Is The War to Save Face or Save Lives?
Most of the arguments pro and con for an intervention in Syria have already been made.
I think the consensus is that while stopping Assad in 2011 might have been wise (before the use of the WMD and 100,000 dead), doing so now is, well, problematic.
He has shown far more resilience than the administration thought when it ordered him to leave (dictators rarely leave when ordered to by an American president). The opposition seems far more dominated by al-Qaeda affiliates than originally thought (not all that many Westernized intellectuals, persecuted minorities, and Arab Spring bloggers are still left on the barricades).
In addition, both critics and supporters of the president point out that had Obama just kept quiet, he could have kept the option of intervening on his own timetable, rather than being forced to when his rhetorical red lines were not merely crossed but erased in humiliating fashion. Since his bluff has been called, he now has to act to save face rather than to save lives — 100,000 of them too late.
Yet the rub is not just that it is unlikely that we can find all the WMD depots and destroy them safely from the air (keeping them out of both Assad’s and our allies’ hands).
Nor is the problem just that it is unlikely that a limited punitive blow against Assad will topple him (and then what?) and restore American rhetorical credibility.
Instead, we are not sure that the opposition is likely to be any better than the monster Assad. Did we learn nothing from Libya and Egypt? The paradox in the Middle East is that Americans can control the postwar landscape and promote consensual government only by inserting large numbers of ground troops — an unacceptable political reality. A Putinesque shelling and bombing solution (more rubble, less trouble) is ethically unacceptable to most Americans.
Then there are the domestic politics. During the Iraq War, authorization from Congress was essential; now it is not? The excruciating and ultimately failed effort in 2002 at the UN took weeks; now it is not even attempted by a Peace Prize laureate? Bombing a monstrous regime guilty of past WMD use was amoral; now it is ethical?
In 2006-8, Assad was a reformer, worth visiting and cajoling, declared unjustly alienated by a jingoistic Bush administration, and worthy of restoring relations with. And now he is satanic (what did Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry think those army units they saw during their visits were for — parades and pomp? Did they recall his father Hama?). In short, here at home, the outs are in, and the ins are out, and the arguments make the necessary adjustments.
The president cited Iraq yesterday. Let us revisit it for a second. Many of us supported the Iraq War — not in 1998 or before 9/11 when some of the most fiery adherents of regime change were lobbying both Bill Clinton and George Bush for “regime change” — but on the general premise that in a post-9/11 climate, the no-fly-zones and oil embargoes were waning and a genocidal monster would always resume being a genocidal monster at the heart of regional unrest.
But we remember how after each week of escalating violence, supporters jumped ship. The congressional bipartisan vote to approve action had outlined well the reasons why Saddam should go, some 23 writs, the vast majority of them having nothing to do with WMD. That is not to say that WMD was not hyped by the administration to galvanize support, but only to remind us that Saddam's genocidal record transcended WMD and by 2003 he had probably killed 10 times more than has Assad so far in his war.
After stockpiles of WMD were not found, did the other 20-something writs (genocide, bounties for suicide bombers, assassination attempts against a former U.S. president, harboring murderous terrorists, etc.?) not apply?
As the occupation went badly, the public’s 75% support for the war dipped below 40%. The stalwarts of the Democratic Party flipped (e.g., John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, etc.) and saw an anti-war stance as critical to the party’s 2006 recovery. Cindy Sheehan and Michael Moore became ephemeral media darlings. Someone named Obama emerged, decrying the war, drone bombing, renditions, preventative detentions, and Guantanamo Bay.
Indeed, many conservatives who very early on had wanted the war now claimed that their brilliant three-week war was now someone else’s fouled up years-long occupation, forgetting Matthew Ridgway’s dictum that the only thing worse than fighting a bad war was losing one.
I cite all this to remind the current proponents of action that should we begin hitting the wrong targets, find that Islamists are using our air cover to commit atrocities, discover that the militias are turning postwar Syria into postwar Libya, or find that we are forced to settle up with Hezbollah, Iran, or some other third-party, those now advocating for action most likely will cite administration incompetence as sufficient reasons for why they are withdrawing their support. I doubt they will sink or swim to the last bomb with Commander-in-Chief Obama.
In short, from what we’ve seen from this administration with its withdrawal dates in Afghanistan, its boasts about getting every single soldier out of Iraq, its deadlines to Iran, its red lines to Syria, its reset with Vladimir Putin, and its euphemistic war on terror, it is simply not up to a sustained air war over Syria, or anything much other than a day or two of lobbying cruise missiles. To think that it is will sorely disappoint present supporters of bombing Assad.
Both the American people and the U.S. Congress already sense that. We should too.