It seems the Wall Street Journal editorial board has yet to identify a conflict in which the United States should not intervene. Today, they again call for U.S. military intervention in Syria and criticize President Obama for his inaction. Their main recommendation? Easy: set up a no-fly zone:
The U.S. could boost its diplomatic leverage with the rebels and their regional allies by enforcing no-fly zones over portions of Syria. That would help prevent the regime from using its attack jets and helicopter gunships against civilian targets while allowing insurgents to consolidate and extend their territorial gains. It also means we could use limited force in a way that strengthens the hand of rebels we support at the expense of those we don't.
The key point here is that the Journal leaves open the possibility of using “limited force” to help the rebels. Indeed, this is what no-fly zones often become: precursors to additional involvement at a later date (think Iraq and Libya). I argued as much last week:
If the no-fly zone fails to swiftly halt the violence, some will claim that preserving U.S. credibility requires an even deeper commitment. Or [no-fly zones] can just become a slippery slope in their own right. The ink was barely dry on the UN Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya before the mission morphed into a no-drive zone on the ground, and then a major military operation to overthrow Qaddafi’s government.
As a general rule, we shouldn’t send our military on feel-good missions that have little chance of success. And that is what no-fly zones are. They also have a clear political purpose, in this case to ensure that the opposition prevails over the Assad regime and its supporters. There is no such thing as an impartial intervention.
In Libya, there wasn’t such an explicit call for a no-fly zone as a means to toppling Muammar Gaddafi. The UN resolution authorizing the no-fly zone did not include “regime change” as a goal, but that’s what it became. In Syria, a no-fly zone would be used explicitly for the purpose of toppling Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But if regime change is the goal, a no-fly zone will not do much to lead us there. They are security-theater, as Ben Friedman has pointed out: “No-fly zones commit us to winning wars but demonstrate our limited will to win them. That is why they are bad public policy.”
Pressure is building on President Obama to involve the United States more deeply in the brutal civil war in Syria that may have claimed as many as 70,000 lives, and created more than a million refugees. Late last week, the editorial board of the Washington Post called for “aggressive intervention by the United States and its allies to protect the opposition and civilians.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) apparently believes that the Post didn’t go far enough because the editorial explicitly ruled out sending U.S. ground troops. He wants the U.S. military to secure suspected chemical weapons caches there. But where Graham is leading few will follow, aside from his frequent co-conspirator, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). The American people are not anxious to send U.S. troops into the middle of yet another civil war in the region.
Some do want the U.S. government to do more, however, and not just the people who sold us the war in Iraq. For example, during a stop in Saudi Arabia earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry made vague references to increasing the flow of arms to the Syrian opposition. Back here in Washington, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) became the latest to call for establishing a no-fly zone over Syria. Arms supplied to resistance fighters can be directed against other targets when the regime collapses (or may simply prolong the war if it doesn’t), which is why no-fly zones are seen as the less risky option. They could satisfy the understandable human instinct to be seen as doing something, anything, in the face of enormous human suffering. As such, if President Obama were to institute a no-fly zone, it might forestall an even more costly and risky operation, one that did involve U.S. troops on the ground.
But no-fly zones often become precursors to additional involvement at a later date. If the no-fly zone fails to swiftly halt the violence, some will claim that preserving U.S. credibility requires an even deeper commitment. Or they can just become a slippery slope in their own right. The ink was barely dry on the UN Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya before the mission morphed into a no-drive zone on the ground, and then a major military operation to overthrow Qaddafi’s government.
As a general rule, we shouldn’t send our military on feel-good missions that have little chance of success. And that is what no-fly zones are. They also have a clear political purpose, in this case to ensure that the opposition prevails over the Assad regime and its supporters. There is no such thing as an impartial intervention. We are choosing sides, and arguably already have, without a clear sense that the regime that comes after will be an improvement over what came before. We are placing ourselves into the middle of a much wider sectarian dispute taking place throughout the region.
Claims that the United States has a unique opportunity to shape the political process in Syria are equally misguided. Though we wish otherwise, a U.S. government stamp of approval is likely to undermine the legitimacy of genuine democrats in Syria, to the extent that there are any. And we know that the opposite is true: individuals or groups singled out for criticism, for example the al-Nasra Front, have seen their stature rise. The reason is simple: the American brand has never been lower in the region, and is held in particularly low regard in Syria.
