Has Iraq shackled American power?

By David Rohde
August 29, 2013

In an extraordinary series of disclosures this week, Obama administration officials said that the United States will launch only cruise missile strikes in Syria. The attacks will last roughly two or three days. And the administration’s goal will be to punish President Bashar al-Assad, not remove him from power.

But those clear efforts to placate opponents of military action appear to be failing. Warnings of ‚Äúanother Iraq‚ÄĚ are fueling opposition to the use of force on both sides of the Atlantic. And the Obama administration‚Äôs contradictory record on secrecy is coming back to haunt it.

In Washington on Wednesday, one-third of the members of Congress asked that they be allowed to vote on any use of American force. In London on Thursday, Prime Minister David Cameron’s effort to gain support in¬†Parliament for strikes failed, despite the release of an¬†intelligence assessment which said Assad had used chemical weapons fourteen times since 2012.

The risks are high but President Barack Obama should follow Cameron’s example. Obama should allow the U.N. inspectors to complete their work, unveil any U.S. evidence of Syrian government involvement in chemical attacks and give Congress an opportunity to vote on the use of force.

Post-Iraq skepticism of American military action is extraordinarily high.¬†¬†Obama should lead an open debate that helps restore confidence in the public’s control over the use of military force.

Americans fear that faulty intelligence could drag the U.S. into another conflict in the Middle East. And they apparently don’t trust Obama himself. The president‚Äôs unfulfilled promise of being more transparent than George W. Bush sows suspicion. So does the White House’s failure to fully disclose its counter-terrorism operations, from covert drone strikes to global cyber-surveillance.

This week’s leak of detailed American military planning was unprecedented. It was also enormously hypocritical. An administration that has carried out more criminal leak investigations than all other administrations combined is giving itself a pass on sharing secrets. When it suits its political goals, this White House leaks like a sieve.

The danger of disclosing the limited scope of the potential strikes is that it undercuts a central goal: deterrence. Assad knows he can wait out a brief bombing campaign, emerge from a bunker and declare victory.

In Afghanistan, the Obama administration followed the same pattern. The president placed an 18-month time limit to the 2009 troop surge before it even started. The deadline eased concerns among the American public. But it also telegraphed to the Taliban that they could simply wait out the surge in their safe havens in Pakistan.

On Syria, White House promises of limited American action have so far failed to ease public concern. Stay out is the most common refrain. A new legacy is emerging from the presidency of George W. Bush: opposition to the use of American force in any form.

Whatever one’s view of the war in Iraq, the credible threat of military force is a vital foreign policy tool. The potential of lethal force can sometimes help defuse disputes and bring people to the bargaining table.

By telling Assad that the strikes will be limited, the White House gives the Syrian leader an easy way out. As Jeffrey Goldberg argued in Bloomberg View on Wednesday, too tepid an approach can backfire.

‚ÄúIf this is indeed the goal of the Obama administration,‚ÄĚ Goldberg wrote, ‚Äúto look tough without being tough, to avoid threatening the existence of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and to avoid angering Iran and Russia — then, really, let‚Äôs not bother with this attack at all.‚ÄĚ

The best way for Obama to boost his credibility is to allow a congressional vote on the issue. Obama is not Bush. For two years, Obama has resisted calls for intervention in Syria. And by all accounts he remains deeply reluctant about intervening now.

Yet few Americans trust Obama to resist being drawn into the conflict, intentionally or unintentionally. A public debate will allow the president to present the evidence and make his case. It will give Obama and his aides a chance to argue why cruise missile strikes are not the equivalent of a ground invasion.

A credible case for a cruise missile attack does exist. If U.N. and American experts conclude that the Syrian government carried out the chemical attacks outside Damascus last week, Assad should pay a military price. A cruise missile attack would send a message to autocrats that the use of a weapon of mass destruction will not be tolerated. Acting militarily will restore credibility to American threats of force in the future.

At the same time, Americans are understandably wary of Syria. The goal of any military action should be to punish Assad for using chemical weapons, not quickly topple him.

If there is congressional support for altering the military balance in Syria, the United States should arm moderate members of Syria’s opposition as a counter-weight to jihadists. Under no circumstances should U.S. ground troops be deployed in Syria.

A best-case scenario is a negotiated settlement with Russia and Iran that prevents the dissolution of the country. But that will not occur until the military momentum shifts against Assad.

And, of course, Syria may already be too fractured for outside powers to salvage.

Publicly debating the difficult choices that the United States faces in Syria is vital. It may help exorcise the ghosts of Iraq. Or it may show how that war shackled American power forever.

