Congress Must Reject Obama’s Plea for an Unnecessary War in Syria

War is not a good humanitarian tool, as Washington discovered in Iraq.
September 9, 2013 • Commentary
This article appeared on Forbes on September 9, 2013.

Give President Barack Obama his due. He went to Congress on Syria. Yet he used the right procedure for the wrong cause: to involve America in another potentially disastrous war in the Middle East.

Equally disturbing, leading members of the political opposition, led by House Speaker John Boehner, are backing the president’s war. In times of crisis bipartisan comity can represent the best patriotic impulses. Here a united political leadership is undermining America as a constitutional republic and endangering the lives and liberties of its citizens. Congress should say no to yet another unnecessary war.

For most of its early history the U.S. avoided other nations’ conflicts, especially the imperial battles of the old world. Although America aggressively overspread the continent, the idea of engaging in social engineering around the globe— intervening in other wars, liberating other peoples, fixing other societies—was alien. When the Greeks were fighting for freedom from the Ottoman Turks, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams famously declared that Americans should be well‐​wishers for the “freedom and independence of all,” but not “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

President Woodrow Wilson broke that rule in 1917, thrusting the U.S. into Europe’s imperial killfest as part of his plan to remake the world. He failed. Instead, his treasured Versailles Treaty led to another, far worse, conflict a generation later. Out of World War II emerged a very cold peace, punctuated by occasional hot conflicts with a new totalitarian menace. Washington took on a new global role, but still, its job was defense. America’s purpose was not to transform other societies.

The end of the Cold War freed Washington policymakers from international restraint. Hubris conquered the nation’s capital as America stood alone at the summit of global power: “What we say goes,” became the U.S. watchword. That mindset well exhibited the truth of Lord Acton’s famous dictum: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

But other nations—U.S. allies as well as China and Russia—refused to go along. And reordering the world turned out to be harder than expected. Haiti remained a basket case, Somalia was not just a failed state but a non‐​state. American intervention in the Balkans merely changed which groups engaged in ethnic cleansing. The invasion of Iraq left death and chaos in its wake. A dozen years after 9/11 Washington was still attempting to fix Afghanistan.

Now there’s Syria. Spouting nostrums about international norms and the international community, President Obama is pushing for military action against the Damascus government. However, his administration’s promise of only limited action beggars belief. It’s hard to be half‐​pregnant when at war. Committing the nation’s prestige against the Assad regime would sharply increase pressures to get further involved. Every new incident would trigger additional demands for more intense involvement.

Some advocate intervention on humanitarian grounds. Indeed, other governments frequently use this argument in an attempt to borrow America’s military for their own ends. Few nations want to act alone even for the highest moral principles. They’d prefer to follow in America’s wake.

Alas, war is not a good humanitarian tool, as Washington discovered in Iraq. Nor have American policymakers, who made a hash of social engineering at home, demonstrated much skill in transcending dramatic differences in history, tradition, culture, religion, ethnicity, and more abroad. Civil wars are particularly complicated, as Ronald Reagan discovered with his ill‐​fated adventure in Lebanon. At least he learned the right lesson and got out. In Syria the U.S. could just end up replacing bad guys with bad guys.

And the human costs of serious action likely would be high. Sometimes Washington must risk its citizens’ lives to destroy foreign monsters which threaten America, but it should not intervene militarily unless Americans have something very substantial at stake. There’s nothing moral about ivory tower warriors launching crusades with other people’s lives and money.

The Syrian government’s apparent use of chemical weapons—there is evidence the insurgents also have access to some chemical agents—does not warrant war. The international consensus against their use matters little since other weapons are more deadly. Anyway, Damascus has no interest in attacking its neighbors, which could retaliate. Indeed, Israel possesses far more terrible nuclear weapons. And chemical agents are more likely to leak to terrorist groups if Assad falls, a possible consequence of American intervention.

