March 29, 2013 1:04PM

WSJ Calls for No‐​Fly Zone in Syria, Acknowledges No‐​Fly Zone Isn’t Enough

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.” 

The Journal inadvertently recognizes all of these points and would rather we just go all the way and couple a no-fly zone with the use of American military force: 

The U.S. could also follow last week's call by Senators John McCain and Carl Levin for targeted air strikes against Mr. Assad's air force and Scud missile batteries. We should add that such a use of force would require Mr. Obama to persuade Congress and the American public that it is in the national interest, something he has rarely tried to do even when 100,000 U.S. troops were in Afghanistan. 

To be clear, they are asking President Obama to explicitly use military force against Assad’s forces (though they do not call for American troops on the ground). This would be an act of war and would require congressional authorization. The Journal sort of acknowledges this by pointing out that the president is required “to persuade” Congress and the American public of the necessity of military intervention. But they don’t go all the way and recognize that the Constitution requires congressional authorization. It is OK for the president to wage war as long as he convinces us it is okay, the Constitution be damned. 

President Obama is exercising restraint, for now, on Syria. But should he change his mind, it is Congress’s job to check his authority to wage war. In recent history, Congress has not been very good at checking the executive's authority and excercising its constitutionally mandated war powers. Until they reclaim this power, the Journal and others might have their way on intervention in every hot spot around the globe. 

***You can find my lengthier arguments against intervention in Syria here and here. For more on the problems with no-fly zones, see Ben Friedman here and here. On why many of the same problems with the Libya intervention applies to Syria, see Friedman here. Finally, on the topic of Syria and chemical weapons, see Doug Bandow here and here.