 

This post was revised and updated at 11:30pm EST on Thursday, August 29th to include news reports from London and Washington.

PHOTO (Top): Smoke rises after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the village of Dourit, in Latakia countryside August 17, 2013. Picture taken August 17, 2013. REUTERS/Khattab Abdulaa

PHOTO (Insert): The guided-missile destroyer USS Barry launches a Tomahawk cruise missile from the ship’s bow in the Mediterranean Sea in this Navy handout photo dated March 29, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Sunderman/U.S. Navy//Handout

26 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Man do I ever hope that Iraq has shackled American Power.

Posted by Batangas | Report as abusive

There isn’t time now for a debate about the pros and cons of bombing the Assad regime. He ought to go ahead with it, but it’s true that too little bombing might do more harm than good. Others argue that “too much” bombing could propel the country into further chaos: not too sure about that, since the departure of Assad is going to cause more chaos in any event.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

I think Iraq significantly added to the decline in the USCA influence. I think the financial fiasco had just as much if not more impact as it not only impacted our enemies, but also our frienemies and friends. The world realized that the USA lost its way with the Reagan era Sorry republicans, he was a great president in many ways but he allowed corporate America to take over. Once we became the USCA, we no longer followed any moral or ethical course. We became very predictable and quite two-faced. G.W. Bush and how he got into office, Iraq and the Great Recession just re-enforced all of that. I think the world realizes that the America people mean well, but are also so spoiled that we didn’t notice that our government changed and no longer represents us. Read the Liberty Amendments; support term limits and campaign finance reform and maybe we can retake our country.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

For a President who has a history of avoiding making a difficult decision, one would think he would want the endorsement of Congress. That way, he could always deflect any responsibility (although the liberals and media never afforded Bush that luxury for Iraq.)

That being said, any military involvement on our part in Syria is misguided on its best day–there is nothing that would benefit U.S. interests by doing so. (And, the Syrians and Al Queda probably have the video prepped showing all the civilian casualties.)

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

“The best way for Obama to boost his credibility is to allow a congressional vote on the issue. Obama is not Bush.”

Bush asked for and won a congressional vote on whether to go into Iraq. Many prominent Democrats voted to invade, and they had the exact same intelligence information as GW Bush did. I am quite weary of reading accounts that claim as if Bush alone took the US into Iraq.

Posted by Randy549 | Report as abusive

@Randy549
True many Democrats went along with Bush’s invasion of Iraq based on the intelligence G.W. Bush gave them. As President Bush had access to other information that would have contradicted what he gave to Congress. Whether or not he actually availed himself of that or information or passed along the misleading intelligence from the Chicken Hawks on his staff is debatable. I am inclined to believe that he did not want to question anything further when staff gave him the answers that he clearly wanted to hear. However, it is misleading to say “he exact same intelligence information as GW Bush did” has he had the authority to access additional information not provided to Congress.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

American influence and ‘intelligence assessments’ died with the Bush Doctorin’. Bush did more damage to the public trust than any President before. Even Nixon was able to blame vietnam on Kennedy and LBJ. But Bush and Iraq? That was a scheme cooked up in Texas to enrich Halliburton and its partners. A trillion taxpayer dollars, ten years, and 4,300 U.S. soldiers dead in Iraq. For that. And there are people out there who voted for him a SECOND time. That is the definition of a low-information voter.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Not surprisingly many folks are showing their biases as they clamor for a hasty decision to not do anything or act right away. My own inclination is to act but not for the usual reasons.
(1) It is time to send a message to Russia (and Iran as well) that support for Assad and blatant attempts to subvert the processes of the UN and international law are not to be tolerated.
(2) Obama did draw a line and now must back up his own words.
(3) A violation of international law has clearly occurred.

On the other hand, I recognize that
(a) The civil war in Syria has become a battle between the two major Islamic sects, better to let them fight each other than to side with any branch of Islam.
(b) Invading Afghanistan in response to 9/11, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban could hardly be criticized by any rational human being, but the subsequent invasion of Iraq clearly created a perception of a war on Islam among many folks in the Mideast. Would use of force in Syria further increase hostility between the Muslim world and the U.S.?

Whether you agree with me or not, clearly the situation is complicated and knee jerk reactions are irresponsible.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

Awkward comments about international law like it’s simply the will of the US.

International law is supposed to encourage diplomacy above all else. Even most regular domestic law requires evidence.

Arming the rebels in itself – most likely contravenes international law. The previous chemical attack as indicated by the UN had the rebels responsible. Are we going to strike both sides?

