Politics

Rand Paul will not go to war for a “stalemate”

Rand Paul will not go to war for a "stalemate"

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) wrote an op-ed at Time to explain why he was voting against Syrian intervention, and to emphasize why President Obama had jolly well better abide by the results of that Congressional vote:

War should occur only when America is attacked, when it is threatened or when American interests are attacked or threatened. I don’t think the situation in Syria passes that test. Even the State Department argues that “there’s no military solution here that’s good for the Syrian people, and that the best path forward is a political solution.”

The U.S. should not fight a war to save face. I will not vote to send young men and women to sacrifice life and limb for stalemate. I will not vote to send our nation’s best and brightest to fight for anything less than victory. If American interests are at stake, then our goal should not be stalemate.

Paul doesn’t think the Administration has done a very good job of arguing that American interests are threatened in Syria, beyond the vague assertion that it’s dangerous to let anyone get away with using weapons of mass destruction… a danger that left Democrats serenely untroubled when Saddam Hussein was pouring nerve gas over a hundred times as many people in Iraq.

Paul also asks a lot of questions about the Administrations’ plans for post-Assad Syria – essentially the same questions Secretary of State John Kerry refused to answer when Senator Paul posed them in hearings earlier this week:

Bashar Assad is clearly not an American ally. But does his ouster encourage stability in the Middle East, or would his ouster actually encourage instability?

Are the Islamic rebels our allies? Will they defend American interests? Will they acknowledge Israel’s right to exist? Will they impose Shari‘a? Will they tolerate Christians, or will they pillage and destroy ancient Christian churches and people?

Having reviewed the latest atrocities from the ostensibly “moderate and secular” Syrian rebels, I find myself wondering if we couldn’t just arm the Syrian Christians and Kurds, and let them have a shot at building a pluralistic, tolerant democracy.

It’s actually less clear than ever what Obama wants to do in Syria.  Congressional hearings only made the situation murkier, thanks in no small part to John Kerry’s appalling performance, in which he simultaneously promised that every option is either on, or off, the table.  The “just muscular enough to not be mocked” operation envisioned by one Administration official last week is precisely the “stalemate” Senator Paul says he cannot support.  It’s hard to envision a short, limited, non-regime-threatening bombing campaign that wouldn’t end up bolstering Bashar Assad’s prestige, especially if his WMD stockpiles aren’t on the target list.  Embattled anti-American dictators win stalemates by default, assuming they can also defeat their domestic opposition, which Assad seems to have better-than-average odds of doing at the moment.

The biggest lingering question from Operation Stalemate would be whether Assad was cheeky enough to fire off more chemical weapons, as a gesture of defiance.  Or whether the rebels conducted a false-flag chem weapons release to make Assad look defiant, a possibility whether or not the recent, appalling chemical strike was definitely the regime’s handiwork.  Watching Obama wag his finger at Assad and threaten him with even more dire punishment if he dares to step across that “red line” again would be a gigantic incentive for the more bloodthirsty rebels to uncork a little sarin gas and see what happens.

One way or the other, the most obvious, immediate failure condition for limited, punitive strikes on Syria would be a subsequent WMD violation somewhere in the country.  What then?  The Iraq war was long criticized for its lack of an “exit strategy.”  Why are so few politicians asking for an “exit strategy” in Syria before casting their vote?  Does anyone still think war with uncertain objectives, carried out on behalf of dubious allies, is likely to result in a clean exit at the scheduled time?

If conflict always boils down to a contest of wills, the side that enters battle to fight for a stalemate will always be at a huge disadvantage.  Congressional Republicans would be wise to keep that lesson in mind when they enter domestic political conflicts, too.

Update: Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) is thinking along these lines, too:

Update: More from Senator Lee:

The administration has indicated its goal is to use limited military action to significantly degrade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons against his own people and to deter future attacks.  After hearing from the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in a top-secret briefing, I do not believe that the range of options the president is considering will accomplish this military objective, and therefore I cannot now support intervention into the Syrian civil war.

First, it remains unclear how the president’s plan to execute limited strikes would prevent Assad from using chemical weapons again or even make it less likely.  Second, it is entirely possible that ineffective U.S. strikes would embolden Assad to become even more ruthless towards his people.

Finally, I am greatly concerned that in order to achieve the president’s goal, the U.S. would be required to become much more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war than the administration is willing to commit.   The real threat to U.S. credibility is not what happens if we don’t intervene, but what happens if we do without a plan for what comes next.

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