Tuesday, September 3, 2013

How Does Obama Define Success in Syria?

Barack Obama has flinched.  Not once.  Not twice.  But three times in the last year or so.  Each time, he rattled the saber at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Assad called Obama's hand, and Obama flinched.  Now, evidently rattled himself by the unexpected rejection of military action by the British Parliament, Obama seems to be looking around for someone to offer a fist bump.  French President Francois Hollande has been supportive, but Obama has called for Congress to pass a resolution endorsing a military response to Assad's use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians.

The Democrats, who control the Senate, are feeling queasy, but may support a narrowly crafted resolution.  The Republicans, who control the House, are skeptical and may reject the resolution. 

The Administration has offered a variety of negative reasons for striking Assad's forces, arguing that bad or negative consequences will ensue if the U.S. does not strike.  Chemical weapons are horrible and are prohibited by international law.  The United States, and especially the President would lose credibility.  The Iranians would be emboldened in their quest for nuclear weapons.  The North Koreans would be emboldened to pull more septic content.  The Russians would be emboldened in any number of ways. 

Chemical weapons are horrible.  But does the President see himself as a referee, seeking to penalize Assad for face masking?  Is the President's plan to throw down a yellow flag, move Assad back a few yards, and then let the slaughter continue?  Is it okay for Assad to continue his nationwide massacre if he just limits himself to conventional weapons?  Why don't we issue striped uniforms to the U.S. military and give them whistles to blow along with cruise missiles to fire?

As for credibility, Assad is in a fight for his very life.  He couldn't give a rat's left ear what Obama does, because Obama won't put U.S. boots on the ground and hasn't even provided military support to the Syrian rebels that he promised months ago.  Obama doesn't present a significant threat to Assad.  Maybe Assad's forces will refrain from obvious use of chemical weapons for a while and employ more conventional but plenty lethal weaponry to kill many more Syrians.  But nothing Obama is contemplating will make him more credible to anyone who matters.

The Iranians are, if the vaguely sourced information published by the press over the past few years is accurate, hellbent on building nuclear weapons on the fastest possible schedule.  It won't matter a bit what Obama does in Syria.  A U.S. military strike there will only lead the Iranians to more comprehensively disguise their activities.  But it won't dissuade them in the least from halting their nuclear program.

The North Koreans are constrained by the presence of 26,000 U.S. troops stationed along the demilitarized zone in the Korean peninsula.  North Korea can't do anything substantial to South Korea or any other nation without affecting these troops.  As long as those troops are there, what Obama does or doesn't do in Syria isn't significant.

As for Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is ex-KBG.  If there was an intelligence service that knew how to spot and exploit human weakness, it was the KGB.  Putin surely has Obama figured out--the man isn't bold.  He's not a risk taker.  He wants to be on the winning side no matter who that is or what happens (this is how the U.S. wound up being detested by everyone in Egypt--we tried to be everyone's buddy and ended up no one's buddy).  Obama is like the political equivalent of Microsoft--very successful, but not so likely to continue that success in the future because of an aversion to taking real risks.  Whatever carefully calibrated and narrowly focused military strike Obama now orders isn't going to convince Putin that Obama is anything except a smart, but cautious man trying to stay on his feet in a back alley brawl.  The smartest man in the alley might win the brawl, but the meanest man is the one you have to watch out for.

To persuade Congress and the American people that military action in Syria is justified, President Obama has to present positive reasons.  We need to know how we succeed, how we win.  Waging war for the purpose of stopping bad people from being bad isn't likely to work, unless one is prepared to wage total war and completely conquer the enemy, as America did to Germany and Japan in World War II.  No one has suggested that America conquer Syria.  For the past fifty years, America has dived into military adventures for poorly conceived reasons, and not surprisingly done poorly.  The only clear case for offensive military action--the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan-- was thoroughly botched by the second Bush Administration when it failed to deal definitively with Osama bin Laden after trapping him in late 2001 at Tora Bora.  We're still suffering the consequences of that failure.  If President Obama wants our support for a strike in Syria, he should tell us how we attain victory.  If there is no victory that can be defined or attained, we should hold our fire.

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