Forbes: It is easy to see why President Obama wants to punish the government of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad for using sarin nerve gas against its own people. Nerve gas does to people what insecticide does to bugs, and the prohibition on its use is one of the few well-established norms limiting the ways in which war can be waged. However, proving that Assad’s thugs are guilty of war crimes should be just the beginning of any debate about how America responds. We also need to ask whether President Obama’s remedy would make things better or worse. There are numerous reasons to suspect that the proposed barrage of cruise missiles would backfire, potentially forcing the U.S. into actions nobody wants to take. Here are a few concerns.
1. No war plan survives contact with the enemy. Military strategists have warned throughout history that the “fog of war” often produces results no one anticipated. The Obama Administration’s plan for finely calibrated attacks against elements of the Syrian military implicated in chemical attacks is a reasonable idea, but those elements are being moved around to make surgical strikes more difficult. There will probably be unintended consequences of any punitive raid that U.S. planners have not contemplated, some of them deliberately crafted by Assad’s forces to discredit the U.S.
2. If we attack one side, we are taking sides.President Obama says that the goal of cruise-missile strikes would be to punish Assad’s military for using chemical weapons, not to bring about regime change. That’s a distinction that might make sense in a courtroom, but in the desperate struggle for control of Syria, it is nearly meaningless. U.S. strikes would weaken one side in the civil war to the advantage of the other. Rather than being deterred from further use of nerve gas, Assad might feel that he needs to deter America from further degrading his capabilities by mounting some sort of retaliatory response — perhaps using his own people as hostages.
3. It is easy for Assad’s friends to retaliate. The Obama plan seems to assume that Syria will not retaliate if hit by U.S. cruise missiles. However, Assad’s government is supported by Iran, which in the past has used Syria as a transit point for delivering weapons to the paramilitary forces of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. When you have friends like that, it isn’t hard to fashion a response to U.S. punitive raids that leavesWashington with no easy options. The retaliation could come against soft civilian targets in the region, or even in the U.S. And unlike in the case of the sarin attacks, it might be devilishly difficult to identify the perpetrators.
4. Targeting Assad helps the jihadists. Among the diverse forces comprising the Syrian opposition to Assad’s rule, the best-resourced and most experienced fighters are mainly jihadists — many with ties to Al Qaeda. Even if the CIA had done a world-class job of delivering weapons to other elements of the opposition — which it apparently has not — the jihadists are tougher fighters and thus likely to play a potent role in any post-Assad political order. It is a measure of just how complicated the Syrian situation is that Obama is proposing to launch raids against a government fighting these jihadists at the same time U.S. drones are targeting the same jihadists in places like Afghanistan and Yemen.
5. If America intervenes, others may too. Ratcheting up U.S. military involvement in Syria’s civil war by attacking one side inevitably will encourage other countries to increase their own involvement. Russia might accelerate the delivery of advanced air defenses to Assad’s government, and Iran might elect to put boots on the ground — a step no one in Washington seems willing to take. Any broadening of the conflict risks destabilizing the region, not to mention destroying what little is left of the Syrian state. Faced with such developments, the Obama Administration probably would feel it had to increase the scope of America’s own involvement.
6. Punishing people who haven’t harmed us is a bad precedent. Nerve gas produces horrific effects, but is it really qualitatively different from burning people to death with napalm or starving them the way North Korea’s government now has for generations? If Washington is going to assume a unilateral role of punishing other governments for moral transgressions even though those governments have not attacked the U.S., what is to prevent future presidents from launching more ambitious punitive actions in other places? Even Mr. Obama’s fellow Democrats are complaining that the mandate he seeks is too open-ended for comfort.
7. Acting unilaterally undermines global institutions. It appears that no global institution or collective-security organization is likely to join America in visiting retribution upon the wayward leaders in Damascus. That means the only way the Obama Administration can accomplish its goal of punishing Syria is to act unilaterally, which is contrary to the process of building an international order based on consensus and norms. It is not enough to argue that America’s motives are pure, because what much of the world sees here is a powerful nation imposing its will on a weaker one. In other words, Obama’s plan will weaken the rule of law at the global level, substituting the judgment of one government for that of the world community.
8. New military involvements will undermine Obama’s domestic agenda. The main reason Barack Obama was elected president was to get the U.S. out of unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He devoted much of his first term to accomplishing that goal, but now he is proposing a renewed U.S. military involvement in the Middle East — using language that is strikingly reminiscent of his discredited predecessor. Obama was already facing an uphill battle in implementing key domestic priorities such as immigration reform, and the distraction of yet another adventure in the Middle East will further weaken prospects for success. Many of his strongest supporters are dead-set against the proposed missile strikes.
Having voted for Mr. Obama in both of his presidential runs, I am not accustomed to criticizing his policies. But in the case of Syria, his deeply-felt convictions about human rights and moral legitimacy have led him astray. The way to deal with an outlaw regime like that of Bashar al-Assad is to isolate it and build global consensus for sanctions. Asking the American people to undertake yet another risky military action in a part of the world they desperately wish to escape is certain to weaken Obama’s domestic political support, and could end up aborting much of what he hoped to accomplish in his second term. Voters like me reelected Obama to be President of the United States, not President of the World.