At whatever point when diplomacy has a chance it must be pursued before killing our fellow humans.

There is nothing humanitarian about firing Cruise missiles at a country.

Posted by StigTW | Report as abusive

Iraq All Over Again

Why are the Syrian people held hostage to violance when there is available political process, one in which the country has seen three elections and a new constituion in 2012

It is difficult to appreciate how the US propose to engage with peace efforts without negotiating with the opposition? The US are repeatedly condemned for failing to denounce acts of terror in Syria which spark outrage as an endorsement of terrorism. Democracy delivered at the point of the sword, ‚Äėsabre rattling‚Äô to the detriment of innocent civilians can be said to be an undemocratic means to enforce democracy. A bombs & bullets democracy. The consensus that the Syrian people are the only ones who can decide on the future of the Syrian Arab Republic, including the fate of its leaders, is clearly stated in the Geneva declaration adopted on June 30.

Repeated initiatives for violence on the part of the rebels ( a quarter of which are known to be al-Qaida), despite a new constitution, multi-party elections and an amnesty contend any vehicle for peace is prejudicial without a commitment to desist from any activity that could provoke violence. The result of this rebel initiative for violence and threats have forced more than 10,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria to flee the country over the past week despite security concerns in Iraq.

I feel for the Syrian refugees. I can only imagine what it must be like, fleeing one war torn country after another as poor refugees, a lost generation.

Shaheeb Inayat Sher
Manningham Human Rights

Posted by ShahInayatSher | Report as abusive

If we really want to punish Assad decisively….. we should replace their radio communications with AM talk radio. Pipe it directly in.

Hours upon hours of ranting ignorant hillbillies and Viagra commercials. The hours turn into days, the days into years. Syria withers.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

@QuietThinker

Sorry, but you are absolutely incorrect.

Posted by Randy549 | Report as abusive

@alky Ouch! Ignorant hillbillies? Have you ever listened to talk radio out of the elite cultural centers of on the coasts?

That would make the Syrians cut their wrists.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

Iraq had its own lessons victories and losses. But congressional approval was given for it too. If Obama does any type of military action on his own without congressional approval then he does have real problems.that would be a impeachable offense. we have no business there nor any business using our weapons against this regime, even though what Assad is doing is morally wrong, we have no plan,stragety,nor objective. this what Obama wants to do sounds so north Korean like in scope and nature.

Posted by fredbedrock | Report as abusive

After we bomb, will we be required to rebuild for them?

AlkalineState, “Hours upon hours of ranting ignorant hillbillies and Viagra commercials. The hours turn into days, the days into years. Syria withers.” This sounds like a commercial for fox, as America withers.

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive

Unless a leader is trying to get allied forces, if the leader cares for his troops and going alone, he will act weak but launch any attack swiftly in securet with overwhelming force. And get out as soon as most of the bad guys are dead and target nation in ruins. WE will have his troops standing around being targets.

In the case of Syria is there a side we want to win or are they both anti-Western bad guys. The news web sites say the rebels are dominated Jihadist.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

Machiavelli said never do an enemy just a little hurt. That means if gol in it should be with intent of destroying the armies of both sides and killing as much of their leaders as possible in few weeks and get out. I say both sides because both sides are our enemies. That single fact makes going in seem high comedy.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

One of the issues relative to Iraq was the phony WMD – even severely questioned at the time and highly suspect. This is not the case with Syria. Another issue is not that the American public is “fatigued” by war, but by administrations that are foolish enough to believe then can “get in an out in a short period”. Who still believes that?

Who seriously believes that Assad and his allies are going to respond to any attack, “Okay. I get it. I’ll stop killing my people indiscriminantly. I’m sorry. Can’t we all just get along? Shall we sing Kumbaya?”

The media seems to be promoting faux arguments. Why? Confusion, conflict and controversy – not illumination – are exactly what the Plutocracy wants because it lines their vaults in foreign bank accounts. $ $ $ $

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

No…you voted for this…

Posted by Crash866 | Report as abusive

Bat, “Man do I ever hope that Iraq has shackled American Power.” I hope that the American citizens have shackled the MIC.

