By Ken Feltman
I didn’t set a red line, the world set a red line.
-President Barack Obama
Yes, President Obama once again decided to vote “present” instead of making a decision. This is but the latest in a long pattern of equivocation that can be traced at least to his days in the Illinois senate. Historians and shrinks will have much to say on that subject. Their judgments are likely to diminish Obama’s stature. That will be history. This is now.
Politicians and talking heads around the world are struggling with what to do in Syria. They are missing the most important point because the debate is stuck on the wrong question. Before we ask what can be done, we must know who can do whatever is decided. That question leads to a lonely answer.
Only the United States can lead on Syria
The United States is the only nation that can lead on Syria. The United Nations could not lead if it wanted to. Russia and China, playing diplomatic games of one-upmanship while people suffer and die, can block and delay effective action. The Arab League is fractured into inaction. There is no international organization or alliance that can decide what to do and then get it done.
Obama has shifted the decision-making to Congress and has specified a cruise missile strike. That puts the “what” before the “who” but does not change the fact that the only nation that can take the lead and deliver a positive result in Syria is the U.S., whatever the “what” is. We must lead. As we lead, we must avoid the arrogance that superior firepower sometimes creates. Perhaps by voting “present,” Obama has given us time for thoughtful consideration of the ramifications of action.
Are we forgetting that missile strikes have two parts?
A missile strike has two parts. The first part seems decided: Assad’s capacity to attack his people is the target. But who is the beneficiary of the strike? Like many of its neighbors, Syria is a jumble of competing political, ethnic and religious groups. Some of those groups want to replace the current restrictive government with their own more restrictive oligarchy or theocracy.
To oppose Assad must not mean that we blindly support any and all groups that oppose Assad. Some have attacked the U.S. and taken U.S. lives. We should try to strengthen the elements of the Syrian opposition that share our interests, not all the groups that want Assad gone. Syria requires a surgeon’s skill.
Syria does not present simple decisions. If the decisions were easy, they would already be made. Obama’s paralysis may help us get this decision right, for Syrians, for ourselves and for people everywhere.
(Also published at Politix.)