As President Barack Obama's administration tries to rally the support of Congress and the American people in a unilateral strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in response to a chemical weapons attack that may have killed over 1,400 people, many war hawks are suggesting that Obama is not going far enough. Although notoriously hawkish GOP Senators John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) have agreed to vote in favor of Obama's proposed surgical strikes on Syria, McCain dismissed the president's plan as merely cosmetic.
McCain argues for the extensive bombardment of the Assad regime and a no-fly zone to create a "safe zone" for the rebels. More disturbingly, President George W. Bush's former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld appeared on the Today Show on September 4 to say "Either you do something worth doing or you do nothing at all." Given Rumsfeld's history in the Iraq fiasco, Rumsfeld would probably condone going so far as to deploy boots on the ground and completely remove the Assad regime, guaranteeing that the desperate dictator would use chemical weapons on either his own people or U.S. allies on a larger scale.
In 2007 General Wesley Clark accused the neoconservative establishment of staging a post-9/11 "policy coup." Clark specifically signaled out Rumsfeld and former Vice President Dick Cheney, among others, when he reported that his superior told him about a memo from Rumsfeld's office that outlined the destruction of seven governments in five years, starting with Iraq. According to Clark, Syria was next on the list, which concluded with Iran.
Evidently, Rumsfeld has not abandoned his grand dream of regime change in the Middle East and North Africa. An integral player in selling Bush's Iraq war, Rumsfeld lied to the public, insisting that Saddam Hussein's regime had weapons of mass destruction without conclusive evidence and illogically asserting that Hussein had ties to Al-Qaeda. Based on his track record, Rumsfeld would likely support a ground invasion into Syria.
Although the Obama administration has produced a suspiciously unsubstantiated body count of 1,429 people from the chemical weapons attack, far exceeding previous NGO estimates, and failed to provide the public with a hard intelligence confirmation that the Assad regime was behind the attack, circumstantial evidence indicates that there is a stronger case for a limited intervention in Syria than there was for Iraq. However, an intervention of the extent that neoconservatives like Rumsfeld desire has the potential to turn Syria into a far deadlier version of Iraq.
The U.S. could feasibly remove the Assad regime relatively quickly, just as it ousted Saddam Hussein, but a despot desperately clinging to power is likely to employ all resources at his disposal. Thus, heavily bombarding and ousting the regime would ensure that Assad uses chemical weapons at a much larger scale than before, potentially targeting more civilians, the rebels, U.S. forces, Israel, Jordan, and Turkey. Even after Assad loses power, Al-Qaeda affiliated rebels will undoubtedly begin fighting with the Free Syrian Army for control over Syria's future. At that point, the likes of Rumsfeld, McCain, and Graham will begin insisting that we "stay the course" and commit the U.S. to an entrenched war against Al-Qaeda and its associates.
To be sure, Obama's plan for limited intervention in Syria is looking less and less feasible by the day. Although proportionally striking the Assad regime's key infrastructure could deter it from further chemical weapons use in the immediate future, Syria's unique geopolitical circumstances could further inflame regional sectarian tensions and retaliation from Iran. The more expansive the action in Syria, the more the risk grows.