Commentary

M.D. Harmon: President's Syria Intervention Unwise

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Vice President Joe Biden said in 2007 that President George W. Bush should be impeached if he bombed Iran without a vote of approval from Congress.

Now, almost two dozen House Republicans have signed a letter to President Obama noting that the law requires he gain approval from Congress before taking military action in Syria — unless there is an immediate threat to the United States or its interests.

Obama has promised a “briefing” for congressional leaders, but that hardly constitutes seeking their formal approval.

In addition, there seems to be no chance he will comply with the former liberal standard (to which Bush was also held) that the United Nations be consulted and its approval at least sought before engaging in offensive military action overseas.

But these are by no means the only considerations to be taken into account when (apparently we are well beyond “if”) our Nobel Peace Prize-winning chief executive orders U.S. forces to attack Syria in retaliation for its reported use of chemical weapons against civilian targets.

Such attacks, which Obama promised would occur if the government of Syrian dictator al-Bashar Assad used “weapons of mass destruction” (WMDs) in his fight to stay in power against a variety of opposing forces, may already have commenced by the time this column is published, as they were said to be imminent as it was being written.

STILL, IT SEEMS CLEAR THAT the attacks will take place without majority support among the American people.

As the Wall Street Journal noted Wednesday, “Mr. Obama’s effort to bring along a war-weary public hinges on whether he can persuade Americans that the U.S. can take military action against Syria without becoming drawn into a protracted war.

“While polling has been scant in the week since the incident that has pushed Mr. Obama toward action, many public-opinion surveys in recent months have found that support for military intervention in Syria is low.”

The story continued, “When asked in a June Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey to pick the one best option for responding to the Syrian government’s killing of protesters and civilians, only 15 percent of respondents backed military intervention. An even smaller share — some 11 percent — supported providing arms to the Syrian opposition.

“The most popular options were to take no action, which won support from nearly one-quarter of respondents, and providing only humanitarian aid, which had the support of 42 percent.”

IT IS ONE THING to call on American soldiers to fight, suffer debilitating wounds or even die in order to defend the nation against genuine enemies — a definition that could certainly encompass the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

The chance to eliminate a terrorist haven in the first instance, and produce a genuine Arab democracy in the second, with all the regional impact that could have created, was worth taking.

But due to unwise choices by the Bush administration over who to support in Iraq, plus Obama’s subsequent lack of commitment to maintain a minimal force to protect Iraqis from internal warfare and Iranian subversion, the situation there is crumbling.

And with President Obama’s allowing the Taliban in Afghanistan to continue to challenge the government for control, both nations are facing a period of internal turmoil and external pressure that may well leave them more hostile to U.S. interests in the future than they were before.

That would mean everything done in both nations to remove any threat to regional stability and peace, let alone eliminate support by them for international terrorism, would have been futile.

WHICH BRINGS US, by a circuitous route that winds through Bosnia, Somalia and Libya, to Syria today.

With deaths in the hundreds and total casualties in the thousands, there’s no question the chemical attacks are serious and represent an escalation in the ongoing civil war there that indeed has crossed President Obama’s famous “red line” against the use of such weapons.

There are reasons for real concern: As knowledgeable analysts note, if a limited use comes with no penalty, then the chances of wider uses increases, not only by the first offender but by other nations and groups capable of deploying these cheap and relatively easy-to-manufacture agents.

Chemical weapons are one of the three kinds of WMDs, called that because they are capable of producing many casualties over a wide area with only a few weapons being deployed. The other two types are nuclear weapons and biological agents, such as anthrax or smallpox.

Of the three types, however, chemical weapons may be the least destructive when compared with the effects of conventional munitions such as artillery, tanks, guns, cruise missiles and aerial bombs.

BUT WITH AMERICANS in general weary of more than a decade of involvement abroad with, it seems, not much to show for it, the idea that another military intervention in a conflict-filled region will be worthwhile seems unrealistic.

Especially if the likely form of action would be a few days of cruise missile attacks that would not have the aim of removing Assad as Syria’s ruler, something that would likely require the commitment of troops on the ground — which no one supports.

The hollowness of this impending effort is shown by how far short it falls of matching the rhetoric about the seriousness of what Assad has done.

A long-term bomber and cruise missile assault worked in the Balkans, where NATO air assaults eventually brought Serbia to the conference table without ground combat.

However, there are several factors today that not only make such a sustained effort nearly unthinkable, they make any limited aerial attacks very likely counterproductive.

One is the idea that, in war, “you never do your enemy a small injury.”

Pinprick attacks, with or without allied support, that are intended to express “international displeasure” could instead stiffen Assad’s resolve and make Russia provide even more support than it is already offering.

And Assad’s strong alliance with Iran could lead the mullahs to decide that the time was right to launch strikes against U.S. forces or Israel in order to gain support among radical Islamists, who would be outraged by the attacks.

That outrage is something we can bear, but we shouldn’t incur it without good reason and without extracting a substantial price for it.

We should also realize that the probability of revenge attacks is vastly increased, and that escalation could easily require a substantial response of our own in multiple locations, both in the Mideast and outside of it.

AS RETIRED ARMY Lt. Col. Ralph Peters noted in the New York Post Tuesday, in a column entitled “Obama’s Third War,” “You might as well try to teach a snake to juggle as hope the Obama administration will think strategically. The ‘peace president’ is about to embark on his third military adventure, this time in Syria, without having learned the lessons of his botched efforts in Afghanistan and Libya. He hasn’t even learned from the Bush administration’s mistakes — which he mocked with such delight.”

And he added, “Before launching a single cruise missile toward Syria, Team Obama needs to be sure it has a good answer to the question, ‘What comes next?’ ”

As he notes, such an attack would be in support of opposition forces that are hardly admirable themselves, including Islamist fanatics.

Peters says we should think twice before providing “fire support for al-Qaida,” and we should.

Meanwhile, such limited attacks reportedly will not be aimed at Assad’s chemical weapons storage sites, meaning they would still be available to use or share with other groups wanting to escalate terrorism against Israel and the West.

And they will do nothing to control the real WMD threat in the region, which is the continued Iranian progress toward producing a nuclear arsenal.

Indeed, the most likely conclusion to be drawn about this effort is that Obama has come up with yet another way to distract people from his scandals and failures at home.

Adding another failure is hardly an appropriate remedy.

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at: mdharmoncol@yahoo.com

About M.D. Harmon

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at: mdharmoncol@yahoo.com

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