I am sympathetic to President Obama's notion that the international community should enforce the global prohibition against the use of ghastly chemical weapons in wartime against civilians. But I believe the president has chosen the wrong time and the wrong place to enforce this proposition—namely, by his threat to launch cruise missile strikes against Syria in the midst of its civil war, a conflict that does not directly threaten the national security interests of the United States.
Admittedly, if we do nothing, there are always dangers that such toxic weaponry in Syria could be seized by Al Qaeda irregulars and ultimately used against U.S. forces and the West. But this reality has been true for the past two years in Syria, and despite this President Obama so far has shown admirable restraint by not involving us in the dispute. He has understood that an American leader can no longer initiate a military incursion into a sovereign state without having a truly serious rationale following the mistakes associated with our two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And, in any case, firing missiles against Syria can only worsen the situation there, a point made by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.
Yes, the president has promised that this would be a one-time action, but, given the chaos in Egypt, factionalism in Lebanon, savage killing in Iraq, domestic turmoil in Turkey, huge Syrian refugee flows of half a million peoples each into three states—Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon—the consequences of his deed will be entirely unpredictable. For, if the strike proves successful, the war party in Washington, instead of accepting that for what it is—a limited action—will undoubtedly insist that we go further and completely finish off the Assad regime. And, if, on the contrary, the raids are unsuccessful, and Assad continues his use of chemical weapons, then the cries out of Washington will be to increase our bombing and even send in troops to depose the Assad dictatorship.
Either way, the United States will inextricably be drawn into its third major war in just twelve years—with inevitable adverse spillover effects all over the Middle East. And even then we will have no assurances that our “good” rebels will take power should Assad fall. Meantime, all of this will take place without any backing of the United Nations, with only lukewarm support of the Arab League, with virtual silence from NATO (except for the backing of France, Syria's former colonial master), and scant approval from the American people. And yet another dangerous casualty of the U.S. assault will be the end of any possibility of talks with Iran's new moderate president about ending that country's nuclear weapon production, which is a far greater peril to us than anything happening in Syria.
Nonetheless, Obama still has some space and time to choose alternatives to military action. He could increase sanctions on the Syrian economy, or impose new punitive financial measures on Syrian leaders, or augment weapon deliveries to the rebels, or bring Syria and Assad up to the International Crime Court for crimes against humanity, or obtain a UN General Assembly resolution urging Security Council action, or renew talks in Geneva. In taking any of these steps, Obama could nimbly revise his “red line” without seeming to retreat. This route is the better part of wisdom.