I wrote last week that I have mixed emotions about the strong public opposition to the proposal to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons. I still support that policy. While the Russian proposal to remove chemical weapons from Assad’s control offers an acceptable response if it can be achieved effectively, it would not have come in the essence of President Obama’s threat of an airstrikes against him.
Why single out chemical weapons? Because they are by definition indiscriminate. All weapons can inflict harm on noncombatants, but efforts can be made to limit this. Chemical weapons are much easier to use and harder for defenders to stop. In addition, in this instance a limited targeted strike against Assad’s military would strengthen John Kerry’s extraordinary efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace, acting as a deterrent to Arab radicals inclined to sabotage it, and a rebuttal to Israeli intransigents seeking to block it. Support for a punishment for the use of chemical weapons is widespread among those in the Middle East supporting the two-state solution.
But the importance of the outcome of our debate over Syria has now been eclipsed by the significance of what that debate has demonstrated about America’s recognition that it is time for us to scale back our self-appointed mission to bring order to the whole world. It is within the context of that support for a limited American role that I support a targeted attack on Syria’s armed forces — to impose a penalty for the breach of the global ban on chemical weapons; not as John McCain has sought, an ongoing American intervention in Syria’s civil war. In fact, I believe that while the current opposition to the use of force goes too far regarding Syria, it does not go nearly far enough regarding the far more costly and damaging example of unwise American military intervention in a civil war in Afghanistan.
Every argument against the attack on Syria applies with even greater force to a continued American engagement in Afghanistan. Under current plans, the best case in Afghanistan will cost more in American money, lives and political support in the region than the worst case outcome of a limited strike against Syria.
Obama’s current plan is to withdraw most of our remaining military force in Afghanistan sometime next year. The military led by our commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph Dunford, began a public campaign this summer to press for a longer stay with more troops.
My hope is that once the issue in Syria is decided, the opponents of a military response and those of us who supported a very limited intervention can jointly draw on the current popular resistance to prolonged American military intervention in the internal affairs of other nations and insist that Congress use its unchallengeable power of the purse to require a complete withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2013, subject only to the requirement that it be done as safely as possible. There is no American national interest in indefinitely propping up Karzai or his hand-picked successor, nor has his government any moral claim on us.
An amendment to end America’s open-ended military commitment in Afghanistan would also be a test of the sincerity of Republican congressional opposition to a Syrian strike. Some Republicans who once supported that reversed their positions once Obama proposed it. Giving them the chance to vote on bringing our Afghan intervention to a close — after 12 years — will help determine whether their switch was genuinely based on a relatively recent skepticism about American military involvement, or was instead one more manifestation of their hyper-partisan focus on destroying the Obama presidency, no matter what the cost to their previously held values.
Finally, with this new strong popular majority against America assuming the role of the world’s enforcer of good behavior, we should proceed to benefit from the large budget savings we will see when we scale back a military now sized to play that expansive and excessive role. I welcome the strong national majority opposed to the notion that we must police the world. Translating that into an appropriately sized military budget would be a big steps toward socially responsible deficit reduction.
Barney Frank is a retired congressman and author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.