Thursday, September 5, 2013

Skin in the game:
How Obama can make his case on Syria


“How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here, because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing...”

— British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in a radio broadcast, September 27, 1938, referring to the crisis in Czechoslovakia

“My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line.”

— President Obama, Stockholm, Sept. 4



ON WEDNESDAY, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved, 10-7, the White House draft resolution on a military strike against Syria for suspected use of chemical weapons. The Senate resolution limits U.S. military intervention there to a maximum of 90 days, and bars the use of ground troops. The full Senate votes on the resolution next week; The Daily Beast reported that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could bring the resolution to the Senate floor as soon as Monday, with a full vote possible by Wednesday.

Until then, President Obama has his work cut out for him as he tries to persuade a balky Congress and a war-weary American public that a military intervention in Syria is both a strategic necessity and a moral imperative.

There’s something in the latest public opinion polls to suggest this could be a messaging problem. A new Pew Research survey finds that 60 percent of Republicans, 33 percent of Democrats, and 54 percent of independents think the White House rationale for intervention is spelled out “not clearly enough.”

To that end, with plain speaking at his disposal, the president really needs to build two coalitions. The first one, among those Democrats, Republicans and independents, is the immediate domestic challenge, and one he’s been working on in his own low-key way. The second coalition is just as important, and maybe more so: President Obama needs to try to build a consensus with chin-pulling NATO countries, and, especially, the various Gulf states bordering and neighboring Syria — the nations with more at risk that they may be willing to admit.

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The White House power-pointed presentation started on Tuesday, with Secretary of State John Kerry appearing at the first Syrian-attack hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

At the hearing, James Risch, the Idaho Democratic senator, seemed to distill the concerns of a lot of Democrats (and probably the near even spilt of Americans as reflected in two new major polls from Pew and ABC and The Washington Post) when he said: “If this was an attack against any American, against any American interest, this would be a no-brainer for me. But I’m reluctant at this point.”

Risch wasn’t alone in his reasoning. Florida Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson told MSNBC on Wednesday that “this is a situation that is essentially none of our business.”

And on Sunday, New York Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel told “Meet the Press” that “I don’t see any way that a civil war in Syria, and the fact that this evil man is using chemicals to kill his own people ... affects, directly or indirectly, our national security.”

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THE PROBLEM with such thinking is that it compartmentalizes something that doesn’t respect compartments. The use of chemical weapons isn’t a water’s-edge issue, if it ever was.

The prospect of chemical weapons doesn’t answer to the convenience of borders and geography. The portability of such weapons, their ease of use and their low cost (certainly relative to other, more sophisticated arsenals) are malign force multipliers for any outlier state — or, frighteningly, any non-state terrorist element anywhere in the Middle East or the world at large — to make use of.

At a time of their choosing.

Kerry grasped this at Tuesday’s hearing. “I cannot emphasize enough ... how critical the choice we make here will be not just to this question of Syria but [also] to the support we may or may not anticipate on the Middle East peace process, to the future of Egypt, to the transformation of the Middle East ...

“There’s no way to separate one thing from all of the rest. Relationships are relationships, and they are integrated, and that’s why this is so important.”

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Some in the current debate have tried to juxtapose the disaster of the Iraq experience and the ongoing tragedy in Syria. But the bogus premises and faulty intelligence that preceded the United States’ quagmire in Iraq aren’t in evidence now.

Unless the United Nations inspectors reveal that the Aug. 21 gas attacks were a complete fiction, there’s plenty of intel available.

We have the dispositive intelligence proving the fact of the crime alleged. No hypothetical aluminum tubes or yellowcake uranium this time. The evidence is there, videotaped and observed by various humanitarian organizations and the world’s media: the bodies of 1,429 people — 426 of them children – in locations within Syria that were held or contested by the rebel forces.

That’s the basic distinction between what drew the United States into war in Iraq and the situation now unfolding in Syria, and it’s something that critics of Obama’s strike plans have ignored or overlooked:

We went into Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction. We don’t have to go into Syria to know that weapons of mass destruction exist. There are at least 1,429 mute witnesses attesting to that.

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THIS ISN’T some hysterical, forehead-vein-popping cry for American invasion. It’s recognition that, first, Syria’s almost-certain chemical aggression demands an answer in military terms; second, it’s a recognition that that answer needn’t, and shouldn’t, come from one country in the world.

Qatar’s French-made Dassault Mirage fighters enforced the no-fly zone over Libya in 2011; with regional stability more at stake now than in 2011, the Qataris might be persuaded to perform a similar operational role over Syria, with flying time between Doha and Damascus shorter than that required to get into Libyan airspace two years ago.

Jordan, which borders Syria, has about 110,000 active-duty military; its armed forces are provisioned by a number of foreign suppliers including the United States; its air force boasts considerable offensive, transport and reconnaissance aircraft made by American manufacturers.

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Turkey, which also borders Syria, has about 500,000 active-duty personnel, and more than 1 million if reserves are counted. Not to mention an air force well supplied with refueling tankers, satellites and indigenous drone technology.

Saudi Arabia, a long-time ally of the United States, claims at least 650,000 active-duty personnel and an air force that is, thanks largely to American military foreign aid, the most powerful moderate Arab military force in the region.

There are others, of course – Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait – but the point’s made. To sell this to the American people, President Obama needs to say more about the possible roles of Middle Eastern nations in the military intervention, the ones with the most to gain, and to lose.

