President Barack Obama has no good option in Syria. If dictator Bashar Assad remains in power it will enhance his stature and that of his allies Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, while diminishing America’s status. In August 2012, Obama said if Assad used chemical weapons he would re-evaluate the use of military force against the regime.
Obama said “that’s a red line for us … there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front.”
Obama has concluded Assad used chemical weapons. The “enormous consequences” amounts to nothing more than providing his opponents with light weapons. This will not alter the situation — especially considering Assad’s side of the ledger. First, for Assad this is a fight for survival. Second, for Iran, a loss might embolden a strike against its nuclear facilities, which Tehran obviously wants to avoid. Third, Syria furnishes Russia with a naval base at Tartus, giving Moscow a presence on the Mediterranean. Assad and friends have a significant interest in winning.
On May 18, The Economist reported Assad’s allies “have backed the regime with more dedication than the Gulf Arab and Western states have helped the opposition. … A big problem for Western governments is how to decide which groups to back. … Rebels often switch allegiance from one lot to another.”
Assad’s opponents are not necessarily friends of the West. What rebels will America arm? Some analysts say the Syrian war is now a fight between Assad and al-Qaida type extremists and any pro-Western groups are disorganized and cannot shape events absent substantial aid.
America is burdened with weak leadership in the White House and Congress, government scandals, a gargantuan debt and a war-weary public.
The Pew Research Center reports, “Our January 2013 survey found only 26 percent saying they can trust government always or most of the time, while 73 percent say they can trust the government only some of the time or never. Majorities across all partisan and demographic groups express little or no trust in government.”
This doesn’t mean U.S. leadership isn’t needed — it is — but America is incapable of delivering. Obama would probably be unable to rally support for a robust response in Syria even if he wanted to. Washington’s inability to play a meaningful role is good news for Assad and his enemies, all of whom have a stake in preventing the U.S. from influencing the region’s future.
Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman led a nation that was confident in its ideals and purpose. Today’s America is indecisive about much of what a previous America was certain. This is not the 1940s but the nature of war and what it takes to win remain constant. Self-confidence is vital.
Unless the United States is prepared to commit enough resources to affect the outcome in Syria it should do nothing. Even if America gets to a point where it is willing to intervene it would have many questions to answer. What is the mission? What is the desired outcome and are we ready to devote adequate assets to achieve that end? How do we define “adequate assets?” Who shares our goals? Will they help? What are our contingencies when the enemy adjusts his actions to ours? America is not in a position to address those issues — not when Obama’s main international objective is a nuclear-free world.
Commenting on the turmoil he saw around him, the Roman statesman Cicero wrote, “Long before our time the customs of our ancestors molded admirable men, and in turn those eminent men upheld the ways and institutions of their forebears. Our age, however, inherited the Republic as if it were some beautiful painting of bygone ages, its colors already fading through great antiquity; and not only has our time neglected to freshen the colors of the picture, but we have failed to preserve its form and outlines.”
Cicero, writing in about 54 B.C., was commenting on Rome but his words define America 2013. A leaderless nation fractured by angry political divisions and whose public distrusts the government will achieve little — especially on the battlefield.
The end of the Cold War was a victory for American steadfastness and strength that extended over four decades. It is doubtful that contemporary America could summon such resolve. Disordered and unable to tackle its $16.7 trillion debt, America should not enter the Syrian quagmire. Instead we should be learning a hard lesson: A world without American leadership is unstable — both at home and abroad.
Joseph Bell was communications director for former Connecticut Congressman Rob Simmons, R-2nd District.