President Obama's Syria policy is deeply flawed and could lead to grave consequences argues John Hulsman. The US foreign policy expert urges Obama to stop the madness before it is too late.
More than any president since John Kennedy, Barack Obama prides himself on his dispassionate, skeptical, intellectual style. While others succumb to the catastrophic tides of emotion, clouding their judgment, the president and his inner circle see him as a man apart, intellectually disciplined enough to see things as they truly are, capable of making grown-up decisions over matters of state.
This wholly self-serving narrative now lies in tatters over the White House's handling of the Syrian crisis. It is hard to recall a proposed foreign policy gamble so obviously doomed to fail, based on the feeble intellectual rationale put forward for taking such a colossal risk. There are almost too many fallacies to point out in op-ed form, but three glaring Kafkaesque flaws stand out.
Helping al Qaeda
First, the geopolitical case for intervention is non-existent. Bombing Syria will directly help al Qaeda. From an interest perspective, the Syrian civil war is a godsend for America and the West, with almost all of our implacable regional enemies lined up to destroy one another. On the one hand we have the butcher Assad (and make no mistake about it, that is certainly what he is) with his allies Hezbollah and Iran, fighting rebels - such as Jabhat al-Nusra - directly linked to al Qaeda.
That is not a typo. Any significant bombing of Assad (and already mission creep is setting in, with talk moving on from deterring him to degrading his chemical capabilities) will be cheered on by those who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. This should be shouted from the rooftops. The best outcome for the West would indeed be - as the incisive Edward Luttwak and Robert Kaplan have suggested - a protracted stalemate crippling the West's sworn enemies as they destroy one another. In effect, siding with any of these monsters by intervening illustrates a complete lack of understanding of the West's interests.
Second, the bombing campaign as described by the Obama White House will neither help the humanitarian situation nor deter anyone from using chemical weapons again. There is no doubt that Syria is a humanitarian tragedy, with 100,000 already dead in the fighting and up to fully one-quarter of the country refugees as of today. But if the attack is as tepid as advertised, if it's (in the words of a senior Obama aide) 'just muscular enough not to get mocked,' rather than being deterred, those doing the killing will be encouraged, knowing they can withstand both America's moral admonitions and the military consequences buttressing such a stand.
This is where the Kafka aspects of the whole thing would make for farce, if the stakes involved and the lives on the line were not so dreadfully important. A real attack degrading the Assad regime helps al Qaeda. The opposite - a halfhearted attack scaring no one - only encourages the view that America and the West can be safely ignored. It is one or the other; and both outcomes look terrible for long-term American credibility. In the case of Option A we look like we don't know what we are doing. Option B highlights that we have lost the will to do anything in a committed manner.
Third, the President is making a mockery of the American Constitutional system. Fed up with Republican sniping, the White House has concocted a cynical political strategy over Syria that at first glance seems ingenious: Force Republican lawmakers to partially own the Syrian campaign by making them vote to give the president leave to attack Syria. If Republicans vote 'yes' they are on board with the president. If they vote 'no' and Syria gets worse (as it may well do) they are the cause of American inaction in the face of barbarism.
But what if a majority of Republicans (especially in the House) vote as their constituents pressure them to do? For in his unvarnished elitism, President Obama has wholly discounted American public opinion, which - after Iraq and Afghanistan - is running sharply against any form of intervention. The latest polling by the Pew Research Center makes for startling reading. As of September 1st, fewer than 30 percent favor US airstrikes, with a whopping 50 percent against. 75 percent of those polled think intervention will create a backlash against the US and allies, 60 percent fear it will lead to a long-term military commitment in Syria, and half are convinced such a course will prove ineffective in discouraging chemical weapon use.
Ignoring the rest of the world
The UN does not matter. The Arab League does not matter. Tried and true ally Britain does not matter. And soon the American House of Representatives (highly likely to heed the voters and reject Obama's request) will not matter. All have decided not to intervene in Syria, and all will be blithely ignored.
Far worse, from an American political point of view, the president is so obviously contemptuous of the system of checks and balances he used to teach during his incarnation as a constitutional law professor. If the Congress endorses intervention he has political cover. If it does not, or as is likely, with the Senate with him and the House against, he will simply ignore the whole thing. For the American executive to arrogantly and illegally brush aside the legislative branch, to yet again ignore their constitutionally mandated control over the central issue of war and peace takes the imperial presidency to a new low. Such an outcome will be deeply wounding for the American democratic system as a whole.
So there it is, in all its ghastly clarity. Intervention in Syria is highly likely to help al Qaeda, deter no one, and wound the American political system itself. For God's sake, Mr. President, stop this madness before it is too late.
John C. Hulsman is president and co-founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a political risk consulting firm.