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive

@ptiffany
“Who seriously believes that Assad and his allies are going to respond to any attack”
Straight to the point and something that seems to be missing from the entire argument.
It’s like two thugs violently tearing each other to pieces in the street, while onlookers watch on horrified but unwilling to get drawn in.
Both thugs start biting each other, which the crowd consider as an immoral way to fight, and they discuss actions. As the two thugs continue pulling lumps out of each other, a mess of blood, missing teeth and broken bones, thw crowd get involved in a civilised debate about the right sort of message to send out to deter people from biting each other in the future.
To avoid getting drawn in, they announce that one man will approach one of the biters, and deliver two precise punches to his body, avoiding the head as they don’t wish to actually knock him out of the fight.
As thug A is kicking thug B on the ground, the assigned crowdmember dealing out the punishment approaches him slowly and nods. Thug A tenses his stomach, and the punisher deals two slow and deliberate hits to him, before ceremiously retreating, and thug A goes back to caving in thug B’s skull. The crowd cheers as the important message was delivered, and everyone congratulates each other, shaking hands at the forceful deterrent which will surely prevent any future fights from being fought with such barbaric methods as biting.

Meandering analogies aside, maybe the better option would be to declare that once the dust settles, those who have used chemical weapons personally will be brought to trial and sentenced- collect the evidence now, and sentence personally when things are a bit more stable? Then maybe there’s an actual deterrent in “well I could use chemical weapons and win this war, but afterwards I’ll just end up in prison for life anyway”.

Posted by K.MacKenzie | Report as abusive

Frankly, continuous effort to preserve the taboo of questioning the Crime, to suppress the discourse and freethought, to disseminate ”malicious lies that attempt to shift blame away from the terrorists themselves, away from the guilty” is less acceptable with each passing year and I’d love to read all of Reuters’ columnists opinions on ”unanswered questions concerning attacks of 9/11”.

It would be lovely assessment of maturity, for I wonder, whether we’ve reached the time in which US citizens coped with all stages of grief and regain their rationality. To see if they are ready to examine whether there’s a link between mass surveillance and continuity of government and September 11th. To carefully weigh ”known unknowns” and such possibilities that folks who committed treason against whole humanity remain rooted in power. I also wonder whether the tactica, in which propagandistas use libel in such labels as ”conspiracy theorists” to undermine legitimate concerns of the citizens lost its potency.

Either way, it strikes me as deeply irrational, to accept even a hint of remote possibility that we have mass murderers at large and in charge.

Eh.., it would be lovely indeed‚Ķ, to read Reuters’ columnist opinions on the issue, if and when allowed by imposed or self-inflicted censorship.

Posted by satori23 | Report as abusive

The significance of Iraq is that Americans’ learned they have to ask tough questions and cannot afford to rely unquestionably on their elected representatives and executive to make wise decisions.

The issue with Syria today is whether it is, in fact, possible to do anything that will make the U.S. better off than doing nothing. And it may be that doing nothing is the option that advances U.S. interests the most. Doing something that affects the outcome of the civil war in Syria presents the risk that, on one hand, an al Qaeda allied group might end up taking power in Syria or, on the other hand, a Hezbollah type group may become ascendant.

At the same time, doing something that does not affect the outcome of the civil war there presents that risk that U.S. power will be seen as ineffectual. In essence, the kind of military strike that is being contemplated (one that causes damage without degrading the Syrian regime’s military power enough to affect the status quo in the civil war) has all of the downsides of doing nothing, plus the additional downsides that is is more expensive, kills at least some civilians, and angers at least some of the countries we are generally trying to get along with. By contrast, doing nothing has the upside that the rationale is easy to explain to the American people and the rest of the world.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

@Bob9999, didn’t we learn that from Vietnam? Seems “the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.”

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Last week we were told this wasn’t about regime change. This week it apparently is as we ignore the lessons learned from Bush43 and the chaos his ignorance unleashed.

We’re assured NO boots on the ground by a leader who we now know can lie with a grin on his face using a talk show to reach the largest audience possible.

Not only is it absurd to believe this leader, it defies logic. A YES guarantees Boots ON The Ground. We should assume the duration to be the norm: Ten years

Posted by SaveRMiddle | Report as abusive

I am not particularly clear on how preventing a Shiite/Sunni war is in the best interest of the US. You know, unless our plan is to play right into the hands of Al qaeda. I can show you refugee pictures and poor down trodden children from all over the world and we do nothing for them, unless it’s part of the oil region. We are shallow, predictable and not particularly just. We protect the interests of money and only money big enough to buy the politicians.

On a side note. It won’t be long before the people who were so susceptible to the mass media brainwash are dead and gone. What will our leaders do when the stupid people who shield then from the few critical thinkers are gone? I think the predictable thing is that they will become more cruel and dictatorial. Unfortunately, most US citizens are preferencially slaves and like pain and being abused. So, just as we live in a time when we have to live with what the stupid majority accepts as their lot, in the future when times are crueler we will also have to live with pain and abuse that our fellow citizens enjoy.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive