The Limits To A Limited Military Strike In Syria

The Obama administration seems to believe that U.S. military action in Syria will restore Washington's credibility. Reuters columnist David Rohde argues that is impossible, first because the U.S. lacks a strategy in the Middle East, and second, because Obama is deeply ambivalent about any engagement. Rohde speaks with host Scott Simon about the predicament.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. President Obama spent the week trying to build support for a U.S. military strike against Syria, even as he attended the G20 Economic Summit in Russia. So far, the president's been unable to put together an international coalition of support. The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to authorize U.S. military action but many in the House of Representatives are still undecided and many members are opposed. Reuters columnist David Rohde has been writing that members of Congress should be skeptical about the president's plans because he believes they may not go far enough. Mr. Rohde is the author of "Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East." He joins us from New York now. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID ROHDE: Thank you.

SIMON: You have written that a limited military action will have a limited impact. What's your thinking on that?

ROHDE: I think that if, you know, we're talking about a few dozen cruise missile strikes over a couple of days, it will not change the sort of balance on the ground militarily in Syria. Again, the question is what is the president trying to achieve? He's framing the debate as that this is all about, you know, chemical weapons and a red line. I guess I want a broader debate, this very big question of what is the American role in the Middle East? I think that's what the American public is wrestling with. The answer in terms of a small strike is, you know, we don't want anything to do with it. The strike is a microcosm of this larger question.

SIMON: Well, I want to get you to articulate what you see as a larger vision but also maybe with the preface that the president hasn't gotten the support for even what you call this limited action. Does he really have the wherewithal to articulate a larger vision?

ROHDE: He's trying to present this as sort of a no-cost intervention and that we can, you know, have an impact without risking any American lives. And I don't think we should, you know, be doing ground invasions. I think American troops will just make things worse. But I do feel that there are moderates in the region and there was a missed opportunity to work with the moderates in the Syrian opposition. You know, we sat back. We didn't engage. We sort of, you know, deferred to the Saudis and the Turks and the Qataris, our local allies, to take care of the Syria problem. And it's been a disaster. The Turks haven't done much. The Saudis and Qataris have armed jihadis. And now you have, at best, a 50-50 opposition with 50 percent being jihadis and 50 percent being more moderate Syrians. So, I'm on the side of, you know, you can do some strikes if you want to sort of weaken Assad's position but you need a stronger opposition force on the ground. And I do support a third step, which is you're trying to get Assad and his Russian backers to the bargaining table.

SIMON: Can there be any kind of political settlement with someone who uses chemical weapons on his own people?

ROHDE: No, and, you know, the hope is that you can talk to the Russians and then the key here is you talk to the Iranians as well. In any kind of diplomatic settlement, Iran is key. We have to engage with Iran anyway in terms of their nuclear program. You're trying to set up this sort of chess board to hopefully get to an agreement where Assad, you know, is pushed aside, the Syrian army remains intact and there's some sort of interim government that does not lead to the complete collapse of the Syrian state.

SIMON: Would this president, who at least so far, hasn't gotten support for what's been advertised as no boots on the ground, series of strikes that might last a couple of days against a regime that has chemical weapons, have the political cover to open talks with Iran?

ROHDE: No, but I think that part of the problem is that this administration for the last three years has been saying we can just ignore this region, that we can walk away and it will be fine. And suddenly it's changing its tune. And I think that there's a longer-term, more honest discussion that the United States has to have, again about the Middle East. Can we walk away? Are we prepared to walk away from Israel? If world oil prices go up, you know, we are more energy independent, the United States, but the Chinese economy still depends on Middle Eastern oil. Europe's economy still depends on Middle Eastern oil. So, the complete implosion of the Middle East would have a huge impact on the global economy. And I think that the administration is paying for its pivot to Asia and its sort of minimalist approach, again, arguing that we can just sort of ignore what's happening in this part of the region, you know, and that's why it has so little credibility right now.

SIMON: David Rohde. He is a columnist for Reuters and author of "Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East." Thanks so much for being with us.

ROHDE: Thank you.

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