When it comes to Syria, there is really no good option.
President Barack Obama has signaled his intention to launch so-called surgical strikes against the government of Bashar Assad, which stands accused of recently using chemical weapons against its own people.
Siding with the rebels who are trying to topple Assad, however, puts the United States on the same side as al-Qaida, the terrorist group responsible for the 9/11 attacks on Washington and New York City that damaged the Pentagon, toppled the twin towers of the World Trade Center and killed more than 3,000 people.
At the same time, doing nothing could be seen as condoning the use of chemical weapons, the use of which has been banned by international convention since the end of the World War I. Indeed, the allegation that Saddam Hussein used similar weapons against the Kurds in northwestern Iraq following Operation Desert Storm loomed large in the decision to again commit U.S. troops to the region in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
No matter what he does, Obama is caught between a rock and a hard place. Doing nothing is as bad as doing something – if one believes the essential criteria for military action is the defense of clearly defined U.S. strategic interests. Neither action does anything in furtherance of America's interests in the region as a government led by the rebels fighting Assad would easily be as bad, if not worse, than the Assad regime it is seeking to replace.
There are those who are arguing most vehemently that before taking action the president must seek the authorization to do so from the U.S. Congress. This is a tenuous position, especially if one believes that the War Powers Act and other restrictions that Congress placed on the president's authority to order military action are unconstitutional. Even so, a resolution of support, as was done before Iraq, is a weak substitute for a declaration of war as the Constitution mandates – and no one can make the case for going to war with Syria.
If the president chooses to order a military strike on Damascus there is nothing the Congress can do to stop him. Which makes all the debate about what should happen before such an action were taken just so much hoo-haw. Obama will do what Obama will do, make no mistake about that.
The more serious question is what to do in the aftermath of a military strike. No one can predict how Assad will react. Will he step up his attacks on the rebels, perhaps using chemical or even biological weapons more aggressively? Would he launch missile strikes against Israel? Might he kick off a campaign of cyberterror aimed at the U.S. energy grid or financial institutions? No one knows, but no one should discount his ability to strike back against the United States in meaningful ways.
Likewise, being against Assad does not necessarily make the rebels America's new allies. Look at Libya. Obama assisted in the ouster of Gadhafi and the rebels repaid us for our support by giving us one dead U.S. ambassador, three other dead Americans, and an attack on the consulate in Benghazi. Having the rebels in charge in Damascus will likely end up being as bad or worse than having the Muslim Brotherhood and the Morsi government take the reins of power in Egypt.
It may be that President Obama has no clearly defined objective in the Middle East. He certainly hasn't said much about it in any detail since the speech he gave in Cairo early in his presidency. It is starting to look as though his real objective is not democratization or the spread of religious freedom and tolerance through the region so much as it may be the creation of chaos – simple, disorganized, government-toppling chaos with which the United States must deal for at least one hundred years. It's Alinskyism, which he knows well, manifesting itself as foreign policy.
Rather than pursue strategic alliances, the balance of power approach, "real politick," shuttle diplomacy or any of the other recognized diplomatic tactics, Obama may have in mind nothing more than the thorough destabilization of the entire region – creating a power vacuum into which China, Russia or Iran (none of whom are bound by the moral constraints that typically influence U.S. diplomacy) could move despite the blood of innocents that would most assuredly be shed.
The president must outline his policy for the region. He must let friends and our foes alike know where American stands. If he intends to withdraw from the region, to allow "creative chaos" to topple governments from Algeria to Iraq, he must make that clear and give the civilized nations of the world the opportunity to plan accordingly. If he is willing to let the torch of liberty burn out in the Middle East, he must give Congress and the American people the chance to give their assent – for the problems that would create could not be solved in the United States' favor in a generation or even in a century. If it is a step that is going to be taken, it is one we must all take together, eyes wide open.