Those of us who favored military action against the Assad regime are naturally disappointed by the apparent resolution of the matter of Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Assad will not be punished for using these weapons to kill more than 1,000 Syrians. And his stock of chemical weapons is unlikely to be diminished significantly, if at all.
Furthermore, the momentum of the Syrian civil war, currently running in favor of Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran, probably will not be stemmed. Russia, our partner in resolving this matter, will see to that. Indeed, Syria and Russia may condition any reduction of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile on U.S. refusal to aid the Free Syrian Army.
But the most significant harm produced by Obama’s deal with Russia is loss of American credibility. The world sees the spectacle of (1) a “red line” drawn by the U.S. president being brazenly crossed without retribution and (2) America wantonly farming out its response to the crossing of the red line to Vladimir Putin, a sponsor of the regime we had vowed to punish.
I believe, however, that the most serious and enduring loss to American credibility stems not from President Obama’s actions or decisions, but from the unwillingness of Congress and the American people to support him when he proposed taking military action against Assad.
First, it may well be that, had Congress and the public supported him, Obama would have taken retaliatory action against Assad — as he proposed to do — and would not have turned to Putin. After all, Putin offered Obama a way out of the political difficulty caused by Obama’s lack of backing in the U.S.
With such backing, Obama would not have faced serious political difficulty and might not have been looking for a way out. Without public support, Obama was reluctant, understandably, to have the country become directly involved in a war.
Second, and more importantly, quite apart from what Obama might or might not have done, the congressional and public rejection of the president’s limited call to arms devastates American credibility. The world sees that Congress and the public will not support military action, even action involving no use of ground troops, against a regime powerless against the U.S. that has violated longstanding international norms by barbarically murdering innocent civilian with nerve gas.
The world also sees that we will not take limited action against that regime even though it has become a proxy for our primary enemy among nations, and even though air strikes against that regime might reverse the momentum it has recently gained after being on the brink of falling.
Finally, the world sees that we will not take limited action even though the U.S. President put his credibility on the line by vowing to retaliate for the regime’s use of chemical weapons and then lobbied hard for the use of force after the regime used such weapons. Such is our national resolve to remain disengaged.
If the U.S. will not take military action under these circumstances, the world surely understands that the U.S. has abdicated any meaningful military role in the Middle East. Who can believe, for example, that, in the foreseeable future, the U.S. will commit ground troops in the region? Who can believe that we will take any military action at all against Iran, or against any regime more powerful than Assad’s?
I recognize that one can oppose military action in Syria without advocating general abdication. And I know that some opponents, including my Power Line colleagues, did oppose military action on that basis.
But the world won’t see the various arguments made by my colleagues and others — distrust of Obama, concern about how effective a U.S. strike would be, fear of inadvertently helping al Qaeda, etc. — as having been decisive. And for good reason — the arguments weren’t decisive. The two decisive factors were ideological — opposition to the use of military force under almost all circumstances — and psychological — “war weariness.”
It should require little discussion to show that these factors constituted the wellspring of opposition from Democrats came from. Democrats didn’t express distrust of Obama, concern about the effectiveness of an attack he might launch, or, with few exceptions, al Qaeda. Instead, they mostly based their opposition on generic arguments against intervention — the uncertainty of war, the lack of a direct U.S. interest, give peace a chance, and so forth.
And remember, the Syria debate probably represents a high water mark in Democratic pro-intervention sentiment. Without Obama’s urging — probably a one-off phenomenon — support among Dems would have been negligible. Their support almost certainly will be negligible if a Republican president calls for intervention.
Republicans generally were more Syria-specific in their opposition. But when you add the ideological opponents of intervention — i.e., the growing Rand Paul wing — to those Republican representatives who are simply war weary, or who honor the war weariness of their constituents, you have a sizeable chunk of the Republican Party. And when you add that chunk to the Democrats, you have a solid majority in favor of abdicating any meaningful U.S. military role in the Middle East.
In some cases, our abdication will mean abandoning the field to Hezbollah, Iran, al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, or the like — at least unless we are able to identify, arm, and train alternative viable military forces. And is no longer clear that we possess the national will even to accomplish that.
Anti-interventionism and war weariness were probably more responsible than anything else for the rise of Barack Obama from first-term Senator to U.S. President. We now see that these strands remain the dominant foreign policy sentiment — to the point that Obama himself cannot overcome them.
Can the U.S. can be credible world power under these circumstances? It isn’t easy to see how.