Libya and Syria are the textbook examples of why it’s important to pick your battles, and then make sure you win the one you pick. President Obama picked the wrong fight by going to war against Libya, and so far is not succeeding. As a result, he’s got little credibility or leverage to take to take on Syria -- the adversary that really matters.
The Libyan and Syrian dictators have almost always worked against our interests and objectives in the region. Libya’s Qaddafi has exported terrorism. Syria’s Assad has been Iran’s catspaw in the Middle East. Both nations have long histories of brutality against their own peoples.
But from the outset of the Obama administration, the president treated them differently. He saw Qaddafi as a pariah beyond redemption, but Assad as a reformer he could work with to create peace in the Middle East.
When the Arab Spring broke out, President Obama committed the U.S. to joint military operations against Libya, a country which is not a vital U.S. interest. He did so without a clear goal, against the advice of the military and intelligence communities, and without the consent of Congress.
Now that the Libyan war has dragged on….and on….and Qaddafi has hung on….and on…the United States and our allies look weak, indecisive and feckless. Even if rebel forces manage to push Qaddafi out, it doesn't look like a victory so much as a long and bloody seige that finally starved him out.
We’re now faced with the crisis that does matter to us – Syria – and, thanks to the missteps with Libya, have less credibility or leverage than we would have if the Libyan war had unfolded differently.
Yet, all along Syria was the country that mattered. It has worked against Arab-Israeli peace accords, and supports terrorism. It has in the past and may in the future have nuclear weapons programs. But perhaps most threatening, its close alliance with Iran gives the world's most dangerous and anti-American country a toehold in the most volatile region on the planet.
President Obama has finally given up his stubborn insistence, against all logic, that President Assad was a reformer he could do business with. He has finally called for Assad to step aside, and has frozen Syrian government assets. He has banned U.S. citizens from operating or investing in Syria. He’s imposed sanctions on Syrian petroleum products. Those are all good things, and long overdue.
We can only hope that the sanctions Mr. Obama announced Thursday will eventually force Assad out. Then we can look to the future: and a Syria without Assad opens up the possibility of pulling the country out of Iran's orbit and reversing its expansion into the region.
Yet, one can’t help but wonder whether the president's most important sanction, encouraging Syria’s major trading partners to do the same, wouldn’t have had far more effect if President Obama hadn’t first flubbed things with Libya..
Kathleen Troia "K.T." McFarland is a Fox News National Security Analyst and host of FoxNews.com's DefCon 3. She is a Distinguished Adviser to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and served in national security posts in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations. She wrote Secretary of Defense Weinberger’s November 1984 "Principles of War Speech" which laid out the Weinberger Doctrine. Be sure to watch "K.T." every Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET on FoxNews.com's "DefCon3"-- already one of the Web's most watched national security programs.