For nearly a dozen years, we have been at war, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. We are no longer at war in Iraq, and soon we will be out of Afghanistan. The United States has expended a lot of blood and treasure in these places. We have a reporter, Jay Price, who has been in Afghanistan for months reporting for McClatchy, and is due to be back this fall, and I will be very glad when he is back and I don't have to worry about him over there.
But now the drums are beating for the U.S. to do something about Syria. There are increasingly specific reports that the Syrian government has been using chemical weapons against the rebels, thereby crossing the "red line" that President Obama has drawn. This afternoon, various news organizations -- all apparently receiving the same briefings -- are reporting this. The New York Times has this on its web site:
"According to an internal memorandum circulating inside the government on Thursday, the 'intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.' "
While people inside the Washington Beltway love to play armchair generals, most Americans -- according to the polls -- do not want to get involved militarily in Syria.
There are lots of good reasons to be extremely cautious.
The men and women that the armchair generals would send into harm's way live in Fayetteville, Goldsboro, Havelock and Jacksonville. They are based at Ft. Bragg, Seymour Johnson AFB, Cherry Point and Camp Lejeune. These folks have sacrificed quite a lot over the past dozen years in the service of their country.
Syria is a very complicated situation. That is an understatement. It is easy to see the Assad government as the bad guys. But the rebels are a mixture of some maybe OK guys and some really bad guys.
If we are going to use American military power to intervene in this conflict, someone needs to explain what the objective is. Is the objective simply to sharply reduce the government's ability to kill its own citizens? Does that mean we need to establish a no-fly zone with jets from Seymour Johnson? Given that the Syrian forces have sophisticated anti-aircraft systems, what are acceptable losses?
Would this lead to a stalemate that would devolve into a disintegration of Syria, with a part run by Assad, a part run by rebels we like and a part run by radical Al Qaeda affiliates we don't like? All being supplied weapons by various sponsors in a never-ending war in a failed state?
Some inside-the-Beltway strategists think that we can figure out how to bring peace and democracy to the Middle East. But we are still suffering from decisions made a century ago by Westerners who drew arbitrary borders on maps. They thought they could create order out of post-Ottoman chaos. They created a region in a state of permanent unrest.
I am tired of anonymous high government officials talking behind the veil of secrecy about what they think they have found in Syria. If there is incontrovertible evidence that the Assad regime is using chemical weapons, then President Obama should stand in front of the cameras and give us the evidence and explain his "red line" and what he wants to do about it. He should discuss what intervention would look like, and what might happen, and why an odious Assad government that doesn't seek to kill Americans (so far as we know) is worse than a Syria under part or total control of extremists who might want to kill Americans. And why the third scenario -- "the good rebels option" -- has a chance of succeeding.
And if he wants to intervene, he should ask for a congressional vote yea or nay, so all those armchair generals in Congress will have to take a recorded stand on the House and Senate floors, as opposed to their saber rattling on Sunday morning talk shows.
All this should happen before we send some dad from Wayne County up in an F-15 to risk his life over Damascus.