Making The Case – But For What?

On Saturday, President Barack Obama spoke in the White House Rose Garden about Syria. Many of us expected the President to present the case for why America would move forward with a limited military strike. It would have been something to publicly punish the regime, something symbolic. Whatever we would have done would not have been aimed at regime change nor targeted chemical weapons stores. There has been an outpouring of opposition to action and now the Obama Administration is being asked to make its case.

Looking at what the President and the Obama Administration as a whole is saying, I am left with a question, “For what action are they making the case?” Look, for a moment, at what President Obama said yesterday:

Ten days ago, the world watched in horror as men, women and children were massacred in Syria in the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st century. Yesterday the United States presented a powerful case that the Syrian government was responsible for this attack on its own people.

Our intelligence shows the Assad regime and its forces preparing to use chemical weapons, launching rockets in the highly populated suburbs of Damascus, and acknowledging that a chemical weapons attack took place. And all of this corroborates what the world can plainly see — hospitals overflowing with victims; terrible images of the dead. All told, well over 1,000 people were murdered. Several hundred of them were children — young girls and boys gassed to death by their own government.

This attack is an assault on human dignity. It also presents a serious danger to our national security. It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. It endangers our friends and our partners along Syria’s borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons, or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm.

In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted.

At this point, you can forget the rest of the speech about how we’re thinking of a limited duration action. The above paragraphs do not fit well with the concept being discussed. Cruise missiles fired over a two day period at targets not involving the chemical weapons and not promoting a substantial weakening of the regime would hardly accomplish “This menace must be confronted.”

Meanwhile, I was immediately reminded of Winston Churchill when I heard the word “menace.” Churchill said:

The great defense against the air menace is to attack the enemy’s aircraft as near as possible to their point of departure.

Churchill didn’t say that during the war. The quote comes from his speech “Air Parity Lost” given in 1935 during which he discussed the fact that Germany’s air force now threatened to become superior to Britain’s. Churchill’s conclusion in that speech was prescient:

We must build up defense forces of all kinds and combine our action with that of friendly Powers, so that we may be allowed to live in quiet ourselves and retrieve the woeful miscalculations of which we are at present the dupes, and of which, unless we take warning in time, we may some day be the victims.

There were millions of victims. A “menace” is not something to which you respond with limited action against non-essential targets. While it is certainly not the case that we are today in danger of being “outgunned” so to speak, nor nearly facing “parity lost,” we are for certain in danger of being “out-willed.” I won’t call us “dupes” at this point, though some might, we certainly are in danger of becoming “victims” according to President Obama’s own assessment in his speech yesterday.

The case being made by the Obama Administration is not for limited military action that has little impact upon the civil war in Syria and may or may not impact its use of chemical weapons. We do not respond to a “Serious danger to our national security” with “a shot across the bow.” A “menace” that is a “serious danger to our national security” requires a willingness to do something more grave.

There is a major incongruity in argument and conclusion. We have a “serious danger” addressed with a “very limited response.”

When you add to this the President’s own conclusions about inaction, it makes the proposed response seem even more incongruous:

If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorist who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?

A limited military response will do this? Surely, not by itself. Here is where the incongruity of the case and proposed response must be aligned. We could certainly conduct a limited response in the near future, enacting whatever plans that the President has made, but that only makes sense to do in order to demonstrate our resolve to conduct harsher action later if things do not change. Whatever is proposed to Congress must therefore include approval for a response in proportion to a “serious danger to our national security.” Congress must give the President the latitude to pursue much more substantial action as deemed necessary to protect the interests of the United States and its allies.

This brings us to what is a dire political situation in a staunchly divided Congress. The President faces a Congress leery of any military action, and whose members may not:

  • Agree with the President’s assessment of the situation in Syria as a “Serious danger to our national security,”
  • Share in the President’s concern to involve America in a foreign civil war perceived as being fought substantially between groups hostile to America (an Iranian backed regime and a Muslim Brotherhood backed one),
  • Perceive a “Responsibility to Protect” innocent civilians overseas from their own government,
  • Believe that hundreds of millions of dollars should be spent on a beginning a new foreign war, or
  • Support foreign military action without substantial international support if not backing by the UN Security Council.

and who may well:

  • Fear that an American attack could result in retaliatory strikes against our ally Israel, and/or
  • Fear that even limited military action against Syria could destabilize the regime or come to involve the whole region, resulting in a broader conflict for which we are not prepared.

The result of this discussion over the days to come will not only have an impact on how we address this “menace” but on how we address many others. Iran is paying close attention to how we address what we perceive as a “serious danger to our national security.”

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