Tag: Syria

Obsession with Syria Obscures Other Middle East Problems and Pertinent Lessons

The Obama administration and most of the U.S. foreign policy community have become so obsessed with Syria that other important developments around the world are receiving inadequate attention. In a piece over at the National Interest Online, I describe some of the key trends in South Asia and East Asia, two regions that are more important than the Middle East to long-term U.S. security and economic interests.

Crucial events include India’s growing financial woes, the simmering tensions between China and its neighbors over territorial disputes in the South China and East China Seas, and Japan’s increased willingness (in large part because of its problems with China) to boost its military spending and adopt a more confrontational stance toward Beijing. 

I also note that Syria is hardly the only source of worry in the Middle East itself. The renewed sectarian violence next door in Iraq is escalating at a frightening pace, Sunni-Shiite tensions in Bahrain are moving from a simmer to a boil, Libya is imploding, and Egypt is perched on the brink of civil war. The problems in Iraq and Libya hold pertinent lessons for those Americans who are eager to embark on a war against Syria. After all, those were Washington’s last two military crusades to oust odious dictators. And to be blunt, they have not turned out well.

Since the early spring, the level of bloodshed in Iraq has reached alarming proportions. And much of the violence reflects bitter sectarian divisions similar to those that make Syria such a fragile political entity. Iraq after the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein has not turned out to be the peaceful, democratic, multi-religious society that George W. Bush’s administration touted as the goal of U.S. policy. 

The situation in Libya is even worse. Overthrowing Muammar Qaddafi has led to an awful aftermath. The horrifying September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans was an early symptom of the chaos that has made Libya a thoroughly dysfunctional country. Today, a growing number of militias (many of which have rabidly Islamist orientations) have established small fiefdoms throughout the country, and the national government in Tripoli becomes increasingly impotent. Libya’s oil production has plunged, and with it the government’s principal source of revenue. 

Given the dismal outcomes of Washington’s last two military ventures in the Middle East and North Africa, one would think that proponents of a crusade in Syria would be sobered by the experience. But warhawks such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Representative Peter King, and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol appear to have learned nothing from those debacles. More prudent figures in Congress and the broader foreign policy community need to overrule their wishes.

Who Is Making the Case For and Against Action in Syria?

Two different organizations are circulating information on Capitol Hill pertaining to the situation in Syria. The handouts are interesting, though for different reasons.

FreedomWorks, a grassroots organization credited with helping to get the Tea Party movement off the ground, issued a letter last Friday encouraging FreedomWorks’ supporters to contact their members of Congress and “urge them to vote NO on the upcoming Syrian war resolution.” 

In the letter, FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe cites the anticipated costs of the operations, but also warns about the “unintended consequences” that could cost far more. While FreedomWorks has typically steered clear of foreign policy issues, the letter explains why they have chosen to get involved this time, by linking back to the organization’s core issues: federal spending, burdensome regulations, and crushing debt. Even if the war in Syria doesn’t end up costing nearly as much as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, time spent debating our involvement in yet another Middle Eastern civil war distracts attention from more urgent challenges here at home.  

I had a chance to speak with Kibbe yesterday. The debate in Washington surrounding intervention in Syria, Kibbe explained, reminded him a lot of the late summer in 2008, when a bipartisan coalition in Washington, led by Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner, made the case for bailing out the nation’s banks. The leaders called for immediate action to rescue the nation from the economic precipice, but the public wasn’t buying it. Pelosi and Boehner, along with President Bush and Treasury Secretary Paulson, eventually secured passage of TARP, but it generated even more opposition out in the hinterland to the disconnected class here in Washington.

Party leaders have even less power today, Kibbe said. “It is harder to buy votes” because the government is drowning in red ink, and the vote-buying to secure passage of ObamaCare generated a “backlash” that drove out unpopular incumbents. Fear of that same backlash is deterring a few holdovers from that Congress from trading favors in return for casting an unpopular vote for an unnecessary war.

The Political Class Regarding Syria

The good people at C-SPAN Radio re-air the five Sunday morning news programs in the afternoon, and then the roundtable discussions again on Monday morning. I missed the programs yesterday, but caught the roundtables this morning. The results were illuminating, if not actually surprising. At a time when Americans oppose military action in Syria by wide margins, the views of the political class appearing on the Sunday shows tilted decisively in the other direction: Washington wants air strikes; many here want more than that. If Congress ultimately votes to grant President Obama approval to attack Syria, it will be obvious who the members are listening to: their cocktail party and green room friends, not their constituents back home.  

