Readers on Syria: Stay Out

A different red line President Obama could draw.

We'll get back to our ongoing American Futures journey later today. [Please check out the latest installment, this morning from Rapid City, SD.]

I'll confess that in our stopover in DC, after three weeks away, the most startling change has been the sudden taken-for-granted assumption that it's time for another war and the only questions are the details, as reflected in this post today by my Atlantic colleague Garance Franke-Ruta. Yes, I'm aware of the chemical-weapon news that triggered this shift, and of President Obama's unwise earlier declaration of a "red line" necessitating attack. But America's strategic interests haven't been turned upside down in a handful of days, nor its economic and budgetary challenges, nor the can of worms inevitably opened by any war-of-choice.

In recent installments I've argued that "surgical" or "standoff" strikes never are as neat and clean as planned; that the people stumping hardest for attack are the very ones whose track record should disqualify them for further public comment on national-security judgment calls; and that it is the height of both strategic and political folly for President Obama to take this step without involving Congress. Now, from the readers.

First, from a businessman in the Midwest:

I confess to being a staunch opponent of both our Afghanistan and Iraq wars, so I come with bias.  Nevertheless, it seems obvious to me (a small but very well-traveled international businessman with no formal training in international policy) that US intervention in Syria will exponentially increase all the bad will we have carelessly spread world-wide for the past decade.

You can trust me when I tell you I get an earful every time I travel in Malaysia, Indonesia, China, and virtually anywhere where educated people wonder what the hell the US was thinking during the Cheney Administration (intentional sic). [JF note: I trust you. This is my experience in those countries too.]

Thanks for telling the idiots to cool it.  We can do no possible good in Syria, but we can certainly do a hell of a lot of bad if we get involved.

Now, a reader in California:

It seems like the perfect time for Obama to make another heart-felt soaring speech about why he is NOT going to interfere in Syria.  That's the red line he should draw. 

He needs to say that we keep being pulled into conflicts in the Middle East and it's not going to solve anything and in fact is likely to make things worse, there and here.... It seems to me we have this military so we keep using it. 

Another reader in the Midwest:

In addition to declaring war, the Constitution also relegates another power to Congress:

"The Congress shall have power... To define and punish... Offenses against the Law of Nations... To declare War... To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces..."

The "define and punish" part is quite interesting, I think. That's exactly what we're talking about here, no? The “define” step is already completed, with the U.S. as signatory to the Geneva Conventions and other conventions on use of chemical and biological weapons, but the “punish”? That's not defined in any meaningful way and that should be precisely Congress's role here...

While I agree that Obama’s “red line” statement was critical to where we find ourselves now, I really am not sure that he had a better option at the time. Yes, he had other options, e.g. not saying anything, but were those better options? Imagine if he had not said anything about attacks with unconventional weapons by the Syrian government forces.

Can you imagine the outcry from the bulldog right after the recent attacks? Because I sure can: “Obama’s silence enables and encourages tyrannical and oppressive government to kill and suppress their people!”... This isn’t to say that I think the “red line” comment was well advised, but I don’t think it’s quite as poorly advised as it may seem without looking at the possible negative scenarios.

A reader in the Southwest said that I cited Eisenhower but, "for younger or non-history buff" readers, I should have spelled out what I meant. Here goes:

As the five-star Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, Dwight Eisenhower led what was then the strongest military force in world history. As president, he was extremely cautious about where and when he committed U.S. troops -- a kind of precursor to what, before Iraq, we thought of as the Powell Doctrine. Thus Eisenhower:

  • declined to rescue the French, at Dien Bien Phu in 1954;
  • declined to rescue the British and French and Israelis, in Suez in 1956;
  • declined, in the most heartbreaking case, to rescue the Hungarian Freedom Fighters before the Soviets crushed them, also in 1956;
  • declined to send troops to resist Fidel Castro's rebels in the late 1950s;
  • was chary of big U.S. commitments in the former French colonial territory of Vietnam and Laos.

Of course his record, like everyone's, was complex. In 1958 he sent a sizable U.S. troop deployment to Lebanon for three months, to shore up a pro-Western government. And it was under Eisenhower and his CIA director Allen Dulles that the U.S. engineered the famous anti-Mosaddegh coup in Iran 60 years ago this month -- as the agency has finally confirmed.  Still, Eisenhower was no one's idea of a modern neocon, or liberal hawk. When in doubt, he declined to intervene.

This same reader makes a political point:
A very bad decision and a mess will terminally impact both Biden and Clinton as successors to Obama.
A candidate to Clinton's left will attack her lack of engagement and process in the Middle East during her tenure as fecklessness.

One more long reader-message after the jump, and then an invitation.

Here's the long message, from a reader whom I believe to be a U.S. immigrant from Russia. Emphasis in the original:

What I'm most bothered by (aside from the rapid pace of escalation), is I can't, looking at a map of Syria, figure out what the hell anyone advocating for [military action] thinks will be the strategic benefit.

Syria is surrounded by unstable states. Egypt, Iraq, Iran, even Turkey. To the South, you have Jordan, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

When we entered Iraq 10 years ago, [as recommended by] the Project for a New American Century, we were facing a series of relatively stable dictatorships and despots. The PNAS wanted to remake the Middle East in favor of American interests. Those were likely to be the best conditions to enter a confrontation, because at the least, these were at the time, allied despots and their countries were, again, relatively under control. 

Looking at Syria now, what is to be gained? We prop up an opposition movement that has no capacity to actually hold its country. That's the best case scenario. But even if we do this, what happens in the rest of the region? Our allies are put into further peril because the conflict while perhaps never reaching our borders, will reach theirs. That means, for the sake of [averting] calamity in one region, we will not be able to contain it reaching Jordan or Israel or Saudi Arabia. 

Further, where exactly do we plan to be stationed once we [are drawn into] to a major confrontation? What allied nation will we expose, in the midst of this instability, to bear a brunt not just put forward by Syria or Iran, but very possibly by Russian forces, or at the least, Russian armaments. What exactly is the hope here, that former Soviet States will volunteer as shipping stations and endanger their current relationship with Russia? That Russia and Iran won't get involved? That this will be an isolated incident? That there will be no Assad loyalists after a few precision campaigns? That we will bomb for show of force and then just leave regardless?

I mean, let's say our worry was stability, we would actually be propping up Assad, not his opposition, because Assad has a better chance of maintaining long-term control than they do. 

So, we're not after stability. We're not, I'm assuming, [trying for] a winnable war unless someone can explain to me how the United States by giving limited assistant to the rebels will not only topple the government but ensure the complete irrelevance of the loyalists.... Are we going to commit ground troops when things get worse and Assad isn't gone?... Even if everything somehow magically goes according to a plan that no one even has yet, then what? Syria's opposition becomes what, exactly? Syria is a stable state? How?

There is a rush to go to war now being advocated by people who are ready to play with the ripped and shaken up pieces of a jigsaw puzzles as though they were flat and in place. But these men aren't gods and they don't see all the angles they think they do.

OK, for anyone still with us, here's the invitation. Obviously I am very skeptical of the "we must do something, so let's drop bombs" impulse of the moment. The readers I have heard from are too. But anyone who wants to send in a strong pro-intervention case, please do. Tomorrow I'll post the three or four best-reasoned rebuttals that come in. My standard will be: which of these gives me most pause about my own anti-intervention views.