the world. If our objective in Syria is NOT regime change, how will we know when we have achieved it? Can we hope for a negotiated peace through force?

If forced to vote, I would grant the President the power to use force, but only if a definable military objective were articulated and attainable. I am not yet convinced the Obama Administration has made that case.

What do you all think?

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