By my quick calculation, 81 percent (9 of 11) of the morning show panelists or hosts clearly favored military action, while only 2 of 11 were clearly opposed. Washington’s pro-intervention bias is even more apparent when one counts those participants who appeared to lean yes (9); while only one leaned no (1). Few came out and said, “I support,” or “I don’t support,” so I’ve tried to infer from what they did say. And 6 of the 27 people appearing on the shows didn’t hint sufficiently one way or the other. I did not consider what these individuals might have said or written elsewhere. I’m going solely on the basis of what they said on yesterday’s programs. One can check my admittedly subjective coding below.* If you disagree, send me an email.

Newt Gingrich, one of the new hosts of CNN’s relaunched “Crossfire,” made the best succinct case in opposition to strikes from the perspective of the American people: “A) I don’t understand why it’s our problem, B) I doubt very much that we can fix it, and C) the guys who are against Assad strike me as about as sick as Assad is.”

The case for intervention boiled down to chemical weapons are bad, and, in the words of Juan Williams on Fox News Sunday, “We are not the world’s policeman,” but “now we have to act as a fireman because the world is on fire.”

I expect better from the Obama administration officials who will try to convince the American people–or, failing that, members of Congress–to go along. The White House’s full-court press started yesterday, and will build to a crescendo this week, highlighted perhaps by the president’s prime-time speech tomorrow evening. (I’ll be live blogging, check back here). In the meantime, various lobbies are pushing for intervention, but a few, including FreedomWorks and Heritage Action on the right, are lobbying against. FreedomWorks’ foray into foreign policy is particularly noteworthy, because the organization has typically avoided such fights. FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe explained that the organization had been “overwhelmed” with requests for help in rallying opposition to strikes. Linking this position to the group’s traditional focus on fiscal matters, Kibbe said that even limited military action could have serious consequences for the U.S. economy.

This is one of the most contentious fights that I’ve seen in recent years, and it is all the more interesting because it does not break down neatly along partisan lines. Among the 18 morning show advocates for intervention (yes or lean yes), nearly half (8) traditionally support Republican candidates and causes.

In short, if Obama gets his way, he’ll have Republicans in Washington to thank. And nearly everyone here will have ignored the public’s wishes.


* In favor of military action, 9 (David Axelrod, Donna Brazile, Jane Harman, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), Bill Kristol, Danielle Pletka, Karl Rove, Dan Senor, Juan Williams); lean yes, 9 (Candy Crowley, Stephanie Cutter, David Frum, Ana Navarro, Bob Schieffer, George Stephanopoulos, Greta Van Susteren, Chuck Todd); opposed, 2 (Newt Gingrich, Katrina vanden Heuval); lean no, 1 (Van Jones). No clear opinion, 6 (David Gregory, Brit Hume, Howard Kurtz, David Sanger, Chris Wallace, Bob Woodward).

 

As Congress Prepares for Vote, Syria’s Inflation Hits 257%

As prospects of a U.S.-led military intervention in Syria hang in limbo, the foreign exchange black market for the Syrian pound (SYP) has become increasingly volatile. In countries with troubled currencies, such as Syria, black-market exchange rates provide a reliable gauge of economic expectations. Judging by the erratic performance of the black-market Syrian pound/U.S. dollar (USD) exchange rate, the Syrian people’s expectations have been on quite the roller coaster ride, as the U.S. Congress prepares for what will likely be a very close vote on a Use of Force resolution.

  • Following Secretary of State John Kerry’s initial call for military intervention in Syria, on August 26th, the SYP experienced a one-day drop of 24%—reflecting Syrians’ heightened fears of U.S. military conflict.  
  • On August 29th, two events occurred that reversed this slide. In Damascus, the Syrian government renewed its attempts to crack down on black-market currency trading. And, over 4,000 miles away in London, the British Parliament voted down a motion authorizing military action in Syria. In consequence, the SYP rebounded by a whopping 26% over the course of two days.
  • The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s consideration of a use of force resolution seems to have once again raised Syrians’ expectations of a U.S. military strike, as it set the SYP on another slide. Since September 3rd, the pound has lost 10% of its value.

