The question is being debated with new urgency, with evidence that the regime of Bashar Asaad likely crossed Obama’s own stated “red line” with the use of chemical weapons, possibly sarin gas, against civilians in the ongoing civil war.
On one side are the military “hawks,” arguing that the U.S. must respond robustly, or else see America’s credibility shattered in dealings with nuclear-armed North Korea, or nuclear-aspiring Iran. The “hawks” want a no-fly zone imposed over Syria, perhaps missile strikes against the regime’s air force, and more U.S. arms for the Syrian opposition.
The isolationists, on the other hand, tend to see the Syrian conflict for all its complexities. Syria’s air defenses are likely more capable than, say, Libya’s, so imposing a no fly zone would put American pilots at risk. The Syrian opposition is not comprised of Jeffersonian Democrats who want to institute constitutional government and free elections; the largest components seem to be the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamicists. And while it is increasingly certain small amounts of chemical weapons were released, it is less clear by whom, and for what end. Was it the regime? Or localized elements of the fraying Syrian army? Or even the rebels themselves, hoping to draw in the U.S. in their stalemated civil war?
The hawks are now accusing Obama of dithering, as he weighs his bad options, seeks more definitive proof, and tries to build an international consensus. And no one professes to want American “boots on the ground.”
I, for one, favor the more cautious approach.
First, we have just wound down one ill-advised and enormously costly military misadventure in Iraq, where the U.S., under the previous administration, raced in to a conflict of choice without adequate planning for how we would later extricate ourselves. I was there in the first days of that invasion, following American and British troops over the border from Kuwait; there were far too few U.S. troops, there was never a plan for the securing the country after the disintegration of Saddam Hussein’s army and police, and there was no contingency to deal with the mass looting that stripped the country of much of its basic infrastructure. (I watched the looting of Basra firsthand, a pretext of what would happen a few weeks later in Baghdad). Then the U.S. occupying force was woefully unmanned and unprepared for the brutal insurgency that followed. (Iraq War “hawks” like to focus exclusively on the 2006 troop “surge” while ignoring the bloody three years preceding).
Before racing militarily into Syria, some questions; if Assad’s regime falls under an American bombing campaign, what next? Is the U.S. prepared to step in to separate warring Sunni and Shia (and Alawite) factions? Will the U.S. stay on hand in the post-Assad era to help usher in a more democratic Syria, or will the country‘s fate be left to the strongest among the rebel factions — and their outside sponsors, possibly Iran?
But second, and most important; where are the Arabs?
If Syria is a tragedy that requires intervention — and with an estimated 70,000 dead, I believe it is a modern tragedy of epic proportions — then where is the Arab League? Where are the Saudis and Kuwaitis? Will Syria’s neighbor Turkey, a Nato member and U.S. ally, also agree to commit troops? Will Jordan?
I was in Afghanistan in 2001, entering Kabul the day the Taliban fled, sticking around for several weeks then, and returning to the country repeatedly in the years that followed. What I took away from from Afghanistan — and the key difference with Iraq — was how the Afghanistan War was a far more international effort, one that enjoyed far more global support following the 9/11 attacks. After the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Nato envoys meeting in Brussels for the first time invoked the security group’s mutual defense clause, saying an attack on one — in this case the U.S. — was an attack on all. The International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan was formed in December, 2001, and some 49 countries joined in and sent troops, and even Iran and Russia supported it.
In Iraq, the Bush administration struggled to put together an international coalition.
In Syria, that kind of international coalition is currently, obviously, lacking. And the war “hawks” seem to think it’s now the sole duty of the U.S. to play policeman of the Middle East to stop the bloodletting, perhaps with the assistance of trusted allies Britain and France.
I, for one, think it’s time for the U.S. to signal a withdrawal from decades of pre-occupation with the Middle East and its myriad conflicts. We are already far less dependent on Middle Eastern oil, thanks to increased domestic production, and growing imports from Canada, Latin American and Africa — and the shale gas revolution promises to cut that dependence on Persian Gulf oil even further. Our incentive for military involvement grows lesser by the day. (Interestingly, China is now seeing its dependence on Persian Gulf oil increasing).
The Obama administration, smartly, I believe, announced a “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region as the world’s source of dynamism and economic growth for this century. Secretary of State Kerry, recently in Beijing, spoke of a “Pacific dream,” with China and the U.S. cooperating on a range of global challenges, like sustaining job growth and combatting climate change.
I agree. Our focus should be on Asia and all its possibilities. But we’ll never be able to make that pivot is we keep getting sucked back into the volatile Middle East and its never-ended crises.