Should America intervene in what is arguably becoming World War III?
The drums of war are once again beating as a battle-weary nation finds itself between a rhetorical rock and a hard place. We should not lose sight of the fact that we are really talking about is people dying, which they inevitably will if the US interjects itself into Syria’s civil war.
The conflict began in March 2011 as the Ba’ath government led by President Bashar al-Assad cracked down on popular demonstrations that were part of the wider Middle Eastern protest movement known as the Arab Spring. Al-Assad’s family has ruled Syria since 1971, so rather than resigning or enacting reforms to pacify his countrymen, he reacted by deploying the military to fire on protestors. This evolved into armed rebellion that has seen a mass exodus of refugees and a death toll surpassing 100,000 people.
On the Syrian government’s side: Russia, China, Iran, and Hezbollah. Supporting the rebels: Saudi Arabia, France, and Qatar. Some, like Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, have criticized U.S. President Barack Obama for not getting the United States into the fray by supporting the opposition.
In this situation, context matters deeply.
Americans remain deeply cynical about our government calling for military action with the Bush Administration’s bogus reports of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq and a seemingly never-ending conflict in Afghanistan more than a decade after Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda attacked the U.S. on 9/11. America’s strongest ally, Britain, has opted against participating in any retaliatory action against Syria for escalating the conflict by using chemical weapons in defiance of international warnings.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 59 percent of Americans oppose a proposed missile strike. These events unfold during a time when Americans struggle with how to pay for domestic needs such as health care and education.
Assad likely paid close attention to the way Iraq and Libya descended into armed conflicts that ultimately led to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi being executed by those they terrorized, so he undoubtedly fears the same fate awaits him unless he can repel the opposition in the same way Iran brutally cracked down on its people to blunt the Arab Spring uprisings.
Rhetoric becomes the central focus of America’s current role in this crisis…
In August 2012, President Obama warned that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” for the Ba’athist government in Syria, and would result in “enormous consequences” if crossed. The warning was prompted by concerns that the government would use chemical weapons as a last resort to retain power.
The world began receiving reports that chemical weapons were being used that following December, but both sides accused each other of carrying out attacks with the nerve gas sarin. In August 2013, Assad regime forces were accused of killing hundreds in nerve gas attacks, which led to a heightening of rhetoric from Obama that it was time for the world to respond with air bombardment of Syria’s chemical weapons capability.
Obama’s comments were carefully worded to reassure Americans that he would not get the country into another bloody quagmire. The military action, he argued, would be surgical and targeted to send a message to Assad that there were penalties for defying the earlier ultimatum. In effect, the US feels pressured now to carry through on a threat of discipline like a disappointed parent determined to send a message to a misbehaving child that we really meant what we said. To do otherwise, some argue, would be to make any future warnings hollow and sede American leadership on the global stage.
However, here in the United States, people remain unconvinced that they have a compelling national interest that is worth spending billions of dollars and potentially sending military forces into harm’s way. In fact, many Americans believe the Syrian opposition includes some of the same forces the US military faced in the Iraq insurgency, including elements of radical Islam.
A larger issue is chemical weapon proliferation and the role of non-government players. America stood by and did nothing while Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds, so there is a precedent for doing nothing. If Syria were to fall into complete chaos and if the chemical weapons of Assad’s government there were at risk of falling into the hands of a militant group, what would America be forced to do then?
There’s also the counteractive element of Russia and China supporting Assad, plus the almost guaranteed assurance that any violence will spill over into Israel, which enjoys America’s protection and is surrounded by hostile neighbors.
Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to heap strong rhetoric at Obama, suggesting that any retaliatory attack on Syria would constitute a violation of international law. Putin, a former KGB agent, is likely savoring this moment to counter Obama as the Russians suffer from Post-Soviet-Superpower blues. The Russians have been throwing their weight around a lot lately in attempts to remain relevant on the world stage.
