Tag: military intervention

On Syria, Attention Shifts to Congress

President Obama’s abrupt decision to seek authorization from Congress before ordering attacks on Syria has elicited speculation about what motivated this apparent change of heart. After all, the president didn’t seek Congress’s approval before ordering attacks against Muammar Qaddafi’s forces in Libya in March 2011. Back then, members of the administration claimederroneously, as Louis Fisher points out here (.pdf)that they had all the authority they needed from UN Security Council resolution 1973It was a very thin reed on which to build a case for war, but administration officials teamed up with hawks on both the left and right to turn aside the objections of dovish Democrats and “Kucinich Republicans,” as the Wall Street Journal’s editors called them.

Obama couldn’t shelter behind the UN this time around, and Congressional opposition arose much faster and stronger than I anticipated as recently as last week. Even some Democrats, most notably Virginia’s Sen. Tim Kaine, voiced concern about the president’s apparent intention to circumvent the people’s elected representatives. The British Parliament’s rejection of Prime Minister David Cameron’s call for air strikes was a further blow, both in that it denied the United States a credible ally (only France remains), and highlighted the uncomfortable fact that most democracies have a debate before going to war. 

So now the attention turns to Congress, with many members still on recess, but a number returning early to Capitol Hill for briefings and hearings. Those handicapping the sentiment in Congress claim that the president lacks the votes today to secure a victory, but he has a full week to change minds and twist arms. Some of the 190+ members who signed at least one of two letters, or issued a statement, calling on the president to go to Congress before launching an attack will be satisfied to have been included in the process. Sen. Kaine expressed this sentiment today. Party leaders may not whip the vote, but Obama will be assisted by the pro-intervention chorus, led by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and by the signatories to this letter issued last week by the Foreign Policy Initiative. The pro-Obama team will include an unlikely ally: Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, who declared last night on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 that a vote against Obama would be effectively a vote for Assad. There will be more of this in the week ahead.

It will be hard for the opponents of intervention in Syria to prevail given that many Democrats can be expected to side with the president, and a number of Republicans still prefer the interventionists’ talking points, even if they know they are unpopular back home. 

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.

Learning to Leave Bad Enough Alone: Washington’s Clumsy Meddling in Fragile Countries

U.S. officials too often succumb to the temptation to try to impose order and justice in unstable or misgoverned societies around the world. The temptation is understandable. It is hard to learn about—much less watch on the nightly news—brutality, bloodshed, and gross injustice and not want to do something about it. Some foreign policy intellectuals, including the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, have become strident lobbyists for the notion of a “responsibility to protect” vulnerable populations.

But it is a temptation that wise policy makers should avoid. U.S. meddling has frequently caused already bad situations to deteriorate further—especially when Washington has based its humanitarian interventions on the false premise that the subject of our attentions is, or at least ought to be, a coherent nation state. As I point out in an article over at The National Interest, U.S. administrations have made that blunder in Bosnia, Iraq, Libya, and other places.

In many parts of the world, the Western concept of a nation state is quite weak, and the concepts of democracy and individual rights are even less developed. The primary loyalty of an inhabitant is likely to be to a clan, tribe, ethnic group or religion. U.S. officials appear to have difficulty grasping that point, and as a result, the United States barges into fragile societies, disrupting what modest order may exist. Washington’s military interventions flail about, shattering delicate political and social connections and disrupting domestic balances of power.

An especially naive and pernicious U.S. habit has been to try to midwife a strong national government in client states when the real power and cohesion lies at the local or subregional level. Thus, Washington still insists on keeping the chronically dysfunctional pretend country of Bosnia intact and on international life support more than 17 years after imposing the Dayton peace accords that ended the fighting there. Similarly, the United States harbored the illusion that Hamid Karzai could run a strong, pro-Western, democratic Afghan central government from Kabul, and even Karzai’s ineptitude and extensive misdeeds have not entirely dispelled that notion. In both cases, the national cohesion, underlying democratic values, and strong civil societies needed for such a scheme to work are woefully lacking.

One would hope that U.S. officials would be sobered by those bruising experiences, but there is little evidence of that. Even now, the Obama administration continues to flirt with intervening in Syria. That would be a huge mistake. Syria’s ethno-religious divisions make those of Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya look mild by comparison. Bashar al-Assad is undoubtedly a thuggish ruler, and the humanitarian situation in Syria is tragic. But a U.S.-led intervention could cause Syria’s fragile political and ethnic tapestry to unravel entirely, and that might make the current situation far worse. The Obama administration needs to exercise great care and restraint.

