Opinion

The Great Debate

Has Obama administration gone wobbly on Syria?’

By Bennett Ramberg
January 29, 2013

Syria, chemical weapons and the United States. If nothing else, President Barack Obama last month was emphatic. “I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad,” Obama declared at the National Defense University in early December, “….The world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is…totally unacceptable….[T]here will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”

But what a difference a New Year makes. At a January 10 news conference, the administration’s senior security officials, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff head Martin E. Dempsey, recoiled: Consequences won’t involve the Pentagon. Better wait to secure the arsenal after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad falls, Panetta said. Dempsey stated: “Preventing the use of chemical weapons would be almost unachievable.” The result, as Panetta explained: “We’re not working on options that involve boots on the ground.”

Assad must have smiled. Washington had gone wobbly on chemical weapons. With the deterrent value of the president’s remarks in question – and one unconfirmed report that Syria used a chemical agent in Homs on December 23 – the chemical specter remains. This raises the key question: Would Obama really stand by if the Syrian government gassed thousands of its citizens?

Before we answer, let’s hit the pause button for a reality check: Are chemical weapons really more heinous than the bombs that have already killed some 60,000 Syrians. This continuing mayhem has not justified military intervention so far. Why would chemical weapons be different?

Lift the pause button and one suspects it would be hard for the U.S. government to turn a blind eye to a Halabja on steroids – Halabja being the last case where an Arab regime (Iraq in 1988) killed thousands of its people in a chemical attack.

But the tug to save lives is countered by another specter: Quashing Assad’s chemical capacity could plunge the U.S. into a new military quagmire.

Obama clearly has the authority to act. If he wishes to use force, under the 1973 War Powers Resolution, he can do so for at least 60 days without congressional approval.

But to avoid Congress now would be a mistake. The flummoxed administration needs another set of eyes to determine what is in the national interest. Congress can do this, assuming it can act with independence and reverse the legacy of deferring to the executive branch on matters of war and peace. Granting presidents, for example, broad authority to use military force without proper vetting – as the Gulf of Tonkin and Iraq war resolutions illustrated – ill-served the country.

To this end, Congress should reconvene the hearings begun last session. This time, however, it must press for details about the administration’s assumptions about intervening or not. In addition, all the hearings should be public – not secret, as the administration prefers. This will give the American people confidence in the decision-making.

Among the broad questions the hearings should explore:

• Why should Syria’s use of chemical weapons be more concerning than the conventional arms that have killed many tens of thousands and wounded countless others?

• Have policymakers exaggerated chemical weapons’ effectiveness to kill, injure and terrorize?

• Given concerns that terrorists could get hold of these weapons, what challenges would they confront to transport and detonate the toxic material in and out of Syria?

• Why can’t Syria’s neighbors, Turkey, Jordan and Israel – all substantial military powers in the region – deal with this challenge?

• How many and what kinds of U.S. forces would operations require –with and without allies – to lock down the Syrian chemical arsenal? Would air power be enough? Would boots on the ground be required to secure secret sites? Could rebel militias serve this purpose?

• If the United States intervenes, what is the game plan and exit strategy to prevent another quagmire?

Congress should mold its findings into a joint House and Senate resolution – still plausible on national security issues even as legislators divide on budgetary matters – unblemished by executive branch drum-beating or quaking.

If Congress does this, it won’t just be addressing the Syrian challenge. It will finally begin to right the imbalance of power between the executive and lawmakers that for too long has dominated American war deciding.

This will begin to fulfill what the War Powers Resolution intended – to “insure that the collective judgment of both the Congress and the president will apply to the introduction of United States Armed Forces into hostilities.”

PHOTO: Members of the Free Syrian Army take positions as they return fire during clashes with pro-government soldiers in the city of Aleppo, October 15, 2012. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

Comments
12 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

The Obama administration is being justifiably cautious.

In Syria, the retrograde Gulf Arab autocrats want to replace a reasonably secular Shia Muslim government with their usual export: Fundamentalist Sunni jihadists.

The USA joined forces with the Gulf Arabs in facilitating a similar transition in Afghanistan. That is, from a Soviet-backed secular government to the Taliban.

In retrospect: How well did that turn out?

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive
 

Everyone sitting on a fence uncertain which way to jump is “wobbly”.

Questions posed by Mr. Ramberg are those that should have been weighed and decided before last month’s speech. The problem is not a lack of equilibrium. It is a lack of conviction and resolve…a conspicuous lack of leadership by our “dear leader”.

Lead, follow or get out of the way. Events wait for no one.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

Another story like this. It seems the USA has been the object of many a discussion, ridicule, disgust and otherwise blame for being the “world police” and butting into other countries affairs, but when they dont, they are seen as “wobbly” or labled the bad guys because they are not stepping in to help. Perhaps it is all the “Death to America” signs being held up and seen on every 24 hour news network or perhaps the constant burning of American flags whenever there is an uprising? Listen up, you cant have it both ways, either ask for ASmerican help and appreciate it and all that comes with it, or say no thanks and keep your criticism to yourself when it comes to who cares or not.

