I remember serving under President Ronald Reagan, who was my first commander in chief. Everyone old enough to remember can recall how the American hostages held by Iran were released shortly after Reagan won the election. That act taught me a big lesson: Leaders can convince the world they are serious by the way they carry themselves. A few years after the hostages were released; I had the honor of joining the Marines while Reagan was still in office.
When America’s interests were threatened by the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Reagan took swift action against Gaddafi. Again, I respected his candid and lead-from-the-front demeanor. Sadly, one has little hope that there will be a similar outcome in resolving our current Middle East conundrum.
We have to ask, how on earth did we end up on the world stage unprepared to handle our own threats made against a foreign dictator?
All military is on high alert, trying to stay prepared for the decision to perform limited attacks on Syria, if indeed that’s the order that comes down. Yet everyone who has served our country can appreciate the absolute anxiety that faces the young men and women who don’t have clear leadership from the commander in chief.
Last Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry made a clear statement that we must answer the chemical attack in Syria. He argued that the world is watching us, and expects us to engage in strikes against Syria. After hearing Kerry’s speech, an American strike appeared imminent.
But just one day later, President Obama contradicted Kerry, to the country’s complete shock. He gave an ambiguous message that we might attack, maybe in a week, or a month, but first he wanted Congressional approval. He knew that no such approval could come until Congress returned to Washington (which was still more than 10 days away), but he didn’t ask them to cut their vacations short.
I sat and stared at my television and thought, “What just happened?” At that time, we had four warships in the Mediterranean with a fifth on the way. Every Marine and sailor on those ships had to be thinking, “So are we or aren’t we doing this?” No one on active duty likes a leader who isn’t clear and comprehensive in his or her words. A commander in chief must convince us we are going into harm’s way for the right reasons; otherwise frustration and apathy can prevent success.
This begs the question: “Who is Syrian dictator’s Bashar al-Assad’s opposition?”
After all, that would effectively be the side we were joining. The answer is troubling. Two years ago, the Free Syrian Army was formed to remove Assad as president of Syria. They appeared moderate in nature and sought our support. However, we didn’t intervene at that time to help overthrow Assad. Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and a plethora of other militants filled the vacuum within Assad’s opposition. The Supreme Military Council evolved and branded themselves as moderates fighting for freedom and democracy. Unfortunately, we know now that these militants are far from “moderates” but could be more accurately characterized as terrorists by western standards. If things couldn’t get worse, a video has surfaced with Syrian rebels admitting to using chemical weapons on more than one occasion.
What’s happened in Syria is a tragedy. There are 100,000 dead. We’ve known of this carnage, and in fact we knew of chemical attacks as early as June 2013, but it wasn’t until 1,400 Syrians were killed in August that the president started considering following through on his “red line” warning.
Yet a warning isn’t a battle plan. And essentially, we don’t have a plan to replace Assad, or to make real progress in Syria, and even worse, the perception by many is we may end up being used by al Qaeda to strike Assad. There hasn’t been a strategic argument made about how to replace the current Syrian leadership and there are unanswered questions on how will we engage with Iran, Syria’s close ally, should they decide to strike Israel in retaliation to our attack.
The administration’s vague threats have sent unclear messages beyond the civil war in Syria. We have seen uprising in Egypt against President Morsi who was supported by the administration all of the way up until his overthrow on July 3. We still have unresolved terrorist attacks on our embassy and the assassination of our ambassador and four other Americans in Libya. We still face a potential nuclear threat from Iran, and Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan. The world isn’t watching us because of 1,400 dead Syrians. They are watching us because they believe we are no longer reliable and capable of decisive leadership in our foreign policy.
Congressional leaders are concerned that the limited strike the president wants to make will not deter Iran’s nuclear program or Syria’s chemical weapons program. They are right to be concerned since no one has been able to articulate any vision for how such a strike would advance our goals.
Put simply, the administration has created a strategic mess with its poor foreign policy and false threats. The result is we have projected our weakness to the world, reduced our credibility, and may put American lives at risk if we are drawn into military action over this debacle. We’ve come a long way from the surefooted, results-oriented leadership of President Reagan.