When I wrote about Syria late last year (here and here), I was reasonably confident that President Obama would not intervene, in spite of the fact that his decision to help the Libyan rebels overthrow Muammar Qaddafi established a precedent for a similar regime-change operation in Syria. The key distinctions between the two cases include UN Security Council support for intervention in Libya, but not in Syria, a relatively well-defined mission in Libya, but not in Syria, and a reasonable expectation that the costs of military operations could be kept limited, and would deliver clear results, which was true in Libya, but is not true in Syria. Earlier this week, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey threw cold water on the notion that the military could produce an acceptable outcome in Syria.
The general’s candor is both welcome and refreshing. Although the suffering in Syria is gut-wrenching, the U.S. military lacks the ability to resolve the underlying social and political disputes that are driving the civil war. Indeed, as Ben Friedman pointed out last year, outside intervention might actually prolong such conflicts, or initiate new ones, resulting in even greater loss of life.
The American people have so far proved unwilling to intervene in Syria, and are particularly resistant to the idea of U.S. troops marching on Damascus. They were similarly disinclined to become involved in Libya, however, and the president ignored the public in that previous case. He should not do so with respect to Syria. And Congress shouldn’t allow it if he tries.
Tragically, the Iraq War was not worth the costs. The leading advocates for war understated the costs and exaggerated the benefits. They claimed that the war would be cheap, perhaps even profitable, thanks to lower oil prices. They suggested that it would be easy, a "cakewalk," not requiring a long-term U.S presence to stabilize the country after Saddam Hussein's ouster. They blithely dismissed concerns about the tensions between Arabs and Kurds, and between Sunnis and Shiites.
We now know how wrong they were. A new report from the Watson Institute for International Studies at BrownUniversity tallies up the costs: nearly 4,500 U.S. troop fatalities, more than $1.7 trillion spent, and another $490 billion owed. Estimates of the number of Iraqis killed in the sectarian bloodletting that occurred after the collapse of Saddam's regime exceed 130,000. Millions were displaced, many still have not returned to their homes. The Iraqi Christian community has been decimated.
You can read the rest here and vote for the best argument.
John Brennan’s confirmation as CIA director displayed Congress’s disinterest in checking the president’s runaway security powers. Two months ago, when I wrote an article with the unwieldy title, “Will Obama’s Brennan Pick Shed Some Much Needed Light on Drones?” I wouldn’t have guessed that the answer would be yes; it will bestir Congress to finally force the administration to say clearly that it does not reserve the right to kill Americans at home with drone strikes, insofar as they are not engaged in combat. That statement came only thanks to whomever leaked the Justice Department’s summary memo on the topic, Brennan and Attorney General Eric Holder’s impolitic reluctance to articulate limits on the president’s power to kill Americans by calling them terrorists, and, of course, Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) resulting filibuster. The Senate predictably left Brennan’s other sins against civil liberties mostly unexamined.
Paul’s hard-won “toehold of constitutionality” isn’t much to cheer about, even if we add to the spoils the administration’s vague agreement to be more open about its legal rationale for placing people on kill lists. This minimal defense of civil liberties and congressional privilege is what got Republican senators like Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz, Jr. of Texas, who seem to support unfettered executive discretion to kill in the name of counterterrorism outside the United States, to support the filibuster.
Even that was too much restraint for the neoconservative right. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) read on the Senate floor a Wall Street Journal editorial calling Paul’s effort a stunt meant to “fire up impressionable libertarian kids” and assuring us that those targeted by drones here or abroad will be “enemy combatants.” McCain and the Journal spectacularly miss Paul’s point: the issue is whether the president should make that designation, chucking due process rights, without being checked by another branch of government.
