U.S. Senator Chris Murphy has not said whether or not he thinks it was wise diplomacy when President Barack Obama drew his red line in the sand on the question of the use of chemical weapons by Syrian strongman Bashir al Assad against his opponents. But the answer to the question can be deduced from Mr. Murphy’s position on a promised U.S. military intervention. Mr. Assad having stepped across Mr. Obama’s red line, Mr. Obama seems poised to respond militarily in some thus far mysterious fashion.
Mr. Murphy, the junior U.S. Senator from Connecticut, has been tagged by his state’s media as “one of the most vocal opponents of a proposed air strike.” His Democratic comrade in the Senate, Richard Blumenthal, is less pacific. Mr. Blumenthal is urging prompt military action in Syria “to send a message to Assad.”
That message, one may be sure, will not be received warmly by either Mr. Assad or President of Russia Vladimir Putin. Russia has supported both Bashir al Assad and his murderous father Hafez al-Assad who, thirty years ago last month, launched one of the bloodiest chapters of modern Arab history: the Hama Massacre. Syria has been an Assad family operation since Hafez al-Assad was elected president 1971.
Mr. Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has not been unmoved by the chemical attack on civilians: “I saw the pictures of the little kids killed by chemical weapons, and I understand why people want action.” he said. However, he pointed out, the United States has not enjoyed much diplomatic success in the Middle East: “But after 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s clear the U.S. isn’t very good at pulling strings in Middle East conflicts.” An air strike will not dislodge Bashir al Assad, Mr. Murphy has said, and the United States can rid the country of chemical weapons only if it sends in ground troops, not a likely eventuality. The commitment of ground troops would only stiffen military resistance and further damage the status of the United States among the Syrian people. And then too, Mr. Murphy said, there is the danger of the “quagmire,” as in “the Vietnam quagmire.”
If Mr. Murphy had the ear of Mr. Obama a year ago, he might have advised the president against drawing “red lines.”
John Dickerson of Slate, not a conservative publication, noted that although Mr. Obama was “supposed to be the wise and careful communicator,” he had “done nothing but corner himself… there's no doubt that Obama's rhetoric has increased the penalty for inaction. It's one thing to fall short of the standard for the U.S. role in the world, as some commentators define it. It's a bigger failing to fall short of your own assertions.”
Mr. Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is more sanguine.
The United States, he said on a CNN broadcast, should launch an air strike “targeted to high-value military assets and limited in its duration and scope.”
There may be unanticipated repercussions to such a strike – Mr. Putin, Edward Snowden’s kindly host, is making bellicose noises – but, Mr. Blumenthal said, he is “more concerned about repercussions for failing to respond to this violation of morality and international law.”
There is something deadly unserious in Mr. Obama’s proposed military response. The purpose of diplomacy is to change minds. The purpose of military measures is to change conditions, which is why Carl von Clausewitz said that war “is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.” War, therefore, is a continuation of diplomacy by other means or, as Clausewitz said, “the continuation of policy by other means.” But the strength of policy depends upon a purity and clarity of intentions. No clear policy can be deduced from Mr. Obama’s proposed response. The “red line” he has proposed demarcates no rational foreign policy. This is a president who seems incapable of distinguishing clearly between friends and enemies, a distinction that lies at the center of any coherent foreign policy.
Both Connecticut’s U.S. Senators should insist that any military actions taken by Mr. Obama should advance the national interests of the United States. Americans are weary, and more than weary, with presidents who have rented out the American military to international interests that do not always conform to national interests. The American people did not elect Mr. Obama to enforce international law as perceived by the United Nations, an international play pen of states many of which are hostile to the United States.
There are reasons for going to war, and those presidents who engage in war should make their intentions plain to the American people before they embark on a venture in which kindheartedness should, according to the clearheaded Clausewitz, play no prominent role:
“Kind-hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat the enemy without too much bloodshed, and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed: War is such a dangerous business that mistakes that come from kindness are the very worst.”