On distant shore - Val Abelgas

Obama may have to ‘stand down’
Nearly 12 years ago, in the days immediately following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President George W. Bush sent an armada of 14 ships to the Mediterranean as he launched the Global War on Terrorism against Al-Qaeda.

The Taliban, which controlled Afghanistan, demanded evidence that Osama bin Laden was involved in the September 11 attacks and that if evidence warranted, they would put Bin Laden to trial. The US refused and on October 7, the allied forces of the United States, United Kingdom and other allies invaded Afghanistan. By mid-November, Kabul had fallen to allied hands.

Less than two years later, on March 19, 2003, on the pretext that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction, Bush again ordered an invasion of Iraq and the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime. The US launched the invasion again with the British, Australia and Poland. Its traditional allies Germany, France, New Zealand and Canada refused to join the invasion, dubbed as Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The invasion did not have the sanction of the United Nations and was preceded by worldwide protests, including an anti-war rally in Rome attended by three million people. But 64% of Americans had approved the war action although 62% feared that war would increase the threat of terrorism against the US.

Baghdad fell and so did Saddam. But no weapons of mass destruction were ever found.

In 1990, President George H. W. Bush also ordered an attack on Iraq, but it was to defend Kuwait and to punish Saddam Hussein and his army for invading tiny Kuwait. It was an international conflict, and the US attacked with the expressed authority of the United Nations, and the entire world supported its actions.

And now, America has come at another crossroads: Should it punish Syrian President Bassar al-Assad with a military strike for his regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against the opposition in a two-year-old civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people? Or should it stand idly by and allow the sovereign Syrian people to decide their own fate?

The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq achieved its immediate objectives – to topple the Taliban and Saddam regimes. However, the invasions obviously failed in its final objectives – to crush terrorism and to end the civil strife in both countries. Afghanistan and Iraq are still being devastated by deadly civil wars and terrorism remains a worldwide problem.

Will a military strike end the civil war in Syria? Experts believe even the most debilitating strike would only prolong the civil war. They also feared that a military action by the US would completely negate any possibility of negotiations between the Assad regime and the rebels.

Although the 2001 and 2003 strikes did not have UN sanction and was opposed by some of America’s allies, it was widely supported by the Americans and a world wary of terrorism. President Barack Obama is now threatening to stage a military strike on Syria even without the authority of the UN although he is seeking the approval of Congress. Even its longtime ally, the United Kingdom, has voted against military action.

A poll conducted by Reuters/Ipsos a few days ago showed that 56 percent of adults say the US should not intervene and 19 percent support a military action. Two earlier surveys also showed weak support for intervention in Syria.

Obama is going out on a limb here. He has staked his image and credibility by insisting on a military action despite strong resistance from the people, Congress and the world. Even fellow Democrats, who have long been known to oppose military conflicts, are wary of supporting the military action because of a feared backlash from their war-wary constituencies.

Although the Senate panel has narrowly endorsed a military strike, it is still expected to be rejected when the whole Senate votes on the plan this week. The call faces major defeat in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives despite endorsements by Speaker John Boehner and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The Syrian question has put Obama, some Democrats and many Republicans in unfamiliar footing. Obama has consistently called for exhausting negotiations before any military action in the past, and the Democrats have always been against military intervention by the US. The Republicans, on the other hand, have always stood for use of force against dictatorial governments.

Political observers are claiming that Obama is forced to take action after he warned Assad that if he stepped over the “red line” (use of chemical weapons), the US would act militarily against his regime. They claim that a military intervention is an expensive and deadly way to save face.

But this is not just about Obama saving face or salvaging his credibility. It is about whether America has the duty and responsibility to serve as the world’s policeman and go after rogue dictators, or whether it should stand idly by and let Assad continue to use chemical and other weapons of mass destruction against its own people.

Does America have the right to intervene in an internal conflict of a sovereign state? Or is it America’s moral responsibility to come to the aid of an aggrieved sector of that sovereign state?

It is a dilemma that has confronted American leaders for decades, and will continue to hound future presidents. But the US is a member of the community of nations under the umbrella of the UN. The UN Security Council has rejected Obama’s military action. The American people are against it. The US Congress is almost certain to vote against it, too. In this scenario, Obama may have no recourse but, in military parlance, to ‘stand down’.

Volume 11 No 18 - September 16-30, 2013
Ang Peryodiko - The Newspaper For Overseas Filipino
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