What Role Should the U.S. Play in the Middle East?

The shortsighted plan for punitive strikes in Syria fails to address how the U.S. will fit into the aftermath.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin E. Dempsey, John Kerry, Secretary of State, and Chuck Hagel, Secretary of Defense, present the administration's case for U.S. military action against Syria. (Reuters)

On Tuesday evening, President Barack Obama boarded Air Force One, departed for Sweden and left behind a looming political disaster. Despite the endorsement of Republican and Democratic House leaders, many members of Congress remain deeply skeptical about the president’s proposal to carry out cruise missile strikes in Syria. And they should be.

A few dozen missile strikes will not alter the military balance in Syria’s civil war. They will not punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the point where it moves him to the bargaining table. The Syrian autocrat is engaged in a ruthless fight for survival. Obama is not. As long as that dynamic continues, limited military action will have a limited impact.

Tomahawk cruise missiles are the latest wonder weapon to be used to lull Americans into thinking they can have war without cost. (For now, they’ve replaced drones.) In a sign of just how limited the American effort will be, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee drafted a resolution Tuesday night that would limit any military action to sixty days, with one thirty day extension.

Under the best-case scenario outlined by administration officials, American destroyers will lob a few dozen missiles at Syria late next week. Washington’s credibility will be magically restored. And there will be little pain, risk or casualties for Americans.

That is wishful thinking.

At the same time, opponents of military action on the left and right argue that we can ignore what is happening in Syria. The Sunnis who make up 70 percent of Syria’s population and their Gulf backers will give up, some argue. Or if Assad wins, a magnanimous Hezbollah and Iran will not be emboldened by his successful use of chemical weapons.

In truth, Syria is on a path to become a failed state split between Sarin-wielding Alawites and Sunni jihadists. The largest refugee crisis in the world since Vietnam will destabilize Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and potentially ignite a regional war. And America’s true red lines — Israel’s security and the steady flow of Middle Eastern oil into the global economy — will be threatened.

A gaping hole in the president’s response to Syria is that it does not grapple with the core question: what should America’s role in the Middle East be? Defender of chemical weapons bans? Defender of oil flows? Defender of Israel and no one else?

Political realities, of course, limit what type of military action Obama can propose. War weary Americans want no part of another conflict in the Middle East. But they deserve a realistic, clear-eyed strategy in the region. President George W. Bush’s invasion-centric approach to countering militancy clearly failed. But Obama’s hands-off approach is not working either.

Presented by

David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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