There is probably no more appropriate way to start this than pulling from yesterday’s NPR report: “There is going to be a declassified conference call for EVERYBODY — all the members of Congress– with the White House today. It is declassified because it isn’t just for Committee heads, but for everybody. Basically, the President is going to be laying out his case to prove that Sadaam — I mean, Assad — used Chemical weapons…”
And then came CNN’s Jim Acosta on Twitter: “CNN has learned a cabinet-level ‘Principles Committee’ meeting was held at the WH this evening on Syria. No POTUS.”
In 2003, we had an older, white Republican as President who presented a case to the UN with hard evidence of Iraq producing and maintaining Chemical weapons (termed “Weapons of Mass Destruction”) from both the NSA and the Israeli Mossad. Out of that presentation, the United States created a “coalition of the willing” involving some 23 nations that, with a congressional declaration of war and in reponse to a 30-day deadline created by a UN Resolution, invaded Iraq with two purposes: apprehend Iraq’s chemical stockpile, and topple the dictator Sadaam Hussein. What has happened since then in Iraq is fairly common knowledge. 32 days after beginning the invasion, Iraq was completely occupied by this coalition of nations, and the manhunt for Hussein and his WMD was well under way. Less than a year into the effort to rebuild Iraq, public enthusiasm nose-dived, Congressional support waned and the UN declared itself butthurt over the invasion… “This wasn’t what we meant when we passed that resolution!” As it became clear that the WMD we expected were not to be found in Iraq, the already-vocal anti-war zealots became more prominent and the media longingly captured hours of footage of people marching, chanting, blocking traffic, waving signs… all for the end of an invasion that was authorized by all the right channels. I think most of us will remember the AP photos from around the world of a million people in capitol A and another couple hundred thousand in capitol B and several other nations were all marching for the freedom of Iraq. Accusations were flung about the “military adventurism” that used “fake evidence” to justify “stealing oil” from the middle east, and how “W” simply couldn’t handle the fact that “daddy had unfinished business”. (For what it is worth, if the Iraq invasion was simply for Iraq’s oil, we did a lousy job of it… exhibit A is the price of gasoline.)
What wasn’t so well known was the report by Israeli intelligence that had satellite photos of entire military convoys leaving Baghdad and heading off into the desert in the direction of Jordan and Syria… that simply disappeared in the desert. And now — surprise, surprise — another harsh dictator has chemical weapons… and they seem to be in decent proximity to Iraq.
Fast Forward to 2013… ten years later. We have a young(er) black Democrat as president — with a Nobel Peace Prize — who has not, as yet, condescended to attempt proving a case for a need to attack Syria to anyone. The US allies are one-by-one confirming that they have no intentions of military intervention in Syria (Britain, Germany and Russia have already issued statements to that affect). The UN has not seriously taken up the issue of intervening in Syria’s civil war. Congress has not declared war. Someone remind me why the White House is moving unilaterally to send troops to Syria? Oh yeah… Assad is a brutal dictator… (that Hillary Clinton once called a “reformer”, but that is neither here nor there).
The slip of the tongue by the NPR reporter is probably much more telling than anyone in the administration would like you to believe. In some ways, this feels like Iraq all over again… but there is a key difference. That key difference is that the White House isn’t bothering to convince anyone else that this is the right thing to do. It is almost like the off-script wanderings of SecState Kerry (and Obama’s now-infamous “red line”) have backed the President into a corner, where they now have to back up the guff and bluster they were blowing at the press… when they originally thought guff and bluster would be enough to get what they want.
That said, there is also a huge difference in the core conflicts. In Iraq, the US was not pursuing Sadaam Hussein because he was a cruel dictator, but because it was believed that he was providing sanctuary, financial support and armaments to the Al Qaeda network — meaning that it was opening a second front in the war that was started with the invasion of Afghanistan (yes, Al Qaeda was the primary target in Afghanistan and not actually the Taliban regime). The second concern was that the WMD’s that were indicated by the intel received from the CIA and Mossad were going to wind up in the hands of Al Qaeda terrorists. In essence, if Sadaam has WMD’s, Osama Bin Laden has WMD’s. It is arguable how justified that assumption was (while “Al Qaeda in Iraq” is a ‘thing’, there wasn’t any proof offered that Hussein offered material assistance to UBL and Co.), but it would seem to be sufficient concern to worry about invading another nation.
In contrast, Syria has neither of these characteristics. Al Qaeda is not known to be a major player in Syrian politics and Assad himself is a secularist with a low tolerance for extremism. This means that, in spite of Syria’s WMD stockpile, the risk of it falling into the hands of Al Qaeda or similar is fairly low… so long as the Assad regime holds on to power, that is. This is where the chess match turns into a calculus equation. We can’t really back a dictator who is turning to somewhat extreme measures to hold on to power (while 1000 casualties isn’t “that” ghastly in the broad scale of warfare, the potential of chemical weapons becoming a new norm is certainly so), but we don’t really know who we would be getting in bed with if we sided with the rebels. In fact, the only real surveyor work I have heard discussing who is going to war with Assad, the term “Al Qaeda-backed” keeps turning up. If that is the case, we need to be careful about jumping to conclusions and creating Egypt 2.0 by replacing a secularist dictator with a religiously extreme one. At this point, the only reason we would have for getting involved in the Syrian conflict would be to topple Assad… and that is a precedent at least as dangerous as chemical weapons.
This is the filter that should be informing policy decisions. Not only that we don’t want to establish a precedent of war for regime change (because it could happen to us), but that creating a true power vacuum is guaranteed to continue the cycle of violence… if not escalate it. Meanwhile, Iran is kicking back and laughing at the world for chasing its own tail while Iran continues its slow, plodding advance towards being nuclear capable. I’m all for the US increasing its presence in the area… but in a role primarily centered on containing the conflict. Not to interfere and create a winner, but to ensure that the violence doesn’t spill over into Iraq, Jordan and Israel. It is my contention that nations need to work out their own civil wars. Foreign intervention is the best way available to make sure that the tensions currently blazing are left unresolved and simmering just below the surface (see: Iraq).