Romney Slams Obama On Syria, But Doesn’t Offer An Alternative
With reports of massacres large and small seeming to come out of Syria on a daily basis at this point, Mitt Romney took time yesterday to criticize the President’s policy toward the regime of Bashar Assad but, in the end, he doesn’t offer a coherent alternative:
WASHINGTON — The massacre of more than 100 civilians, many of them children, in Syria over the weekend has presented Mitt Romney with a new opportunity to sound a familiar theme: that President Obama’s foreign policy is feckless and lacking in courage.
Mr. Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, condemned Mr. Obama on Tuesday for a “policy of paralysis” toward Syria that he said had allowed President Bashar al-Assad to “slaughter 10,000 individuals.”
But Mr. Romney’s own prescriptions for ending the mounting death toll in Syria have been less definitive than his denunciations of the president.
He called for the United States to “work with partners to organize and arm Syrian opposition groups so they can defend themselves” — a policy that goes somewhat further than Mr. Obama’s but falls short of the airstrikes advocated by Republicans like Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
The White House has rejected arming rebel groups, saying it does not know enough about them and does not want to “further militarize the situation.” But the question of whether to arm the Syrian opposition has also split Republicans.
Looking at this from a distance, it strikes me that the White House is correct to be cautious about interaction with a Syrian insurgency that seems far weaker and far less organized than the rebellion in Libya last year which, you will recall, was aided significantly by substantial defections from among the Libyan military. There have not been as many such defection in Syria, partly no doubt that because a large part of it is made up of people for the Alawite clans that owe their allegiance, and likely their survival, to the Assad regime. As a result, the resistance to the Assad regime has been far less organized, far more diffuse, and far less able to present a coherent front against the Damascus government which, thanks in large part to the brutal tactics of the military, has not lost any significant territory to these rebels in a conflict that has now been going on for more than a year. Even nations that were eager to arm the Libyan rebels — such as the Saudis, the Qataris, and the United Arab Emirates — have largely stayed on the sidelines during this conflict. And the Israelis seems to be staying rather silent on the whole matter, as they did during the Egyptian uprising, no doubt out of fear that a change of government in Syria could end up being, from their perspective, a change for the worse. Largely, this is because nobody really knows who these rebels are, or what they want, and there is considerable concern that escalating the conflict in Syria could result in spill-over effects in the nations the border it, which is the last thing anybody wants.
There’s no doubt that what’s happening right now in Syria is close to becoming a humanitarian crisis, but the sad truth of the matter is that little has actually changed on the ground there. Last week’s massacre in Houla has set off a series of worldwide condemnations that have resulted in nearly every Western nation evicting Syrian diplomats from their country was really just a sad replay of events that we’ve seen more than once over the past year. For that reason, I suppose its inevitable that the Administration would come under criticism about the situation, but the reality of the situation seems to suggest that there’s very little that Romney would be doing differently if he were in the Oval Office right now, at least not if he wanted to act responsibly. Arming the rebels simply doesn’t seem like a viable option for a wide variety of ideas, especially since it poses the danger of inflaming the conflict and damaging relations with Russia and China, neither of which would be good for American interests. Beyond that idea, Romney isn’t proposing much of anything, though, which makes one wonder what he would do when the “arm the rebels” idea doesn’t work.
Unfortunately, he could end up listening to some of the voices in his party that want to undertake far more reckless action. Lindsey Graham, for example, has spoken out in favor of air strikes against Syrian forces along the lines of the ones that we performed in Libya. Even Romney’s advisers have rejected that option, though, not the least of the reasons being that, unlike Libya, Syria is a far more densely populated country that lacks the kind of long, isolated highways that could be attacked in an effort to cut-off government forces. Even with the precision-guided weaponry available to the United States and NATO, the probability of civilian casualties in Syria would be quite high. Moreover, several military analysts have suggested recently that a bombing campaign in Syria would be insufficient to accomplish the kinds of goals we had in Libya. In Syria, we’d need ground troops to do that. Now, you’re talking invading Syria. And you can see exactly how this situation can spin out of control.
Much of this remains a pipe dream, of course. So long as Russia and China continue to exercise their veto in the U.N. Security Council over anything that comes close to looking like military action against Syria, nothing is going happen. In an election year, President Obama is not going to engage in a large scale military operation under circumstances where our goals are ambiguous and our national security interests are unclear to say the least. If he does win in November, Romney is going to find the situation on the ground changed so much that whatever position he holds now is likely to be invalid. Perhaps Assad will be out of power by then, perhaps he won’t, but the arguments against American intervention in what is essentially a civil war will remain just as strong.
It’s not surprising that Romney would bash the President over his response to Syria, but voters should recognize that the former Massachusetts Governor is not offering a viable alternative to current policy, and that, in the end, there may be little we can actually do about what’s going on in Syria no matter how tragic the images on our television screens appear to be.