As McCain amigo Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) noted, the Republican caucus’ flirtation with civil libertarianism seems a situational consequence of partisanship. The same goes for Democrats. Were it President McCain doing what Obama is, far more than two Democratic senators (Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Pat Leahy of Vermont) would have voted against Brennan. During his filibuster, Paul asked what happened to the Senator Obama of 2007, who opposed torture and war by executive fiat. Paul suggests that those views were products of Obama’s then circumstance: not being president. Even that may be too generous. As I wrote in a recent book review concerning Obama’s counterterrorism record, “even when he took office, there was ample evidence that his dovish positions would not outlast their political convenience.”
We can hope, I suppose, that Paul’s stance will increase Congress’s willingness to assert its constitutional war powers. Although he did not, as far as I know, propose specific restrictions on the use of military force outside of the United States, Paul did complain that the 2001 Authorization of Military Force against the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks and those that harbored them has become a permanent warrant for almost limitless executive war powers, a kind of escape hatch from the Constitution opened by presidential utterance of the word “terrorist.”
In a front-page story for the Wall Street Journal, Adam Entous reports that President Obama rejected a plan to arm Syrian rebels presented by officials at the Pentagon, CIA, and State Department. It seems that despite the advice of the most senior members of his national security team, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and then-CIA director David Petraeus, the president decided against becoming more deeply embroiled in a brutal civil war.
The president’s caution is welcome news for those of us who are skeptical of the United States’ ability to pick winners and losers in distant conflicts. I am also deeply sympathetic with the president’s dilemma, which is the theme of my book The Power Problem. “With great power comes great responsibility,” as the saying goes. But true responsibility means acting wisely, not simply acting. It takes enormous discipline and courage for a president to resist the incessant demands that he do something---anything---when horrible things occur. He should only act (1) in those rare cases when vital U.S. national security interests are at stake, and (2) when it is clear that the action being taken has a reasonable chance of delivering tangible results at a reasonable cost.
Neither of those criteria is satisfied with respect to the Syrian conflict.
Indeed, as the Journal story notes, the president appreciated that armed support for individuals and factions within the Syrian opposition was likely to have a number of unintended consequences. Specifically, the White House was dissatisfied with the answers to “lingering questions” including “which rebels could be trusted with the arms, whether the transfers would make a difference in the campaign to remove Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, and whether the weapons would add to the suffering.” And the president apparently didn’t listen only to those making the case for expanded U.S. involvement; an anonymous U.S. official told the Journal that a team of CIA analysts cast doubt on the impact of arming the rebels in the conflict.
Although the United States is providing non-lethal support to Syrian rebels, there are other good reasons to avoid doing more. One is the United States’ terrible track record in providing material, and lethal, support to opposition groups and figures. We have often mistaken power-hungry thugs, or simply manipulative charlatans, for committed democrats, and it is unreasonable to expect that our ability to separate the true patriots from the phonies has improved markedly since Iraq.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will face the wrong questions when she testifies today on the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi. The buck stops with Secretary Clinton—and it should. But members of Congress will focus on politically charged and distracting issues. The terrorist attack on the consulate was abhorrent. However, a broader discussion about the NATO-led regime change in Libya—and its unfolding political aftermath in Mali—would be a better use of Congress’s time. The consequences of intervention should not be ignored, and its antecedents must be explored.
Secretary Clinton was among the handful of U.S. and European officials who urged Western military action in Libya, a mission that entangled the United States in yet another volatile, post-revolutionary Muslim country, and accelerated neighboring Mali's destabilization. North Africa’s vortex of Islamist crosscurrents has now sucked America and France into Mali. Indeed, the reverberations of NATO-led regime change in Libya impelled U.S. and French involvement in Mali. Like the conflict in Libya, France cannot do the heavy lifting in Mali on its own. Senators should ask: How far will the conflict in Mali go? Will the United States end up holding the broken pieces once again? Is America now “leading from behind”?
Furthermore, Congress should ask Secretary Clinton about how the White House shamelessly recast the word "war" into "kinetic military operations." That Orwellian revisionism allowed the administration to side step the War Powers Act and bypass congressional authorization. In the course of supposedly demonstrating America's selflessness in the promotion of democracy abroad, the administration compromised the integrity of our institutions at home. In that respect, the Libyan adventure has added to the steady aggrandizement of America's imperial presidency.
Secretary Clinton probably won't go into any of that, and pitchfork wielding senators likely won't ask her about those far-reaching consequences.