A thin case for action

I have been trying to keep up with the best articulation of arguments for and against our taking military action against the Syrian regime. I find myself agreeing with arguments on both sides, including Paul Mirengoff’s here, though not strongly. I’m ambivalent.

President Obama got us into this mess with his big mouth. For a handy reminder, check out this New York Times account of how we got here. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of weapons moving around or being utilized,” Obama declared. If punishment for crossing Obama’s “whole bunch” threshold is called for, Obama should take responsibility for whatever punitive action is necessary to get us out of the mess, if punitive action is what is to be taken and if it is indeed necessary to extricate us from the mess.

Obama sent John Kerry out to make an impassioned case for military action this past Friday because such action was imminent. Obama’s invitation to Congress to authorize military action is an afterthought occasioned by the British Parliament’s rejection of Prime Minister Cameron’s support for such action. It is a last-minute improvisation responding to events to which he had no direct connection, except perhaps his record as an unreliable foreign partner. See, for example, George Will’s column making this point in passing.

That John Kerry turns out to be the administration’s most effective spokesman for action lends a Twilight Zone aspect to the proceedings. Kerry made his name as a decorated veteran working the peacenik beat while falsely accusing the United States of war crimes in 1971. Having won office not too long after, he has proved himself wrong on pretty much foreign policy issue of the past 40 years. More recently he served as Assad’s bon vivant dinner companion and senatorial promoter.

The author of the supposed “global test” is now subject to the remonstration of the United Nations Secretary General representing the president who has reduced the alliance for action to the United States and, maybe, France. As Rod Serling might have said, submitted for your disapproval

You know the White House is scratching rock bottom in search of arguments in favor of whatever it is it intends to do when we find it arguing that action is necessary to protect Israel. Obama’s assessment of Israel’s interests is unreliable at best and it is a stretch to believe that he takes them to heart. As an interesting sidebar to this issue, see the Times of Israel’s account of Obama’s pre-Rosh Hashanah phone call with American rabbis this week.

What of the national interest of the United States? I look for a straightforward articulation of our interest. What is it? How will taking action advance it? What are the chances that taking action will injure our interests?

Note the utterly perfunctory manner in which Obama administration deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes invokes the national interest of the United States in today’s USA Today column. It is simply asserted and then more or less dropped, although there is this: “The continued use of chemical weapons in a dangerous region also threatens friends and allies such as Israel, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.” Mr. Rhodes, can’t you do better than this?

The real threat to Israel, of course, is Iran. Iran is not hamstrung by the kind of ambivalence that Obama himself has displayed. Iran is all in for Assad. It is in our interest for Assad and Iran to be weakened and defeated if possible without strengthening al Qaeda and friends, but what are the prospects? Obama doesn’t offer us his thoughts along these lines and Rhodes doesn’t go there either.

The strongest argument in favor of military action seems to be its necessity to preserve our credibility under the circumstances. Many commentators have made this point including, most recently, the Weekly Standard’s Philip Terzian. The question of credibility is most acute with respect to Iran and its nuclear program. See the account of Obama’s phone call with the rabbis linked above.

I think that our enemies in Iran (and elsewhere) have had Obama’s number since approximately mid-2009. They have him sized up as a foolish fellow. They view him with contempt and treat him accordingly. They note that he has great difficulty distinguishing friends from enemies. They understand that his words are more or less meaningless. They mean to take advantage of his debilities. My judgment is that action against Syria at this point will do nothing to change that. Not in the least.

Indeed, I think the mullahs have already put their centrifuges into “overdrive,” to borrow the language quoted by Paul from the column by Rep’s Tom Cotton and Mike Pompeo in today’s Washington Post and Obama has reportedly prevented Israel from doing anything about it.

My own assessment is that the United States has lost its credibility as a great power looking out for the interests of its friends. Taking action against Syria now will not alter the assessment of our enemies that Obama has forfeited the credibility of the United States as a great power. We will not regain it until we have a president who believes in it himself and calls on us to restore it. That having been said, it won’t help to leave Obama hanging on that limb he walked out onto. Thus my ambivalence.

UPDATE: Over at NRO, Jack David goes through much the same chain of reasoning that I do and comes out emphatically in the negative.

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