George H.W. Bush once observed that "what you don't know about domestic policy" loses elections; "what you don't know about foreign policy gets people killed."
Sadly, we're about to see that maxim played out on a grand scale in the Middle East, where the two-year old Syrian civil war has already claimed at least 70,000 lives. Now, as Barack Obama fiddles, that conflict is threatening to engulf Israel, Lebanon and the rest of the Levant, creating a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. The next wave of casualties may well include Israeli, Lebanese, Jordanian and Turkish civilians, who die under a hail of rockets and missiles, some tipped with chemical warheads.
How did we arrive at this most dangerous moment? Flash back to 2009, and the Green Revolution in Iran. Tens of thousands of Iranians, many of them students, took to the streets, demanding a democratic government. The United States took a pass on providing support, and the mullahs responded brutally. Scores of protesters died, and thousands more were sent to prison. Further emboldened, Tehran continued work on its nuclear program, and increased support for its various proxies, including Hizballah in Lebanon, confident that America would not challenge Iran's geopolitical ambitions.
With the advent of the Arab Spring, the Obama Administration voiced strong support for so-called "freedom" and "democracy" movements in places like Tunisia and Egypt. Unfortunately, the White House and their friends at Foggy Bottom had little concern about various Islamist groups that exploited the uprisings, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. So, when a terrorist group took the reins of power in Cairo, there was a collective shrug at State and the National Security
Council, amid some vague assurances that we could somehow "manage" the situation, or reshape the Muslim Brotherhood into something the founding fathers might recognize.
In Libya, the U.S. and its western partners took a more direct approach, providing military support for the anti-Qadhaffi faction, hastening the demise of the long-time dictator. But once again, there was no regard for who was running the revolution, and what might happen if the Islamists took power. And when some of the same factions stormed out consulate in Benghazji last September (resulting in the murder of our ambassador and three other Americans), President Obama and various officials tried to blame the debacle on an internet video that "slandered" the Prophet Mohammed. Six months later, Congress is still trying to figure out what happened on that September night, but one thing is certain: the "offended" Muslims were actually terrorists, and the assault on our diplomatic facility had nothing to do with that video.
Now, the conflict in Syria seems poised to explode into a regional war. Israeli warplanes have attacked targets inside that country two times in as many days. The first target was another shipment of rockets and missiles, apparently bound for Hizballah. Less than 24 hours later, the IAF struck again, hitting a military site near Damascus that is (reportedly) affiliated with Syria's chemical weapons program. The attack sent a fireball over the city, suggesting that the Israelis found their target.
In the aftermath of the latest air raid, reactions have been predictable. Damascus has accused the Israelis of "aiding terrorists," claiming the attack "opens the door to all possibilities," including a wider war. Iran has been trying to rally the Islamic world to Assad's side, with no apparent success, but it's clear that Tehran won't let its client go down without a fight. Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon expressed grave concerns over the Israeli air strikes, but had no comment on the reasons behind the attack: widespread fears that Syria is using those weapons on its own people, and may soon target Israel as well. Making matters worse, there are growing concerns that anti-Assad forces (aligned with Al Qaida) may soon gain control of some of the CW production facilities and stockpiles, making a grave situation even worse.
As for the administration, it's still trying desperately to kick the Syria can down the road. The White House's disdain for the issue was on display in Sunday's edition of The New York Times when an unnamed administration official mused that if Bashir Assad dropped Sarin on his own people, "what's that got to do with us?" Geographically, that might be remotely accurate, but what if those munitions wind up in the hands of Hizballah or Al Qaida? Or if Assad, in a last, desperate move, launches a chemical and biological attack against Israel, or American forces in neighboring Turkey?
To be fair, there are no good options in Syria. By some estimates, a ground operation to secure Assad's WMD arsenal would require 75,000 ground troops (who would be vulnerable to attack) and put us squarely in the middle of a civil war. There is virtually no support for that option, and rightfully so.
On the other hand, a case can be made for air and missile attacks against Syria's chemical and biological research and storage facilities. The Israeli Air Force has penetrated Assad's air defense system with no apparent problems (again), and a few days of SEAD would virtually eliminate that threat, allowing planners to focus on the destruction of WMD stockpiles and research centers.
Are there any guarantees of eliminating all of the Syrian stockpile? No. Risks of collateral damage. Certainly. But after years of kicking the can down the road, we are faced with stark choices: help the Israelis eliminate most of the threat now, or spend decades trying to track down every missile warhead, artillery round and BW culture that will disappear from Syria after Assad falls and the Islamists take over. In the interim, there is the threat of chemical and biological attacks against civilian targets in the region.
A senior Air Force officer one told me the lack of easy or convenient options is no excuse for inaction. Not when the stakes are this high--and climbing. By trying to "muddle through" on Syria, President Obama is putting us on a path that will jeopardize our security for decades to come. What was that line about chickens coming home to roost?