Obama's Bad Case for War

September 10, 2013 Topic: Security Region: Syria

Obama's Bad Case for War

Still unconvincing.

To his credit, President Barack Obama has gone to Congress for authority to attack Syria. To his discredit, he is making a disappointing, even dishonest, case for taking America into another unnecessary Middle Eastern war.

For two and a half years the president took a cautious approach to Syria’s tragic implosion. But now, after over one hundred thousand deaths, he perceives global disaster arising from the violation of heretofore unenforced international norms: “If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorists who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?”

That’s a bizarre amalgam of non sequiturs. The United States long has prudently tempered outrage over other governments’ “heinous acts”. Mass murder in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China sparked no military intervention. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran resulted in far more deaths than his use of chemical weapons, yet Washington supported him over Tehran.

Only rarely has the United States bestirred itself to stop foreign slaughter. After all, war is a dubious humanitarian tool—witness the carnage in Iraq that resulted from U.S. intervention. Nor is it obvious how Washington could have sorted out slaughter in Burundi, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone, civil war in Liberia and Sudan, and regional war in Congo. Civil wars typically are the hardest conflicts to resolve, as Ronald Reagan discovered in Lebanon, which at one point hosted twenty-five warring factions.

As for nuclear weapons, the United States never considered military action against Pakistan, perhaps the most dangerous country in the world. And Washington has given up on North Korea, lest military action there trigger a devastating war on the Korean peninsula. The Obama administration seems no more enthused about attacking Iran. Ironically, a strike on Syria likely would convince Tehran to move forward on a weapon, since only a nuclear arsenal could offer genuine security from American military action.

In contrast, for a dozen years the United States has shown its commitment to killing and incapacitating terrorists who threaten America. In this area no one can doubt Washington’s bipartisan resolve. Yet blowing up Syria would empower the most radical rebel factions, likely yielding more terrorists.

Equally unpersuasive was the president’s contention at his Stockholm press conference: “The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America’s and Congress’ credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important.” Without U.S. action “somebody who is not shamed by resolutions can continue to act with impunity and those international norms begin to erode and other despots and authoritarian regimes can start looking and saying ‘That’s something we can get away with’.”

But there is no such thing as “the international community,” let alone the “international community’s credibility.” And it’s a bit late to worry about the president and Congress giving only lip service to international norms. The United States says it doesn’t like the use of chemical weapons, but did not attack Saddam Hussein for using them. The United States promises to confront nuclear proliferation, except when by an American ally, such as Israel, or an American adversary which could start a war, such as North Korea, or an important mid-level power, such as India or Pakistan. The United States doesn’t like genocide, except when it occurs in Africa or Asia, in which case Washington normally does nothing.

Enforcing a throwaway red line about an “interest” which is not important, let alone vital, is a foolish way to try to establish credibility. Better would be to reserve red line-drawing for critical issues important enough to warrant going to war. Even bombing Syria is not likely to convince other countries that the United States will enforce norms that Washington has routinely ignored in the past.

Secretary of State John Kerry told House Democrats that the United States faced a “Munich moment” as to whether Washington would attack Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons. Otherwise, Bashar al-Assad would “continue to act with impunity.” On Meet the Press Secretary Kerry said that Assad “now joins the list of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein who’ve used these weapons in a time of war.”

Kerry was not the only one raising the hoary image of Britain’s Neville Chamberlain. Michael Hirsh of National Journal argued that Hitler’s invasion of Poland “discredited the concept of ‘appeasement’ as a foreign policy tool.” But, he warned, if Congress said no and the president didn’t act “the ‘A’ word will likely come to dominate the international debate once again.” While he admitted that Assad is no Hitler, Hirsh claimed that the “international order is what is now in some danger,” and “If one becomes unwilling to strike dictators and mass murderers, all that remains is to appease them.”

It’s not a serious argument.

Even Hirsh acknowledged that Assad is “a tinpot dictator who is fighting only for his own survival” and is “not set to overrun an entire continent.” Adolf Hitler was sui generis, a monster who came to rule the most industrialized, populous, and militaristic nation at the heart of Europe. Yet since World War II, everyone from Ho Chi Minh to Slobodan Milošević has been called the new Hitler.

Moreover, until World War II appeasement was a successful diplomatic strategy. A little more appeasement in the summer of 1914 might have prevented World War I—and Hitler’s ultimate rise. The problem in September 1938 is that Hitler was unappeasable, but it took time for allied officials to figure that out. Officials should stop attempting to force every modern crisis into the Munich mold.

Finally, failing to attack Germany was not appeasement. Dismantling another nation in response to Germany’s demand was appeasement. If appeasement is refusing to attack an aggressive or threatening state, then the United States has appeased a score of nations, including the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China, and extending to a succession of repressive U.S.allies. Washington does not have the responsibility to constantly attack other nations to enforce “international norms.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made the implausible argument to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “the nearly century-old international norm against the use of chemical weapons—a norm that has helped protect the United States homeland and American forces operating across the globe from these terrible weapons. Weakening this norm could embolden other regimes to acquire or use chemical weapons. For example, North Korea maintains a massive stockpile of chemical weapons...”

Chemical weapons are not true WMDs. They are difficult to employ and even when they were widely used, were less lethal than alternatives like high explosives. In World War I, chemical weapons were responsible for about one percent of combat deaths, yet were the only weapons banned after the conflict. This is why Pyongyang wants to develop nuclear weapons in addition to chemical agents.

Nor does some norm prevent their use against America. What matters is Washington’s possession of the world’s most powerful military, and particularly the largest and most threatening nuclear arsenal filled with the world’s most terrible and destructive weapons. Even when the United States attacked Hussein’s Iraq in 1991 he did not defend himself with chemical weapons, apparently because Washington quietly threatened to use nuclear weapons in response.

Secretary Hagel also contended that “A refusal to act would undermine the credibility of America’s other security commitments—including the President’s commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The word of the United States must mean something. It is vital currency in foreign relations and international and allied commitments.”

While true in theory, the secretary’s argument comes far too late. For two decades successive presidents have insisted that North Korea cannot be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. Presidents long have demanded that other nations—usually American adversaries, since allies routinely earned a pass—protect human rights. For two years the Obama administration has declared that Bashar Assad should leave office. The administration also opposed the coup in Egypt and urged that the military regime practice reconciliation. The list of promises, threats, commitments, demands, and pronouncements from U.S. presidents, secretaries of state, and more is long and largely unenforced.

President Obama has had a notably chilly relationship with the Israeli government. Yet his administration is attempting to use Israel to justify attacking Syria: the issue “matters to Israel,” said Secretary Kerry. However, a regime beset by a debilitating civil war is not going to start another war. Anyway, as Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren has noted: “Israel can defend itself and will respond forcefully to any aggression by Syria.” Israel possesses a sizeable nuclear arsenal as well as a potent conventional force. That is why Damascus did not retaliate after an Israeli attack on a presumed nuclear reactor in 2007.

Secretary Hagel claimed that Assad’s use of chemical weapons today made it more likely that Hezbollah would gain access to some of those weapons tomorrow. He didn’t bother explaining how the two are related. In fact, the greater danger to Israel is diffusion of chemical weapons, which is more likely to result from Assad’s collapse.