The rubber is hitting the road in Syria. President Obama won the presidency in part because of his campaign plank of ending the war in Iraq – a campaign promise he has followed through on.
But far from being reluctant to use American military forces in foreign affairs, Obama has defied that stereotype for Democratic politicians and also deployed special forces to assassinate Osama bin Laden and to recover American hostages.
So now that the situation in Syria is deteriorating, and more and more civilians seem to be in danger, Obama will soon face the critical decision of whether to begin a military action there. And while there are some positives in sending American troops, ultimately doing so would be a bad idea.
Sending the troops could be said to be the right thing as members of the human race. The essence of this situation is that innocent people are dying. American troops would help to stop, or at the very least slow, the killing of civilians.
Perhaps more importantly is that, in the wake of the failed United Nations Security Council resolution, sending troops would be a signal to the international community that the United States still operates according to its own principles; that the American military is deployed when our President sees fit and not only as part of a joint effort.
There is something to be said for asserting ourselves amongst nations. Particularly because the resolution would have been passed if not for the votes of Russia and China, two countries that clearly have a conflict of interest with regards to Syria. As these two countries are our former main rival and future main rival on the international stage, an assertion of American prerogative in deploying troops would send a message to these countries beyond the fact that we support the Syria people.
Lastly, and most cynically, engaging in a military conflict during an election year would almost certainly boost Obama’s popularity and help him in his efforts to gain re-election.
Upon closer inspection though, two of these pluses are actually negatives. While the United States is not and should not seek to have its interests approved by the United Nations, and its foreign policy goals can be different from the international community, there is no vital American interest at stake in Syria. Intervening in Syria at this point would be a statement to the international community that we are doing so simply because we can and in the process the United States would denigrate any authority held by the United Nations. In addition, intervening with no American interests at stake would mean antagonizing Russia and China, who do have substantial national interests involved – hence their aforementioned conflicts of interest.
On the domestic front, were Obama to send in the American military it would contradict his former stance on foreign policy. It would be the kind of military action that he denounced as a candidate, the kind he said he would (and did) end in Iraq, the kind that contributed to the economic downturn this country has endured over the past few years.
Intervening in Syria would be a classic case of winning the battle with the potential for losing the war. Obama would gain a bump because of the humanitarian effort, and he could leverage that into being re-elected. Nevertheless as his administration became bogged down in a nation building exercise (a new regime in Syria would be necessary), any political capital he gained would be eventually be lost. And not only for him – no doubt Republicans would campaign for Congressional seats with the message that the Democrats got the country mired in another Iraq. Military action in Syria in 2012 could very well lose Democrats elections in the fall of 2013 and with those seats Obama would also lose his ability to build any sort of coalition to implement his ideas for the country.
Coincidentally President Obama has a perfect blueprint to follow in this situation. Last year saw the people of Egypt democratically elect a new leader after decades of one administration under Mubarak. 2011 also saw Libyan dictator Gadafi overthrown. In both instances the United States waited until the majority of people in those countries made it abundantly clear they were unhappy and sought a change after which the United States sent military aid.
To be clear: in none of these instances am I talking about a covert operation to assassinate troublesome leaders in Syria, doing so would only create the secondary issue of nation building which would require a long term American military presence anyway. And because Obama has already defied the typical Democratic label of being soft in foreign policy because of his willingness to use special forces, not deploying the military in this instance should not lead to credible questions regarding his commitment to foreign policy, democracy throughout the world, and the like.
The best course of action at this point is to sympathize with the people of Syria. By sending regular troops now, when there is not that clear majority of dissatisfied people in Syria, Obama would potentially be trading American lives for Syrian – fair in the sense that Syrian lives are just as valuable, but ultimately not justifiable to the American people.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected]