WASHINGTON — Go in or keep out? It’s a false choice when it comes to addressing the situation in Syria.
The main goal of U.S. foreign policy should be to protect and advance America’s global interests. A “punitive” and largely symbolic attack on Syria doesn’t do the job, nor does watching tragedy unfold while we sit on our hands.
The “mission” President Barack Obama has mapped out in Syria is of a piece with his earlier dabblings in statecraft — the Russian “reset,” the accelerated troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, the lead-from-behind liberation of Libya.
While the White House presents these initiatives as triumphs, they are not. Relations with Russia are far worse now than when Obama took office. The levels of violence in Iraq are higher than when the president came into office. The Taliban and al-Qaida are resurgent. And, of course, there was Benghazi.
The chief principle of the Obama Doctrine seems to be that, “As long as we show we care, that’s all that matters.” This is statecraft which holds empathy as its highest virtue. It is all process over progress. It demonstrably is not working. Yet the Oval Office plans more of the same.
The short-term, air-only, no-regime-change “mission” outlined for Syria will not effectively deter future use of weapons of mass destruction. It won’t affect the outcome of the war. Nor is it the best course of action to further U.S. interests.
Certainly we have an interest in bringing an end to civil war that has killed over a 100,000 and created two million refugees. The turmoil has allowed al-Qaida, Hezbollah and Iran to extend their influence and threatens further destabilization of this strategically important part of the world.
Regional conflicts are always dangerous for global powers. It is hard to avoid getting sucked into them, and sometimes they morph into world wars. Additionally, Hezbollah, al-Qaida and Iran are all working toward a future world without America. Allowing their fortunes to flourish is most definitely not to our advantage.
This is case where America’s strategic interests and humanitarian concerns coincide. Washington should seek to bring an end to the conflict and see a Syria that is free and peaceful.
To accomplish that goal, Obama needs a real strategy, not just an empathetic program of meaningless punitive strikes with the ambiguous objectives of “deterring and degrading” the regime’s capacity to use chemical weapons.
Nor can the administration press for a Libya-redux, delivering so much force it causes the regime to fall. That outcome might just pave the way for even worse people to come to power in Damascus.
The real objectives of U.S. foreign policy should be to affect the outcome of the war, ease the humanitarian crisis and set the conditions for more moderate forces to win out in the end. We should pursue these goals by using our power where we have influence.
For starters than means working much more closely with Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. We have strong bilateral relations with each. Now we must use those relations to forge an effective regional strategy.
Next, we must ramp up the isolation of Iran and Hezbollah. That would give them a lot more to worry about than what happens to Assad.
Third, the White House must stop gutting U.S. military capability. America’s forces are already hollowing out, lacking sufficient power to cover two regional hot spots at once. Having “pivoted” to Asia, the president now finds he must have them pirouette back to the Middle East.
If the United States must defend its regional interests with arms, those arms must be in region. And having arms in region and ready to go is also the best way to reduce chances that U.S. force will have to be used.
James Jay Carafano is vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at The Heritage Foundation.