Congress on Syria: Down the Same Road Once Again

September 4, 2013

Comments made by Senator John McCain and others during yesterday’s hearings on Syria made me cringe in fear that the same people are about to lead us down the same dangerous road once again. America’s entry into its foreign adventures is often based on a faulty or incomplete understanding of both the problem and the envisioned solution. Execution is subsequently hobbled by policy tradeoffs and the sideways crabwalk of insufficient resources into issues whose true dimensions quickly dwarf the original description. Thus, we all too often see an escalation far beyond the original price tag in a series of tactical, operational, and (to the extent that anyone actually gives consideration to strategy) strategic half-steps, all but ensuring a suboptimal outcome (I described this dynamic in more detail at Foreign Policy’s Af-Pak Channel last year).

Ostensibly, the question under consideration is whether the US should conduct a limited punitive strike in response to the apparent Syrian crossing of the red line of chemical weapons use on its people. This was what the Obama administration was contemplating prior to throwing the issue open to Congressional consideration. Now that Congress is involved, however, some leaders want to stretch for more than the President was initially bargaining for.

When it comes to McCain, it is no surprise that the Max Bootian Republican senator, who spent a decent part of the Tuesday afternoon Senate hearing on Syria playing poker on his iPhone, is in favor of military action. What is disturbing, however, is the facile way in which he is glossing over the complexity of the situation.

McCain seemed to have all the answers in a brief interview with NPR on Tuesday morning. Steve Inskeep invoked Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s warning that once the US starts down the road of intervention in Syria, it may not be able to get off of it. When Inskeep asked McCain if this was a possibility that the country should be prepared for, McCain sidestepped the question by simply saying that the status quo was unacceptable.

Inskeep kept at it, asking, “As you think about the situation now, do you find anyone on the Syrian rebel side that makes you say, yeah, sure, they can run the country, it’d be fine?”

McCain was undaunted. “Sure. Both the Free Syrian Council and the Free Syrian Army are all good and legitimate people. The myth that has been pervaded that somehow we don’t know who they are is not true. The myth that they are not capable if they have the right weapons is also not true. They are fighting tanks with AK-47s.”

Secretary of State John Kerry took up a similar refrain, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “The opposition has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution, which will be broad-based and secular with respect to the future of Syria.”

Whatever action America takes, it must not be based on such fantasy. We have been down this road before, with America’s foreign policy leadership disingenuously glossing over the IEDs buried under their primrose path. If we have learned anything over the past decade, it should be that years of brutal repression followed by civil war do not give way quickly or easily to utopian democracy. What is more, people who have lived in fear, then fought brutally to overthrow their oppressors do not all share the same vision of the future.

Not all freedom fighters are altruistic and chivalrous. (And by the way, Senator McCain, as romantic as fighting tanks with AK-47s sounds, the opposition does in fact have heavy weapons). The FSA, like all sides in the brutal Syrian civil war, has been implicated in horrific human rights abuses. Many in this collection of forces likely have visions for the country that differ from that of the Syrian National Council, the most prominent opposition group. This group, too, consists of people who will likely have disparate aims once Assad’s regime evaporates and chaos reigns. We have seen how little constitutions mean until the legacy of dictatorship has been wiped away and societies find some consensus. We should expect nothing more from a relatively disorganized Syrian opposition that is nowhere near victory.

It may seem that these longer-term concerns are not germane to the immediate question about limited strikes to protect a red line, but in fact, they are absolutely critical to any responsible decision. The question must always be, “What comes next?” Why, then, are our leaders once again ignoring the lessons we have learned time and again over the past ten years? Indeed, the now-familiar pattern was apparent to President John F. Kennedy decades ago: “The troops will march in; the bands will play; the crowds will cheer; and in four days everyone will have forgotten. Then we will be told we have to send in more troops. It’s like taking a drink. The effect wears off and you have to have another.”

Ambassador Ryan Crocker foresees a similar possibility in Syria. What if Assad “continues on in defiance,” he recently asked. “[M]aybe he even launches another chemical attack to put a stick in our eye — and then what? Because once you start down this road, it’s pretty hard to get off it and maintain political credibility.”

Credibility has been the watchword throughout this debate. But once troops have been committed (even if not on the ground), the debate takes on an entirely different tenor. Now is the time for a full accounting. Now is the time make a fully informed decision, not to pass off highly irresponsible hand-waving as due diligence.


Peter J. Munson is senior vice president for preventive services and global crisis management for a private sector corporation and a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer. He is the author of two books, War, Welfare & Democracy: Rethinking America’s Quest for the End of History and Iraq in Transition: The Legacy of Dictatorship and the Prospects for Democracy.

Photo Credit: Richard Johnstone