Did Obama, for Once, Make a Good Foreign-Policy Decision?

Predictably, President Obama’s decision to go to Congress to get approval for a strike on Syria has been transformed into an issue about the president rather than one about American security interests.

As someone who is no fan of Obama, let me say that this was one of his best moments, not that there have been many. I agree that the naïve and amateurish president who has surrounded himself with the likes of Samantha Power, a woman who never saw a human-rights violation that did not demand the squander of American blood and treasure, painted himself into a corner of red lines. Yet, for the moment, at least, he judiciously extricated himself. The weaponization of human rights was postponed.

In less than a week, Obama will be in Russia for the G20 meetings. Imagine if Obama arrived amid scenes of dead civilian casualties caused by a missile that went astray or one that was targeted by faulty intelligence.

The mantra from bopping heads of military professionals about the accuracy of missiles is disingenuous. In 1999, a guided bomb hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade killing Chinese civilians.  The CIA had managed to mangle the coordinates for a Yugoslav military target.  In the fog of war, big mistakes happen. In Grdelica, in 1999, NATO destroyed a civilian train as mission creep escalated the air war from military targets to civilian infrastructure with inevitable results. The attacks imposed pain and suffering on the Serbian people, not on its military.

If we had awaited a complete and objective analysis of the second attack, August 4, 1964, in the Tonkin Gulf, the one that never happened, we might not have escalated the war against North Vietnam. Senator Wayne Morse  would have had time to confirm, as we now know, that the attack never occurred.

If we had waited a few more months before invading Iraq and seeking regime change and democracy in a culture that possesses not a passing acquaintance with representative government, the tragedy visited upon Iraq, with hundreds of thousands of  casualties and a Shi’ia tyranny replacing a Sunni one, might not have occurred. Had President Kennedy not rushed to authorize the Bay of Pigs invasion, which led to the Cuban Missile Crisis and subsequently pushed Kennedy to hold the line in Vietnam, there would have been a lot less tragedy in the world. Vietnam fell to the North. There was no domino effect, unless one thinks that the domino theory was about Laos and Cambodia. The monolithic vision of communism of those days was shattered when China and Russia, in 1969, went to war over Damansky Island and seven years later Vietnam was fighting both China and Cambodia.

There are times to go to war to defend the nation’s survival and its security and there are times when, as President Obama rightly noted, it is possible to wait.  This is one of those times when we should wait because we have no strategic interest in Syria.  This is one of those times when the Congress should resoundingly follow Britain’s example and say "no."

Yes, all civilized people are horrified by the gas attacks in Syria. But killing hundreds by gas still does not compare to killing hundreds of thousands by machetes and axe handles in Rawanda or with conventional weapons in Dafur. And dare anyone mention the some four thousand deaths and ten thousand casualties Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons visited upon the Kurds in 1988? The world barely yawned over the slaughter.  Now, in Syria, our moral indignation is aroused.

It is time to stop being the world’s policeman and to recognize that American blood and treasure are not to be squandered in every one of the world’s rat holes because the likes of Samantha Power have a savior complex and, until now, Barack Obama did not seem to know better.

The only nations with a security interest in Syria are Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Israelis, and, suddenly, Turkey.  Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Israel fear the completion of the Shi’ia crescent extending from Tehran to Beirut. The Saudis, the Israelis, and even the Kuwaitis appealed to George W. Bush not to invade Iraq and change the balance of power in the Gulf. It was one of those times when the Saudis' security interest was indeed our security interest. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have been supporting the militants in Syria because Assad has become an important part of Iran’s hegemonic reach in the region. Even the Jews are less of a problem to the Saudis and the Emirates than are the Shiites.

As for Turkey, Obama’s naivete is underscored by having relied on Tayyip Erdogan as his mentor on Middle East policy. Erdogan tilted Turkey toward Iran when he perceived that American weakness would be replaced by Iranian hegemonic ascension. But with the impending collapse of Syria, a key player in the Iranian strategy, Erdogan is pursuing dreams of a revived Turkish “sultanate” as a competitor to Iran. Erdogan’s flagrant opportunism has caused everyone to distrust him, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the Israelis. Only the naïve Barack Obama still values his counsel.

To America, it does not matter if fundamentalist Sunni militants or Assad runs Syria. Our intervention in Iraq had a more profound effect in undermining our strategic interests than anything that could follow.  The best course of action is to wish both sides in Syria every success.

As for the use of poison gas, that is an issue for the international community, not for Barack Obama, even if the Congress assents.

For once in international affairs, Obama made a good decision.  We should encourage him to stick to it.