Why Charles Krauthammer is wrong about Syria

Appearing on Fox News, Charles Krauthammer argued that, while he would support intervention in Syria if we had a president who is “serious,” he wonders whether we should entrust involvement in a civil war to a president who has shown ambivalence about that war and who would rather not be on the scene. Krauthammer noted that the only time Obama has taken decisive military action was in Afghanistan, and even then he did so only after first announcing that we wouldn’t be in it for the long haul.

In my view, Obama’s record raises no concerns about his ability, in concert with our military leadership, to pull off the kind of involvement he has proposed to Congress — bombing attacks that will degrade Assad’s war-making power.

Obama has carried out an effective air — i.e., drone — campaign against al Qaeda. The strike on bin Laden was effective. Our intervention in Libya achieved its military purpose.

The surge in Afghanistan was carried out competently. To be sure, Obama undermined the surge’s ultimate effectiveness in defeating the Taliban by announcing its limited duration. But in Syria, Obama isn’t proposing that U.S. ground troops prosecute a civil war. He’s proposing air action to deprive Assad of certain important assets in that war. Although there is no certainty that our military will accomplish even this more modest objective, there is no reason to believe that we won’t succeed because Obama is our president and has been ambivalent about the war.

But this raises another, more serious question: is the limited action that Obama proposes meaningful? In an interview with Hugh Hewitt, Krauthammer argued that it is not, and explained that he opposes intervention for this reason:

The reason I’m for staying out is because this President doesn’t know what he’s doing. And he, unless he says in public that he is, if you’re going to use the military, you use it for effect. And if the effect is to alter the balance and the trajectory of the civil war so that Assad falls, and therefore Hezbollah, Iran and others are set back, then I am all in favor of this. But I need to hear it from the President, and I don’t hear it. . . .

I would like to hear him say what he said to Graham and to McCain in the Oval Office when they met last week, which is yes, I think, well, I do want to alter the balance, we’re going to hit him pretty hard, we’re going to send trainers right down to the rebels, we’re going to send them serious weapons, anti-tank and anti-aircraft.

I too would like to hear Obama much such a statement publicly. But the fact that Obama made it to Sens. Graham and McCain, coupled with the fact that John Kerry said basically the same thing to Congress, should be sufficient reason to vote “yes” — rather than “no” — on the resolution if you accept (as I do) Krauthammer’s other premises.

Kerry’s position, on behalf of the administration, is that Obama will not simply launch a few cruise missiles, as Bill Clinton did. The administration’s position is that it will seek systematically to degrade important aspects of Assad’s military capacity. At the same time, on what Kerry insists is a separate track, it will provide aid to the Free Syrian Army.

Will these actions “alter the trajectory of the civil war so that Assad falls”? We don’t know. I believe they stand a good chance of altering the war’s trajectory, which now favors Assad. Whether they will cause Assad to fall, as opposed to preventing him (along with Hezbollah and Iran) from winning, is much less clear.

But if the U.S. doesn’t act, the trajectory of the civil war is likely to swing decisively in Assad’s favor. The large-scale use of chemical weapons, which Assad would then be free to employ, may well be decisive.

Under the sound premises from which Krauthammer is operating, an attack that will very likely degrade Assad’s military capacity and probably make a difference in the trajectory of the civil war should be clearly preferable to a course of inaction that will help ensure victory for Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran.

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