Sunday, September 1, 2013
Why Obama was Right to Delay Action on Syria
After President Obama spoke today in the Rose Garden announcing that his decision to take the matter of a possible Syrian intervention to the US Congress the reactions I saw on the television and on Twitter were mostly negative. The President has been criticized heavily on his foreign policy in recent years, especially on matters pertaining to the Middle East, and for many, this was further proof of his lack of leadership, and even worse, lack of a spine. Many military types rightly pointed out that by threatening force, and continually delaying, Assad and his military are able to prepare for the possible strikes. This is true, but the military aspect is only a part of the political decision-making process.
I have long been in favor of an active role in intervening in Syria. I believe that a head of state that willingly kills civilians and insurgents indiscriminately on a large scale for a continuing period of time, without any real attempts to verbally engage and resolve differences, must be punished and in extreme cases, removed from power. 'President' Assad, certainly is an extreme case.
President Obama's decision to 'telegraph' his war plans, before suspending them seem strange at first, but looking deeper, I think that this is a very good political move. The Obama administration has been heavily criticized for many civil rights issues ranging from drone warfare and detention of non-combatant prisoners to privacy violations by way of the NSA. One of the arguments against Obama is that there is not enough transparency (therefore people do not have enough say in, and understanding of what the government does). The release of a declassified intelligence report on what the United States Intelligence Community believes happened on August 21, 2013 in East Ghouta is a step towards addressing the unhappiness of the American people in this regard.
Obama's decision to task Congress is advantageous for the administration for many ways. Congress has been an obstinate thorn in Obama's side for the last 5 years, attempting to undercut and undermine his every move (or lack thereof). Even though Congress's approval rating is the lowest it has been in years, they are still elected representatives of the American people and in theory, a more 'democratic' apparatus than an executive decision by one man. By passing the responsibility on to Congress, Obama is able to deflect the attention from himself. The way in which both he and Secretary of State Kerry have reiterated the allegations against Assad's usage of chemical weapons makes it clear that they both believe that military action must be taken. In many cases this should be a slam dunk, an easy decision to make. However, with the difficulties and financial expenses of interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya still on the mind of the American voter and taxpayer, public support for an intervention in Syria is very lower. Before the Ghouta Massacre, support from Americans was as low as 9%.
Despite the very low support in the earlier poll, a new poll has shown a sharp increase; 42% support 'military action against the Syrian government in response to the use of chemical weapons' (50% opposed and 8% were undecided). When the military action is 'limited to air strikes using cruise missiles launched from U.S. navy ships that were meant to destroy military units and infrastructure that have been used to carry out chemical attacks' a plurality of 50% supported this action (44% oppose and 6% were undecided). Nearly 60% of respondents indicated that they believe use of chemical weapons is a 'red line' which requires a 'significant U.S. response, including the possibility of military action'. A similar number believed that the most important objective of military action in Syria would be to stop the use of chemical weapons. What is most surprising about this poll is that a full 79% thought that President Obama should be required to receive approval from Congress before taking military action in Syria.
The poll numbers show a clear increase in support for military action against Syria, but it is not a majority, and given Obama's other domestic troubles and the looming debt crisis, it makes a lot of sense to listen to the will of the people. This way, if Congress again proves to be unwilling be more than sticks in the mud, Obama can say that he tried to listen to the American people. If Obama does take military action after Congress says no (which he said he believes he legally can do), then Obama shows his spine and his willingness to make a tough choice. If Congress says yes, then Obama is able to say that he was right in wishing to intervene militarily, and also that he was willing to listen to Congress and act in a bipartisan manner for the good of the country.
Support for strikes against Syria are not popular in several key allied countries around the world. The UK's House of Commons voted against authorizing military force, and Germany, Canada and Poland stated that they would not participate in aggressive action against Assad's regime. The United States has unilaterally used military force to the discontent of many around the world. The rush to war in Iraq 2003 is a prime example of where the intelligence was wrong and going around the United Nations did not help the United States' standing abroad. By delaying until more intelligence is gathered, and more debate is held, this administration hedges its own bet on the non-confirmation of Assad's culpability in the chemical attack. If further evidence is produced which exonerates or convicts Assad, then this stall for time will look to have been a wise decision.
Assad has now been able to disperse and prepare his troops for a looming strike which is not good if the intention is solely to damage his military. However, this is a slightly unrealistic point of view as the goal of an intervention is (or at least should be) not to destroy the army of Assad and create even further instability, but to punish the use of chemical weapons. No matter when the US strikes (if it chooses to do so), the military power of Assad's forces are weaker by order of magnitudes in comparison to the US. We have to be honest in accepting the fact that we are not out there to destroy Assad's army, and forcibly taking his chemical weapons would require troops to physically secure sites. This is an unrealistic goal. What is more feasible is heavily damaging Assad's air force, air defense, and if possible, chemical weapons delivery systems. This leaves him vulnerable to further air strikes (by the West or Israel) and avoids committing the US and its allies to a lasting presence.
So it is my belief that Obama has made the correct choice in this situation. I would love it if the United States and its allies were able to destroy all of Assad's forces and his properties but this is an unreasonable expectation. A series of strikes, especially on airfields, would damage the Assad regime's ability to conduct war and show the world that using chemical weapons is unacceptable. This decision must not be rushed towards, and Obama's delay allows time to think, among other things.