We should have learned long ago that meddling in other countries’ civil wars is a no-win effort at diplomacy, particularly when the United States acts alone.
We’re heading into another of these buzz saws, this time in Syria, as President Obama prepares to launch air strikes against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
It was more than a year ago that Obama drew a red line for Assad. Obama said that the United States was not interested in intervening militarily in the Syrian civil war. But the use of chemical weapons would “change my calculus” on that matter, Obama said in August 2012.
According to statements from Secretary of State John Kerry, Assad’s government has danced all over that line. Kerry said in a news conference last week that the Syrian government on Aug. 21 attacked rebel-held territory with chemical agents. The attack killed more than 1,400 people, including more than 400 children. Samples from the area later tested positive for the nerve agent sarin.
Last week, it seemed virtually certain that the United States was going to launch an immediate punitive strike against Syria. But even as our forces were moving into position, unnamed Obama administration officials were announcing that there would be no “boots on the ground,” that “regime change” was not a goal of the attack, and that the air attacks would be of short duration, perhaps only three days or so.
It soon became apparent that the planned strike on Syria was more about saving face than accomplishing any strategic goals.
Our allies soon fled. Arab nations refused to give their support. The British Parliament handed Prime Minister David Cameron a stern rebuke in its almost unprecedented refusal to grant him authorization to use military force.
Obama quickly relented, announcing that he would seek the approval of Congress for military action — but left open the question of whether he would do so even if Congress declined. Obama now suggests he does not need congressional approval, but as a senator he insisted such permission was foundational to the republic.
The question of whether and when a president has the authority to engage in military action without the consent of Congress has long been a matter of debate. But the spectacle of a president asking for congressional approval while suggesting he may do what he wants anyway raises serious constitutional questions.
Meanwhile, Assad is crowing about how he faced down mighty America and warning about a regional conflagration if the U.S. dares attack. It is only a matter of time before more chemical bombs fall on helpless Syrian civilians.
Lost amid the chaos is the question of whether it is in the national interest to intervene in a faraway civil war in which both the government and the rebels are unsavory characters.
This is nothing short of a debacle for American foreign policy, the consequences of which the country may face for years to come.