Posted by Jas1969 | Report as abusive
 

Ah yes! Why ignore the possibility of yet another gallant little war in the Middle East? Has the USA lost all of its sporting spirit? When will this nonsense about invading every single country in the Middle East stop being a debate?

We cannot afford to feed our poor. We cut Food Stamps. We cut Social Security. We cut Medicare. And we are certain we must cut, cut, cut more and more social benefits. We cannot “afford” it even though we charged for these programs for a working lifetime, labelled them “insurance” (and still do), are certain the country faces ruin if it meets its obligations to its own people. Yet these same people, these same “public servants” involve us with wars in the following countries, none of which ever attacked us: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Sudan, Pakistan and Israel. We can spend hundreds of billions of Social Security dollars on these endless wars but we cannot “afford” to pay an average Social Security benefit of about $1200. per month until death.

The American people are sick and tired of people like this finding ways to divert our benefit money to fight on their personal favorite side in ethnic and religious conflicts the world over. Each and every one of these opportunities, we are told, in more “noble” and “compelling” than taking care of the wretches sleeping under public bridges in every state in the union. Nonsense! These people do not have the support of the American people as a whole and this constant prattling about which new war opportunity we “must” take must stop. “Wobbly” !!!

Isn’t it ironic for these people to be arguing for fighting on the same side as Al Qaeda?

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive
 

What better way to avoid a sequester for the Pentagon then to get bogged down in another war; this time a civil war in Syria.

And it is not as if the cheerleaders of new wars will be inconvenienced. In fact, they might even get their dream of ravishing the safety net for those who need it.

The situation is a terrible mess, and those next to Syria need to get more involved in solutions, not bluster.

There are consequences of action and inaction. We helped overthrew the government of Libya, but the arms and weapons slipped out, and the world is seeing the results. But in not moving against Libya, there may have been a slaughter.

It is a problem when decision makers have little knowledge of how the situation unfolded, and the history of the countries involved. Too often, the prism is the US prism, that isn’t relevant.

Posted by pavoter1946 | Report as abusive
 

Hey, we threw the Benghazi thing out there and it didn’t stick. Maybe we can find another “hype up” to get the right wing ranters invigorated again.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive
 

another example of how dictators spend wealth on weapons systems, and their operators, instead of improving the national economy and the lives of the citizens. A major flaw in the Middle east that may never be overcome because of the culture. it is a terrible thing.

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive
 

In my opinion, President Obama and his crew smartened up on Syria, just in a nick of time. Supporting Al Queda does not fit in with our story.

It is clear enough to all that the benefiters from Assad’s fall are the Gulf monarchies (our dictator friends) and Israel. The Gulf monarchies can get at Iran through Syria, thus shoring up their dictatorships against Iran Shiite influences in their countries. Israel is trying to figure out how to consolidate their control of the Golan Heights, and aims to stop Syria’s support of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, thus allowing them to take another crack at Lebanese territory. Of course, neither of these aims are according to US freedom and democracy “principles”. Clearly, the Assad government is a more straight path to greater democracy in Syria, than is Al Queda.

I would imagine that the US government is talking reality with Russia and China concerning Syria, and we are going to see an end to this horrific, Gulf monarchy/stupid-Turkey/Ridiculous-EU supported attack on the Syrian government and people.

And Zionist propaganda pieces such as this, from Reuters, will melt into the woodwork.

Oh Yes, just what we need now: get the bought out and paid for US Congress in on the issue. Probably they’d vote 525 to 10 for boots on the ground in Syria (to “protect” the Syrian people)!

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive
 

Some people seem to forget that the only Constitutional power invested in the Federal Government is national defense and regulating interstate commerce. All of the other stuff, including the social programs, are not mentioned there, and are not included in the Bill of Rights. If we had stuck to the government’s true role, the country would not be in this financial morass.

Having said that, I don’t necessarily mean that it is advisable to intervene in the affairs of other countries. National sovereignty is the right of all nations who do not attempt to use military force to invade other nations. We should use military power very judiciously and reluctantly.

Posted by stevedebi | Report as abusive
 

Wobbly? As others have mentioned, our government is thankfully trying to be somewhat neutral on this issue because we can’t support Islamic radicals. We have, after all, been fighting them for over 11 years.

Posted by TastySalmon | Report as abusive
 

Just for fun, let’s try an “outside the box” exercise. Who thinks an attack on U.S. soil would be imminent if we withdrew all of our troops from foreign nations and concentrated instead on vigorously defending our natural borders? There is a huge “bait and switch” operation going on here, and it is perpetrated by our military industrial complex with the full complicity of our government. Bottom line is, the military industry is a major employer and a massive revenue generator for the federal government. This industry cannot survive if what it produces is not consumed. Most often, this means people somewhere have to die. Are we willing to say in good conscience that only “bad” people die as a result of our military industrial output?

Posted by changeling | Report as abusive
 

Bennet Ramberg is doing Isreal’s bidding. Why doesnt he go to war himself if he loves war with Muslim countries so much!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive
 

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