The best military option in Syria is no military intervention at all, National Journal's National Security Insiders say.
Despite President Obama's call for a limited military strike to punish Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons, a plurality of 34 percent of Insiders are against it. "No one has yet explained how involvement in someone else's sectarian civil war, with despicable characters dominating both sides, would serve U.S. interests," one Insider said.
"The United States should only use military force as part of a broader strategy to strengthen more moderate and pluralistically oriented opposition elements and to compel a swifter end to the conflict (whether through negotiations or on the battlefield)," another Insider said. " … Barring such a strategy, a narrow punitive strike over chemical-weapons use threatens to implicate the United States in Syria's war without impacting that war in any meaningful way."
One-third of Insiders preferred a broader intervention to tilt the conflict in favor of the opposition. "Simply punishing Assad is meaningless. We will pay some price one way or the other. If we are going to do something, let's be sure it's worth the cost," one Insider said. A narrow intervention, another added, "would show the United States to be a paper tiger afraid of getting involved more deeply in the conflict and would have no impact on the Syrian regime. Either take action to tilt the balance in favor of the secular, nationalist opposition, or remain neutral."
Only 27 percent of Insiders said a narrow intervention as Obama described was the best option. "If the purposes become too broad, strikes are less likely to take place and, if they do, less likely to succeed," one Insider said. "Making counter-chemical-weapons use the main purpose of strikes will increase the likelihood that they will take place, help deter future Syrian chemical-weapons use, and have a helpful deterrent impact on Iran and North Korea—two vital Western security interests."
A 9 percent minority proposed regime change as the goal of military intervention. "A regime which uses weapons of mass destruction should be removed from power," one Insider said.
Separately, two-thirds of Insiders supported President Obama's move to ask Congress for approval to launch a limited military strike. "Obama's ability to deal with Syria will be greatly strengthened if Congress votes to authorize his actions," one Insider said. "Of course, one can't help wondering, after watching how he came to ask for congressional approval, whether he has doubts about his own policy and wants Congress to either join him in owning the policy, or help him get out of the box his statements have put him in (in the same way Prime Minister Cameron let Parliament change his policy for him)."
"It is about time Congress was asked, and will have to answer, for a specific military action," another Insider said. "Congress has willingly abdicated this role for too long."
A vocal one-third minority was against Obama's decision. "A delayed request for congressional support shows a commander in chief not fully committed to using military power in this instance," one Insider said. "President blinked the U.S. into a corner and now must be prepared to ignore or walk away with tail between legs if Congress blocks actions."
As another Insider put it: "Americans expect their commander in chief to be decisive, not outsource the tough decisions to Congress."
1. U.S. military action in Syria should be:
- There should be no U.S. military intervention at this time 34%
- A broader intervention to tilt the conflict in favor of the opposition 30%
- A narrow intervention to punish Assad for using chemical weapons 27%
- Regime change 9%
NO U.S. MILITARY INTERVENTION
"The U.S. should hold a diplomatic circle around the Syrian situation; using force reinforces the legacy of American intervention and exacerbates anti-Americanism."
"Our interests in Syria do not warrant the commitment of U.S. blood and treasure."
"The primary American interest is not preventing the use or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; the primary interest is in halting the destabilizing impact of this burning conflict on the neighborhood. Obama's nonintervention strategy has failed to bring the conflict any closer to resolution—perhaps military force, properly applied, could help force an end."
"The U.S. should follow the British lead for a change."
"Will intervention bring down the regime? In that case, will al-Nusra replace it? If no regime change, what good is a pinprick attack? Have we thought through all the ramifications? I doubt it."
"It is hard to imagine that we have not already passed the point of no return regarding the ability to positively influence a desirable outcome through military action. Bluntly put, punching someone in the face until they do what you want only works if they know what you want. What are we wanting Assad to do?"
"America's fifth war in 15 years requires a better strategic rationale."
"The president has said no regime change, no change in the military balance, no further U.S. involvement. But we also know that we can't hit chemical stocks directly. With so many constraints, military action will be impotent and only make us look foolish."
"Syria is a fiction like Yugoslavia—both created out of colonial powers in World War I. This is a bloodbath; it will go on for some time, sadly. We can do little if anything to stop it."
"The debate on Syria should have Clausewitz turning in his grave. Politics are totally missing. At bottom, hawks think limited strikes could open the door to regime change; norm-maintainers and credibility mavens seem to think strikes to preserve norms and 'credibility' won't influence Syrian civil war. Better pundits, please."
"Pinprick strikes make no sense whatsoever. They will signal irresolution rather than determination."
"Our goal for military action should be to get Assad to the negotiating table. We cannot achieve regime change with air strikes, nor do we want the current rebels to win. For military action to have any worth, it needs to be accompanied by activities currently banned from the Senate bill—from political action in the country to more freedom of action that would force Assad to the table; therefore, it's highly unlikely to create the change we need."
"If you're going to use military force, do so to make a difference, not just send a message."
"Go big or go home."
"The proposed strike is inevitable. But if it's left to just a one-time strike, the humanitarian disaster of Syria will go on and on and on. The one real solution is regime change, but by the rebels, not the West. And for that to happen, the U.S. must get busy arming the rebels. Certainly, there is a risk of arms falling into the wrong hands, but let the Syrian Free Army deal with preventing that. They know the actors far better than any of us will."
"If the U.S. doesn't change the balance of power inside Syria, it won't have punished Assad enough."
