Opinion

The Great Debate

Weighing U.S.intervention: Syria v. Congo

President Barack Obama, in a January New Republic interview, was asked bluntly if the United States should actively intervene in Syria’s civil war. He thoughtfully explained his reservations. Several concerned Syria, but the last one pointed to larger ethical issues. “And how do I weigh,” Obama asked, “tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?”

With this comment, Obama cut to the heart of an age-old dilemma about humanitarian military intervention — whether it is worth addressing some conflicts when you know that others continue to simmer, or boil over, at the same time?

This was the case in the 1970s when wars in the Horn of Africa, Uganda, Cambodia and elsewhere killed many hundreds of thousands. It was true in the 1980s when conflict intensified in places like Afghanistan, Angola and Central America. And in the 1990s when the Balkans and Rwanda and parts of West Africa blew up, while Sudan, Somalia and other wars continued.

But for all the terrible headlines today, Obama enjoys advantages that leaders in previous eras did not have. There are fewer wars in the world; more international consensus on what to do about them, and more capable U.S. forces that can help in the task even as other nations generally provide many of the peacekeeping troops. These conditions free Obama to make decisions about the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as Syria, on their respective merits — rather than remain paralyzed by broader philosophical conundrums.

While neither decision should be made lightly, there is a case for more assertive U.S. action in both Congo and Syria. These are now probably the world’s two worst wars that Washington is doing little to address.

Has Obama administration gone wobbly on Syria?’

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?

Washington’s next steps on Syria

The United States has officially recognized the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. It has also designated al Qaeda in Iraq-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, which often leads the fighting effort in Syria, as a terrorist organization, thus making it illegal for anyone to buy it even a cup of tea. This double-barreled political action, after months of hesitation, is intended to convey the message that Washington supports the relative moderates of the Syrian opposition wholeheartedly but wants to exclude from its ranks Sunni extremists.

The trouble is both moves come late in the game. At this point, U.S. influence may not be sufficient to accomplish the objectives.

A lot depends on the Syrians themselves. Most Syrians do not want to see sectarian slaughter following the current civil war. The question is whether they will be willing and able to restrain the Sunni extremists in their midst. It will take courage and commitment for today’s revolutionaries to speak up and protect Alawites, Christians, Druze and Shia who are suspected of supporting the Assad regime. Mass atrocity in the aftermath of political upheaval is more the rule than the exception. There is little sign that the international community will be able to mount a serious protection effort.

Obama faces only hard choices in Mideast

The conventional wisdom in Washington these days is that a newly empowered president, freed from the political constraints of reelection, will have more discretion, drive and determination to take on the Middle East’s most intractable problems.

Don’t believe it. This looks a lot more compelling on paper than in practice. Should President Barack Obama be tempted to embrace it, he may well find himself on the short end of the legacy stick.

Once again many on the left are summoning up the spirit of Obama unchained. Those who saw a new kind of American president in the Middle East – tough on Israel; sensitive to the Islamists and the Arabs (see his March 2010 Cairo speech), and bent on engaging the world in a spirit of mutual tolerance and respect – hope for his return.

Mideast’s WMD ‘red line’ gauntlet

“Red lines” are all the rage this year. Even as the swirl of Middle East headlines focus on Gaza and Egyptian politics, the region remains under two “red lines.” If Iran and Syria, respectively, cross the nuclear and chemical weapons thresholds, it would generate a strong, if undefined, Israeli and American response.

Washington’s red line, however, lays bare another issue: Should the executive branch have carte blanche to commit the country to military action? Secretary of State Hilliary Clinton Monday appeared to suggest so. She declared, in public remarks in Prague, that the Syrian government’s use of its chemical arsenal would be a “red line” for Washington to act.* Or is it time for Congress to make its own evaluation before the country again turns to the gun?

Let’s first recall how the red lines emerged (one literally) and why the line issued against Syria is now most concerning.

Mideast’s dynamic opportunity for peace

The Arab world may be in turmoil, but its leaders actually need an enduring peace—now in Gaza and long-term with Israel—because regimes across the region are vulnerable as never before.

Whether they like it or not, that’s true for newly elected Islamists. And old-order autocrats need resolution to prevent protests at home from turning against them.