Just because those countries can’t do everything, militarily speaking, is no justification for them being expected to do little or nothing. A regional problem – and that’s what this is right now, or soon will be – demands an equal regional response. Everyone’s got to get it up on this one.

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THE HANDICAPPING’S already started on the odds for success or failure of the Senate resolution. If the resolution goes down to defeat next week, with both Democrats and Republicans crowing about it each for their own separate reasons, it might look in the short-term like a defeat, if not a flat-out humiliation, for President Obama – and (geopolitically) the United States itself.

But after the Senate votes, if Assad repeats what his regime almost certainly did on Aug. 21, if he kills citizens en masse with gas again, with an equally high body count or worse – or if chemical weapons somehow make their way into another location in the Middle East in a way that suggests an expansion of this threat – that would confirm (to the embarrassment of critics) what Obama said was possible all along: chemical weapons would have crossed a Rubicon, moving from the exotic unthinkable, an isolated method of warfare employed by a megalomaniac, to something approaching the quotidian — the new everyday weapon of convenience, the same one long and memorably referred to as “the poor man’s atomic bomb.”

However hard they are to see in the current fog of one country’s civil conflict, the consequences of such a scenario are wider and more ominous for more than just the people of the Middle East, and more possible than we might think.

That’s why, to one degree or another, we’ve all got skin in this game.

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If the White House intervention plan is going to be successfully put across, in the halls of Congress and the hearts and minds of Americans, this is how the president is going to have to do it.

He’ll need to sell the plan to Congress and the American people as a truly coalitional exercise, with the United States first among several capable equals, taking the logistical and operational lead, command and control a given, but distributing much of the work of reconnaissance, no-fly-zone enforcement, drone strikes and regional intelligence among military partners in the strike campaign — and doing it all, consistent with the Senate resolution, without one American boot on Syrian soil.

He’ll need to sell it to them by detailing the scope of the planned military strikes, the number of off-site American forces to be used, and a timetable certain for actually arming and equipping the credible rebel forces the coalition can work with — all of it done to further the process, however fitful and tragic, of removing the operational capabilities of chemical weapons from Assad’s arsenal; leveling the conventional battlefield with arms, reconnaissance and intel, at least making it a fairer fight between the rebels and Syrian forces; and working back-channel, via the UN (Security Council if possible, General Assembly if necessary), to achieve some wider consensus for at least the framework of a successor government to the Assad regime.

Which is all the United States can do. Which is all any country could do.

And he’ll need to sell the plan to the moderate Gulf states comprising the Arab League by calling on their sense of nationalism; their histories and cultures; their desire for economic and military stability; their grasp of American foreign aid’s role in that economic and military stability; and their recognition of what’s at stake — what is, finally, nothing more or less than a matter of regionally enlightened self-interest.

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SENATOR Chris Murphy of Connecticut said at Tuesday’s hearing that “there both has to be a problem that needs to be solved and a way to solve it.”

The problem is obvious. What can be done about it? In the short term, a fair amount. Anything that stymies Syrian air forces and keeps them on the ground, or gets in the way of the Syrian military moving on the ground, is by definition an equalizer for the rebels.

The Syrian air force can’t fly if its runways are destroyed. They can’t exactly move fighter jets and helicopter gunships into residential neighborhoods. Some parts of the regime's command and control — server farms, satellite locations, refueling centers, the various veins and arteries of infrastructure going into and out of known military bases — can’t quickly be moved at all.

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Acting on these known, relatively immobile military targets is a good place to begin. Other situations, other opportunities would turn up organically, in the course of the campaign.

In the meantime, the Obama administration should do whatever else it can do. Including what it should have done months and months ago. Josh Rogin, writing in The Daily Beast, reported on Aug. 29 of how the administration chose to ignore requests for gas masks from the Syrian opposition — requests “dating back more than a year.”

Rogin reports: “One former Obama-administration official said the national-security staff reviewed a list of nonlethal humanitarian and medical aid that the U.S. could provide to opposition groups more than a year ago and ruled out providing gas masks, though thousands sit in Defense Department warehouses all over the region, left over from the war in Iraq.”

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TUESDAY’S HEARING on the Hill showed reluctant or resistant members of Congress basically asking for pre-emptive guarantees, certainties before the fact of the event. And that’s not entirely possible. Men and women don’t just die in the fog of war; sadly, every year we hear reports of some of our nation’s warriors being killed in training exercises, a long way from combat. We would have to expect that the unexpected, the unanticipated, would be a part of any military operation against Syria.

But the risks of action in Syria, limited or otherwise, can’t outweigh the risks of inaction. These unknown unknowns have to be balanced by what we know — at least 120,000 Syrians have been killed in the current civil war; Syria is hemorrhaging its future at a rate of 5,000 refugees every day; there are at least 2 million refugees, making the civil war a potentially regional destabilizing event — and by what we can be reasonably sure of:

With no brake on violating international laws against chemical weapons, with no concerted pushback against what the UN has already called “a crime against humanity,” there’s not a reason on earth to think the Assad regime won’t do it again, or that some other malignant entity won’t try to do it for the first time.

At a time, and a place, of their choosing.

Also published at Medium.com. Image credits: Obama top: via Express Tribune. Poll snapshot graphic: The Huffington Post. Risch: J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press. Rice, Powell, Bush and Rumsfeld: The White House? Syrian gas victims: via French Ministry of Defense. 

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