Obama, Tread Lightly in Syria

The president’s caution is warranted as Americans are bone-weary of war.

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Someone once said that 90 percent of success came just for showing up. That certainly wasn't the case for former President George W. Bush. He showed up on an aircraft carrier to assure us that the worst was over. But the real agony hadn't even begun.

Last Thursday was the tenth anniversary of the day when the former president dressed up as a fighter pilot, landed on the Enterprise festooned with a "Mission Accomplished" banner and declared that major combat operations in Iraq were over. Since that day, thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens have died. And the civil war there still rages.

And if you thought that major combat operations ended in Afghanistan, you're wrong. Saturday, seven American soldiers died in combat there.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

The Bush follies illustrate the dangers that face U.S. military intervention in the Syrian civil war. I certainly don't blame President Obama for taking his time making a decision. The only problem I have with the president is that he drew a red line in the first place. Bush shot first and asked questions about the wisdom of an Iraqi invasion later.  The former president's cowboy foreign policy was a disaster.

Obama deserves credit for being careful. We should not intervene militarily if it helps our main adversaries in the region, Iran and al-Qaida. 

Bush played checkers well, but unfortunately for America, national security is a game of chess. He completely overlooked the regional dynamics in making a decision to invade Iraq. No one thought ahead and anticipated the dominoes that would fall after we deposed Saddam Hussein. In the chaos that rose with Hussein's fall, our most dangerous adversary in the region, Iran, rushed in to fill the vacuum and increased its influence.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Anyway you look at Syria, we lose. Do nothing and a thug like President Bashar Assad might stay in power. Do something to help depose the dictator and a bunch of religious fanatics hostile to democracy take over.

If we plan to risk the lives of brave young Americans, there should be a good chance that something good might happen as a result. Nothing good will happen in Syria if the Assad regime falls. If Assad falls, the cork will come out of the bottle and the country will descend into chaos as a host of religious groups, including al-Qaida, fight to fill the vacuum. 

Egypt descended into chaos when Hosni Mubarak went down. Changes of leadership in the Middle East remind me of the line in the Who song, "Won't Be Fooled Again" that goes "Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss." Al-Qaida plays a prominent role in the civil war against the Assad regime and could come to power when Assad leaves. Is the United States or the people of Syria any better off if al-Qaida replaces Assad? I don't think so.

Assad is a thug, but Obama is right to think before he acts. There a number of other bad things that might come with American intervention.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

You can't successfully fight a war without public support and there's little enthusiasm for U.S. military intervention in Syria. Less than one in four (24 percent) Americans feel that we have a responsibility to intervene there. But more than six out of ten (62 percent) people don't think we have any responsibility. (CBS News/ NY Times).

The recent Israeli air attacks on Syrian targets add a new wrinkle to the situation. If the United States, with Israel's help, overthrows Assad, a new regime of moderate secularists would be suspect from the beginning with Islamic fundamentalists and the Arab League, which has already deplored the Israeli attacks.

Finally, financial and economic factors need to be weighed. How will we pay to fight in Syria? Even if our intervention is limited to air strikes, each cruise missile costs almost $1.5 million. The sequester has forced sharp cuts in the Pentagon budget and an intervention in Syria will just divert scarce resources from Obama's smart policy of focusing our military efforts in the Pacific to counter Chinese expansion.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

We will be paying bills for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for decades. A group of Harvard economists estimated that the cost of the two interventions could be as much as $6 billion because of the pensions and medical benefits veterans of the wars receive over their lifetimes. And there will be plenty of health care bills. Approximately two and a half million soldiers have served in the two conflicts and a third of the veterans came home with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Thousands of young soldiers have returned home without arms and legs.

We just can't afford to spend all this money on failed foreign adventures. We're lagging in global economic competition, but instead of fighting back we're cutting infrastructure, education and research and development, which are all vital to our economic future. Young people need a college education to punch their ticket into the new global economy. But the U.S. has fallen to tenth in the world in the percentage of young people who go to college.

Paul Kennedy in his book, "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers," writes that great powers die from gluttony. In other words, they bite off more than they can swallow. The United States is already overextended and Syrian intervention would be too much for us to digest.

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