The prevailing opinion about Syria seems to be rather dovish, which puts President Obama in a rather awkward position as a hawk. Our President, who once called Iraq a “dumb war” is now in a position to make a case for attacking a middle eastern country, that poses no specific, viable threat to the United States. Yet these are where the similarities end.
When I read the chorus of detractors online, I can only scratch my head. Many seem to be in the “meh” category. Others are in full dove mode, including Andrew Sullivan’s B-team. I even saw one post questioning if Obama even had a foreign policy doctrine, which to me, is atonishing. If you do not know this President’s foreign policy doctrine, and how it relates to Syria, you simply have not been paying attention.
Obama’s National Security Advisor is Susan Rice, a woman who once said about Rwanda, “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.” Obama’s ambassador to the UN is Samantha Power, who is famous (and infamous, in some circles) for her fervent support for action, both military and non-military, to stop and prevent massive human rights abuses. Obama’s clear doctrine has, and will continue to be, that the United States and our allies have a fiduciary responsibility to prevent massive human rights abuses, wherever it is feasible to do so.
This was the impetus for intervening in Libya. The US foresaw a massive human rights abuse about to unfold, and intervened to prevent it. And we did so, not by sending a massive invasion force of US Marines and occupying the country for a decade, but with a measured aerial campaign with the backing of NATO and other countries. And from this perspective, we were hugely successful. Is Libya in a perfect place? No, but hundreds of thousands of civilians weren’t slaughtered by a murderous dictator on a rampage. Did we kill some civilians in the process? Probably. Was it worth it? I would say so, and a lot of Libyans would probably agree.
Similarly, in Syria, will a limited airstrike against Assad solve all of Syria’s problems (or the Middle East’s problems)? Of course not. But it just may prevent another 1,000 people from dying (including 400 children) from an indiscriminate use of chemical weapons on civilians. And it’s from this perspective that we need to view this. The goal is limited; therefore the response is limited, and the results should be judged accordingly.
We’ve heard plenty of comparisons to Iraq and Afghanistan, and not enough comparisons to Rwanda. How many people have to die before someone intervenes? How many people do we have to save before the small amount of casualties from bombing becomes worth it? The detractors argument is long on idealism and short on reality. Maybe that’s why I’m siding with the pragmatist President.
And these two posts do nothing to change my mind. This high-minded abstention from action is exactly the type of logic that men of action despise. No! Don’t perform CPR! There may be complications! No! Don’t administer that smallpox vaccine! You may have side effects!
This isn’t a hawkish call to war. I’m not agreeing with Billy Kristol. But there are times when an airstrike was a judicious use of American power, and despite the scars of our recent past, this is one of them.
I’ll finish with a lesson from the past, which is something that so many detractors of action in Syria are so quick to burnish:
According to the US’s former deputy special envoy to Somalia, Walter Clarke: “The ghosts of Somalia continue to haunt US policy. Our lack of response in Rwanda was a fear of getting involved in something like a Somalia all over again.” President Clinton has referred to the failure of the U.S. government to intervene in the genocide as one of his main foreign policy failings, saying “I don’t think we could have ended the violence, but I think we could have cut it down. And I regret it.”