UPDATED: (Washington, D.C.) — President Obama today announced that the U.S. should take military action against the Assad regime in Syria, and that he believes he has the Constitutional authority to move forward, but that he wants a Congressional discussion, debate and vote to authorize the use of force.
“Over the last several days, we have heard from members of Congress who want their voices to be heard – I absolutely agree,” said the President, addressing reporters in the Rose Garden of the White House on Saturday afternoon.
Congress is expected to return to Washington from its summer recess on September 9th.
Thus, U.S. military force will be delayed at least until then. If Congress votes “no,” as the British parliament just did, would the President move forward anyway?
For now, the nation’s representatives in Washington will weigh in on this question: How should the U.S. and the free world respond to the deliberate and escalating use of lethal chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria?
Most political leaders, military experts ,and Middle East analysts seem to fall into four basic camps:
* Camp #1 says: Do nothing — Some say Syria was a hornet’s nest before Assad’s regime killed more than 1,400 civilians by nerve agents, including at least 426 children, and it will be hornet’s nest for years to come. They see the Assad regime as evil. They argue that over 100,000 people have already been killed, even without chemical weapons. They concede it’s all a tragedy, but they believe no vital national interests are at stake for the U.S. and they believe that nothing we can do to help at this point so we should not get involved. Proponents of “do nothing” include liberals, libertarians, and some conservatives — and, of course, the British parliament:
* Camp # 2 says we need all-out war to force regime change — Others are calling for the U.S. and Western allies to bring overwhelming military power to bear in Syria in order to bring down the evil Assad regime once and for all. They call for aggressive bombing and missile strikes, not for the purpose of punishing Assad, but to crush him and his government and remove them from power. To be clear, they advocated such a policy even before this latest deadly chemical weapons attack. Now they believe the case for regime change is even stronger. They believe the post-Assad government would be a more moderate, pro-Western regime. They are not worried that al Qaeda or other jihadists might come to power. Perhaps the most prominent advocate of this approach is Sen. John McCain, who said on MSNBC the other day, “If it [a U.S. strike in Syria] isn’t aimed at regime change, what is it aimed at?” Other prominent advocates of regime change are nationally syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, the Wall Street Journal editorial board, and WSJ columnist Bret Stephens, who wrote: “Should President Obama decide to order a military strike against Syria, his main order of business must be to kill Bashar Assad. Also, Bashar’s brother and principal henchman, Maher. Also, everyone else in the Assad family with a claim on political power. Also, all of the political symbols of the Assad family’s power, including all of their official or unofficial residences. The use of chemical weapons against one’s own citizens plumbs depths of barbarity matched in recent history only by Saddam Hussein. A civilized world cannot tolerate it. It must demonstrate that the penalty for it will be acutely personal and inescapably fatal.” Sen. Lindsay Graham doesn’t simply advocate regime change, but also U.S. ground forces in Syria.
* Camp #3 says we should use limited, pinprick missile strikes to “send a message” to the Assad regime – This is President Obama and French President Hollande’s policy. Consider recent news reports. “French and US presidents Francois Hollande and Barack Obama want to send the Syrian regime a ‘strong message’ to condemn the alleged use of chemical weapons, the presidency said Friday,” reported Agence France Presse. “‘Both heads of state agreed that the international community cannot tolerate the use of chemical weapons, that it should hold the Syrian regime accountable for it and send a strong message,’ a statement said.” That said, the message would be limited. The White House is considering a few hours — or, at most, a few days — of pinprick missile strikes, not aggressive, heavy airstrikes. “President Obama is considering military action against Syria that is intended to ‘deter and degrade’ President Bashar al-Assad’s government’s ability to launch chemical weapons, but is not aimed at ousting Mr. Assad from power or forcing him to the negotiating table, administration officials said Tuesday,” reported the New York Times. “A wide range of officials characterized the action under consideration as ‘limited,’ perhaps lasting no more than one or two days. The attacks, which are expected to involve scores of Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from American destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, would not be focused on chemical weapons storage sites, which would risk an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe and could open up the sites to raids by militants, officials said.” The White House has been crystal clear it absolutely does not support regime change in Syria. “The Obama administration and its allies wouldn’t be angling to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad in a military attack, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday,” reported Politico. “‘The options that we are considering are not about regime change,’ Carney told reporters at his daily briefing. ’That is not what we are contemplating here.’ Rather, any response would be about responding to Syria’s violation of international law in its use of chemical weapons. But, Carney said, ‘it is not our policy to respond to this transgression with regime change.’”
