Africa and the Middle East

Clark Ervin: On 9/11 Anniversary, Syria Poses Complications for US

September 11, 2013  • Clark Ervin

As the world waits to learn what efforts the US will put forth in Syria, the Aspen Institute offers a series of opinion pieces from the perspectives of our policy program directors focusing on global security, homeland security, and the Middle East. The second expert featured in our series is Clark Kent Ervin, the director of the Aspen Institute Homeland Security Program. He previously served as the first Inspector General of the US Department of Homeland Security. 

As we mark the twelfth anniversary of 9/11, it is hard to remember a time when our country faced as complicated a global threat environment as it does today. Regrettably, the Obama administration, I fear, has muddled the situation further by badly, even gravely, mishandling the crisis in Syria.

If, indeed, the use of chemical weapons on a mass scale against a regime’s  own civilian population, including some 400 children, is a heinous crime against humanity — and it is; and, if such use demands punishment and steps to ensure that it can never be repeated — and it does — then why didn’t the president order the “limited,” “proportional” strike he’s been talking about for so long immediately after the incident? Especially since, as he rightly points out, virtually no one doubts that the weapons were used and that they were used by Bashar al-Assad?

Why the 11th hour decision to seek congressional approval, if, as he says, such approval was not a matter of constitutional necessity? To the argument that we are stronger as a nation when the president and the Congress speak with one voice, I say, “amen.” But, if this proposition is true, doesn’t the corollary have to be true, too? If the administration would be strengthened in its decision to punish the Assad regime by congressional approval, doesn’t it have to follow that it would likewise be weakened without it? Indeed, in the last few days, the president has seemed to concede the point, at least implicitly, by strongly suggesting that he would not proceed with military action if Congress fails to give its consent. And, it is not as if congressional disapproval has been merely a theoretical concern. Leading into Obama’s September 10th speech, it looked as though the president would have a hard time winning even Senate approval — a body controlled by his party — and that winning House approval was impossible.

Adding to the mix, the president knows better than anyone that his ability to work his will with this Congress in even optimal circumstances is, shall we say, “limited” at best. In this instance, there is the wholly legitimate, bipartisan reflection of war weariness after more than a decade in Afghanistan and Iraq. Then, there is the emergence of libertarianism and isolationism as an equal force in Republican circles that essentially halves the reflexive support that even Democratic presidents would normally have from the GOP. Finally, there is this deep antipathy to Obama in the Republican caucus that means that virtually anything he proposes is likely to be a tough sell. So, again, if action is so important, why put your freedom to act in the hands of a body that is conflicted at best and hostile at worst?

Finally, why now, having pulled out all the stops in the last few days to beat the drums of war so as to rouse Congressional support, pull back from the brink at the prospect of Syrian and Russian cooperation with an international effort to account for and destroy the Assad regime’s chemical stocks? Secretary of State John Kerry was clearly thinking out loud when he suggested the other day that the crisis could be defused by Assad giving up his weapons. After all, he added at the end that Assad would never do it if he could, and he couldn’t do it if he wanted to.

After years now of Syrian and Russian foot dragging, obstruction, and duplicity, what makes the administration think that this is anything but a stalling tactic?

In sum, in my view, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham were right. We should have armed the rebels a couple of years ago to try to even the playing field so that they had a chance at toppling the regime. Of course, there was the danger that we’d arm the “wrong rebels,” but, God knows, intelligence is an inexact business and we should have done the best we could to sort out the sheep from the goats. Absent our doing so, the more radical elements have only gotten stronger, in part because moderate elements who had looked to us for support have given up on us and begun to throw in their lot with jihadi factions, if only to have a better shot at toppling Assad.

We had a chance a few weeks ago to earn moderates’ support back when it looked as though the president would finally take, if need be, unilateral action against the regime. But their hopes were dashed yet again no doubt, by his giving veto power to a recalcitrant Congress. Their hopes were dashed again a couple of days ago, when he gave veto power to, essentially, Assad himself.

Who knows what will happen now, but it seems to me that the two likeliest long-term outcomes — a further emboldened Assad still in power, or his being toppled by Al Qaeda-affiliated elements — both bode ill for American interests. If Assad somehow survives this (and, for now, I’d bet on it), terrorists will be emboldened in arguing that the only way to depose secular autocrats is by violent jihad, and moderate elements are likely to rally to their ranks lacking any viable alternative. If Al Qaeda-types manage to topple Assad, we will have created another Afghan-like safe haven in the heart of the Middle East, from which terrorists can threaten American interests around the world and the homeland itself.

Heaven help us.