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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.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. LaMont says:

    I was waiting for Romney to say something completely irresponsible on the conflict in Syria. Just like a robot I expected him to pounce on somehting he has very little knowledge about for the sake of making the President look incompetent. Romney is so predictable it makes no sense. However, if this becomes a story in the general media – mission accomplished by the Romney team!!!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  2. legion says:

    Here, Doug – let me give you a template you can use over and over again for the next few months:

    Romney Slams Obama On _______, But Doesn’t Offer An Alternative

    You can also replace Romney/Obama with Republicans/Democrats to keep using it after November. Simple!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 1

  3. al-Ameda says:

    @legion:


    Romney Slams Obama On _______, But Doesn’t Offer An Alternative

    That is, by far, the best all-purpose template of the 2012 campaign season.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  4. michael reynolds says:

    As I thought at the time, Libya was uniquely easy. As you say: long, empty roads connecting a few dispersed urban areas. It was tailor-made for the NATO mission. Air power and deserts go together like ham and eggs.

    This is much harder stuff. Also, this conflict appears to be more ethnic and religious in nature, which makes it more likely that today’s victims could become tomorrow’s vengeful majority.

    Finally, there’s Turkey, a NATO member that shares a border. Turkey would be the most likely candidate for supplying ground troops and I’ve read nothing that suggests Turkey wants action taken. This has got to rest to a great degree on what Turkey wants.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  5. He called for the United States to “work with partners to organize and arm Syrian opposition groups so they can defend themselves”

    Does he realize most of the opposition groups in Syria are tied to Sunni militants (e.g. al Qeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, etc.) who are there because they object to Shite Iran’s influence in the country?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  6. @michael reynolds:

    As I thought at the time, Libya was uniquely easy.

    For us anyways. Given the continuing chaos, I’m not sure the people who actually have to live there would agree with your assessment of how easy it is.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  7. 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.

    Syria also has a far more modern integrated air defense system.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  8. paladin says:

    It could be that Romney doesn’t offer alternatives because he doesn’t have all the information needed to make a rational suggestion and he doesn’t want to descend into ignorant buffoonery like promising to close Gitmo the first day he is POTUS.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 11

  9. anjin-san says:

    he doesn’t want to descend into ignorant buffoonery

    Like he did in the Chen/Embassy/Day of Shame affair?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  10. Hey Norm says:

    Legion said it all.
    Next topic.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  11. legion says:

    @paladin: The part you ignore is that if he doesn’t have enough information to develop an alternative, he probably doesn’t have enough understanding of the situation to rationally criticize what’s currently being done.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  12. paladin says:

    I agree. There are way too many shoot -from-the-hip promises and predictions made by politicians; the idiocy by Obama about closing Gitmo pronto just being one of the obvious ones.

    It’s fine for a politician to set out his general theory about stuff, but offering precise policy plans without the full range of information only leads to silly stuff like Obama running around with his hair on fire in ’08 saying the next Great Depression was upon us, and only he had the policies to fix it, but when the results of said policies were less than stellar claim he had NO IDEA the problem was so serious.

    There’s a lot of this idiocy going around and it’s bipartisan. Just once I’d like to hear a politician running for office say, I can’t answer these questions specifically because I just don’t have enough information.

    Obama didn’t do it and neither is Romney—or any politician, for that matter.

    But hey, I can dream.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 8

  13. J-Dub says:

    It’s the same old story of the Republicans being against anything Obama does. McCain was for airstrikes in Libya until Obama approved them, then he was against them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  14. Davebo says:

    There are way too many shoot -from-the-hip promises and predictions made by politicians; the idiocy by Obama about closing Gitmo pronto just being one of the obvious ones.

    Are you sure you want to hang your hat on that one? Exactly what happened when the administration attempted to close Gitmo and what prevented it?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  15. Murrell says:

    One answer for Syria would be to send in some sort of team (such as a Seal or Delta team) and bring out the people responsible for these recent murders of children. Then take them to a US base in Germany and put them on trial.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 4

  16. Murell,

    Since you seem to be such an expert on these matters I’m sure you’ve already planned the operation and are ready to execute it.

