President Barack Obama’s notorious – and likely ill-considered – “red line” comment has forced us into debating a military attack in yet another Middle East country. It appears the purpose of the attack is, first and foremost, to defend the president’s own credibility. An attack may have other purposes as well, but we don’t know that yet.
I have attended numerous briefings on Syria by the administration, which have largely focused on convincing us about what happened on Aug. 21, when the Syrian regime unleashed chemical weapons on its own people. This reality is no longer in dispute, and repeated focus on this point actually detracts from the questions that deserve urgent attention before Congress can authorize an attack on Syria.
Many key questions either have not yet been asked, or have been insufficiently answered.
- What is the administration’s broader strategy in Syria and the surrounding region?
- What are the likely consequences of action or inaction for both Syria and the region?
- What are the follow-on actions compelled by those consequences?
- What is the impact of an air strike on other U.S. national security interests and on the influence of America's evolving role in the world?
The president has said the proposed limited attack is to be a "shot across the bow." We need to know what the plan is should Assad's vessel fail to heave to. We need to know how this escalation is likely to influence extremist radical fighters active in Syria, who are not overly concerned with limited demonstrations of U.S. power. What will Hezbollah and Hamas and al-Qaida-affiliated fighters do when our show of force is over? How about the enduring threat that the Syrian conflict will spill over into Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan? Will an attack intended to slap Assad's wrists while defending the president's credibility make expansion of the conflict more or less likely?
For me, the most important unanswered question is how a proposed limited strike will affect Iran and our ability to prevent that country from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. This is the most significant question of all because, unlike Syria, Iran poses threats to our core national security interests.
Part of the White House’s argument for defending the president’s credibility following his “red line” comment is that to do nothing would embolden the Iranian regime as they pursue nuclear weapons. Will a limited, punitive attack discourage the Mullahs in Iran because of some degree of destruction or will it actually encourage the Iranians because there is no follow-up option or broader strategic context informing our policy? Unfortunately, the White House has yet to address this question.
Further, my constant fear during the past several years, as I have been engaged on the Iran issue, has been that our country will be too militarily, politically, and economically exhausted to confront a real strategic enemy when our core interests require it. An attack on Syria may make this fear a reality. This White House, like the three previous administrations, has declared a nuclear weapons capable Iran to be “unacceptable.” However, no one in this administration has yet to address the potential consequences that an attack on Syria could have on our ability to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
I do fully appreciate that the president’s credibility and our nation’s credibility are inextricably linked. However, it is unfortunate that the apparently off-handed manner in which the president exposed himself on this issue is compelling this debate.
Nevertheless, I am pleased that he has decided to seek congressional authorization for any attack. However, it would have been far better if he had immediately called Congress back to Washington to engage in a serious and comprehensive discussion on all aspects of this issue. That would have demonstrated part of the leadership required as our nation confronts such a stark choice. Instead, we see a vacuum of leadership during these two weeks and only repeated briefings on settled questions, ignoring the remaining pressing ones.
Some of my colleagues see this vacuum as an opportunity to press for more vigorous military involvement in Syria, a view they held long before the Syrian regime used chemical weapons. Their advocacy for further U.S. engagement makes the absence of responsible, thorough debate all the more troubling. I, like many Hoosiers I represent, want to hear a full explanation of the administration’s strategy for Syria and the Middle East. Then my colleagues and I can make a decision on how our national interests can be best served.