The challenge for Washington is taking advantage of the vulnerability to work with the new political roster — including players it doesn’t know all that well. The tectonic political shift over the past two years offers a dynamic opportunity.

Romney’s big chance with Jewish voters

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney at the Monday foreign policy debate, should play to the Jewish TV audience like he was the star of a Borscht Belt revue.

Romney has a tempting assortment of issues he can tap to frame President Barack Obama as a leader whose policies are perilous for Israel. He can use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran, Egypt and even Syria to make a case that Obama’s policies are wrong for the Jewish state.

Given the tenuous state of relations between Israel and the United States, it’s surprising that, according to a recent American Jewish Committee survey of Jewish opinion, 61 percent approve of Obama’s handling of U.S.-Israeli relations, while 39 percent disapprove. Those are numbers Romney needs to change Monday night.

Syria as dress rehearsal: Securing WMD in midst of civil war

As Syria’s civil war spirals into mounting violence, the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stockpile is generating increased anxiety throughout the Middle East and beyond.  Taking precautionary measures, the United States has reportedly placed 150 “planners and other specialists” in Jordan to work on contingencies — including the chemical weapons threat.

As odd as it may seem, however, we are lucky that Syria’s chemical stockpile marks Damascus’s most serious weapons of mass destruction risk.  Had Israel not bombed the country’s weapons reactor in 2007, the embattled nation — and the rest of us – could have been staring at the globe’s first civil war with a nuclear dimension.

Consider the domestic and international panic that could ensue if rebel factions, terrorists, government insiders or looters in civil war got control of nuclear weapons or their feedstock, or strike at a nuclear reactor to release radioactive contents.  Yet this is what we could indeed face if any one of three relatively unstable countries with nuclear infrastructures–Pakistan, North Korea or Iran– were to suffer the violent political disintegration we see in Syria today.  Equally disturbing — the international community does not have a reliable plan to cope.

The dying Russian bear strikes again

Vladimir Putin sounded like the saber-rattler of old last week, when he accused the so-called historical West of trying to claw back its waning economic influence by waging “missile-bomb diplomacy” and “unilateral moves in violation of international law.” His stonewalling continued as he again refused to support further action on the Syrian crisis: Kofi Annan was greeted in Moscow this week with accusations of Western “blackmail,” and left without Russian backing for a future U.N. vote to sanction Syria. Putin even seems to be losing interest in the niceties of being a foreign leader, telling fellow G8 members, future Chinese premier Xi Jinping, and the Olympic opening ceremony that he was “too busy” to meet with them.

Only two months after its end, Dmitry Medvedev’s conciliatory presidency seems a distant memory. The ruling United Russia party (of which he is the ostensible chair) has passed a slew of authoritarian laws rolling back his liberal reforms. The most recent of these reintroduces criminal penalties for libel only a little more than half a year after they were dropped on Medvedev’s personal initiative.

Diplomats fear Putin’s return to the Kremlin means the “reset” of relations with the West under Medvedev will be lost along with it. During his election campaign, Putin accused Hillary Clinton of organizing anti-government protests. His party recently passed a law declaring any NGO that receives funding from outside Russia a “foreign agent.”

What would Romney do about Syria?

According to recent news reports, the Romney foreign policy team is trying to figure out what the presumptive Republican candidate thinks America’s role in the world should be. He’s been clear regarding the Iranian nuclear weapons program, promising that if he’s elected, Iran won’t get the bomb. But what about Afghanistan, say, or China? With less than six months left till Election Day, is he going to articulate distinctive foreign policy positions, or will he let Obama dictate the terms of the debate?

It would be understandable, given Romney’s desire to keep focused on jobs and the economy, if he were reluctant to get too far into the weeds on foreign policy. But come November, the American people will not be electing a financial adviser. They’ll be electing the leader of a world power.

Romney should not actually have much trouble outflanking Obama on foreign policy. The White House prides itself, rightly, on killing Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, and other jihadists who threatened U.S. citizens, interests and allies. But the national security strategy of a superpower with interests across the world cannot be reduced to counterterrorism. Nor can our global responsibilities be fulfilled, in the immortal phrase, by “leading from behind.”

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