President Barack Obama stepped on a big limb when he threatened "limited action" against Syria because the country's leaders allegedly used chemical weapons against their own people. There are international bans against the use of chemical weapons, with Syria one of few countries not supporting the ban. Chemical weapons allegedly killed more than 1,400 Syrians, and the ongoing civil war may have killed as many as 100,000.
President Obama announced his willingness to act on Syria's domestic chemical intrusion before Labor Day, but he has backpedaled and asked for Congressional approval. What will he do if Congress says no? Will he face the international community conceding that he has less power than he thought, or will he go ahead and take military action without congressional approval?
Reportedly, U.S. troops in the Middle East were ready to follow the orders of the Commander-in-Chief before they got orders to slow down any action. Perhaps President Obama is finally listening to the sentiment of the American people, who, according to several polls, do not support action against Syria. Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and dozens of other members of Congress sent the president a letter urging debate on any military action against Syria. Does the urgency of a strike against Syria recede over time?
Have we learned from the lessons of Iran, Afghanistan, and, yes, Vietnam? In the last case, "simple" military action led us into a war that lasted for nearly a decade, and the loss of tens of thousands of lives. The "end" of that war was hardly decisive, with a withdrawal that didn't so much save the day as salvage the our nation's bruised ego. If allegations against Syria are true, they have clearly crossed a line. Still, it is not clear that unilateral action from the United States is the solution. While the United Nations is not always as effective as it might be, I'd prefer United Nations concurrence to United States go-it-along position in this matter.
From Iraq, we must remember that verification of the use of chemical weapons is key to any action. I'll never forget Secretary of State Colin Powell holding up a small container and saying, "This could be anthrax." Turns out, it wasn't. Based on that vivid display, we stepped up our action against Iraq, and a decade later we are still there. General Powell said that if we broke it, we have to fix it. We've not fixed it – we are withdrawing, and billions of dollars and thousands of lives later, the situation is almost as murky as it was when we entered that country.
What will we do if Syria chooses to respond to our "limited" military action? Action and counteraction are the first steps to war. We aren't ready for that. We've got existing military commitments, and an already-challenged budget, something not often mentioned in the face of this impending crisis. Military experts say Syrian action could cost about $100 million. Depending on escalation, we could easily end up in billion-dollar territory.
Meanwhile Congress and the president are on a budget brink. Government could actually shut down at the end of the fiscal year unless unlikely compromises are made. Will President Obama be forced to offer budget concessions in order to get Republican votes to support limited action against Syria? If he does, what implications will that have on the domestic budget, especially in the face of budget austerity? Will the money to cover a Syria strike come from the already-cut food stamps program, from sparsely funded education programs, from already-embattled health care?
Former President Bill Clinton reportedly supports military action against Syria, and regrets that the United States did not get involved in the massacre in Rwanda that claimed nearly 1 million lives. With Rwanda, though, a bipartisan group of legislators pushed Clinton to take the case against Rwanda to the United Nations and he did not. President Obama has not suggested United Nations cooperation but instead insisted that it is time to take action.
Where is the peace movement? Are they shying away from their traditional anti-war stance because President Obama, not President Bush, is in the White House? Once, you could count on groups like Code Pink to lift their voices against military action. Now their silence speaks volumes.
There are alternatives to "limited military action" in Syria. Yet, those alternatives have yet to be explored. We shouldn't involve ourselves in what might be a multi-billion dollar action just so President Obama can sell wolf tickets (or bragging rights) and count on Congress to cash them.
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.