What about Syria? (Part Three)

“Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!”  — Oliver Hardy

It is hard to know where to begin as events continue to unfold concerning possible United States military action against the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad.  The bottom line is getting significantly obscured in all the political rhetoric within our country and without.  To me, however, it is still necessary for the world — and as the leader of the world, for the United States — to take action against Bashar’s regime.

As I write, I think of all the things that have gone wrong in the way that we’ve approached this case and how we may be able to rectify the many mistakes.  But in the end, that is all water under the bridge.  The real question is “what happens now?”  There are many questions that cannot be answered and thus create an aura of doubt about the feasibility of taking action.   Not to be cavalier, but it is also possible to be stymied  by over-thinking all of the issues and questions.  As a mentor of mine used to say it becomes “paralysis by analysis.”  Continuing to press for every conceivable scenario and pushing to eliminate all of the risk may even be a strategy by some of those opposed to military action.  To them, too many unknowns means we should not take action.  However, if that was the basis for all decision-making, then few things would get accomplished, especially in a context such as this one.  That is not to say that planners should not be trying to answer all of those questions.  As I pointed out in my first post on this subject on 28 August, there must be a plan B — branches and sequels as they are known to planners.  These are important when the operation is a success (the need to seize the initiative and to take advantage of unexpected opportunities when they arise) and they are critical if the operation is less successful (how do we still accomplish the mission while lessening or eliminating the problems standing in the way).  Keep trying to get the answers, keep working on contingencies and “what ifs” but at some point it is time to act.

I am not sure exactly why President Obama made the choice to get Congress involved in the decision to act.  Much has been (and surely will be) written about whether or not it was necessary, supports or undermines the Constitution, or jeopardizes the chances for success.  My own view is that it was not necessary.   Significant precedence exists for the president to initiate military action without a vote from Congress.  Indeed, in his own administration he took action in Libya, and on a much larger scale than anticipated here, without it.  Clearly, a president should consult with Congressional leaders, provide them with a rationale, share intelligence leading to the decision and otherwise include the legislative branch of Congress.  A vote, however, creates an entirely different dynamic and significantly complicates the issue on many levels.

Foremost among those complications is that the nature and ramifications of what was going to be a relatively (if there is such a thing in warfare) straight forward, short duration operation achieving tactical surprise if not operational or strategic surprise have changed.  The public, our legislators, anyone discussing the issue now talk about “going to war.”  We were never going to war with Syria and the vote in Congress is not a declaration of war.  But merely talking in those terms raises the stakes to a level not in the original concept.  (At this point, let me say I do not and will not gloss over the dangers of combat.  When bullets are flying, those on the scene don’t care if we are technically at war or not, they are in danger.  I remember Beirut in 1983 where the Reagan Administration would not authorize hazardous duty pay — commonly referred to as combat pay — because of fears it would trigger the War Powers Act.  We were not amused.)

The “Goldilocks Solution” I referred to in my 31 August post becomes increasingly difficult to achieve (not too little, not too much, but just right).  However, we must still try.  Politicians that argued that President Obama does not understand or believe in “American Exceptionalism” are now arguing that the United States should not be out front in holding Bashar accountable for his violation of international law.  Really?  We are the world’s leader militarily, economically, and in this case most importantly morally or we are not.  We cannot have it both ways.  To me this case is all about demonstrating that we are serious when we say that certain actions are totally unacceptable and that we will not stand by and let them happen.  Deterrence does not work if there is no consequence for the action being deterred.  Our nation is a leader in putting a moral force behind international law and therefore we must act.

Continued references to our involvement in Iraq under President George W. Bush are not relevant in this case.  It is wholly different.  I have not heard of a single member of the House or the Senate say that the evidence of Syrian use of chemical weapons (probably Sarin) is false or shaky or insufficient.   When the president addresses the nation this Tuesday, I hope that besides laying out the moral arguments for our involvement that he also includes the facts of the case — the surety that caused him to embark on this course in the first place.

Whether or not to act and if so in what manner is not a trivial discussion.  It is a weighty decision and I appreciate that members of the public and the Congress have legitimate concerns.  They should ask the hard questions.  To me, it seems that most of the opposition to military action falls into roughly three categories.  Some merely oppose anything that this president puts forward.  Period.  Thankfully, in this case I think that number is very small.  Others oppose military action because they feel that it would not do any good or merely “make things worse.”  I appreciate this line of argument but I think it naive.  What could be worse than what is already going on and will go on.  Could things get worse?  They could.  Will they get worse if we don’t act?  They will.  A third group, and in the Congress right now I think the largest group, feel that we do need to do something, but are not convinced that we will achieve our aims by taking military action.  This is where the Obama Administration must make its case.  To be sure, I do not think that they have made it to date.  Secretary of State Kerry has been the most eloquent in delineating why now and why in this way.  So far I have been unimpressed by General Dempsey (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs) and Secretary of Defense Hagel. As the experts, they should be able to make the case with a clearly stated, straight forward mission statement and define the intent.  Why are we doing it and what do we accomplish?  I haven’t seen them do it, although they are getting closer with the aim to “degrade and deter” future Syrian use of chemical weapons.

There is a lot riding on this decision, and not just for those that must go in harm’s way.  I think our credibility as a nation is at stake and non-action will come back to haunt us in the future as other bad actors feel emboldened to create mischief.  Our past history demonstrates that foreign leaders can badly miscalculate the meaning of the contentious American brand of democracy.  Should this happen again with North Korea or Iran or even Syria (again) we will rise to the occasion as we have so many times before.  But it will be at a much greater loss of lives and treasure than would have been risked had we acted now instead of later.

So what will happen?  I don’t know.  My best guess is that the House will vote down the resolution and the Senate will pass it.  If that is the case, the President will go ahead and act.  If both the House and Senate vote down the resolution, the President will not act.

Either way between now and the beginning of October with so many domestic and international issues pending for our legislators to resolve it is going to be exciting.  Or as Bette Davis said in the movie All About Eve, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

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