For some perspective on how the West’s march to war has affected Syria’s currency, and ultimately inflation, let’s take a look at how things have changed over the course of the past month: On August 6th, the black-market SYP/USD exchange rate was 205, yielding an implied annual inflation rate of 191%. As of September 6th, the black-market SYP/USD exchange rate sits at 250, yielding an implied annual inflation rate for Syria of 257%.

For more on the Syrian pound, see the Troubled Currencies Project.

Free Advice from Bill Kristol

Republicans who still look to Bill Kristol for political advice will find his case that “yes” is “The Right Vote” over at The Weekly Standard today. Ignore those melting phone lines, Kristol urges congressfolk: despite what your constituents are telling you, “no” on the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) in Syria is actually “the risky vote.”

If Republicans refuse authorization, Kristol argues, “the GOP can be blamed for whatever goes wrong in Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East, over the next months and years. And plenty will go wrong.” If they don’t want the Middle East mess hung around their necks, he says, then Republican lawmakers should vote for bombing Syria—and “consider moving an authorization for the use of force against the Iranian nuclear weapons program.” See, that’s how you minimize your political risk. With double the bombing, what could possibly go wrong?     

It’s not the most persuasive bit of political analysis I’ve ever read. But, disturbingly, Kristol’s on to something in this paragraph:

A Yes vote is in fact the easy vote. It’s actually close to risk-free. After all, it’s President Obama who is seeking the authorization to use force and who will order and preside over the use of force. It’s fundamentally his policy. Lots of Democrats voted in 2002 to authorize the Iraq war. When that war ran into trouble, it was President Bush and Republicans who paid the price. If the Syria effort goes badly, the public will blame President Obama…. If it goes well, Republicans can take credit for pushing him to act decisively, and for casting a tough vote supporting him when he asked for authorization to act. 

There’s genuine insight there into the way we war now, and how Congress shirks its constitutional responsibilities. Domestically, as David Schoenbrod has observed, broad delegations of power allow Congress “to kiss both sides of the apple,” taking credit for the benefits of the legislation they pass and railing against whatever costs the executive branch imposes.

Congress plays the same “shell game” abroad. Where possible, modern Congresses have preferred to punt to the president and reserve their right to criticize him should military action go badly—to be for the war before they were against it, or vice versa, depending on which way the political winds blow. That’s how it worked in Vietnam and in Iraq—and that’s the danger with the Senate’s loosely crafted Syria AUMF. The provisions that purport to limit presidential action are too weak to stick, but if we get a wider, bloodier war, they’ll allow legislators to say: “That is not what I meant at all.” It’s TARP with Tomahawks. 

Still, there’s always the risk that the marks will see through the shell game. And at this point, Congress seems unconvinced that a “yes” vote is “close to risk free.” 

Don’t Wreck Relations with Russia and China over Syria

Most opponents of the Obama administration’s plan to launch missile strikes against Syria have rightly focused on the possible costs in American blood and treasure if the United States becomes entangled in that country’s civil war. There is, however, a more subtle, yet extremely worrisome, cost: the potential damage to America’s relations with other important nations, especially Russia and China.

Russian leaders have been extremely outspoken in opposing military measures against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, especially if such actions are taken without approval from the UN Security Council, on which Russia possesses a veto power. Russian President Vladimir Putin also has warned that a U.S.-led attack on Syria could further destabilize the Middle East, proving “catastrophic” for that region and beyond. Moscow has now dispatched three naval vessels to the eastern Mediterranean to show support for Assad and warn Washington against rash action.

China has been less vocal than Russia in criticizing U.S. policy toward Syria, but Beijing is also opposed to the course that the Obama administration has adopted. The Chinese government shares Moscow’s anger at Washington’s growing tendency to bypass the UN Security Council on matters of war and peace. That is a source of discontent that has been building for a decade-and-a-half. Western (especially U.S.) policy regarding Kosovo—both the war in 1999 and the decision to bypass the Council and grant that province independence from Serbia in 2008—became a prominent source of irritation. The U.S.–led invasion of Iraq in 2003, again without Security Council approval, added to the list of Sino-Soviet diplomatic grievances against Washington and its allies. Most recently, the West’s cynical misuse of a Council resolution authorizing air strikes in Libya, supposedly to prevent Muammar Gaddafi’s forces from attacking innocent civilians, antagonized both Beijing and Moscow.

