Resisting the Calls for Action in Syria

After months of hand-wringing, the Obama administration appears poised to intervene militarily in Syria. Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry cited clear evidence of chemical weapons use by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and pledged that the United States would hold Assad accountable for a “moral obscenity.” Others have chimed in this morning in agreement. The editorial writers at USA Today declare that Assad’s action “demands” a “precise strike” in response.

As I explain in an “opposing view”:

The desire to “do something” in Syria is understandable. The gut-wrenching images of the dead, including the young, have rocketed around the world. To casual observers, it seems obvious that a country as rich and militarily powerful as the United States must be able to stop the violence.

But the truth is that not even the United States can solve Syria’s problems.

The American public remains strongly opposed to military intervention of any type, and the people’s representatives in Congress generally reflect these sentiments. Unfortunately, presidents can, and usually do, ignore the public’s wishes. President Obama, following the example of his predecessors, has undertaken numerous military operations without securing congressional approval, and he has done so even in the face of clear and bipartisan opposition. (Libya, for example).

A few on Capitol Hill will occasionally complain, as some did yesterday, but a groundswell among members of Congress to affirm their constitutional responsibilities is unlikely, and certainly won’t happen quickly enough to halt what appears to be imminent military action.

But the strongest reason why President Obama should ignore the voices calling for military action is because such intervention is unlikely to achieve anything constructive, and may well do great harm. While the president has the ability to launch air attacks, he is unable to affect the political realities on the ground in Syria that have sustained a brutal and bloody civil war for nearly two and a half years.

From my USA Today response:

The deeply dysfunctional Syrian state is not something outsiders have the tools to repair. Cruise missiles launched from ships and submarines won’t persuade the divided Syrian opposition to unite around a common goal, nor are they likely to cause President Bashar Assad’s supporters to capitulate and throw in their lot with the rebels.

But such strikes will result in additional death and destruction on the ground.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, has thrown cold water on the idea that the U.S. military can easily solve the problems in Syria—or anywhere else, for that matter. He has witnessed first-hand the effects of recent U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of the people within Obama’s inner circle who are urging the president to use force in Syria have not.

President Obama should recall that his most sacred obligation is to defend the United States, and the American people, from direct threats to our security. Launching military operations against Syria that do not—and cannot—serve that purpose, would be reckless and counterproductive.