Tuesday, Apr 24, 2018
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Marilou Johanek


Lawmakers, heed a war-weary public when you weigh Syria attack


Marilou Johanek.

Morrison Enlarge

Twelve years ago, we went to war in Afghanistan to avenge a national nightmare. Ten years ago, we went to war to liberate Iraqis and eliminate nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

Operation Enduring Freedom was intended to teach the Taliban a lesson. Operation Iraqi Freedom was designed to fulfill the policy agenda of the George W. Bush administration.

More than 6,000 American troops have been killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. The financial costs of both U.S. military engagements are high and expected to get higher.

Harvard University researcher Linda Bilmes put the combined financial legacy of the two conflicts at $4 trillion to $6 trillion, the most expensive wars in U.S. history. The largest portion of that bill, which includes long-term medical care and disability compensation for service members and their families, is yet to be paid, she noted.

Even with such staggering tolls, Americans are bracing for another military assault on another sovereign country. This time it is Syria, torn by a brutal civil war made worse by the reported use of chemical weapons.

An Aug. 21 attack on Syrian rebels, resulting in mass civilian casualties, allegedly involved nerve gas. It was not the first time poison gas has been used in the 2½-year war, but apparently the first time it was used on such a large scale.

That distinction, evidently, is what galvanized the Obama White House to increase its saber rattling over Syria. But as the world prepared for a U.S. military strike against the Syrian government, the President punted.

What a relief. Instead of unilaterally trying to save face — after rhetorically drawing himself into a corner over Syria — President Obama took a cue from his counterpart in the United Kingdom.

British Prime Minister David Cameron backed a military strike against Syria for reportedly engaging in chemical warfare against its own people. But the British Parliament, sensitive to the anti-war mood of the British public, wisely rejected the idea.

A year ago, Mr. Obama let his rhetoric override restraint. He said that a “red line” would be crossed in Syria if “we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”

What would “change my calculus … change my equation,” as the President put it, was unclear. Equally puzzling was how to determine, in imploding Syria, which combatants or allied jihadists were responsible for using what degree of sarin gas as a weapon.

But the President couldn’t walk away from his words. He had mounted his moral high horse in 2012. He had drawn a line in the sand, and the egregious flouting of international norms against chemical warfare crossed it.

In the wake of suspected slaughter by the Syrian government, would Mr. Obama’s remarks resonate as those of a paper tiger or a superpower with teeth? With political pressure building, the Obama Administration seized a militaristic solution to support its resolve.

Over a long holiday weekend, with Congress in recess and most Americans otherwise occupied, the country came close to going to war. The world leaned forward to listen for the command from the President.

A U.S. military strike against Syria appeared imminent. The consensus was that Mr. Obama was prepared to go it alone on Syria, to show that he said what he meant and meant what he said.

Despite overwhelming opposition nationwide to another U.S. military entanglement, the White House moved to attack another target in the roiling Middle East.

The rhetoric used to mitigate the unforeseen consequences of attacking Syria fooled no one. Iraq and Afghanistan are prime examples of ambiguous political assurances that morphed into costly military quagmires.

Lucky for us, Mr. Obama declined to stick his neck out on Syria without Congress in tow. For that, Americans should be relieved.

The President preferred to gamble on the “people’s representatives,” to authorize what again amounts to unprovoked U.S. military action. Now it is up to the people to stop the madness.

Syria is a bloody mess, but it’s not our mess. America can’t afford to wade into costly combat with elusive strategies and end games. Been there, done that.

No more, Congress. Heed the voice of the country.

Contact Blade columnist Marilou Johanek at: mjohanek@theblade.com

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