Calm Before the Syrian Storm
Published: September 3, 2013 (Issue # 1775)
Now we know with certainty that a week or so remains before U.S. President Barack Obama must deal with what is clearly the most difficult foreign policy decision of his presidency. Obama said it is necessary to punish the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Obama had good reason to first turn to Congress for approval of military action against Assad. Washington suffered its most serious diplomatic defeat of the last decade when the British Parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron's appeal for a military strike against Syria. This was a particularly strong blow given that Britain is Washington's staunchest ally and has always been willing to fight alongside the U.S. — even when it contradicted common sense, as in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I suspect that the U.S. Congress, too, will not be in a hurry to vote in favor of military action, particularly given the less-than-convincing evidence that Assad's regime was, in fact, responsible for the chemical weapons attack.
At the same time, however, Congress will probably give its consent when it comes down to casting the final vote, giving Obama the green light to commit what is most likely to be the largest foreign policy mistake of his presidency. The problem is not just that he intends to intervene militarily, but that he intends to do it half-heartedly.
Soon after Washington's crushing defeat in Vietnam, U.S. leaders formulated principles governing future use of military force. It is often referred to as the Powell Doctrine in honor of former U.S. Secretary of State and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, although the true originator was former President Ronald Reagan's defense secretary, Frank Carlucci. That doctrine states that the armed forces should be used only when the vital interests of the U.S. are at stake and only when war is the sole remaining option.
The key component of this military doctrine is that once the decision to go to war is made, overwhelming force should be employed to gain the maximum advantage over the enemy. The army should be given very specific goals that are achievable through military means. Once those goals are achieved, the troops should be immediately withdrawn.
Whenever Washington followed these principles, as it did during the first Gulf War of 1990-91, the U.S. achieved both military and political victories. But whenever the army was given goals that could not be achieved by military means, such as establishing democratic institutions, the U.S. suffered defeat. That is what happened in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Although the U.S. and its allies could easily crush organized resistance and overthrow tyrannical regimes by virtue of their huge military superiority, they were powerless to stop guerrilla movements that operate without centralized command centers. And the guerillas were bound to prevail because the local populations actively resisted attempts by foreign troops to instill "democracy at gunpoint."
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