An Open letter to Congress on Syria

The vote facing you when you return after September 9 is one of the most momentous foreign policy decisions Congress has faced in decades. I urge you to have the courage to support President Barack Obama in defending the American national interest by authorizing military action in Syria.

I know that for many of you, especially in the House, pressure from your constituents to vote no is extremely strong.

The American people came by “Middle East fatigue” honestly. The fiasco in Iraq, among the greatest foreign policy blunders in American history; the failure in Afghanistan, a necessary war that was subsequently mismanaged; and the fiscal crisis of 2008 from which we are still struggling to recover, have all left them with an understandable aversion to any further “adventures” in the Middle East.

So has disappointment with the “Arab Spring,” which, despite the initial optimism, has yet to produce stable, Western-friendly democracies.

Therefore, no one can blame the American people for their skepticism or reluctance. But it’s also extremely important for all Americans to understand what is actually at stake.

Your role in the American system of government is twofold. You must represent the best interests of your constituents, but not necessarily be guided by their immediate impulses. But you must also represent the best interests of the nation as a whole.

In deciding how to vote, you must answer two fundamental questions. Does the United States wish to remain a great power internationally? And isn’t the Middle East still crucially important to that American global role? If the answers are yes, then we must act now in Syria.

There are those who bemoan the fact that the United States ever decided to become a global power at all. Many of them would identify the Middle East as the very first place for a strategic withdrawal into a neo-isolationist, America-first, foreign policy.

But countries do not become great powers capriciously, and military force projection is necessary, among other things, in order to protect investments and assets overseas.

Neither the Americans nor the world are ready for a new order in which the United States is, at best, first among equals. That does not reflect either American interests or international realities.

The Syrian regime has violated one of the most fundamental tenants of modern international law by using chemical weapons against defenseless civilians. No one else is going to act in response to that. If the United States also does nothing, then there is, in fact, no prohibition against, and no consequences for, the use of weapons of mass destruction.

If, after the speeches by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, the United States fails to act, friend and foe alike will draw the logical conclusion: the United States has finally begun its slow and painful withdrawal from Middle Eastern regional, and ultimately global, leadership.

The United States would be creating a widespread international misapprehension that it is an exhausted power, literally and figuratively bankrupt. It is crucial all Americans understand that this would severely undermine the role of global leadership we cherish.

Syria is not going to be a repetition of Iraq or Afghanistan. We have learned the lessons of those mistakes. The public is fully justified in skepticism about another quagmire, but that is not going to happen. No one in the United States, Syria, or anywhere else, wants a major American military presence there, and it’s not going to happen. The United States is not preparing to walk into another inextricable trap or quixotic nation-building campaign.

At the same time, missile strikes only make sense when combined with efforts in conjunction with our allies to strengthen and reinforce the Free Syrian Army and other groups that will stand in opposition to both the Damascus dictatorship and al-Qaeda.

And it needs to be said very clearly both to you and to your constituents: despite all the claims to the contrary, al-Qaeda does NOT dominate the rebel opposition in Syria. That is simply false.

If we work to strengthen patriotic rebels while also weakening the regime, al-Qaeda will be undermined and not strengthened by our limited intervention. Further American neglect, though, will greatly strengthen al-Qaeda.

Congress and the public are right to worry about the dangers and consequences of military action, although they are likely to prove far less costly than many fear.

But the damage we will certainly incur by inaction at this stage is both severe and guaranteed. The outcome in Syria, like it or not, has become a defining feature of our international credibility.

The President has asked Congress to share in the burden of this decision, though precedent demonstrates he need not have. American values and, even more starkly, American interests both provide an overwhelming imperative that you endorse his request.