    It always amuses me how people who know nothing of the military think they know how to deploy it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  17. paladin says:

    OK Davebo—whatever.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 5

  18. David M says:

    @paladin: That’s not much of a response, which actually mirrors the quality of the objections to closing Gitmo when it was discussed. If I remember correctly it may have been the ultimate NIMBY issue, so I’m not sure how Obama came out of this looking bad, especially when compared with Congress.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  19. WR says:

    @Murrell: Sure, just let me Google. “People responsible for Syria massacre.” Oh, right, there they are, complete with names and addresses and Facebook profiles. Seals are on the way.

    Oh, wait. This isn’t GI Joe 2? It’s real life.

    Nevermind.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  20. @Murrell:

    I think that was a movie.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  21. jan says:

    @paladin:

    “It’s fine for a politician to set out his general theory about stuff, but offering precise policy plans without the full range of information only leads to silly stuff ..”

    So true, Paladin. In a forum such as this, though, ABAD (anybody but a dem) is ripped if they give either a mediocre response, or no response at all. Like you said, people outside the WH inner circle don’t have all the data and intelligence to give a detailed, well honed solution to many problems, especially ones dealing with overseas conflicts. How could they?

    Particularly in an election year, all contenders can really do is rail against and disagree with the incumbent. That’s what Obama did when Bush was President. He derided Bush not only for Gitmo, but for the surge, for deficits, for raising the debt ceiling, just for starters. But, once Obama became President the responsibility of the office tempered his hubris, and he had to address the realities at hand, rather than just render blistering criticism while on the stump. Romney is just acting on the same rhetorical platform that Obama did in ’08.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 6

  22. David M says:

    @jan:

    He derided Bush not only for Gitmo, but for the surge, for deficits, for raising the debt ceiling, just for starters.

    That’s an awful thin list of examples. As I said before the Gitmo closure issue is about Congress being idiots, not Obama. Obama certainly didn’t reverse the Surge in Iraq after being elected, so I’m not sure where you’re going with this.

    As far as the deficits and debt limit go, he was against those when the economy was doing well, not in recession. You don’t have to agree with his logic, but pretending his quotes from several years ago about either issue are applicable after the recession is just flat out dishonest. You can think he’s wrong, but it’s not an example of changing after being elected.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  23. DanBoy says:

    While Mitt Romney’s strong condemnation of the massacre of women and children by Syrian government militia is welcomed, his criticism of U.S. Policy is curious given the actions of the official Mormon militia on September 11, 1857. On this day, leaders at the highest level of the Mormon church and government ordered and participated in the massacre of 120 unarmed men, women, and children from Arkansas who were in a wagon train crossing Southern Utah, bound for California. Brigham Young orchestrated a covered-up of the atrocity, and many believe that he was the one who had authorized it. Check out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mountain_Meadows_massacre

    Question: Mr. Romney, do you condemn Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders?
    Question: Mitt, Do you think the Federal government should have used military force to overthrow the Mormon theocracy in Utah?
    Question: Do you think Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders involved should be posthumously tried for war crimes?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 4

  24. Dazedandconfused says:

    The only part I question is Romney’s advisers rejecting that option. Dan Senor seems mighty hawkish here.

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3036789/ns/msnbc_tv-morning_joe/#47612964

    Zbig is in great form, even with the limited time of the cable news format. If anybody thinks the Alawites are hovering on the edge of surrender, I’d like to see some evidence. Air power couldn’t stop the militias in Baghdad.

    We go in there, and what do we do when Bahrain goes silly? When the Israelis cast lead?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. grumpy realist says:

    @DanBoy: You know, I think we can leave the Mormon aspect out of this…..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  26. anjin-san says:

    You know, I think we can leave the Mormon aspect out of this…..

    Second that. Romney’s religion is not relevant to his candidacy. Let’s keep this about character, philosophy, competence, and policy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  27. legion says:

    @anjin-san: As long as the Republicans keep trying to paint Obama as a Muslim Socialist who was brainwashed by a black-radical Christian preacher, Romney’s Mormonism is a perfectly valid topic for discussion.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  28. anjin-san says:

    @ legion

    As long as the Republicans

    Do we really want the pathetic actions of the GOP to be a driver of our own behavior?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  29. legion says:

    @anjin-san: At some point, it has to work that way – when one side pitches out absolute bald-faced lies, those lies have to called out & corrected. The liars have to be shamed. The only alternative is to accept the lying and start doing it yourself even harder.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0