Since July 4, 2010, I have been suggesting here that George W. Bush, not Barack Obama, was the key President of our third great national crisis, and that he set us on a course which we are fated to keep for some time. That course involved lower taxes and a permanent deficit that made a drastic government response to economic crisis impossible at home. Abroad it included a new definition of America's role in the world: essentially, it asserted a unilateral right to remove any regime that either supported terrorism or developed or used "weapons of mass destruction," broadly defined, that we believed should not have them. That doctrine repudiated more than a century of American adherence to international law, as well as the charter of the United Nations. Sadly in Syria the Obama Administration has adopted a modified version of that doctrine. The United States reserves a unilateral right to take any military action it finds appropriate against a regime that seems to have used chemical weapons against its own people.
Barack Obama is not a starry-eyed idealist like George Bush, but some of his foreign policy team fit that description, and he is at heart a compromiser. He has long resisted calls to get directly involved in the Syrian civil war, although he foolishly stated that it should end with the removal of Bashar Assad. That was foolish not only because there do not seem to be any "good guys" in the Syrian civil war and because the fall of Assad's regime will mean a bloodbath and millions of new Shi'ite refugees, but because the Syrian government, which on a per capita basis commands one of the half-dozen largest armies in the world (along with Israel and the two Koreas), is clearly winning the conflict. Somehow, however, Obama was persuaded some months ago to declare a "red line" regarding the Syrian government's potential use of chemical weapons. This echoed the Bush doctrine: the United States government, it seems, still reserves the right to decide what weapons other governments should use, and what weapons they should have. (The President has repeatedly taken the latter position regarding Iran.) Now, some one has used chemical weapons in Iran, and we are rushing to judgment. The Administration claims to have a radio intercept definitely implicating the Syrian government. The Johnson Administration claimed the same thing about Hanoi and the "incident" in the Tonkin Gulf in 1964, and not for decades did we definitely learn that the intercept referred to an authorized attack that had taken place some time previously. I hope the Administration has real proof.
I spent 22 years of my life, from 1990 until 2012, teaching policy and strategy to American and foreign military officers. Military action, we taught, should serve a clearly defined political objective, and strategy should make sure that it actually reaches that objective. The Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration in Iraq, is failing that test. Leaks imply that our cruise missile strikes will once again target elements of the regime, including military headquarters and the security forces. The leaks insure that they will probably be empty when the missiles hit. Based upon the Administration's statements, the best case scenario now would be for Assad to win the civil war without further resort to chemical weapons--assuming that he has resorted to them. Will this leave us in a stronger position if he does? About ten weeks ago, on June 14, I suggested what a truly statesmanlike approach to the Syrian civil war and the broader Sunni-Shi'ite conflict that threatens to tear the Middle East apart might look like. Obama has done nothing remotely similar. He has set himself up, it seems to me, as the world's parent, doling out praise and spankings as he feels it to be appropriate without approval from Congress or the UN Security Council and with only the smallest coalition of the willing. Even David Cameron could not get a majority for action in the House of Commons. Once again, as Andrew Bacevich might put it, we have a President evidently convinced that American military power is the only possible response to any serious military problem. I do not see how it will help this one.