The credibility crisis can't be solved with Tomahawk missiles

The Obama administration has stumbled from one credibility crisis to the next on Syria, and now wants Congress to rescue Barack Obama from himself.  Obama declares that the stated policy of the United States toward Syria is regime change, then dithers on how to effect it.  Obama draws a red line, and then does nothing at all to prepare for the possibility that Bashar al-Assad might call his bluff.

This credibility crisis goes beyond Syria, however, and extends to the whole Arab Spring, for which Obama seemed all too pleased to take credit not terribly long ago.  He demanded Hosni Mubarak’s ouster and quick elections in Egypt, which turned a stable American ally into a barely-contained disaster, and then has vacillated ever since on how to handle the crisis.  Obama then led a NATO intervention in Libya while claiming not to want regime change, but ended up decapitating the Qaddafi regime anyway.  That replaced a brutal dictatorship that was still cooperating with the West on counter-terrorism into a failed state that has allowed for a rapid expansion of radical Islamist terror networks through the whole region.

Now Obama wants to apply the Libya model to Syria, but cannot articulate a single American interest in launching a war.  Syria has not attacked American interests or allies, nor is likely to do so.  The most effective elements of the opposition in Syria are comprised of the very terrorist networks that we are presently fighting ourselves.  Obama even backed away from his own red line, claiming that “the world” set it in its opposition to chemical weapons, but as I note in my column for The Fiscal Times today, there is no global “red line” for military intervention as Obama claims:

The idea that the “world” has set a red line requiring military intervention after the use of chemical weapons is rather strange, and has no historical precedent.  Chemical weapons have had a number of deployments since the 1925 Geneva Protocol (affirmed unanimously by the UN General Assembly in 1966) that first banned their use without any such response.

Iraq used chemical weapons in two 1987 attacks during their eight-year war against Iran without any outside intervention. Libya used chemical weapons against Chad in the same year, again with no outside intervention.  Most infamously, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons as a means of genocide against the Kurds in Halabja in 1988, killing more than 5,000 non-combatants, without any international military response (although it was one of the many justifications used by the US and UN in 1991 for Operation Desert Storm and in 2003’s second invasion of Iraq).  One can certainly argue that all of these incidents called for American or global intervention, but not that the world laid down a red line for armed response to their use.

There are no global “red lines” for military intervention in this case, even with the United Nations, which is balking at military strikes in Syria.  That wouldn’t matter if vital national security issues were at stake in Syria, but they’re not, and the Obama administration isn’t even bothering to pretend there are.  The only substantial argument is the danger to American credibility for not following through on a red-line threat, and that danger is not insubstantial.  However, that’s not really the danger to American credibility, which is why missile strikes won’t solve the problem:

Finally, we come to the argument that Obama’s red line requires us to salvage his credibility, or risk rogue nations like Iran assuming that the US is nothing but a paper tiger. This is really the only argument that makes any sense at all; there is little doubt that damage to our credibility, especially in that region, is dangerous and could cost lives.  However, that argument requires us to conduct acts of war literally for the sake of conducting acts of war, while announcing that we don’t intend to actually change the conditions in Syria as a result.

That’s not an argument that will restore American credibility, especially since our stated policy toward Syria is that of regime change. If we lob bombs into Damascus and claim that we aren’t trying to change the regime, not only will no one take that seriously, Assad’s potential survival would compound the problem that Obama seeks to cure through military action now.

The root of Obama’s credibility problem cannot be solved by cruise missiles. Obama offered a boast a year ago with his red-line statement, and then clearly did nothing in the following year to set the stage for an international response to Assad for crossing it. As this week has proven, Obama didn’t even bother to engage Congress until it became clear that voters overwhelmingly oppose his rush to military action. Isolated on the international stage and under political fire at home, Obama now won’t even claim ownership of his own red line.

The likeliest outcome of sustained American strikes on Assad’s regime is that the field will tilt to the benefit of the radical Islamists on the ground in Syria, just as it has in Libya.  That is the bottom line, and that is why Congress should refuse to authorize a war against Syria.

As for our credibility issues, those will be with us as long as President Obama remains in office.  The 22nd Amendment already provides the resolution to that problem, and voters will have to take responsibility for restoring American credibility and foreign-policy wisdom in November 2016.


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David Strom 6:01 PM on March 29, 2023