A professor’s take: In Syria, Obama should pull page from Reagan’s playbook

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Frank Cilluffo is the director of GW’s Homeland Security Policy Institute.

The crisis in Syria raises many big and important questions that we should be thinking about on campus and in GW classrooms:  What should be the role of the United States in the world? 

When must this country use military force? Can the United States afford to be the world’s superpower? Can we afford not to?

Some would say our nation is exhausted, economically spent and militarily stretched thin, on the heels of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, which cost us much in terms of both U.S. lives and money.

Another set of voices, relying on humanitarian grounds, is insistent that the United States has historically been – and must continue to be – a moral exemplar. This group is outraged by Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his people, and argues that the violence must stop, even if U.S. intervention is required to bring the killing to an end.

Somewhere between these two schools of thought is also a third, which believes that U.S. action is needed precisely because chemical warfare was used. All sides raise points that go the heart of America’s responsibility to its own citizens and to others around the world, particularly those whose own government acts against them in the most horrific way, using weapons of war so vicious that an international taboo against their use exists.

This is not a video game or reality television. People in Syria — even small children — are dying, every day. Over 1,400 lives have been cut short by chemical attacks, and approximately 100,000 have died since hostilities erupted.  Yet for the United States, there are few good options.

If America acts, there will be consequences, some of which we may not even be able to identify in advance. For instance, it would obviously not be to U.S. advantage if radical Islamists were to seize power in Syria. However, there will also be consequences if America does not act.  Ordinarily, the potential for blowback arises in response to action taken. In this case though, blowback may follow without it, since so much has already been said.

In my view, targeted action, designed to stymie Assad’s ability to engage in chemical warfare, is the least worst option. The United States would be well served by pulling a page from the Reagan playbook vis-à-vis Libya in 1986, when U.S. military power was applied in a limited way and it was shown that indiscriminate acts of terror would not go unanswered.

Some may say that U.S. national interests have not been sufficiently impacted to warrant such a response in Syria today. But this view is in my opinion shortsighted. If Assad is willing to kill his own people this way, he may turn these very weapons on others — and if he is left free to behave in this way, especially after our President has drawn a red line on such behavior, then what message are we sending to others who may be watching?

Working with Congress on this issue is a good thing, but should have taken place long ago. The president must be the president, not a professor debating action options publicly while our allies and Americans watch and wonder. When lives are at risk, those on the front lines deserve nothing less.


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