* Camp #4 says we should use aggressive military action to severely punish the Assad regime for using lethal chemical weapons, but don’t go all the way to regime change – Others say it is absolutely in the U.S. national interest to severely punish any rogue regime that uses weapons of mass destruction to purposefully kill innocent civilians, and to send a strong warning to any regime considering using WMD in the future. They do not believe the objective of the U.S. and Western allies should be regime change because they fear al Qaeda or other Radical jihadists could come to power as a result. But they reject the Obama team’s concept of limited “pinprick” strikes as limp-wristed and a demonstration of Western vacillation and weakness. Thus, they call for a much more aggressive, robust air campaign, specifically to take out Assad’s military units that were responsible for chemical weapons attacks. They call for the destruction of the Syrian air force. And they recommend training and arming “vetted” rebels, those who are not jihadists and would be supportive of the West. On August 27th, some 66 prominent leaders — some liberals, some conservatives – released an open letter calling for airstrikes with “meaningful consequences.” These leaders included Sen. Joe Lieberman, Middle East expert Dr. Fouad Ajami, Governor Tim Pawlenty, and former White House strategist Karl Rove, and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol (who prefers regime change, but would settle for this) . They wrote: “The objectives should be not only to ensure that Assad’s chemical weapons no longer threaten America, our allies in the region or the Syrian people, but also to deter or destroy the Assad regime’s airpower and other conventional military means of committing atrocities against civilian non-combatants. At the same time, the United States should accelerate efforts to vet, train, and arm moderate elements of Syria’s armed opposition, with the goal of empowering them to prevail against both the Assad regime and the growing presence of Al Qaeda-affiliated and other extremist rebel factions in the country.”
I am with Camp #4, with a few qualifications and clarifications.
- We should not send U.S. ground forces into Syria.
- We should not be trying to force regime change – I, too, am concerned that we could inadvertently bring al Qaeda or other Radical jihadists to power.
- We should be very cautions about arming rebels — if we truly can find rebel forces who will fight the Assad regime AND fight al Qaeda and the jihadists, then I could be for helping them, but I’m worried about Western arms falling into the hands of Radicals.
- All that said, I don’t believe in doing nothing — the West absolutely must punish a rogue regime that uses of weapons of mass destruction to kill innocent civilians with impunity, or we are sending a message to all rogues that it’s open season, and we should expect Radicals to use WMD more often, against more targets, and to kill more people.
- We should only act in this case with Congressional authorization — the country is divided, but a healthy, open discussion and debate in Congress and a quick vote on a resolution authorizing force would be best.
- When Libya engaged in terrorism in the mid-1980s, President Reagan didn’t overreach by launching a policy of regime change — rather, he launched a bombing campaign to severely punish Khaddafi. [For more on this, see “’86 Attack on Libya: A Template for U.S. Action Now”]
- Former U.S. General Jack Keane makes a compelling case for decisively taking out Syria’s air force and air capabilities. “The most vulnerable military capability he has, Bret, is his air power,” Keane told Fox News’s Bret Baier. “There’s 20 air fields, only six of them are primary. He only has about 100 aircraft. We can take down those air fields, the aircraft on them. Also, the munitions, the fuel, the warehouses that the Iranians and Russians are using to resupply them, we can do all of that. That would be a significant degradation of his capability, and something he isn’t bargaining for. He is not expecting to lose his air power over the use of chemical weapons.”
Last point: While in principle I support “aggressive military action to severely punish the Assad regime for using lethal chemical weapons,” I am deeply concerned about the Obama administration’s ability to craft or implement such a policy. The administration has no clear, principled, compelling, much less effective policy in the Middle East. The White House can’t seem to pull together widespread bipartisan Congressional support, or international support, for any level of military action. It has made all kinds of conflicting, weak and vacillating statements. Meanwhile, it is leaking constantly about how little it plans to do in Syria.
The American people deserve much better. So do our allies in the region, Israel and Jordan, included.
More than ever I am praying for the Lord to give mercy and wisdom to our leaders, and the leaders in Israel and the epicenter. I’m praying for mercy for the people of Syria, and for courage and boldness for the Christians in the region. The Lord is sovereign. He is holy and powerful. Ultimately, the Judge of the earth will do right. I am not counting on Washington for peace and justice in the Middle East. I’m counting on Christ.
Joel C. Rosenberg’s Blog