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The bureaucracies and think tanks that make up the Beltway national security establishment are living a delusion of unassailability; America can no longer start wars with impunity.
America is providing a dangerous example of how great powers can behave in the 21st century. If the president goes to war without Congress, the cause constitutionalism will be a global mockery. The United States continues to accumulate debt, lose moral authority and alienate its allies. Only its enemies will gain from American entering a Middle Eastern civil war.
Regardless of whether the United States government can get away with bombing Syria in the short term, the long-term repercussions to international order will endanger American preeminence. If America is setting new standards for the use of force, other powers may find that, for once, they want to be more like America.
The United States is 5 percent of the global population, holds 25 percent of world public debt and accounts for 40 percent of world defense spending. These unbalanced figures are unsustainable, and annual U.S. deficits are a matter of public record. Eventually Uncle Sam will run out of steam. An insolvent America will be an irrelevant America. That is not in the best interest of the Western world. If the Arab oil monarchies can pay for this conflict, then they can pay to train their people to fight it. There is no way to know how this conflict will end or how high the price in blood and treasure will go.
Of immediate concern to the world is how the Obama administration defines its proposed attack on Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress, “President Obama is not asking America to go to war.” That is absurd, and is itself reason for Congress to deny the president’s request. The president proposes to use American air and sea power to bomb the territory and military installations of another country, but he does not think this qualifies as an act of war. Appealing to international law is unnecessary; common sense is sufficient.
The Scottish philosopher, Thomas Reid, wrote, “There is no greater impediment to the advancement of knowledge than the ambiguity of words.” Attacking Syria is an act of war. The relativistic attitude that progressives are known for is tolerable in private citizens but in a government at war it is destructive to world peace. How will Obama respond to American rivals who emulate his example?
If John Kerry’s words are the standard of international behavior then – all countries being equally sovereign – attacks short of the cliché “boots on the ground” are not wars. China could attack Taiwanese air defenses, being careful to avoid civilian casualties and refraining from an outright invasion. Russia could do likewise in Eastern Europe. India and Pakistan could go tit-for-tat. A North Korean air attack on the South is not out of the question. Neither would an Iranian attack on Israeli defenses count as “war.” In each case, the aggressor could cite U.S. behavior and claim that their operations do not amount to war. Congressional sanction of Obama’s illogical definition of war will fundamentally transform the use of force by great powers.
While America is debating a “not war” with Syria, the Chinese are debating constitutionalism. The Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, and Chinese intellectuals dispute the efficacy of constitutions. China has a constitution, but the CCP has never been forced to follow it. There are those in China who argue that the future stability of the nation depends on building a reliable legal framework in which the government can operate. The communists rightly note that this would restrain the party and the government. This is precisely why the United States has a Constitution.
A restrained China would be a more peaceful China, one less likely to terrorize its people or its neighbors when they drift past Beijing’s line of toleration. Intellectuals in Asia can read the U.S. Constitution and see that the Obama administration’s claim that the president can go to war without Congress does not match the text. The very public flouting of the law in this case – and Edward Snowden’s exposure of persistent violations of the Bill of Rights by the Obama administration – is unhelpful to Chinese constitutionalists. It is hard to argue for restraint in Beijing when the U.S. administration is clearly unrestrained. The same goes for activists in Russia and other struggling republics. Obama’s behavior is seen by much of the world as superpower hypocrisy. Our ally, Germany, is still smarting from the shock of finding out American cyber-snoops were reading Germans’ emails. They won’t be joining us in Syria. Obama has lost the right to lecture.
The loss of American moral authority is an incredible erosion of soft power. Due to the nature of soft power, it is hard to measure the extent of the damage Obama has caused. However, the unwillingness of the United Kingdom – America’s top ally – to join an American strike is a clear loss of military and intelligence muscle. John Kerry’s compliment to France as America’s “oldest ally” is an example of the undiplomatic petulance that domestic critics of the Obama administration have come to expect. It will not play well with foreign – i.e. British – audiences.
Pat Buchanan asked whose interests were served by an American attack on Syria. That’s a great question.
If Assad must be dealt with, why can’t the Israeli air force pummel him? Perhaps it is because the rampant anti-Semitism in the region would gain sympathy for Assad. Being attacked by the “Zionist entity” might serve Assad well and give the rebels pause about fighting him. But if that is the case, why should the United States support factions that are racists? Does trading one group of anti-Semites for another serve the United States? No.
If an Israeli attack is out of the question because it would confuse the anti-Semites, then why can’t the Turkish Armed Forces deal with it? They are armed with NATO weapons, are positioned on Syria’s northern border and have the most powerful force in the region. Even the Israelis cannot match Turkish power. Yet Turkey is not leading an attack on Syria. Most conspicuous are the Saudis. Saudi Arabia is a curious ally. It ranks seventh in the world in military spending and has admitted it has influence over terrorist groups operating as far afield as Russia. The Saudi air force even flew sorties during the 1991 Gulf War. It’s more than capable of attacking Syria. Additionally, as the main exporter of radical Islam and a major financier of the rebels in Syria, the Saudis have the most to gain from U.S. attacks on Assad. But given the radical anti-Semitism of the Saudis – and the fact that al-Qaida draws much of its support from factions there – is a Syria controlled by Riyadh and the Arab League better than one controlled by Tehran? Will al-Qaida give Assad’s chemical stockpile to the Great Satan?
If America is seen to be a tool of the Saudis, it will further erode the credibility of the United States as a rational actor.
And let’s not forget the threat to U.S. troop morale: Many Americans joined the armed forces to defend the U.S. from al-Qaida – not to become a sheik mercenary force.
The toppling of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi after he surrendered his WMD stockpile killed any reason for “rogue” regimes to cooperate with the United States on disarmament. The failure to back Hosni Mubarak showed America to be an unreliable ally. The Benghazi cover-up revealed that the American government cannot be trusted to protect its own assets abroad; given the nature of the situation, it is likely that foreign intelligence services know more about what really happened than the American Congress.
A war against Syria, instead of strengthening America’s position in the world, will confirm that the United States is an irresponsible and destabilizing power, easily changeable, shallow and intemperate. And our enemies will profit. That’s change Saudi Arabia can believe in.