Obama critics oversimplify Syria dilemma

Criticizing the White House on its handling of the crisis in Syria is easy. Providing solutions is not.

Attacks are coming from both the left and the right.

The left correctly points out the humanitarian tragedy that, according to some estimates, has left 70,000 dead. It’s a brutal civil war, and reports suggest the well-armed troops of Syrian President Bashar Assad are making no effort to discriminate between combatants and civilians.

The sad question that the left can’t answer, however, is what makes Syria special? What about ongoing tragedies in Ethiopia, Myanmar, Nigeria and Somalia? What about repressive regimes in North Korea and Iran that pose an international threat? If America is to be the policeman of the world, which 9-1-1 calls should get priority?

The focus of the right seems to be on President Barack Obama’s statement that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would cross a “red line.” His apparent inaction sets a dangerous precedent, the right complains.

The first problem with the criticism is it begs the question of what Obama should have done in the effort to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons. If he had been silent, would his critics have congratulated him? Should he have specified the United States would do nothing if the regime used the weapons?

It is not the “red line” that is the problem, the right counters, but Obama’s failure to act when Assad crossed that line.

But at the height of calls for U.S. intervention, the United Nations said what the Assad regime has been saying all along: It was opposition groups that used chemical weapons, and they did so precisely to trigger U.S. involvement. Did Assad or his opponents use chemical weapons? The frustrating reality is that America is not sure.

In the run-up to the Iraq War, the White House took such claims by opposition groups at face value. The claims turned out to be baseless, but they had the intended effect of dragging America into a tragic and costly war.

In deciding whether to intervene, Obama must consider how he would do so. America has no appetite, after Iraq and Afghanistan, to put “boots on the ground.” Politicians and pundits suggest aerial strikes or no-fly zones, but such actions can trigger unintended consequences. Not only could American troops get dragged into a Syrian civil war, they could find themselves in a regional conflict with death counts that eclipse those in our most recent military ventures.

The crisis in Syria does not allow for perfect solutions. Armchair generals — especially those in Congress — are doing America no favors by exerting political pressure. Past presidents have made both good decisions and bad when confronting similar crises. Hopefully, in consultation with military and foreign-policy experts, this president will make good ones.

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Filed under obama, Syria, War

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