Ben Smith reports on partisan disagreement over Syria:
“When the president of the United States declares that a leader of a country ‘must go’ and then that leader survives, it raises serious doubts among our allies and adversaries about American strength, American power in the Middle East, and in the world,” Senor said.
The lesson here is that the President should be much more reluctant to make sweeping statements about what a foreign head of state “must” do unless he intends to follow through on the ultimatum he has issued. It isn’t ideal for an administration to make these declarations when it evidently wants to be much more cautious about how it responds to a particular crisis. It is still better to endure the temporary embarrassment of having indulged in some excessive rhetoric rather than feel compelled to pursue a dangerous course of action because of that rhetoric.
Elsewhere in the article, we are reminded once again why “arm the rebels” is such a misguided slogan:
A White House official said that among the central concerns are logistical ones centered on Syria’s military, which is modern and formidable by comparison with Libya’s.
“No amount of arms you give the opposition is going to get them to parity. And who thinks it is a good idea to plop down heavy artillery? You can’t just pick up that stuff and use it,” the official said. “The odds of that leading to more people being killed is high.”
One of the differences between the debates over Syria and Libya is that most advocates for some form of intervention in Syria have long since dispensed with the idea that it is going to prevent even greater large-scale loss of life in Syria. Telling them that their preferred option will lead to many more Syrian deaths doesn’t seem to discourage them, because that isn’t their main concern. One would think that it would discourage interventionists that the popular “arm the rebels” option isn’t likely to produce the regime change outcome they want, but that doesn’t seem to have much effect, either.
For his part, Romney reportedly sees Syria as an opportunity to separate himself and the GOP from Obama:
Romney aims to reclaim his party’s brand, tarnished by Iraq and then strained by the anti-spending tea party, as the party of strength and military action.
I don’t see how it “reclaims” the Republican brand on foreign policy and national security when Romney insists on pursuing a futile policy that destabilizes the region, gets many more Syrians killed, and contributes nothing to American or allied security while likely increasing security and refugee problems for multiple allies and clients. Supporting military backing for the weaker side in Syria’s civil war is a different kind of blunder from the one the U.S. made in Iraq, but it still represents a reckless blunder that would threaten to pull the U.S. deeper into Syria’s conflict in the years to come. Providing weapons to the Syrian opposition manages to combine many of the risks of intervention (e.g., regional instability, provoking resentment of the U.S., associating the U.S. with forces we don’t fully understand and can’t control, etc.) without achieving any of its stated goals, and as such it has to be viewed as the first step towards more direct U.S. involvement.
It is understandable why some hawkish ideologues want to go this route, but I don’t know why Romney would think that a clear contrast with Obama on Syria is a political winner. Reminding the public that there is virtually no crisis in the world that Republicans don’t want to address with some kind of military response is not going to help rebuild public trust in the GOP. The public is against interventionist appeals on Syria in particular. There is a very small constituency (19%) for more U.S. involvement in Syria. Majorities in both parties and among independents want the U.S. to remain completely uninvolved. Unlike many other issues, there is no significant difference between Republicans and Democrats on this question: 23% of Republicans and 20% of Democrats favor more involvement, and 55% and 56% respectively want the U.S. to “leave the situation alone.” Obama receives poor marks on his response, but there just aren’t very many people clamoring for any kind of U.S. action.