Only Wusses Go to War Without Cause

President Barack Obama has been evidently reluctant to go to war in Syria, but has started down the long and winding road by deciding to provide weapons to the insurgents. Why he is risking involvement in another conflict in another Muslim nation is hard to fathom.

However, the president did act only after former president Bill Clinton warned that Obama could end up looking like a “total wuss” and “a total fool” if the latter did not drag America into war. If there is anyone who should not be giving war-related advice, it is Bill Clinton.

His “splendid little war” in Kosovo left a mess in its wake, including ethnic cleansing by America’s putative allies. Indeed, he always had a curious view of the purpose of war. He once expressed his frustration that he likely would not be considered a great president without prosecuting a major conflict. 

Moreover, why is Clinton of all people accusing another president of looking like a “total wuss” and “a total fool” for hesitating to go to war? After all, as I relate in the American Spectator, he engaged in all manner of personal maneuvering to avoid being drafted to fight in Vietnam. 

That’s fine by me. It was a stupid war in which tens of thousands of fine Americans died as a result of dumb decisions by foolish Washington policymakers. But it is striking how reluctant he was personally to go to war.  Why, some people might consider him to have been a “wuss.”

As I pointed out:

Intervening in Syria is a serious mistake.  The U.S. has no interest at stake that warrants entanglement in another Middle Eastern civil war.  President Ronald Reagan learned that lesson three decades ago and responded appropriately, by getting out fast.

It’s bad enough if President Obama made his decision because he genuinely believes that the U.S. needs to fight another war in another Muslim nation.  It’s far worse if the president acted to ensure that he doesn’t look like a wuss and a fool.  For there’s no bigger wuss and fool than someone who allows Bill Clinton to manipulate him into going to war.

Read the rest here.

 

M. Hollande Sends Troops to War

A top headline in today’s Washington Post reads (in the print version)

France’s Hollande intervenes in Mali

An odd headlne, I thought. I’m sure Hollande himself isn’t picking up a gun and heading for Mali. And if he’s simply sending troops (as the online version says), don’t we usually just say “France sends troops”? But in fact, of course, some person or persons actually send troops to war. It isn’t done by a whole country collectively. And in the case of France, apparently one person has the authority to launch military interventions. (Thank God we don’t live in such a country!)

The headline in my morning paper put me in mind of one of Tom Palmer’s favorite quotations in discussions of statism and individualism. It comes from the historian Parker T. Moon of Columbia University in his study of 19th-century European imperialism, Imperialism and World Politics

Language often obscures truth. More than is ordinarily realized, our eyes are blinded to the facts of international relations by tricks of the tongue. When one uses the simple monosyllable “France” one thinks of France as a unit, an entity. When to avoid awkward repetition we use a personal pronoun in referring to a country—when for example we say “France sent her troops to conquer Tunis”—we impute not only unity but personality to the country. The very words conceal the facts and make international relations a glamorous drama in which personalized nations are the actors, and all too easily we forget the flesh-and-blood men and women who are the true actors. How different it would be if we had no such word as “France,” and had to say instead—thirty-eight million men, women and children of very diversified interests and beliefs, inhabiting 218,000 square miles of territory! Then we should more accurately describe the Tunis expedition in some such way as this: “A few of these thirty-eight million persons sent thirty thousand others to conquer Tunis.” This way of putting the fact immediately suggests a question, or rather a series of questions. Who are the “few”? Why did they send the thirty thousand to Tunis? And why did these obey?

I guess the Post has avoided the obfuscation of which Moon complained by stating frankly: “Hollande sends troops to Mali.”

Susan Rice and the Interventionist Caucus

The Associated Press is reporting that Susan Rice, “appears to have a clearer path to succeeding retiring Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton” now that John McCain and Lindsey Graham have softened their opposition to her candidacy. “If she is nominated for the position,” the AP’s Steven Hurst predicted, ”it may signal greater U.S. willingness to intervene in world crises during Obama’s second term.”

Bill Kristol believes that it would, which is why he supports Rice over other qualified candidates, including especially John Kerry (D-MA). Asked on FoxNews Sunday why he prefers Rice over Kerry, Kristol said:

“Because I think Susan Rice has been a little more interventionist than John Kerry…. John Kerry has been against our intervening in every war that we intervened.”