The Obama administration’s transformation of the Libya resolution into a vehicle for regime change makes Russian and Chinese officials especially suspicious that the proposed limited missile strikes to punish Assad for the use of chemical weapons will be perverted in the same fashion. And it is clear that Beijing and Moscow are tired of having Washington disregard their views and flout the interests of their countries.

U.S. leaders need to do a far better job of calculating America’s foreign policy priorities. Maintaining good relations with Russia and China outweigh any theoretical gains that might flow even from a well-executed policy regarding Syria. And the prospects of a meaningful U.S. policy “victory” in that country are midpoint between slim and none.

Conversely, we need cooperation from Moscow and Beijing on a host of important issues. Without Russia’s help, there is little chance for serious progress on nuclear issues, either reducing the bloated U.S. and Russian stockpiles of such weapons or discouraging Iran and other countries from barging into the global nuclear weapons club. China’s cooperation is even more important. Not only is China a major purchaser of U.S. government debt, which in an era of chronic budget deficits is no trivial matter, but the country is an increasingly crucial U.S. trading partner and a vital factor in the overall global economy. An angry, recalcitrant China would not be good for America’s or the world’s economic health.

China is also the most important player in efforts to discourage North Korea from engaging in reckless, destabilizing conduct. During the first half of 2013, Beijing appeared to grow weary of Pyongyang’s disruptive, provocative conduct and began to exert pressure on its obnoxious client. That pressure has been at least one factor in North Korea’s more conciliatory behavior in the past few months. But China will have little incentive to continue that course if Washington tramples on Beijing’s interests in Syria and the rest of the Middle East.

Obama administration officials must avoid policy “tunnel vision.” Pursuing a dubious strategy in Syria is bad enough, even taken in isolation. Doing so when it will likely damage U.S. relations with two major powers in the international system is dangerously myopic.

The Senate’s Draft AUMF: Don’t Fix What the President Shouldn’t Have

Yesterday, I commented on the strikingly broad authority the Obama administration proposed in its draft Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Syria, and argued that Senate leaders’ attempts to narrow the proposed authorization were misguided: “Congress shouldn’t ‘fix’ what the president shouldn’t have.”

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s revised AUMF, released this morning, hasn’t changed my mind. 

  • They’ve added some adjectives to the operative clause, authorizing the president “to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in a limited and tailored manner” (bespoke airstrikes?) against “legitimate military targets,” and tightened the stated goals somewhat. But again “he determines” whether those conditions have been met. 
  • Worst of all, despite purporting to bar “the use of the United States Armed Forces on the ground in Syria for the purpose of combat operations” (Sec. 3) and limit airstrikes to targets “in Syria,” (Sec. 2(a)), the draft (unwittingly?) undermines those restrictions at the outset. The revised AUMF gives away the game in the last clause of Section 1 with a gratuitous and overbroad concession about the scope of the president’s authority to use force without congressional authorization: “the President has authority under the Constitution to use force in order to defend the national security interests of the United States.” That’s far broader than the WPR’s description of the president’s independent constitutional authority to take action in “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States… or its armed forces”–and broader than the original understanding that the president retained the power to “repel sudden attacks.” The language in the Commitee’s draft AUMF implicitly endorses a power to launch sudden attacks when the president deems them in “the national security interests of the United States.” 

Former Bush OLC head Jack Goldsmith calls it “the broadest such clause I have ever seen”–“the draft AUMF enhances, through congressional recognition, the President’s claims of independent constitutional authority to use force in Syria.” Coupled with other provisions in Section 1 affirming that Syria’s possession and use of unconventional weapons “constitute a grave threat to … the national security interests of the United States,”–that phrase again–it gives President Obama additional cover to go beyond what’s authorized in the resolution–flouting the time limits, introducing ground troops, striking targets outside of Syria, and the like.

Goldsmith sums up: “If the Senate draft becomes law, the President should be very pleased.” Americans, who are rightly sick of Middle Eastern entanglements and Tomahawk humanitarianism, will likely have a very different view