President Obama’s decision to pursue military action against Syria (he’s currently trying to rally congressional and public support) in response to the Bashar al-Assad government’s use of chemical weapons is unfolding as a major foreign policy error, one that may severely undermine American credibility abroad and domestic priorities at home.
Obama’s march to war in Syria is both ill conceived and ill timed. One week after commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the United States stands on the precipice of another conflict in the Middle East, this time lacking even a semblance of the kind of coalition forces behind the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In the United Kingdom, Parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s overture to join another American-led overseas adventure; and the United Nation’s Security Council, the internationally recognized body for the deployment of global force, has refused to sanction the use of force.
As law professor Jeremy Levitt points out in an insightful essay, the Obama administration’s political strategy in Syria is “unwise, alarming and illegal.” Tom Hayden, the founder of Students for a Democratic Society and a longtime peace activist, concurs with this assessment and has issued “a call for forceful diplomacy” in Syria that stops short of military intervention.
In light of this opposition, Obama has been searching for allies among some of his fiercest critics, including Republican foreign policy hawks Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. McCain, whose questionable judgment in choosing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential candidate helped cost him the White House in 2008, is willing to back the president as long as the authorization of force is expanded beyond the limited air strikes first proposed by the administration.
Why the rush to war? On a political level the president made a tactical mistake when he asserted that the Assad regime would cross a “red line” if it deployed chemical weapons in Syria and would be met with a punitive American response.
In St. Petersburg, Russia, this week for a meeting of the G20, Obama was on the offensive, forced to make the case that the moral hazard of chemical weapons released in Syria posed an existential threat to neighboring Middle East countries and the wider international community. According to American intelligence (corroborated by the British) — which incorrectly noted that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction during the run-up to the Iraq War — chemical weapons implicated in the deaths of more than 1,400 Syrians, including 400 children, can be directly traced back to the Assad government.
We arrive at a crucial moment in American history, one in which growing economic disparities between the rich and poor threaten the very fabric of our democracy, and the American dream remains out of reach for millions of hardworking families. This is exactly the wrong time to risk American lives, resources and energy on another protracted war of choice that politicians argue is one of necessity.
This is not a call for some kind of American isolationism, something that has been most forcefully articulated by Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul and which has strong backing by libertarians. America’s enormous financial and military power offers the world a beacon of hope and inspiration and can, when deployed judiciously, be an incredibly effective tool for the promotion of human rights, health care, women’s equality and democracy.
There are very real atrocities, including the slaughter of innocent women and children, happening on the ground in Syria. The international community, led by the United States, must provide diplomatic and humanitarian aid to the Syrian people. But this requires more the surgical scalpel of diplomacy than the hammer of American military force.
Some good, as Andrew Sullivan has recently noted, may come out of all of this. The very fact that Obama is seeking congressional approval provides an opening for voices of restraint. As a candidate for president, then-Sen. Obama said during one debate that he was not opposed to all wars, “just dumb ones.” President Obama should listen to his own advice on this score.
Forceful military intervention in Syria amounts to regime change by another name and is fooling no one, least of all the American public, which, mindful of the recent and debilitating war of choice in Iraq and war of necessity in Afghanistan, overwhelmingly rejects the use of force in Syria. Obama is thus now in the awkward position of trying to rally congressional Republicans, his main legislative nemeses, to authorize military force.
Meanwhile, African Americans, the president’s most vocal political bloc, are also not in favor of war with Syria. The Congressional Black Caucus, which has been rendered largely irrelevant because of Obama’s special rapport with black voters, is now being called upon to stand with the president during his time of need. It would be especially ironic, and a huge moral failing, if the CBC gave the first black president the political cover to wage a war that most Americans — black and white — disapprove of.
The Syrian crisis also reflects a strategic pivot away from the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Several years ago the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza famously reported on the administration’s efforts to “lead from behind,” an unfortunate choice of words that sparked ridicule from Republicans who accused Obama of being a naive foreign policy amateur unwilling or unable to comprehend the proper use of the world’s greatest military force. But in truth the phrase articulated the broad outlines of the “Obama doctrine”: prevention of the U.S. from being drawn into new global conflicts even while supporting the escalation (in Afghanistan) of existing military missions.
Yet this clarity of purpose regarding the proper use of military force has also induced paralysis, as witnessed by the administration’s uneven and slow-witted responses to the proliferating popular revolts dubbed the “Arab Spring” two years ago. The challenge of crafting a muscular and effective foreign policy strategy that stops short of regime change but promotes human rights and the broader interests of America and its regional allies has confounded the Obama administration.
We are still dealing with the collateral damage and pitfalls of America’s invasion of Iraq, and President Obama’s rush to war in Syria invites unfavorable comparisons to his predecessor, George W. Bush. But American diplomacy can still be a decisive force for good in Syria and the wider Middle East, as well as an alternative to military intervention and the open-ended conflicts that invite dangerous and unforeseen reverberations.
Obama’s historic election largely pivoted on themes of “hope and change” that presented the dashing young African-American candidate as a breath of fresh air, a man who could wind down raging conflicts abroad and focus on “nation building” right here at home. This is what candidate Obama promised. If President Obama has, because of politics, forgotten this promise, now is the time for the American people to remind him.