Theater of the Absurd: Obama and the Debate over Syria

As we wait for Godot -- I mean President Obama’s address to the American people on Tuesday night -- it looks at present as if both the House and Senate will not grant him the "yes" vote that he is seeking on a Syria strike.

I have read virtually every op-ed and argument on all sides of the question that have appeared, from people on both sides whose views I respect, and one of the problems is that there are good arguments to make on both sides. Today I watched Fox News Sunday, the impressive panel on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS, which included General Wesley Clark and Paul Wolfowitz, and a separate interview with Bernard Henri-Levy. And of course, as readers know, I have exchanged arguments on this site with Bryan Preston.

On the interventionist side, I have considered the views of Bill Kristol, Stephen F. Hayes, Eliot Cohen, Clifford D. May, and many others. Read them for yourself. If we have a stake in the outcome, and we do, we cannot ignore their arguments. This is particularly true if you believe that we must stay out of Syria.

On the non-interventionist side, I have read Kathleen Parker, Andy McCarthy, Victor Davis Hanson, Charles R. Kesler, Fareed Zakaria and others who hold a similar perspective. If you are on the side of those who favor a strike, you have the obligation to think and listen to their arguments against it.

One side makes the case; the other side rebuts it. That is what a serious debate should be. But let me single out one essay in particular and take up the problems with the interventionist perspective. The argument comes from none other than Rep. Eric Cantor, the majority leader in the House of Representatives.

Rep. Cantor knows well that his position is unpopular among those who live Virginia’s 7th District, which he represents. As he writes, his constituents have let him know that they have “serious questions” about the propriety of U.S. involvement. He answers that he believes “America has a compelling national security interest to prevent and respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction … especially by a terrorist state, and to prevent further instability in a region of vital interest to the United States.”

Cantor argues that Syria is more than a civil war, that it is also a proxy war -- in which the victory of the Assad regime would be “a strategic victory for his Iranian patrons, [would] embolden the radical Islamic terrorist group Hezbollah…and convince our allies that we cannot be trusted.”

Cantor worries that if we do nothing, eventually the Assad regime will see to it that the chemical WMDs are eventually used against major U.S. interests; in other words, a strike would be a note to our enemies that they cannot take the slippery slope towards advancing military means that would threaten us in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Next comes the least convincing part of Cantor’s argument. He raises the point of those who question whether by intervening we would be “actually helping al-Qaida” and thus end up replacing “one evil with an even greater evil.” Here is what he then argues:

But extremist groups represent only a minority of those opposing Assad. Moderate opposition groups leading the fight against Assad are under attack by al-Qaida as well, and if this conflict draws on, more foreign jihadists will join the extremists and threaten moderate elements.

Continued American inaction will undermine these moderate forces and empower the extremist terrorists who seek to displace them. Right now, the extremists are exploiting the argument that the moderates cannot rely on the U.S. to come to their aid or even enforce our own red lines. It is in our interests that neither Assad – a primary sponsor of terrorism – nor al-Qaida comes out on top.

The problem is that intelligence reports, as Reuters let its readers learn, “contradict Secretary of State John Kerry's public assertions that moderate Syrian opposition groups are growing in influence [and] appear to be at odds with estimates by U.S. and European intelligence sources and nongovernmental experts, who say Islamic extremists remain by far the fiercest and best-organized rebel elements.”