The most cynical among us suggest that wars are started to sustain defense contracts, so some see no coincidence that America is targeting Syria now that Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down as lucrative windfalls for companies like Halliburton. Could we see another proxy war like ones past where the Russians and Americans test the efficiency of their weapon systems on third world armies? What happens if China joins in that sort of thing? It’s difficult to imagine a more suitable illustration of a “three-headed monster.”
With absolutely no “good” options on the table, America can only try to manage horrible outcomes to minimize risk. Wary of having to visit a whole new set of injured servicemen at VA Hospitals, Obama has promised not to get American “boots on the ground.” Given his strategy of drone attacks in Pakistan, there’s reason to believe he will only put US forces on the battlefield as a last resort.
The perfect scenario would be one like Reagan’s bombing of Libya in 1986 where Gaddafi became marginalized by an effective show of American military supremacy, but we aren’t talking about a part of the world where anything goes ideally. It seems highly unlikely that Assad will give up and the forces aligned against him will simply lay down their arms in the vacuum of his absence.
Metaphorically, it all feels a bit like America is a neighbor reluctant to get involved in a domestic dispute among the cul-de-sac’s least popular occupants: that couple who deserve one another because they are always screaming at each other. Do we allow the boozer father to routinely beat his wife and kids? If we don’t step in and say something, how does it reflect on the way our wife and other neighbors see us? In real life, we could always call the cops or child protective services. Metaphorically, again, America IS the cop on the global beat that everyone looks to to deal with that bully. The trade-off is the perk of leadership and the economic benefits that come with such a privileged state.
Is “saving face” enough of a reason to send warplanes in to bomb another country?
If Americans won’t budge persuasively, what steps could we see taken by the government to stir their nationalism in the same way the Pearl Harbor, 9/11 and the Gulf of Tonkin attacks whipped young men into a frenzy of enlistment? What will be the role of the US media, which is still stinging from its lack of holding the Bush Administration more accountable in the lead-up to Iraq? We are talking about a news media increasingly countered by a blogosphere and a social media environment in which alternative voices can gain enough traction to make a significant impact on the discussion…
Faced with criticism that he lacks the authority to attack Syria without congressional approval, Obama deferred to Congress, a move which surely has some lawmakers wondering why they ever opened their mouths.
Faced with constant efforts to delegitimize his presidency, Obama has learned to not give his critics much slack with any noose they want to place around his neck. Still, there is a reason why the president is called the “leader of the free world,” and if Congress goes on record against authorizing action, it will set a dangerous precedent for presidents that his critics may regret once their man wins the White House again.
Asked whether Obama would go ahead with a Syrian action if Congress failed to rubber stamp it, Secretary of State John Kerry did not want to go there, insisting it was unthinkable that his former peers would allow such an embarrassment to ever occur.
“This is not the time for armchair isolationism,” said Kerry.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, also a former Congressman, suggested that other dictators around the world and militant groups like Hezbollah might be emboldened if the United States does not punish the Assad government: “The use of chemical weapons in Syria is not only an assault on humanity. It is a serious threat to America’s national security interests and those of our closest allies.”
In other words, he suggested America will appear weak or indifferent to the bullies of the world, encouraging them to act with impunity.
While visiting Sweden this week, Obama denied that an attack is a matter of protecting his ego.
“I didn’t set a red line,” he said at a Sept. 4th news conference in Stockholm. “The world set a red line. My credibility’s not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America and Congress’s credibility is on the line.”
It is worth speculating that if Assad had allowed those he rules to debate and criticize him the way the American system of free expression works, he probably would not have forces closing in on Damascus to kill him right now.
There are long-term ramifications for America politically. Vocal factions in both parties are opposed to anything that could entangle the nation in another messy conflict in the Middle East, but with a vote on the matter, those Republicans in Congress aligning themselves for potential presidential runs in 2014 may soon be forced to take positions that could come back to haunt them depending on how any American action in Syria turns out.
For now, the world watches and continues the discussion.