The twelfth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11 is a strong reminder that national security is a serious business. As we pause to remember those we lost that day, we should also try to re-focus our efforts toward the Middle East and specifically in Syria. We need to get this right.
In essence, yesterday our national leadership called a time-out to re-group and to re-assess our policy and our ability to move forward in enforcing international law by holding Bashar al-Asad accountable for his use of sarin gas.
I do not think the president made as compelling of a case in his speech on Tuesday night as I had hoped that he would do. The speech probably just reinforced the opinions of those that support action and those that oppose it. No minds were changed. It did, however, provide an opportunity for a face-saving decision to let Congress postpone a vote on whether to support the president’s request for a military response to the Syrians. Whatever the outcome, and events are outpacing my ability to keep up with them, our actions (or lack of action) cannot lead to a decision to just let things slide under the guise of supporting international diplomatic efforts in the hope that the problem will go away.
As the experts have quickly pointed out elsewhere, the practical problems in implementing the Russian proposal to turn the Syrian chemical weapons over to international inspectors are enormous, if not nearly impossible. It would be difficult to do a credible job in a timely manner in a perfect world, and Syria is certainly not a perfect world. I agree that the United States and other nations, through the United Nations Security Council, should pursue the proposal, but I doubt that it will succeed. Already the Russians have threatened to veto a British and French resolution that would implement the turnover, but with the proviso that it has to be on a specific timeline and if that timeline were not met, military force would remain an option.
The United States can only accept a resolution that is specific, time sensitive, and that retains the option of military force in the future. Both the carrot and the stick need to be present to get the Syrians moving forward. Indeed, the carrot will probably be viewed as weakness and only the stick will get their attention.
Beyond what should be a natural American moral stance that it is actually our job to enforce crimes against humanity when no other nation is capable or willing, there is a bigger picture. This developing story has significant ramifications for future United States policy.
With Russian involvement, and given the mentality of some non-western cultures, this is also a test as to which nation has the influence and wherewithal to accomplish its goals in the region. Despite their public pronouncements, the Russians did not come forward with their proposal in an altruistic effort to curb Syrian chemical weapons. Russia stepped in to stop the United States in an effort to show to our friends and enemies alike that we no longer have the will to get involved in the Middle East (or elsewhere) if it involves the use of military force. The message will be that a “redline” means nothing. The Russians are trying to convey that post-Iraq, the United States is no longer willing to go the extra mile.
If the diplomatic efforts drag out for weeks or months, the game is over. The United States and its allies need to craft a resolution that tests Russian and Syrian willingness to do what they say and then press them if (when?) they back away or dissemble or otherwise try to change the playing field. The Syrian regime must suffer real consequences or the United States will be viewed as unable to influence world events or to back up its threats.
War is a serious business and should never be undertaken lightly. I was a critic of American involvement in Iraq in 2002 before the decision to go the following year. It hurt our operations in Afghanistan and we invaded for the wrong reasons. Syria is not Iraq. However, I think that the Obama administration has thus far been a bit flat-footed in its efforts. With this Russian proposal the scenario is reset and there is a chance to get back on our toes and to get ahead of events in order to shape what happens rather than just to react.
The end of America as we know it will not occur if we do not act in Syria. Serious questions remain as to what military action is appropriate or wise. But it is also clear that as events have thus far unfolded, American credibility as a world player is on the line and that if we are unsuccessful in this endeavor, we will bear the repercussions down the line. If in the end there is no real accountability for Bashar, and the world perceives that the Syrians stood up to us and the Russians forced us to back down, then within a year we will see further tests of our resolve in other parts of the world.
Let this sad anniversary be a reminder that there are nasty people in the world who wish to do us harm. We cannot look away.