Syria: Scratching the war itch

You know the mantras of the Obama administration’s call for attacking Syria, by now: no “boots on the ground;”  no “long term campaign;”  no “open ended commitment.”

“What we will do,”  the President said, August 30, “is consider options that meet the narrow concern around chemical weapons, understanding that there’s not going to be a solely military solution to the underlying conflict and tragedy that’s taking place in Syria.”

When U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry made an off-handed reference, Monday, to securing the Bashar al Assad’s chemical weapon stockpiles as a possible way out of this narrowing column march to war, and it was seized on by the Russians as a diplomatic alternative, it became clear that there really could be no  “military solution”  without Assad agreeing to have his stockpiles contained and confiscated by the international community. It is likely the scenario that the Pentagon envisioned for getting that done played out differently, aiming first to cripple Assad’s military, until he finally agreed to turn over the keys to the chemicals.

Russia wants the U.S. not just to step back, but to stand down, before Syria turns over its poison gas. That’s not going to happen, especially because, as Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel put it, before the House Armed Services Committee, Tuesday, the White House believes “it was the president’s determination to hold Assad accountable, and the fact that he put military action on the table, that enabled this new diplomatic track to maybe gain some momentum and credibility.”

Even if Assad were to surrender his caches of WMDs, it would not make an attack moot, just moot for now. The cobbled, fragile and incomplete eleventh hour proposal to secure Syria’s poison gas, as it stands, will not even get through the UN Security Council. Early points under discussion have Assad admitting his government used the weapons, and agreeing that those responsible for ordering and carrying out the gassing of innocent civilians be arrested and tried in the International Criminal Court for war crimes. With neither the Russians nor the Syrians willing to concede the first point, there is no way for them to agree to the second.

There are still those itching to topple the Syrian dictator by any means necessary, and we still have allies concerned about the civilian carnage, the refugee crisis and the involvement of Iran and Hezbollah in the conflict, on the side of Syria’s dictator. All those concerns are legitimate, but the dilemma President Obama has himself caught in, is fighting against those who choose an enemy and then move heaven, earth and the truth to “make a case” for war – as happened in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq – and those who see a legitimate cause for war in Syria, but think the president isn’t going far enough.

Those folks, like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), see virtue in taking down Assad the way we enabled the collapse of Qaddafi in Libya. Maybe he believes, to paraphrase former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, you go to war against the enemy you have now, not the enemy you’ll have after you beat this one.

While President Obama may be taking the long view here, something we may not be used to after the days of shock and awe, most of us don’t like the intangibles. We don’t like making new enemies, or pulling back the curtain and finding they were hiding there all along, in plain sight. But the events of the last two days have shown that there are other ways out there to avert the heavy hand of America’s military might.

No one doubts we have a big stick; we just don’t like how vulnerable we make ourselves when we bring it out. Maybe we’re still healing from the deceit of our leaders regarding Iraq, and, like the comic who jokes within days of a tragedy, it’s just too soon. Let the man with the long view be a visionary, and find another way to solve this.

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