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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Do We Really Have Moral Authority to Attack Syria?

“The Army (considering the irritable state it is in, its suffering and composition) is a dangerous instrument to play with.” — George Washington, letter to Alexander Hamilton — 1783

On August 20, 2012 President Obama warned against chemical weapons' use in Syria, declaring it a "red line." On Dec. 3, 2012, Obama repeated his warning to Assad, saying "The use of chemical weapons is totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable."

Last April, Britain, France, and Israel concluded that chemical weapons had been used in Syria. On June 13, the Obama administration finally concurred that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against civilians.

But nothing happened after that — except a conclusion by the Syrian regime that it can continue to use such weapons with impunity. Indeed, United Nations Middle East envoy Robert Serry claimed in July that the United Nations had received 13 reports of alleged chemical weapons use in Syria. On August 21, Assad gassed to death 1,429 civilians.

What principle was violated upon the 14th use of chemical weapons but not on the first thirteen uses? Obama's reactions to violations of his "red line" have been spineless and incoherent: apparently chemical weapons use is fine if fewer than 1,429 civilians are killed. But if the death count is dispositive, those totals are met every week with Assad's use of conventional weapons. And if chemical weapons use matters because it violates some international moral norm, as Obama recently argued, then his response comes 13 violations (and the related deaths) too late.

Obama will no doubt get Congressional approval for the enforcement of his "red line." Such backtracking resembles his attempt last April to condition any U.S. response on a thorough investigation that confirmed Syria's chemical weapons attack to the satisfaction of the international community (in yet another reversal Obama later said that the U.S. was justified in acting unilaterally). If Assad's 14th chemical weapons attack had killed 30,000 people, would Obama still need Congressional approval for military action? How many Syrians have to die before Obama acquires the necessary conviction to lead?


Obama's symbolic "punitive strike," will change nothing on the ground. Assad will emerge unscathed, declare that even the mighty U.S. can't stop him, and continue massacring his citizens, perhaps even with chemical weapons again, knowing how tepid the U.S. response will be. At best, Obama is trying with reluctant half-measures to confront adversaries — Syria, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah — fully committed to victory. Such tentative actions achieve nothing and jeopardize U.S. interests by drawing the U.S. and its allies into a dangerous conflict on the enemy's terms.

Over the last few weeks as the crisis in Syria has come to a head, I’ve found myself in nonstop arguments about what, if anything, to do. I saw dead kids, knew we had bombs, and was fine with dropping bombs on the heads of the people that killed the kids. However, I knew that was probably not a very well thought out position given the complexities of the middle east and that most of what goes on over there sails right over my head.

What I did know, was that throwing my hands up in the air at that momentsyria-refugeejpg-d3383b3de9a5b1d3 was unacceptable to me. From where I stood, we should be trying to figure out if there’s anything we could do before declaring something “none of our business” and walking away. I’d heard too often about the genocides in Darfur and Rwanda and been told so many times through the movies & documentaries about those tragedies that we can “never again” allow that to happen. I believed we would be the height of hypocrites to now ignore a potential genocide as it unfolds before our eyes.

To be clear, I don’t believe we should invade or bomb Syria, yet. I say “yet” because I can’t know what risks the future may reveal, but as of now, I believe that we would end up making things worse for the very children upon whose deaths I found myself outraged. What I eventually had to accept was that this meant more children would die and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.

The problem with Syria is that both sides of the conflict are our enemies and by stopping one, you by default help the other. This means that the only appropriate military action would be to invade, kill both sides of the conflict, install a government, rewrite their constitution, and occupy their country for several decades with permanent bases in the long run. Whether or not this would save more lives is debatable. What’s not debatable is that the people of the United States are far too war-fatigued to even consider such an option. Also, we no longer have T.E. Lawrence to take the lead.

So, clearly I don’t have all the answers about what if anything to do, but I do feel confident that an immediate military response is not a good idea. As Brady Cremeens put it at Conservative Intel last week, “There’s a stark difference between a justifiable war and a wise war, and it’s not an easy line to toe.”

As bankrupt as elected Republican leadership is in Washington vis-à-vis domestic policy, they are completely clueless as it relates to foreign policy. While America continues to become an economic and moral wasteland under this regime, Obama is attempting to spend American treasure helping one nefarious side of an Islamic civil war in Syria — one which involves Iran-allied supporters of Hezbollah (Assad regime) vs. predominantly Al-Qaeda affiliated rebels.

Astoundingly, most GOP leaders are either siding with Obama or are totally insouciant to this reckless fomenting of an Islamic insurrection. Instead of fighting ObamaCare, they are allowing Obama to distract from the upheaval at home by focusing on this inane escapade in Syria.

Most media figures discuss the current foreign policy debate in broad platitudes pitting so-called neo-conservatives vs. libertarians, hawks vs. doves, or interventionists vs. isolationists. But these labels are non-sequiturs to the reality of the current debate. Most mainstream conservatives are not Ron Paul libertarians who don’t support any war on terror. Quite the contrary, they support a robust intervention to repel Islamic terrorism when it threatens our interests. But in the case of Libya, Syria, and Egypt, we are actually intervening on behalf of our enemies.

