What About Syria? (Part Two)

What a difference 72 hours makes.  In many respects nothing fundamentally changed, but like so many complicated issues, this one got even more complicated.

I doubt anyone, especially Prime Minister David Cameron, expected the British Parliament to vote against action in Syria.  In my view, this was an internal political move rather than a repudiation of the alliance with the United States or an acceptance of the Syrian use of chemical weapons.  They have been, and still are, mad as hell about the United Kingdom’s involvement in Iraq, and the way that it was sold to them, and they”aren’t going to take it anymore.”  I doubt that Thursday’s vote is the final word from the British about their involvement or lack of involvement.  As further information becomes available to them and to the world about what occurred in Syria (and may occur again) it would not surprise me to see them come on board in the end.

I am surprised by President Obama’s statement today (Saturday).  I have not yet had the opportunity to fully digest it.  None-the-less I find it confusing for him to say that the United States is going to take military action against Bashar’s regime — and my interpretation of his words is that we are definitely going to take action — but then seemingly leave it up to a vote by the Congress.  It is all backwards.  If even only for appearances sake, he should make the case for military action, rally Congress for support and an open-ended resolution to use “all necessary means” and then announce a strike or other military action.  And oh by the way, he has now given the appearance of providing Congress veto power over his already announced decision to take military action.

While I understand that there is not necessarily a definitive timeline to act, the traditional statement that works best in these circumstances is something along the lines of the United States “will take action at a time and place of our choosing.”  President Obama left me with the impression that “we’ll get around to it.”  To me, if the case is as compelling as it increasingly appears to be, and ten days have already elapsed, then I don’t see why he is waiting for Congress to return to Washington at the regularly scheduled time (9 September) to get going on this.  Call them back to Washington now and get on with it.

Of course I may be reading more into this than is there.  Perhaps consultations will be sufficient and he won’t wait until they return to Washington to have a debate and a vote on the issue.  Additionally, waiting another ten days (or more) may have the side benefit of giving the Administration time to continue to build its case for action and to bring more international support to the equation.  So, maybe there is some method to the madness, but I still wonder if the President is getting very good advice on how to put this all together for the country’s consideration.

On top of all that, as was demonstrated in the United Kingdom, there remains a very deep distrust of “evidence” of WMD and its persuasiveness for taking action.  Personally, I do not see this as being the same — either in scale or in terms of what has happened — as the events in Iraq leading to Gulf War II under President George W. Bush.  I think that by invading Iraq we took our eye off the ball (Afghanistan) and went after Saddam because that Administration thought they saw an opportunity to get rid of him “easily.”  Nothing in warfare is as easy as it looks.  Regardless, those events, and the justification for going to war in that case, have poisoned the well this time around.  No one wants to get fooled again.  However, I believe that this time around what we see is what we get — Bashar’s regime used chemical weapons, probably Sarin gas, against its own population and killed approximately 1400 people.  He may well do it again.

As I noted in my previous post on 28 August, I still do not have a clear idea of what the President intends to accomplish with a military strike.  I support a strike.  Like it or not future deterrence depends on demonstrating a willingness and capability to act as we say we will act.  I am not a war monger.  I have serious reservations about any military action and very great concerns about what will come of this particular action.  Once underway, there is always the chance for things to go awry.  But in this case I believe it is important to do something that demonstrably holds Syrian leaders accountable, I just do not yet understand what the President has in mind that accomplishes that goal.

Many current and former military leaders are expressing serious concerns over the use of force in Syria.  Primarily, this is because there is still no full explanation of what we want to accomplish and, as I’ve said before, what is it exactly that we want to see as a result of the military action.  In my view, we probably cannot do much more than degrade the WMD capability of Syria and also send a message to those responsible that their personal well-being is in danger if it happens again.  I think the critics fear both what happens if we take “too much” action and equally fear what happens if we take “too little” action.  As with Goldilocks, we need to get his one “just right.”

So far the President has said that Bashar crossed a red line and that we therefore need to do something about it.  That is a political statement that does not translate to military action.  The arm-chair strategists are nervous because they don’t know what is that the President wants — “what do you want us to do?”  I say this only a bit  facetiously, but let me  give you an example.

In the lead up to Gulf War I, President George H. W. Bush said following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait that “this will not stand.”  Got it.  As military planners, it was necessary to take that statement and put it into concrete terms that the forces that had to go out and do something could understand and work towards.  In this case it would “not stand” because the goal was to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait and restore the legitimate government (the one that existed before the invasion) of Kuwait.  It was not to over throw Saddam or occupy Iraq or bring democracy to Iraq or a number of other unrelated actions.  It was a clear and precise formula for what needed to be done and everyone could clearly understand what things would look like when it was over.

It is easy to pick targets and talk weapon systems and the like.  Some people consider it fun and others make a lot of money talking about it on TV.  That stuff is relatively easy for those in the know but it has no relevancy to the bigger picture.  What is important is the mission and the end state.  Figure that out and the tacticians and military commanders on the scene know what targets to hit with what weapons.  Let the professionals do their job.   But to do it well, they need to know what we want it to look like in the end.

It does not appear to me that the hard stuff has yet been addressed.  I hope I am wrong, but we are still waiting to hear what the end state should be.  How do we know when we are finished?

I am also sure that Congress, which apparently cannot take anything seriously during its five week vacation that takes precedence over the well-being of the country, will make it even muddier.

Let’s get on with it.