As the Obama administration contemplates a possible military strike against Syria, it would be useful for everyone to take a step back and ponder what we want to accomplish with such an attack.
What are the president’s objectives and how will an attack achieve those objectives? What are his options?
It’s understandable that we want to “do something.” Those pictures of linen-wrapped children, dead from inhaling chemical weapons, are horrifying. But there is only one thing worse than doing nothing – that is doing something that makes things even worse. And whatever we do, our first and foremost goal should be what is best for America.
So what are the president’s options? Here are five:
Option One: Regime Change. We could launch major attacks and destroy Assad’s war making ability, presumably in conjunction with allies and Syrian rebels, so Assad ends up like Libya’s Qaddafi. Ironically, Bush administration NeoCons and Obama Interventionists have finally found common cause – both want to topple Assad. Even President Obama himself said two years ago that Assad "must go."
But, if the last ten years have taught us anything, it should be that toppling dictators doesn’t necessarily lead to something better.
We toppled dictators in Iraq, Libya, and Egypt, and were assured there was a pro-democracy, Western leaning-cadre ready to step in and assume the reins of power. Iraq led to ten years of bloody war, Libya led to Benghazi and Egypt to a Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship.
With Syria, we already know that the rebel groups likely to prevail are Al Qaeda affiliates. As bad as Assad is, an Al Qaeda-led Syria would be even worse for America.
It's a cardinal rule of foreign policy that if two of your enemies are trying to destroy each other, don't step in and try to stop them. If we try to unseat Assad, it's doubtful his Iranian and Russian allies would stand silently by. At a minimum, Iran would redouble its efforts to develop nuclear weapons as soon as possible.
Option Two: Limited Attack. We could launch a limited attack to destroy the helicopters and planes that delivered the chemical weapons. According to press reports, the administration is leaning in this direction.
It would give Assad a symbolic public spanking, but the civil war would continue, with both sides more or less where they are today.
It would make good on Obama’s “red line” threat and serve to “punish Assad,” as Secretary Kerry pledged.
The administration is also hoping it would deter Assad, but there is no guarantee he wouldn't use chemical weapons again, since the caches would remain untouched. It’s just as likely that Assad could decide to double down and use chemical weapons again, thus leaving Obama in the uncomfortable position of having to escalate U.S. involvement.
It’s possible the president would be faced with the one thing he wants to avoid and the American people deplore – getting involved in another civil war in the Middle East.
Option Three: Arm the Rebels. We could openly arm and train the Syrian rebels to do the job for us. The question is, which rebels?
This may have been a viable option two years ago, but today even those in favor of arming the rebels admit that the strongest among the many rebel groups are linked to Al Qaeda. As dangerous as Assad possessing chemical weapons might be, Al Qaeda having them would be even worse – Al Qaeda has long sought to get its hands on weapons of mass destruction to use against Americans.
If we arm the good rebels, it would be in hopes they could defeat both the Al Qaeda rebels and the Assad government.
At best, that would put us in the middle of a three-way civil war: we support our rebels, while the Arab oil states support their rebels, and Iran and Russia support the Assad government.
At worst, the Al Qaeda rebels seize our weapons, and use them first against Assad and then against us?
Sound farfetched? That’s what happened in Benghazi.
Option Four: Destroy the Chemical Weapons. According to some military experts, we have non-conventional "agent defeat" weapons designed specifically to neutralize chemical weapons without dispersing toxins into the atmosphere.
One type first punctures chemical weapons containers and then smothers the toxins with neutralizing agents before they can be dispersed.
Other military experts claim these exotic weapons are too experimental, or wouldn’t work, or work only if we first destroyed Syria’s air defenses. They claim if we want to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons, we would need special operations forces, in other words, boots on the ground – an option nobody wants. In either case, we could end up doing the very thing we’re trying to avoid: killing innocent civilians.
Option Five: Delay, Then Do Something Symbolic. President Obama was elected in part because of his opposition to the Iraq war, and criticism that President Bush’s casus belli, Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, never existed.
Every day the evidence seems to mount that the Assad government did use chemical weapons to kill hundreds of innocent women and children. But the evidence is not incontrovertible, and may never be.
Obama could decide to wait for more proof. As long as chemical weapons are not used again, the public clamor to ‘do something’ would abate. The president could then satisfy his “red line” threat by lobbing a few cruise missiles on insignificant targets and call it a day.
But the message would be clear: America’s threats mean nothing. Assad and every other would-be murderous dictator would conclude the international community was unwilling to stop those willing to use weapons of mass destruction. Syria would see no consequence to using use chemical weapons again, and Iran would read it as a green light for their nuclear weapons program.
We are now left with no good choices. Thanks to President Obama’s “red line” threat last year, and his demand that “Assad must go” two years ago, he has put the U.S. between a rock and a hard place. Every parent knows you don’t make threats unless you’re willing to carry them out, since your bluff will always be called. So it should be a caution to all leaders – words don’t deter, only deeds so.
None of these options are risk free, all of them have potential consequences that would hurt Americans near term and long.
The best of the bad lot is to find a way to destroy the chemical weapons caches so they can’t be used against us or our allies, without getting pulled into another conflict. We could then leave the Syrian civil war to the Syrians.
Syria sounds eerily like Iraq, and Libya, and Egypt. The same civil strife could be repeated in Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain, and maybe even Saudi Arabia in the future.
Syria is the harbinger of a decade, if not a generation, of Middle East conflict as radical Sunni groups square off against radical Shiites. We have to find a way to get off the Middle East merry-go-round of death and destruction, that Arab oil has chained us to.
Fifty years ago President Kennedy committed America to landing a man on the moon within a decade. President Obama should similarly commit America to becoming energy self sufficient and free of Arab oil by the end of his presidency.
He should approve the Keystone Pipeline immediately, and unshackle our oil and natural gas companies so they can develop America’s domestic energy sources. Not only will it give the American economy a much-needed boost, it will allow America to declare its independence from the internecine wars which have plagued the Middle East since Cain slew Abel.
If not, America will find itself, time and time again, caught in the middle of the same kind of ethno-sectarian civil wars that have ensnared us for the last 20 years. Despite spending trillions of dollars and spilling the blood of thousands of Americans, we remain in servitude to Arab oil.
Granted, the goal of energy independence may not help President Obama decide between the bad options he faces with Syria today, but the next president, and the one after that, will inherit a far more secure and independent nation.