The administration suggests that a light swat on Syria for using chemical weapons would intimidate Iran into dropping any nuclear weapons program. However, eliminating Tehran’s nuclear capabilities would be far more difficult than lobbing a few cruise missiles. Moreover, Iran’s leadership is more likely to see another American military attack on a neighbor as further evidence that only nuclear weapons can protect it from Washington.

The conflict is destabilizing, but the Mideast has been unstable and war‐​torn for years. Washington cannot change that, at least at acceptable cost. Russia hopes to preserve its influence in Damascus, but that is more irritant than threat to the U.S., which remains the dominant outside power throughout the region.

Syria’s implosion could empower jihadist factions, but there’s no reason to expect American intervention to prevent the latter. The belief that the U.S. can arrange who rules a post‐​Assad Syria is conceit, or more likely delusion. Even an occupation would turn Americans into targets while doing little to guarantee a democratic future—just look at the slow unraveling of Iraq.

The last refuge of the war‐​hawks is preserving national credibility. It is foolish for presidents to make empty threats, but they do so constantly. American presidents have spent two decades insisting that North Korea cannot have nuclear weapons and President Obama has spent two years insisting that Assad must go. Still, other countries know that Washington is ready to take military action, including the widespread use of drones, when it perceives serious interests to be at stake.

Nevertheless, some pundits believe that the nation’s lawmakers are bound to rubber‐​stamp presidential decisions, no matter how ill‐​considered. Asserted columnist Michael Gerson: “They are deciding if they will send the chief executive into the world with his hands tied behind his back. This would be more than the repudiation of the current president; it would be the dangerous weakening of the presidency.”

Actually, the Constitution sends the president abroad with his hands tied when it comes to starting wars. This was intentional, since the Founders presciently foresaw future presidential abuses. They expected Congress to provide check and balance.

George Mason favored “clogging rather than facilitating war” because he didn’t believe the new chief executive was “safely to be entrusted with” the power to start wars. James Wilson also endorsed the shift in authority to Congress: “It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress; for the important power of declaring war is in the legislature at large.”

Of course, the idea that the people’s representatives get to decide horrifies those who want America play an imperial role. The war lobby includes more than a few foreigners. If the America’s president has to wait on America’s Congress for a decision, worried Britain’s Financial Times, “Why, indeed, should Iran or North Korea heed calls to curtail their nuclear plans?” Of course, that paper should focus on what goes on in London rather than expect Britain’s former colony to micro‐​manage the globe. It is easy for other nations to be generous with American lives and wealth.

In any case, wars against nations like Iran or North Korea deserve serious, not rushed, consideration. It is far more important for policymakers to make a wise than a speedy decision. Yet both are easy when the case is clear. Congress declared war the day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. In contrast, the administration’s argument for war against Syria today lacks even the patina of necessity at least claimed (though inaccurately) for Iraq.

Congress should say no to another unnecessary war. First, Washington cannot afford to get sucked into one more aimless and endless conflict in the Middle East. Constant conflict is costing lives and money. Yet being perpetually at war has not made America more secure.

Second, the U.S. needs to adjust its foreign policy to reflect the unpleasant lessons learned from its recent military adventures. War should be a last resort to respond to serious security threats, not just another foreign policy tool. Washington’s principal objective should be to defend Americans—especially their lives and liberties—not to protect wealthy allied states, sustain artificial international norms, or fix failed societies. Washington should choose peace as its default policy.

Third, the federal government must do less. Washington faces tens of trillions of dollars of unfunded liabilities and increasingly interferes with its citizens’ liberties. Uncle Sam’s foreign and domestic policies both are to blame. As social critique Randolph Bourne noted, “war is the health of the state.” It is difficult to preserve a democratic republic at home when the same state plays a militarily aggressive, even imperial role abroad.

Syria should be the war too far even for Congress. America’s imperial moment has passed. The globe is not a chessboard; U.S. military personnel are not gambit pawns to be sacrificed in a succession of grand crusades. Washington should return to a foreign policy appropriate for a republic.

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