Even accepting without question the conclusion that chemical weapons were used by the Syrian government against civilian targets within that country, I don’t think we should attack Syria. Yes, chemical weapons are inhumane and violate every civilized convention of behavior especially when used against those incapable of protecting themselves, but just what is it that we’re supposed to do about it? Launch a few cruise missiles against military targets, I guess, but to what end? Will destroying a radar site and a command and control installation prevent further use of chemical weapons which are themselves easily dispersed and almost impossible to target directly, especially with the stand-off weapons we would use? Not really.

Given our standing in the Arab world, our attacking the Assad Regime will only enhance its stature in that part of the world. And if you haven’t noticed, Mr. Putin is doing his best to revive the Cold War, probably as a means of suppressing domestic dissent in Russia, but I suspect he would welcome the opportunity to replace and upgrade any Syrian military systems damaged in a U.S. attack, all the while dragging America into another Mideast quagmire. And who is it that would benefit from our attack? In the 1980s, providing arms to Osama bin Laden so he could fight the Soviets in Afghanistan seemed like a good idea in Washington. How did that work out? Who is it that would seize power in Syria if we topple Assad? A future bin Laden? Someone anxious to unleash those chemical weapons on Israel or on U.S. forces in the region? In foreign policy as in life, be careful what you wish for because it might come true.

After 9/11, I fully supported our incursion into Afghanistan. An iconic image of that action, to me, was a photo of a U.S. Special Forces team, bearded and mounted on horses, riding alongside Afghan militia whose objective was to topple the Taliban. Heading into battle in 19th century style, the SF troops brought with them the means to unleash devastating 21st century weapons technology from afar. It was the perfect blend of individual initiative and national knowhow to achieve important strategic ends: namely to kill the man who orchestrated 9/11 and to overthrow the regime that directly assisted him. That conflict was a great U.S. success until we were distracted by the invasion of Iraq. By allowing our attention and our resources to shift from Afghanistan to Iraq, we squandered our great gains in Afghanistan and snatched stalemate out of the jaws of victory.
Iraq, to me, was a disaster on so many levels. I opposed that from the start for several reasons. I would match the bravery and fortitude of the American soldier against anyone, but our real advantage militarily was a technological one as was seen in the early days of Afghanistan. By going into Iraq, we would forfeit that advantage and have to fight on the enemy’s terms (i.e., highly trained, well-equipped American soldiers vs. elusive Iraqis with primitive yet tough-to-defend-against IEDs). That would be acceptable if the mission were important enough; say, if it had been Iraq that had attacked America on 9/11, then yes, pay whatever price necessary to extract justice, but Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and our true reasons for invading that country will be the subject of great debate among historians for decades to come.

While Saddam Hussein was a figure of immense evil, he was more of a threat to Iran than he was to the United States. In that, he actually served our interests in the regional balance of power. As long as Saddam was in charge, neighboring Iran had to keep one eye on him which hindered its ability to become a larger factor on the world stage. But with its only regional counterweight eliminated by the United States, Iran was able to point its aggressive tendencies elsewhere, including outside the Middle East.

But perhaps the greatest damage done to America by that episode was self-inflicted. The great fraud perpetrated on the American people by the Bush administration (“we don’t want the smoking gun to become a mushroom cloud.”) and it’s co-conspirators in the mainstream media (thanks, Judith Miller and the New York Times) terminally tainted the credibility of future administrations and the mainstream media when it comes to creating a national consensus on critical issues like when do we go to war. And the cowardly concurrence of Congress at that time when legislators who did know better, rationalized their way to “yes” votes in favor of war to avoid a public relations backlash from an administration and media that would use any means to play upon the residual and understandable anger of the American people after 9/11. The deafening silence of that Congress’s successors today on the issue of Syria shows that not much has changed there.

From November 1980 to August 1983, I lived in West Germany as an officer in the United States Army. We fully expected that any Soviet attack would be accompanied by the use of chemical weapons. That’s how the Soviets trained and they would fight the way they trained. But we trained for chemical weapons, too. Not to use them, but to protect ourselves against them. We had great faith in our protective equipment and our ability to use it in a way that allowed us to continue on with our mission. Maybe that experience has caused me to have a little less revulsion about chemical weapons. Does dying from nerve gas leave you any deader than dying from the explosion of a terrorist bomb? Both are horrible and we should strive to eliminate both. But in trying to do that, we should take care not to make a bad situation worse.

10 Responses to Syria

  1. Greg Page says:

    There are two rules worth noting for other people’s Civil Wars:

    (1) Don’t get into them.
    (2) If you’ve already violated Rule #1, clearly, openly pick one side. Give absolutely, positively, 100% of everything you’ve got into ensuring that the side you’ve picked is the winner.

    We can still avoid breaking Rule #1, so let’s not break it. As for Rule #2, it’s kinda like the Powell Doctrine. Choose your battles carefully, but once you do, overwhelm the other side. Throw multiple divisions and carrier air wings into it. Intimidate, and then rout, your enemy. Have a plan to win the peace.