That isn’t entirely true, of course. For example, Kristol noted that Kerry “was for [the second Iraq war] before he was against it.” But as Ben Friedman writes today at U.S. News and World Report, within the generally interventionist foreign-policy community, Susan Rice is more interventionist than most.

In that context, I understand why the Senate’s small (and shrinking) Interventionist Caucus prefers Susan Rice. I understand why Kristol and the neoconservatives do. But I don’t understand why other people support her so strongly. Although the political class favors costly crusades abroad, most everyone outside of that tiny circle believes in leading by example, and favors, in Obama’s words, more “nation building here at home.” In short, Americans generally favor global engagement, but they reject the neoconservative variety (.pdf).

The recent election was not a referendum on foreign policy. The issue barely registered. Although those who cared most about foreign policy favored Obama over Romney by a 56 to 33 margin, those voters represented just 5 percent of the electorate according to a Fox News exit poll. What’s more, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney agreed on most foreign-policy issues. Romney favored more belligerent rhetoric, and huge increases for the Pentagon’s budget, but his prescriptions for the future boiled down to: “What Obama did, just more of it.” More meddling in distant civil wars, more nation building, a heavy U.S. military footprint wherever possible, and more drone strikes with less oversight where ground troops can’t go.

That seems to neatly summarize Susan Rice’s views, also. If Barack Obama nominates Rice to be the next Secretary of State, he will effectively be saying that he doesn’t care what the public wants, and that Mitt Romney was right.

Whither the Assad Regime?

The bombing of Syria’s national security headquarters, which killed key figures in the government, is evidence of expanding instability, but not of a regime on the verge of collapse. The attack and others like it have not significantly altered the Syrian uprising’s most enduring challenge: the inability of its fragmented opposition to congeal. This challenge, coupled with the rebellion’s lack of an inclusive vision for Syria’s minorities, and the troubling developments today, should give proponents of intervention pause.

America, Russia, Turkey, and the Gulf Arab states have all called on Syria’s fractured opposition to unify. A commitment to inclusion today could break down tomorrow, and such divisions could set the stage for an even bloodier ethno-sectarian civil war in a post-Assad Syria. Discord persists despite rebel attacks on regime officials and security forces. In fact, conflicting reports about the most recent bombing in Damascus—whether it was carried out by the Free Syrian Army, which claimed responsibility, or a cabinet member’s personal bodyguard—points to the difficulty of discerning the exact nature of the opposition.

Islamists, for instance, seem intent on hijacking the struggle for a democratic Syria. In May, the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly reported that despite U.S. hopes that minorities would unite under the Sunni-led Syrian National Congress, Syria’s Christians, Kurds, Druze, and Alawite sect, “All have resisted what they say is the group’s domination by the Muslim Brotherhood.”

That same month, Pentagon spokesperson Navy Captain John Kirby told reporters that defense officials believe “al-Qaida has some presence inside Syria and interest in fomenting violence in Syria.” He added, “We do not believe they share the goals of the Syrian opposition or that they are even embraced by the opposition … The sense that we get is that it is primarily members of [al-Qaida in Iraq] that are migrating into Syria.”

Similarly, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned earlier this year that al Qaeda-aligned forces coming from neighboring Iraq—a country that the United States occupied for nearly a decade—had carried out explosions in Damascus:

The two bombings in Damascus in December … and then the two additional bombings in Aleppo, both of which were targeted against security and intelligence buildings … had all the earmarks of an al Qaeda-like attack.  So we believe that al Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria.

Rather than exercise restraint, the rise of Syria’s Islamists has encouraged Washington to intervene. Last month, the New York Times reported that U.S. officials had ordered a small number of C.I.A. officers to help funnel “automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons,” across the Turkish border through intermediaries in Syria who include the Muslim Brotherhood, all paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The justification was to keep weapons out of the hands of al Qaeda-allied groups, which is not reassuring. The most infamous instance of planners in Washington assisting the arming of rebels was in the 1980s in Afghanistan—a country that years later turned into an al Qaeda sanctuary.

The Syrian opposition’s failure to unite, combined with the ascendance of Islamists and al Qaeda-linked jihadists, complicates, among other things, the Western response to the Assad regime’s continued massacre of its people. For now, these divisions will prove more damaging to the Syrian uprising than the uprising’s attacks on the regime’s iron-fist.