Opinion

The Great Debate

Obama’s flawed case for a Syria strike

We should not bomb Syria without a vital national security interest and a precise foreign policy objective.

Right now, the Obama administration has not established either.

Under the United States’ legal and historical precedents, a president faces the highest burden for justifying military attacks that are essentially optional: actions not required for self-defense and which are not in response to an attack on the United States — or imminent threat of such attack.  Intervening in the Syrian civil war fits that difficult category.

Even supporters of Syrian intervention do not claim it is required for U.S. security, since the Assad regime has not directly attacked the United States or its interests. In fact, the mission’s stated goal doesn’t attempt to qualify as traditional self-defense. The aim is to “prevent or deter” Syria from killing its citizens with chemical weapons, according to the Obama administration’s original draft resolution.

The White House has every right to make the humanitarian case for intervention, a rationale pressed earnestly in Bosnia and dishonestly in Iraq. This altruistic argument, however, has rarely provided the sole policy or legal justification for a proactive attack on a sovereign nation. That’s true both in American history and under international law. Given that context, the administration’s piecemeal case for limited intervention is particularly hard to accept.

Administration officials are proposing a military operation that claims to fall short of war while sidestepping any notion of conventional victory over the Assad regime.

Syria: What happened to diplomacy?

There is a bizarre quality to the U.S. public debate about bombing Syria. Much time and effort has been spent analyzing President Barack Obama’s decision to finally call for a vote in Congress: whether this was a wise choice; what the repercussions of an attack may be; the (il)legality of acting without a United Nations Security Council mandate; the moral case for bombing, and the strategic case for restraint.

But almost no attention has been paid to a fundamental question: Have all other options been exhausted?

Obama has presented the American public with a false binary choice: taking military action or doing nothing.

from David Rohde:

Has Iraq shackled American power?

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 “another Iraq” are fueling opposition to the use of force on both sides of the Atlantic. And the Obama administration’s 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.

In Syria, try banks before bombs

As President Barack Obama weighs the U.S. response to chemical weapons attacks against Syrian civilians, one soft power option should still be at top of his to-do list: cutting off access to the U.S. financial system to those doing business with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

Russian banks and others are reported to be helping the Assad regime circumvent U.S. and EU sanctions by holding Syrian money while continuing to do business, legally, in the Europe Union and the United States. With a more aggressive and coordinated approach to financial sanctions, Obama could inflict serious capital damage on Assad’s enablers — without collateral damage in the form of slain or injured civilians.

Aggressive sanctions could be more effective than bombing in hastening the end of the Syrian civil war by imposing substantial financial costs on those who are propping up Assad — without enraging the Arab street.

Time for action on Syria

The Syrian civil war now threatens to split the Middle East along a Sunni-Shia chasm. The horrifying news reports Wednesday about the Assad government’s possible chemical attack on civilians, if proven true, mean that the Obama administration’s “red line” has been crossed yet again.

Thursday, both France and Turkey called for stronger action — including a possible use of force. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) renewed his call for a no-fly zone.

But does all this mean that the United States and the European Union will now follow a more assertive policy in Syria?

from David Rohde:

A moment of truth in Damascus and Washington

The images emerging from Syria -- from this hysterical young girl to these rows of corpses -- should be a turning point in a conflict that has killed 100,000 people. The deaths, if proven, demonstrate either the depravity of Bashar al-Assad -- or the rebels fighting him.

But the Obama administration has spent so much time distancing itself and Americans from acting in Syria that a serious U.S. reaction is politically impossible in Washington. And instead of learning its lesson -- and respecting Syria’s dead -- the White House is repeating its destructive pattern of issuing empty threats.

Hours after the images appeared, National Security Adviser Susan Rice demanded on Twitter that the Syrian government “allow the UN access to the attack site to investigate” and vowed that “those responsible will be held accountable."

Lessons for interpreting Iran

Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani speaks with the media in Tehran June 17, 2013. REUTERS/Fars News/Majid Hagdost

Almost two weeks have passed since Hassan Rohani, the mild-mannered cleric often described as politically and socially moderate, was elected president of Iran by a landslide — surprising virtually every expert and foreign government as well as many Iranians. The postmortems have been fast and furious — mostly from the same experts who got the elections wrong in the first place, which makes one wonder whether the proverbial monkey with a typewriter can predict Iran better than those with iPads.

Iran watchers now appear to be falling over themselves trying to parse Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s intentions in “allowing” a free election that defied every expectation. For it is Khamenei who reigns supreme over the land. When he wants to, that is.

Congress should lead on Syria

Civilians hold up pictures of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and of his father, Syria’s late president Hafez al-Assad (R), as they celebrate in Qusair June 6, 2013. REUTERS/Rami Bleibel

The American public is hearing it again – the drumbeat for intervention into a foreign land. Now it’s about Syria.

For decades, presidents have dominated the decision-making to commit American forces to battle. But today, as the country approaches another decisive moment, after a decade of problematic wars, perhaps the time has come for another decider, Congress, to enter the picture. The legislature must not just ask the tough questions but assume the leadership role. A novel idea? Not really. After all this is what the Constitution demands. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have led the beat calling for Washington to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria to give the rebels a chance to protect themselves while bringing down the Assad regime.

Civil wars and Syria: lessons from history

A man at a site recently hit by what activists said was a Scud missile in Aleppo’s Ard al-Hamra neighborhood, February 23, 2013. REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman

Most of the international debate about Syria policy focuses on how to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power.

Options for NATO states and key Arab League partners include everything from enlisting Russia’s help in a diplomatic approach, with a conference now envisioned for early June, to arming the rebels to perhaps even supporting them with limited amounts of airpower. Removing Assad, however, would no more end the Syrian conflict than overthrowing Saddam Hussein in 2003 brought stability to Iraq. The United States must create a more integrated overall strategy.

For Russia, Syria is not in the Middle East

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with (clockwise, starting in top left.) U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, British Prime Minister David Cameron, next Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. REUTERS/FILES

A string of leaders and senior emissaries, seeking to prevent further escalation of the Syria crisis, has headed to Moscow recently to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. First, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, then British Prime Minister David Cameron, next Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and now, most recently, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon These leaders see Russia as the key to resolving the Syria quandary.

But to get Russia to cooperate on any stabilization plan, the United States and its allies will have to take into account Russia’s significant interests in the Mediterranean region.

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