    If we decide to break Rule #1, but then don’t have the will to full employ Rule #2, then let’s stay out.

    If we’re going to have a full-on debate about how to proceed, and the nation is ready to go “all in,” then that’s another story….but let’s be honest with ourselves about whether that’s about to happen.

  2. DickH says:

    I’m pleased that the President is asking Congress to vote on the use of force before force is used. To Niki Tsongas, Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, please vote No.

  3. Laura M. MacNeil says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more. And I agree with Greg. The US needs to stay out of other counties’ civil wars.

  4. Joe S says:

    A more productive response to the use of chemical weapons would be to bring war crime charges against the perpetrators.

  5. PaulM says:

    I side with Dick on this issue regarding direct military intervention with the US out front. Absent a multi-lateral response to the larger chaos in Syria, I would favor the US developing some version of a non-violent response to the barbaric use of chemical weapons and wholesale slaughter that’s been going on there. Syria has a coastline—blockade it. Disrupt the financial system through cyber-attacks. The economy has to be in shambles already. What can be done to complicate the flow of money and thus armaments? The civilized world should punish any regime using nerve gas or toxic substances on civilian populations, but 100,000 dead by any means is bad enough. The UN has been largely irrelevant in this conflict. Except for Sen John McCain, our Congress is not engaged. Just because we can launch some missiles, it doesn’t mean we should go that route. The world is presenting us more problems than we have the capacity to resolve. This is a time of great upheaval and transition around the globe, an unstable period in world affairs, we should be ready and cautious.

  6. Jane Benfey says:

    I agree, and will call Tierney’s office. But again, I think Obama may be hoping Congress will give him a way to back down.

  7. Tom Malone says:

    Great analysis, Dick! I agree absolutely! Haven’t we learned YET??? The various factions in the middle east have been fighting for centuries. Although this latest incident is yet the latest terrible example of a war crime, the US needs to stay away from direct involvement policing this Syria mess. It will only boomerang back on us and make Assad a new Muslim hero oppressed by “the Great Satan” US.

    For once I am counting on our dysfunctional Congress & the filibuster-crazy Senate to do their typical level best to agree to actually DO NOTHING. If Congress can’t even agree on the amount of food stamps poor American children and families should get, what makes anyone think they will actually agree on this issue, other than to kill it? Sadly you know if Obama is for it, except for McCain. the Republicans will be against it, as will the liberal Democrats like Alan Grayson. It just could be that Pres. Obama is also relying on this strategy in order to allow him to demonstrate the requisite ramped up “saber rattling” to warn Assad again of very specific dire consequences while allowing himself to be handcuffed by lack of Congressional consensus (like the Brits) to do anything this time. While making Assad sweat with telegraphed “shock and awe” plans for past two weeks and worrying about the outcome will be of upcoming endless Congressional debate, he can still reserve the right to take unilateral Executive action later should there be another incident.

  8. PaulM says:

    I’m glad President Obama drew the Congress into this issue so that there will be a wider national conversation about further engagement in the Middle East. This crisis on top of crisis, hopping from one country to the next in that region, may have reached such a scale that the people of the United States will be moved to endorse a larger policy shift that could have vast implications for the nation. The Congressional debate next week has the potential of being enormously consequential as our representatives and their constituents review and assess what has happened since 9/11. In fact, the debate will happen on or near that date because the Congress returns on Sept. 9. The eyes and ears of thoughtful people will be on Washington DC. This debate is about who we are and who we aspire to be as a people. I respect President Obama and John Kerry for expressing the justifiable moral outrage on our behalf. But I remember Congressman John Lewis’s powerful statement on the floor of the House of Representatives during the debate over authorizing President Bush to attack Iraq. Congressman Lewis recited a line from the gospel song “Down By the Riverside”—“I ain’t gonna study war no more.”

  9. Jack Mitchell says:

    I am coming into this Syria business, tainted by my ‘fairly positive’ experience in the Gulf War and my utter contempt for the Beltway’s response to 9-11. I blame more than Bush/Cheney, as history will detail. But I digress…

    POTUS is very much inclined to listen closely to Samantha Power. (A lady I like, having met her briefly, along with Susan Rice back during the first NH primary campaign.)

    That said, we need to scrutinize the notion of “Responsibility to Protect (R2P).” This concept is not foreign to Power or POTUS.

    PS. The DOD is developing the forthcoming QDR.

    On POTUS passing the buck to Congress. I prefer POTUS yield to the spirit of our Constitution.

    That said, is he also intentionally trying to give the Neocons fits? Can’t you just see Liz Cheney wryly wringing her chicken hawk hands?

    I take Tammy Duckworth’s opinion to heart.

  10. Eric J says:

    I agree with Greg. I would add that Obama was foolish to make the “red line” comment. His loss of face will diminish the leadership role the US has had in geo-political affairs and weakens us terribly in the eyes of many.

    And Obama Didn’t “draw” Congress into the issue – they started throwing a fit and he was forced to take it to them.