With the news that prior to the vote in Congress next week, President Obama has won the backing of John Boehner and Eric Cantor for America’s proposed military action in Syria, we can be pretty sure the US is going to war in the Middle East again.
In a meeting with Joe Biden, John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi and the chairmen and ranking members from the national security committees, Obama laid out the basis for a strategy in Syria:
“What we are envisioning is something limited. It is something proportional,” he said. “At the same time we have a broader strategy that will allow us to upgrade the capabilities of the opposition.”
Last week, Josh Stewart (a friend) with the help of Hart Uhl, (Program Director at the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies), wrote a thorough rebuttal to my assertion that Obama’s proposed military action in Syria was not only a bad idea, but politically calculated. Josh’s critique falls within fairly standard Democratic party parameters, so I’ll use them to expand on my thoughts about the confrontation that I don’t believe is being covered properly by the larger media outlets (sound familiar?).
Josh’s points can be summarized as follows:
1. Comparisons between Syria and Vietnam/Iraq are not useful because there are too many social and political differences.
2. All of America’s European allies and regional partners on Syria have expressed support for imminent US action.
3. America’s past abuses of human rights shouldn’t count when analyzing action in Syria – America is evolving and different leaders have different policies that should be evaluated independently.
4. When crafting foreign policy towards Syria, oil isn’t the only consideration. To suggest that oil dominates the Syrian calculus “is foolish and wrong”.
5. Obama’s push for war isn’t politically motivated because he opposed the Iraq war and “is renowned inside the beltway for being diligent about his brand and legacy, would not enter into an unjustified quagmire, documented as unpopular with the American people.”
I’ll answer each point one by one:
Comparisons between Syria and Vietnam/Iraq are not useful because there are too many social and political differences
There are many parallels between the conflicts in Syria, Vietnam and Iraq. To point out the obvious, all involve the US attempting to overthrow a foreign government for geo political reasons. The US began its involvement in Vietnam long before all out war, backing pro Western forces in Saigon in the 1950’s. It escalated to full out war in the 1960’s when it became clear its level of involvement was not sufficient enough to remove the Communist Viet Minh. Vietnam was engaged in a civil war and the US got involved to ensure its influence in the region, just as Syria is engaged in a civil war and the US is seeking to ensure its influence there. Iraq was not engaged in civil war when the US invaded in 2003, but it quickly turned into one leading to a decade of US presence in the country.
Of course each country has its own individual strategic place in the eyes of US planners due to the social and political differences Josh is presumably referring to, but the principle remains the same: the US uses military force to assert its influence in the region. It is unclear where Obama’s proposed action will lead, hence the comparisons with Iraq and Vietnam. What once looked like quick and easy conflicts turned into prolonged military sagas that cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives.
All of America’s European allies and regional partners on Syria have expressed support for imminent US action
There isn’t a huge amount to talk about here – Britain withdrew its support last week after a vote in the House of Commons, Germany wants nothing to do with it without UN approval, and the Arab League has now explicitly ruled out military action against Assad. France has stated it will join the US in an attack, but mounting domestic pressure may convince Hollande otherwise.
America’s past abuses of human rights shouldn’t count when analyzing action in Syria – America has evolved as a country and different leaders have different policies that should be evaluated independently
It is certainly true that President Obama is not George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan was no Jimmy Carter. However, the US is by its nature an empire with an explicit doctrine of imperialism (or ‘neo imperialism’ to be academically precise). There are of course differences between elected leaders, but no real trend away from its trajectory of America’s geo political dominance. Obama has maintained troop presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, hasn’t dismantled America’s military bases in 63 countries around the world, hasn’t departed from onerous trade agreements with the developing world, is engaging in extra judicial drone assassinations, and continues to use military force to expedite political change (see Libya and now Syria).
I’m always interested to hear from Americans and Brits who support attacking other countries for war crimes whether they think their countries should be attacked when they do the same. Did China have the right to invade the US and UK to stop them illegally attacking and destroying Iraq? International law is important and everyone should be held to the same standards – if it’s OK for America to unilaterally invade other countries then surely it is for others to do so too.
When crafting foreign policy towards Syria, oil isn’t the only consideration. To suggest that oil dominates the Syrian calculus “is foolish and wrong”
There are of course multiple reasons why the US would get involved in Syria, and as Josh accepts, oil is one of them. He argues that “No foreign policy adviser would claim that the US could swoop in, establish a democracy, and start milking Syria for its oil. To think that such a scenario is part of Obama’s calculus now would be grossly incorrect.”
To be clear, that wasn’t quite what I was arguing. Syria is of massive strategic interest to the US for both short term and long term reasons. In the short term, it plays a part in the broader war for influence in the region against Iran. After Iraq left a gaping hole in the balance of power in the Middle East, Iran has risen to become the Arab world’s biggest power. Syria is a strategic ally of Iran, and action against it sends a strong message to the Iranians that the US still exerts control over the region. In the long term, the United State’s interest in the region (Syria included) is absolutely about oil. The Middle East is the most energy rich region in the world – a strategic prize for all the world’s competing empires. America consumes more oil than any other country on the planet (18.7 million barrels per day), and it is essential that it continues to have access to it if it wants to maintain its economic supremacy.
Obama’s push for war isn’t politically motivated because he opposed the Iraq war and “is renowned inside the beltway for being diligent about his brand and legacy, would not enter into an unjustified quagmire, documented as unpopular with the American people.”
I agree wholeheartedly that Obama is highly diligent about his brand and legacy. His assassination of Osama Bin Laden was a calculated risk that took months of deliberation and careful planning, and I don’t doubt that military action in Syria will be equally as well thought out for maximum effectiveness.
However, we must consider what the definition of ‘effectiveness’ really is. Obama knew he would reap massive political rewards for killing Bin Laden in the short term. The long term effects however, are completely unknown. Bin Laden was a hero to millions in the Middle East, so we can’t really calculate how much resentment it bred and political blowback it may cause. Just as swift and brutal action in Syria may hurt Assad and scare Iran, we don’t know what the long term consequences will be. And once Obama unleashes the military, he will lose control to other political forces in America. If Assad mounts a come back, people like John McCain will pressure Obama to do more. And more. And more. I’m hoping Obama has calculated this, but I’m worried he hasn’t given his desire to move so quickly with his assault, without international consensus, or the backing of his own public.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.