Granted, Syria is more complicated than the other two examples. Bashar Assad is a sworn enemy of the United States, the closest ally of Iran, and a prolific exporter of terror. In a perfect world, it would be great to overthrow him and stick it to Iran (and their Russian allies). But the reality is that the strongest elements of the insurgency are saturated with Al-Qaeda affiliated extremists, backed by Pan-Islamist Turkish President Recep Erdogen, much like the insurgencies in other countries. Why place American money and weapons in the hands of people who will be just as adversarial to our interests as the current regime?

This is not a matter of opposing intervention for the sake of isolationism; it is a matter of not supporting intervention that is either superfluous or deleterious to our national interests. A “hawkish” stance towards Assad is a dovish stance towards Al-Qaeda. As Sarah Palin noted, in a battle with Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah on one side and Al-Qaeda and Turkey on the other, let Allah sort it out.

This should be a slam dunk opportunity for GOP leaders to oppose a wrongheaded and unpopular intervention, while shifting the focus back to the ObamaCare civil war at home. Yet, House leaders are either ambivalent or downright supportive of Obama’s planned strike on behalf of Al-Qaeda. In the Senate, Mitch McConnell put out his signature mealy-mouthed parsing of words, declining to take a stand on any contentious issue.

“Today the President advised me that he will seek an authorization for the use of force from the Congress prior to initiating any combat operations against Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons. The President’s role as commander-in-chief is always strengthened when he enjoys the expressed support of the Congress.”

So much for the clout and power of being “GOP Leader:”

What are the president’s objectives and how will an attack achieve those objectives? What are his options?

It’s understandable that we want to “do something.” Those pictures of linen-wrapped children, dead from inhaling chemical weapons, are horrifying. But there is only one thing worse than doing nothing – that is doing something that makes things even worse. And whatever we do, our first and foremost goal should be what is best for America.

So what are the president’s options? Here are five:

Option One: Regime Change. We could launch major attacks and destroy Assad’s war making ability, presumably in conjunction with allies and Syrian rebels, so Assad ends up like Libya’s Qaddafi. Ironically, Bush administration NeoCons and Obama Interventionists have finally found common cause — both want to topple Assad. Even President Obama himself said two years ago that Assad "must go."

But, if the last ten years have taught us anything, it should be that toppling dictators doesn’t necessarily lead to something better.

We toppled dictators in Iraq, Libya, and Egypt, and were assured there was a pro-democracy, Western leaning-cadre ready to step in and assume the reins of power. Iraq led to ten years of bloody war, Libya led to Benghazi and Egypt to a Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship.

With Syria, we already know that the rebel groups likely to prevail are Al Qaeda affiliates. As bad as Assad is, an Al Qaeda-led Syria would be even worse for America.

It's a cardinal rule of foreign policy that if two of your enemies are trying to destroy each other, don't step in and try to stop them. If we try to unseat Assad, it's doubtful his Iranian and Russian allies would stand silently by. At a minimum, Iran would redouble its efforts to develop nuclear weapons as soon as possible.

Option Two: Limited Attack. We could launch a limited attack to destroy the helicopters and planes that delivered the chemical weapons. According to press reports, the administration is leaning in this direction.

It would give Assad a symbolic public spanking, but the civil war would continue, with both sides more or less where they are today.

It would make good on Obama’s “red line” threat and serve to “punish Assad,” as Secretary Kerry pledged.

The administration is also hoping it would deter Assad, but there is no guarantee he wouldn't use chemical weapons again, since the caches would remain untouched. It’s just as likely that Assad could decide to double down and use chemical weapons again, thus leaving Obama in the uncomfortable position of having to escalate U.S. involvement.

It’s possible the president would be faced with the one thing he wants to avoid and the American people deplore — getting involved in another civil war in the Middle East.

Option Three: Arm the Rebels. We could openly arm and train the Syrian rebels to do the job for us. The question is, which rebels?

This may have been a viable option two years ago, but today even those in favor of arming the rebels admit that the strongest among the many rebel groups are linked to Al Qaeda. As dangerous as Assad possessing chemical weapons might be, Al Qaeda having them would be even worse — Al Qaeda has long sought to get its hands on weapons of mass destruction to use against Americans.

If we arm the good rebels, it would be in hopes they could defeat both the Al Qaeda rebels and the Assad government.

At best, that would put us in the middle of a three-way civil war: we support our rebels, while the Arab oil states support their rebels, and Iran and Russia support the Assad government.

At worst, the Al Qaeda rebels seize our weapons, and use them first against Assad and then against us?

Sound farfetched? That’s what happened in Benghazi.

Option Four: Destroy the Chemical Weapons. According to some military experts, we have non-conventional "agent defeat" weapons designed specifically to neutralize chemical weapons without dispersing toxins into the atmosphere.