"Our supportable interest is to protect the norm against WMD use. Achieving our grander interest in a stable, more democratic, or friendlier Syria is impossible at this juncture, even if we were not exhausted from Iraq and Afghanistan. And we are."
"That said, the effect of any action that has been subjected to the tortuous process that has ensued will be attenuated to the point that questions its relevance."
"It is time to level the playing field by taking out Assad's air forces, including his Russian-supplied attack helicopters."
"Covert action underlies this overt use of military force, and given the complexity of allied reaction (especially Turkey, Israel, Jordan, KSA, and others) as well as that of the Russians, probably will remain the primary means to affect an outcome."
"And it should have been done much earlier when "only" a few thousand were being slaughtered. This doesn't mean you need to put 'boots on the ground,' but does mean you have a coherent strategy to parry your enemies (like Iran) and rid the world of immoral barbarians like Assad."
"Very important to secure and destroy chem/bio assets before they come to U.S."
2. President Obama's move to ask Congress to approve military action was:
- Right 65%
- Wrong 35%
"The politics of doing it and asking forgiveness later are too hard. Better to have the Congress with him."
"Obama's ability to deal with Syria will be greatly strengthened if Congress votes to authorize his actions. Of course, one can't help wondering, after watching how he came to ask for congressional approval, whether he has doubts about his own policy and wants Congress to either join him in owning the policy or help him get out of the box his statements have put him in (in the same way Prime Minister Cameron let Parliament change his policy for him)."
"It was both right and wise."
"A congressional vote is appropriate, but this should have been the policy before the administration virtually committed itself to use force, rather than after. By announcing this so late, the administration looks irresolute and undermines any credibility or reputational benefit they might get from a strike. If the Congress votes yes, this sequencing risks combining all the disadvantages of acting with all the disadvantages of not acting. They need to decide on a policy and implement it without all the apparent waffling."
"What we perceive to be a narrow strike, if it is one, will not be seen as such in the region, except possibly by Israel. With Congress nearly paralyzed with political divisions, it will be important for us to have a national debate that clarifies our purposes and firms up our resolve one way or another. Obama's decision in this case need set no precedent, particularly in light of the president's decisions in the case of Libya."
"Involving the Congress and forcing wider public discussion of policy choices that are controversial and consequential will strengthen American democracy. If strikes do take place, respect for our country's deliberative and inclusive internal processes will be greater, and ownership of the resulting policy and actions will be bolstered."
"It is about time Congress was asked, and will have to answer, for a specific military action. Congress has willingly abdicated this role for too long."
"Right action, but he is reaping the results of his inattention to relations with Congress. If they feel like they are irrelevant until he really needs them, their reaction would be understandable. This is one case where a bus tour or campaign to communicate directly with the American people is inadequate, improper, and inappropriate ... but it has been his tool of choice in dealing with Congress. Let's see what happens now."
"It took him too long, but he did the right thing."
"It is the way a constitutional democracy is supposed to operate."
"This is obviously the right action that should have been undertaken on day one. If Boehner/McConnell sink this, the next massacre is on them. If they do approve, Obama has a far stronger hand. Obama has a fundamental weakness in that he can't make a decision. Even when he makes the rIght decision to go to Congress, it's too slow and too tortured. He doesn't look or act like a leader. It's not a Harvard debate society."
"It's about time Congress is forced to do its job."
"Right, but regrettable: The administration had so mismanaged the problem that it needed a time-out to stabilize and rebuild support."
"The action was right—but the White House's refusal to take the case to the American people and to make a strong case to Congress suggests the president may have done it in order to lose more than for the right reasons."
"But the timing is all wrong. This should have been done much earlier in order to gain buy-in from the legislative branch and achieve domestic and international unity against the rogue Syrian regime."
"The president's move was right but badly handled. He should have gone to Congress from the beginning. Marching everyone to the precipice of military action only to then decide for congressional approval was amateurish. That said, it was better than not doing it at all."
"If nothing else it will be good for the republic to finally have the Congress hold some degree of responsibility for a military action, and perhaps set a well-deserved precedent for legislative consultation prior to the use of military force."
"Obama's instincts are correct. This needs congressional approval. We cannot keep stumbling into wars without public support."
"Eleventh-hour converts to constitutional government should be welcomed wherever they emerge."
"Element of surprise lost while not receiving approval would be tantamount to the Senate's rejection of the Treaty of Versailles in terms of U.S. status in the world."
"There's a reason that the Constitution tilts toward the executive for these kinds of actions."
"One of the most incompetent displays since the late 1970s."
"While it was politically smart to bring this dysfunctional Congress into the blame circle, he has potentially set a precedent that subsequent presidents will curse him for far into the future."
"The president does not need authorization to conduct a limited strike. If he opts for a broader, more sustained engagement to tilt the balance in favor of the opposition, then getting the buy-in of Congress is essential. But my guess is that is not an option he will consider."
"If it affects a U.S. vital interest, it should not wait for congressional debate and erodes hard-fought constitutional gains by the office of the president across several administrations."
National Journal's National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of more than 100 defense and foreign policy experts. They include: Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Marion Blakey, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, Mark Brunner, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Lorne Craner, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Daniel Drezner, Mackenzie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mark Green, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, John Hamre, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Michael Herson, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Linda Hudson, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, David Kramer, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lindsay, Justin Logan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ronald Marks, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Larry Prior, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Frank Ruggiero, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Richard Wilhelm, Tamara Wittes, Dov Zakheim, and Juan Zarate.
This article appears in the September 10, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.