The Best Option in Syria? No Military Intervention, Security Insiders Say

Experts say Obama made right decision to ask Congress for approval.

A Free Syrian Army fighter fires his weapon during clashes with Syrian troops near Idlib, Syria Friday, June 15, 2012. 
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
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Sara Sorcher
Sept. 9, 2013, 5:30 p.m.

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:

(64 votes)

  • 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.”

BROAD­ER IN­TER­VEN­TION

“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.”

LIM­ITED IN­TER­VEN­TION

“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.”

RE­GIME CHANGE

“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:

(64 votes)

  • Right 65%
  • Wrong 35%

RIGHT

“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.”

“But un­ne­ces­sary.”

“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.”

WRONG

“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.

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