One type first punctures chemical weapons containers and then smothers the toxins with neutralizing agents before they can be dispersed.

Other military experts claim these exotic weapons are too experimental, or wouldn’t work, or work only if we first destroyed Syria’s air defenses. They claim if we want to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons, we would need special operations forces, in other words, boots on the ground – an option nobody wants. In either case, we could end up doing the very thing we’re trying to avoid: killing innocent civilians.

Option Five: Delay, Then Do Something Symbolic. President Obama was elected in part because of his opposition to the Iraq war, and criticism that President Bush’s casus belli, Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, never existed.

Every day the evidence seems to mount that the Assad government did use chemical weapons to kill hundreds of innocent women and children. But the evidence is not incontrovertible, and may never be.

Obama could decide to wait for more proof. As long as chemical weapons are not used again, the public clamor to ‘do something’ would abate. The president could then satisfy his “red line” threat by lobbing a few cruise missiles on insignificant targets and call it a day.

But the message would be clear: America’s threats mean nothing. Assad and every other would-be murderous dictator would conclude the international community was unwilling to stop those willing to use weapons of mass destruction. Syria would see no consequence to using use chemical weapons again, and Iran would read it as a green light for their nuclear weapons program.

We are now left with no good choices. Thanks to President Obama’s “red line” threat last year, and his demand that “Assad must go” two years ago, he has put the U.S. between a rock and a hard place. Every parent knows you don’t make threats unless you’re willing to carry them out, since your bluff will always be called. So it should be a caution to all leaders – words don’t deter, only deeds so.

None of these options are risk free, all of them have potential consequences that would hurt Americans near term and long.

The best of the bad lot is to find a way to destroy the chemical weapons caches so they can’t be used against us or our allies, without getting pulled into another conflict. We could then leave the Syrian civil war to the Syrians.

Syria sounds eerily like Iraq, and Libya, and Egypt. The same civil strife could be repeated in Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain, and maybe even Saudi Arabia in the future.

Syria is the harbinger of a decade, if not a generation, of Middle East conflict as radical Sunni groups square off against radical Shiites. We have to find a way to get off the Middle East merry-go-round of death and destruction that Arab oil has chained us to.

Fifty years ago President Kennedy committed America to landing a man on the moon within a decade. President Obama should similarly commit America to becoming energy self-sufficient and free of Arab oil by the end of his presidency.

He should approve the Keystone Pipeline immediately, and unshackle our oilreporter_henneberg_082913 and natural gas companies so they can develop America’s domestic energy sources. Not only will it give the American economy a much-needed boost, it will allow America to declare its independence from the internecine wars which have plagued the Middle East since Cain slew Abel.

If not, America will find itself, time and time again, caught in the middle of the same kind of ethno-sectarian civil wars that have ensnared us for the last 20 years. Despite spending trillions of dollars and spilling the blood of thousands of Americans, we remain in servitude to Arab oil.

Our only interest in Syria is ensuring that as many Islamists on both sides are killed and keep each other busy so they can’t affect our national interests or threaten Israel. As long as the war is contained to Syria, a stalemate is the best outcome for our purposes so that neither Russia, Iran, Al-Qaeda or other Islamists claim an outright victory. Sadly, in a world of seven billion, there are innocent people killed on a daily basis due to civil wars. But we lack the resources or strategic plan to help those people in Syria without gratuitously tipping the scales to one of our arch enemies.

Some conservatives are concerned about demonstrating an image of weakness to our enemies by not following through with the ‘red line’ threat. Undoubtedly, they are correct about Obama’s self-contradictory policy in a wrongheaded intervention. But it is still a wrongheaded intervention, and the fact that he made the threat to begin with should not engender a need to fix that bad policy with another bad policy decision.

Barack Obama’s presidency has been, mostly, a presidency of words. As he had no actions or experience to point to, he ran on words and talked about how important those words are and how they had meaning. Once elected, and after several years of observing his tenure, his dependence on words over action became the hallmark of his presidency. We mocked his use of teleprompters. We made videos using his own words to show his hypocrisy. And as the world became increasingly aware that we had elected “President Words” our enemies became bolder and enjoyed more freedom to defy international norms. This is, in many ways, how we got here. It was President Obama’s “red line” comments that cornered America into considering action in Syria. For all of our dismissiveness, words may very well have brought us to the brink of World War 3.

During President Bush’s presidency, Compassionate Conservatism was the answer to this problem. It was a dud. It was a dud for the simple reason that it was a lie. It combined liberal actions with conservative words and only grew government. Empathetic Conservatism must find its way into our consciousness. If we don’t learn how to speak to people in a way that is optimistic and helps people see a brighter future while never abandoning our principles or compromising our beliefs, we are destined to continue losing.

Words matter.

Our freedom and way of life should take priority over bailing out a beleaguered group of Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda fighters. It’s time Republicans realize that and let Allah sort out Syria and the rest of the Muslim world.

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