Questionable Conduct

Jewish Light Editorial

President Barack Obama’s decision to send “fewer than 50” U.S. Special Operations Forces into Syria was both surprising and perplexing. For the past five years President Obama has adamantly insisted that the U.S. military involvement in the four-year bloody civil war in Syria would not involve “boots on the ground.”

So why now, and why at this scale (or lack thereof)? In interviews this week, the president has claimed this move doesn’t violate his “no boots on the ground” assertions of the past relative to Syria. Notwith-standing his words, there are obviously many more questions than clear answers:

• What justifies sending such a small contingent of U.S. forces into the civil war, where Islamic State or ISIS, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah, along with the Syrian Army loyal to dictator Bashar Assad, have thousands of troops on the ground, in the air and more recently at sea?

• The president has indicated the decision doesn’t comprise a ground combat action, since the goal is to provide advice and support to the more moderate Syrian rebels. Even taking him at face value, can 50 experienced strategists or tacticians make a major difference in this war?

• The president is in matters of foreign policy often an incrementalist, which perhaps helps explain his small-scale decision. But the notion of incrementalism itself suggests the potential for ultimately developing a quagmire of much larger proportions. So is the decision a distressing rerun of the “mission creep” of American involvement in Vietnam, which began with small contingents of Green Beret special operations forces? When Lyndon B. Johnson took office after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, about 400 American troops had been killed in Vietnam.  By the time the war ended a total of 58,000 U.S. troops were dead.

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• To that end, should there not be a resolution approved by Congress authorizing this change in strategy in Syria, which could lead to many more American casualties? The White House and State Department justify this latest mini-escalation in Syria under the original authorization to use force against Afghanistan after 9/11.  No doubt there are similarities among ISIS, al-Qaida, the Taliban, Hezbollah and Hamas, but a congressional authorization for military action in response to a specific attack 14 years ago surely cannot be the legal basis for this latest change in U.S. strategy.

• Is this move simply a public declaration by the U.S. that having Russia involved in the region is unacceptable? And if so, why would anyone rightly believe that a move involving 50 troops, even if advisors only, would have any impact on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decisions, whether to prop up Assad, oppose ISIS or otherwise? Is this move related to the meetings between U.S. and Russian military officers to “de-conflict” U.S. and Russian warplanes and helicopters, to reduce the chances of a direct confrontation between the superpowers?

• On the domestic front, who’s assessing this move correctly from a political perspective? Critics of the decision on the interventionist right mock the sending of fewer than 50 U.S. troops into Syria as being “too little, too late.” Some see the move as a tiny makeup for a lack of strong support for rebel forces over the past several years.

Libertarians, on the other hand, warn that there are no tangible American interests at stake to justify any additional military involvement in Syria. They and critics on the left warn that the decision places the United States on a “slippery slope” towards greater and ill-advised involvement in the Syrian mess.

The above questions deserve honest and prompt answers from the powers that be.  We have learned some bitter lessons for poorly conceived military adventures.  Before we get bogged down in another Middle East conflagration, much more information and thoughtful discussion is required, which is one of the main functions of congressional oversight. Let’s hope for that level of scrutiny sooner than later.