[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]
Paris-based grand reporter Christopher Dickey has an “Open letter to President Obama” in TDB that has been making the rounds (on my FB timeline and email inbox), in which he cautions the president that “Syria is not our war.” The lede: “Assad has learned from history that what doesn’t kill him will make him stronger. President Obama, you need to understand that lesson too.” Dickey then enumerates the many US military interventions—limited and not—that have ended in fiasco or engendered perverse consequences, though covers his rear in acknowledging the few that have yielded positive results (e.g. Bosnia, Kosovo), but which he says were exceptions to the rule. There’s a certain amount of fallacious reasoning here, as the fact that Lebanon 1982-84, Libya 1986 etc etc didn’t work out as the US had intended does not ipso facto mean that such will be the case in Syria next week (or even later today, who knows). Every case is specific. There is no hard and fast rule. Iraq 1991 and Afghanistan 2001—”good” interventions in my book—were not Iraq 2003 (bad). And the West militarily intervening in Syria in 2011-12 (bad idea, I insisted) was not the same as Libya 2011 or Mali 2013 (good). And the latter two have worked out okay so far (oh, of course Libya is still a mess—how could it not be?—but the psychotic Qadhafi regime is gone, and for that alone the intervention was worth it).
But Syria 2013 may be different from 2011-12. I don’t know. I’ve been totally opposed to intervening there—and this is at least the 337th time I’ve said it—but, as I argued two days ago, the latest chemical attack may have changed the equation, that now something may have to be done, though I have no idea what that something should be. It has become tedious and boring to say that there are no good options in Syria and that a Western military strike—which will necessarily be limited—may not only not work but make things worse (not to mention go horribly wrong, by accidentally killing a lot of civilians). But the argument of Bernard Guetta (to which I linked on Thursday) and others that the costs of inaction may now outweigh those of a limited military strike—and with all its risks and uncertainties—is not one I can dismiss.
In regard to an eventual intervention, there are three issues that need to be laid to rest. One has to do with international law. David Rieff in TNR the other day asserted that a US intervention, in the absence of a UNSC resolution, would be “illegal.” Legality, shmegality. Or, to borrow from David Ben Gurion, um-shmum! Seriously, who gives a caca about the United Nations Security Council?! It is, of course, nice to have the green light from the UNSC when intervening militarily somewhere—to have the benediction of the “international community” (i.e. to have Russia and China in one’s corner)—but it hardly matters one way or the other, in that no state is going to forswear military intervention outside its borders in the face of a UNSC veto, nor will there be any legal consequences for that state if it does what it does against the wishes of the UNSC. And does anyone (in America or Europe) seriously argue that the US (and France etc) should have its action thwarted by a Russian or Chinese veto?
Secondly, on US congressional approval. I’m not going to get into a legalistic-type argument here—and US law, unlike international, is an important consideration for a president—except to assert that a president should not need prior congressional authorization for a limited military operation somewhere, particularly if it doesn’t involve ground forces. Generally speaking, Congress—or parliament elsewhere—should be consulted if the US (or UK, France, etc) plans a limited operation but must not have a veto (as was the case in the British House of Commons yesterday). On this matter—of foreign policy—, I am a longtime believer in the supremacy of the executive over the legislative.
For more on these issues, see U of Chicago Law School prof Eric Posner’s piece in Slate, “The U.S. has no legal basis to intervene in Syria: But of course that won’t stop us.” And on the British vote, see Alex Massie’s commentary in The Spectator, “On Syria, parliament has voted to have no policy at all.”
Thirdly, the question of public opinion. Those arguing against an intervention in Syria have been citing polls showing large majorities of Americans opposed to the idea. Likewise in France and the UK. It’s only normal that public opinion would be reticent on this score (there is no rhyme or reason for any middle American or citoyen lambda in France to favor bombing Syria). But presidents (or prime ministers) cannot be guided by polls when making such decisions. And while the public in its majority may have the right instincts on military interventions, it doesn’t always (e.g. polls in 2003-04 showed majorities supporting the Bush administration’s action in Iraq). A president (or PM) has to do what he thinks in the national interest, not what some polls tells him.
UPDATE: Fred Kaplan at Slate weighs in on “Obama’s gamble,” arguing that his “seeking congressional approval for his Syria strike was risky and right.”
2nd UPDATE: David Rothkopf at FP has an analysis—which I do not necessarily share in its entirety—of “The gamble,” in which he enumerates the “five big consequences of the president’s call to let Congress decide about America’s Syrian intervention.”
3rd UPDATE: On the French position, Hubert Védrine has a must read interview in the JDD, in which he asserts, entre autres, that “La pire des solutions à ce stade serait d’adresser un signal d’impunité au régime syrien, mais aussi à d’autres puissances et d’autres groupes dangereux.”
4th UPDATE: For more on the French position, see Yochi Dreazen’s piece in FP, “Paris Match,” in which he describes “how France became America’s favorite—and sometimes only—shooting buddy.”
5th UPDATE: Steven A. Cook, whose analyses I respect, has an op-ed in WaPo explaining why he no longer supports intervention in Syria.