Obama's Syrian challenge: Avoiding a total loss of America's ability to lead


President Obama and Swedish Prime Minister Reinfeldt hold a joint press conference on international relations and seeking international support for military action in Syria, September 4, 2013.

In the annals of dishonest Washington debates, the question of whether to strike the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons is notable for its breathtaking incoherence.

Nor is this dubious distinction confined to one side of the aisle; both Democrats and Republicans have resorted to distortions and lies to further their cases for and against a limited intervention of the kind proposed by President Barack Obama.

Among those against the notion of any intervention in Syria, there have been a variety of rationales articulated.

Among them, a U.S. missile strike against Syrian chemical weapons related targets will ignite a larger war in the Middle East; intervention will inevitably involve the commitment of ground troops; chemical weapons were not used by Assad's forces but by the rebels; and most credibly, we have no dog in this fight. Only this last argument carries water.

As the Syrian civil war has raged, Assad has attracted Iranian ground troops, Iranian elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah terrorists to his battle. For their part, rebels who were once dominated by domestic opponents of Assad's brutal dictatorship are now joined by a hodgepodge of groups, many affiliated with al-Qaida.

For many Americans unfamiliar with the Syrian landscape, the only question is why we should care. The answer is that unchecked, this war will spill over to our allies in the region. That as the world's sole superpower, we have an interest in preventing the use of weapons of mass destruction. And that there is no greater blow to Iran short of an actual attack that will diminish its power than the removal of its greatest Arab ally, Assad.

Finally, some allege that any strike will embroil the United States in a broader Middle East war. But how?

Who will fight? Will Assad seek to bring the full might of the United States against him, rather than accepting a few empty missile strikes? Will Hezbollah drag Lebanon into a fight with the United States that could destroy their already precarious nation? Will an Iran that has been walking a tightrope in pursuit of nuclear weapons for over two decades throw it all away to keep Assad afloat? Or will the Russians choose this moment for World War III? These are ridiculous notions.

The problems posed by Barack Obama's arbitrary red lines on chemical weapons use in Syria are not about a wider war or boots on the ground. They are about an incoherent White House policy whose advocates cannot explain why Libya was a humanitarian imperative but Syria is a sideshow.

Why death by chemicals is somehow more horrifying than 110,000 dead by conventional means. Why the time for attention to the Middle East is over, but Syria is suddenly vital.

Obama administration policy leaves the American people wondering what the president seeks to achieve with a few missile strikes.

Will he decapitate the Assad regime? He insists not.

Will he turn the tide for the rebels? After promising to arm them and largely failing, it will be hard to make that case.

Is it the world that is clamoring for American action? Hardly.

And what next? Are we working to empower a next generation Syrian government? Sorting the Islamist extremists from the true democrats? Not to hear the administration tell it.

The challenge is how to help good men and women rid themselves of a tyrant, and how to help them replace that tyrant with something that is not worse. While a well placed missile may be a step along that path, that is far from manifest. The challenge of Syria for Barack Obama is not a wider war. It is a complete loss of American leadership, power, and credibility.


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About the Author



  • As a long-time Senate Committee on Foreign Relation senior professional staff member for the Near East and South Asia, Danielle Pletka was the point person on Middle East, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan issues. As the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI, Pletka writes on national security matters with a focus on Iran and weapons proliferation, the Middle East, Syria, Israel and the Arab Spring. She also studies and writes about South Asia: Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.

    Pletka is the co-editor of “Dissent and Reform in the Arab World: Empowering Democrats” (AEI Press, 2008) and the co-author of “Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran” (AEI Press, 2011) and “Iranian influence in the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan” (AEI Press, 2012). Her most recent study, “America vs. Iran: The competition for the future of the Middle East,” was published in January 2014.


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