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Scratching My Head Over a Strike on Syria

 

As a retired American diplomat, I’m supposed to understand how policy is made in Washington.

As a longtime author on military affairs, I’m supposed to know military stuff.

But I’m scratching my head, stumped, as I watch President Barack Obama campaigning for a strike on Syria that is opposed by most Americans, many in Congress, many military leaders, our British allies, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and, of course, the Russians.

One charge frequently leveled against Obama is that he never stopped campaigning long enough to start governing.

Because he’s less likely to delegate key decisions to military officers, Obama may be less likely to heed their counsel. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey and Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh have both made it abundantly clear, within the limits of what they can reasonably say out loud, that they’re lukewarm on Obama’s proposed strike on Syria.

There’s a glimmer of truth in that, but it’s an exaggeration. Remember, for example, that Obama made last minute, detailed changes to the plan when Navy SEALs assaulted a compound in Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011. Far more than his predecessor, Obama is a “hands on” commander-in-chief. His predecessor, George W. Bush, was widely perceived as being at arms length, implementing suggestions from military advisors rather than issuing orders to them.

Syria Damascus 21 August Chemical Attacks

White House graphic of the chemical attacks Aug. 21, 2013 in Ghouta, Damascaus, Syria. Whitehouse.gov image

Because he’s less likely to delegate key decisions to military officers, Obama may be less likely to heed their counsel. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey and Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh have both made it abundantly clear, within the limits of what they can reasonably say out loud, that they’re lukewarm on Obama’s proposed strike on Syria.

Based on numerous statements from Obama and his staff, including Secretary of State John Kerry, the military strike:

– is not intended to support rebel forces fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime;

– is not intended to achieve regime change by removing Assad from power;

– is not  intended to deter Assad’s conventional weapons arsenal, which is responsible for 99 percent of the 100,000 deaths in this conflict.

The purpose, say Obama, Kerry and other supporters, is to send a message that Assad’s use of chemical weapons crosses a line. The implication is that if he takes a step back across that line, Assad can do anything he wants.

Chemical weapons are ghastly. The United States should oppose their use. It should have done so – but didn’t – when Iraq used them during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War.

In my view, the American people will want to be shown a better reason for U.S. intervention in Syria. If the rebels were seeking to establish a more open society and had a leader we could accept, that would help. But many of the rebels are jihadist, and some have shown that they, like Assad, are capable of brutality and murder.

Unfortunately, the president’s policy, further elaborated upon in a speech to the nation on September 10, has detractors on both sides of the argument. Ironically, many of the loudest voices on both sides belong to the same party, the Republicans. Some, like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), say the United States has no vital interest in Syria and should stay out of the turmoil there. Others, like Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), say the United States should use its full resources as a world power to remove Assad from power by force and are willing to consider putting U.S. troops on the ground.

By a 10-7 vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a resolution that supports a limited military response. The measure now goes to the full Senate, where the Democratic leadership may be able to muster the 60 votes needed for passage. The outcome is less clear in the Republican-led House of Representatives. One possibility is that the U.S. legislature could do just what the British Parliament did: Smack down an elected leader’s plan for military action.

In my view, the American people will want to be shown a better reason for U.S. intervention in Syria. If the rebels were seeking to establish a more open society and had a leader we could accept, that would help. But many of the rebels are jihadist, and some have shown that they, like Assad, are capable of brutality and murder.

I don’t think the prospects are great that Congress will halt Obama in his tracks. I do think polls will continue to show most Americans – they’re the ones who elected those congressmen – opposed.

I don’t see any good outcome for the United States and that’s why I’m sitting here scratching my head.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...