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Obama, Syria and the Current Dilemma

Posted by Steve Markowitz on September 3, 2013

The US Congress is debating whether to support a motion to back President Obama’s request to authorize a US attack on Syria for Assad’s use of chemical weapons.  The issue Congress faces is a dilemma without any good options.

Should the US not act it is likely that Assad will use the chemical weapons again in its war against the rebels.  In addition, US enemies including Iran and North Korea, not to mention Russia and China, will be emboldened and may act in more belligerent ways against US interests.

Alternatively, should the US respond it is difficult to foresee the consequences.  Will Iran and Hezbollah attack US or Israeli interests in retaliation?  Will the US be drawn into a conflict with Russia?  Will the US attack lead to the Assad government falling and Syria falling into more chaos or under the control of radical Islamists?  There are no guarantees.

There are currently no good options when it comes to Syria.  The United States finds itself in this untenable position because of Obama’s incoherent Syrian/Middle East policies of the past five years.  This issue is discussed in detail by Middle East expert George Friedman of Startfor.com in an article titled Obama’s Tightrope Walk.  Highlights are included below.  The bottom line is that Barrack Obama has proven inept when it comes to the Middle East and foreign policy in general.

“Last week began with certainty that an attack on Syria was inevitable and even imminent.  It ended with the coalition supporting the attack somewhere between falling apart and not coming together, and with U.S. President Barack Obama making it clear that an attack was inevitable, maybe in a month or so, if Congress approves, after Sept. 9 when it reconvenes.  This is a comedy in three parts: the reluctant warrior turning into the raging general and finding his followers drifting away, becoming the reluctant warrior again.”

“The United States did not have any overriding national interest in Syria.  It has been hostile for a long time to Assad’s regime.  It has sympathy for the Sunni insurgents but has drawn the conclusion that the collapse of Assad is not likely to lead to a democratic regime respecting human rights, but to an Islamist regime with links to al Qaeda.”

“What started to draw the United States into the matter was a statement made by the president in 2012, when he said that the use of chemical weapons would be a red line.  He didn’t mean he wanted to intervene.  He set the red line because he figured that it was the one thing Assad wouldn’t try.  It was an attempt to stay out, not an announcement of interest.  In fact, there had been previous evidence of small-scale chemical attacks, and the president had dodged commitment.”

“There were those, like National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who favored the use of military force in the events of war crimes and human rights violations on a major scale.  One would have thought that she would have supported the war in Iraq against Saddam Hussein, the epitome of war crimes and human rights violations, but she didn’t, and that’s another matter.”

“For them, the suffering in the Syrian civil war was the result of the repressiveness of the Assad regime.  This faction had an interesting perspective.  It focused on the current injustice, not always aware, interested or believing that what came later would be worse.  I remember arguing with academic colleagues before the fall of the Shah that while he was certainly a thug, we and the Iranian people would regret what came next.  There was a romantic belief that the crowd in the street was always more virtuous than the tyrant in his palace.  Sometimes they were right.  It is not clear that the fall of the Shah reduced the sum total of human suffering.”

“The real problem is this: After the Islamist wars, the United States has, as happened before, sought to minimize its presence in the world and while enjoying the benefits of being the world’s leading economy, not pay any political or military price for it.  It is a strategy that is impossible to maintain, as the United States learned after World War I, Vietnam and Desert Storm.  It is a seductive vision but a fantasy.  The world comes visiting.”

It is not easy to be president, nor is it easy to be the world’s leading power.  It is nice to be able to sit in moral judgment of men like Assad, but sadly not have the power to do anything.  Where life gets hard is when sitting in moral judgment forces you to do something because you can.  It teaches you to be careful in judging, as the world will both demand that you do something and condemn you for doing it.

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