Until last Friday, I had been reluctantly supportive of President Obama’s plan to attack Syria to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons and to reaffirm American resolve to stand up to rogue states.
After a lot of thought and after watching the president’s dismal press conference in St. Petersburg, I have changed my mind for the following reasons.
First, U.S. credibility on Syria has already been blown.
The argument that the United States has to attack Syria to maintain American credibility has been blown by the Obama administration’s indecisiveness and constantly shifting rationales for an attack. The president initially said a U.S. military strike against Assad’s forces would be a “shot across the bow.” Then he and Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that a U.S. attack would be part of a broader strategy to free Syria from its civil war and to impose a downstream effect to erode the Assad regime’s conventional military capabilities.
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Few in the United States or the Middle East believe these explanations. The only reason President Obama moved from his previous reluctance to use military force was to back up his August 2012 remark that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would be a “red line” for him. The president’s ludicrous statement before the international press last week that he did not draw this red line further weakened his position.
President Obama lost an enormous amount of credibility after Secretary Kerry made an emotional case on August 31 on why the United States must attack Syria but the next day the president indicated a U.S. attack was not urgent. President Obama instead said he would request congressional authorization for a U.S. attack on Syria but did not call Congress back to Washington for this authorization – he decided to wait until Congress returned from its summer recess.
The president further undermined his case when he said during a press conference in St Petersburg on Saturday:
“I did not put this before Congress, you know, just as a political ploy or as symbolism. I put it before Congress because I could not honestly claim that the threat posed by Assad’s use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians and women and children posed an imminent, direct threat to the United States.”
By this comment, President Obama is saying he wants to attack Syria even though it is not a direct threat to the United States. And if it was, he wouldn’t ask for congressional authorization. This illogical explanation makes my head spin.
Although I believe presidents do not need authorization from Congress to take military action in cases like this, obtaining congressional buy-in is still a good idea and can provide them with political cover at home and show the world they have the support of the American people. President Obama has bungled his decision to go to Congress so badly that even if he wins congressional authorization, the prolonged and divisive debate this caused has severely undermined his leadership and sent a dangerous signal of American weakness to U.S. enemies around the world.
After the feckless way this issue has been handled by President Obama and his senior officials, a U.S. attack on Syria won’t impress anyone – it will be read by the Middle East and rogue states around the world as a cynical ploy to prop up the president’s reputation. An attack under these circumstances will probably undermine and not promote U.S. credibility.
A related reason I’ve heard for why the United States needs to attack Syria is because there are three years left in the Obama presidency and if Mr Obama backs down, our country will be dangerously weakened on the world stage until he leaves office. A limited attack on Syria won’t alter this reality.
Second, attacking Syria over an international norm against the use of chemical weapons is a slippery slope.
The Obama administration’s argument that the Unites States must attack Syria alone to enforce an international norm forbidding the use of chemical weapons is a weak and dangerous justification. Over 100,000 have been killed in the Syrian uprising over the last 28 months and the Obama administration did nothing. Also, if this is the new U.S. position on the use of military force, will we attack North Korea to stop its nuclear weapons program and to free the hundreds of thousands being held in its horrific prison camps? (According to recent press reports, 20,000 have disappeared from one huge North Korean camp over the last year and may have been executed.) Will we attack Iran over its nuclear program? There are 15 other countries that Freedom House says have human rights records just as abysmal as Syria’s. One of them is China. Does President Obama plan to attack all of these states to enforce international norms?
Third, Obama administration planning for a Syria attack has been incoherent.
If attacking Syria is in U.S. interests, it should have been done swiftly with little warning. Instead, Obama officials have struggled for weeks trying to justify an attack. Attack planning and targets have been leaked to the press, allowing the Assad regime to hide its military assets and move key officials to safe locations. The Pentagon reportedly has been told by the White House to change its attack plan at least 50 times.
Is the president proposing to fire missiles at Syria for a few days or conduct a more substantial 30-60 day campaign of missile and stealth bomber attacks? At this stage, given the leaks of U.S. attack planning and the time we have given the Assad regime to prepare, I don’t see either type of attack accomplishing much.
According to press reports, the Assad regime is using the long delay before a possible U.S. attack to position civilians and children near military targets as “human shields.” The purpose of this tactic is to prevent air attacks on these targets and score a propaganda victory if innocent Syrians are killed due to a U.S. attack. We can be sure the Syrian regime set up kindergartens over the last two weeks at key Syrian airbases. How does the Obama administration plan to deal with this tactic?
President Obama claims he is not proposing that the United States go to war with Syria or attack to effect regime change. But he also claims a U.S. attack would be aimed at degrading the Syrian military’s capabilities and help end the civil war. War is a serious business and U.S. military power should not be employed when a president and his senior officials offer such unserious and contradictory reasons for attacking a sovereign nation.
Fourth, the Obama administration’s claim that it must take action because of the ineffectiveness of UN is too little, too late as well as hypocritical.
It took a lot of chutzpah for Obama officials to complain about the inability of the UN to approve military action against the Assad regime since they have long relied on the UN not just as a cornerstone of their national security policy but also as an excuse to not use U.S. military power. Obama officials have repeatedly insisted that the United States could not use military force against rogue states without the approval of the UN Security Council and have frequently cited the deadlock in the Council due to Russian and Chinese vetoes to justify its inaction on Syria.
I welcome the president’s flip flop on the UN since the United States should not be pleading with Moscow and Beijing for their consent on the use of American military force. But to claim that the United States must act alone in attacking Syria because the UN Security Council is deadlocked is not a justification for American military action – it is stating the obvious about a broken and irrelevant international institution.
Fifth, if the U.S. attacks Syria, there is a good chance of mission creep and U.S. boots on the ground.
Once President Obama enters the Syria quagmire, he may find it impossible to get out. The Assad regime will probably show its defiance of the United States after a limited U.S. attack by ratcheting up its crackdown on Syrian rebel areas, possibly using chemical weapons again. This would be an enormous setback for President Obama and could force him to up the ante by launching a broader set of attacks.
Secretary Kerry let this slip during his Senate testimony last week when he said U.S. special forces might need to go into Syria if the country implodes. While Kerry immediately backtracked and claimed the door is closed on sending in U.S. troops, I believe it is far from clear the president has ruled this out and Kerry probably accidently revealed internal Obama administration deliberations on Syria.
What Needs to Be Done
Congress must reject President Obama’s incoherent “amateur hour” plan to attack Syria. While some contend the United States must attack Syria to defend U.S. credibility and to deter Iran, I believe a U.S. attack under these circumstances would further undermine U.S. national security and America’s reputation on the world stage. America should not take military action because the president wasn’t using his teleprompter and laid down a red line he didn’t intend to keep.
The president needs to step back when – as now appears likely – Congress refuses to approve an attack on Assad’s forces and come up with a more comprehensive plan to address this crisis with our allies. Part of this effort should include bringing in a team of better national security advisers. A key reason for this mess is that President Obama is surrounded by nitwits like Joe Biden, John Kerry, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, and Denis McDonough to advise him on matters of war and peace. The president urgently needs to turn to more respected and less partisan Democratic national security experts such as Joe Lieberman, Jane Harman, Bob Kerrey, Joe Nye, Lee Hamilton and a few Republicans to exercise adult supervision over his dreadful foreign policy and craft a new strategy to restore American credibility.
Fred Fleitz is chief analyst with LIGNET.com, Newsmax Media’s global intelligence and forecasting service. Click HERE to read LIGNET’s latest analysis of the Syria crisis.
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