What An Uncertain âAct of Warâ on Syria Means to Americans

A screengrab from a video of the aftermath of the chemical attack in Syria

The Senate Foreign Relations committee approved a resolution last week to give President Barack Obama the green light to strike Syria. Although the measure still needs the approval of the House and Senate, its one step closer to becoming an unwanted reality for many Americans.

According to the recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 59% of Americans oppose launching missile strikes against the Syrian government. With a plethora of domestic issues--from raising the debt limit to a vote on immigration reform this fall--and a proverbial yet confusing use of language around the expectations of the strike, a sense of uneasiness is becoming a common trend around the country.

In his testimony at the committee hearing, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel warned about the consequences of inaction in response to Syria’s alleged chemical weapon use.

“We are at a crossroads moment. A precedent will be set either for the unfettered and unpunished use of chemical weapons or a precedent will be set for the deterrence of the use of such weapons through the limited use of military force that sends a message that the world will not stand down.” He listed Iran, North Korea, Hezbollah, and al-Qaida as key countries and groups that should take heed to the precedent.

Jacob Stokes, researcher for The Center for a New American Security, says he understands their stance and strategy. “A small set of strikes is not going to change the momentum of the war—they want to slap Assad on the wrist. That’s not going to change the nature of the conflict.” He says they’re “looking to uphold the internationally ban against weapons of mass destruction.”

His concern stems from the financial and potentially violent implications associated with attacking a warring country.

“The administration hopes, and president hopes, that they can use military action to give a narrow response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons,” he says. “You may hope that you can keep it contained but you never know.”

The administration has advocated for a “focused action” without the possibility of ground troops, setting a 60-day deadline for military action. But Stokes says that uncertainty makes the proposition a hard sell since “bombing a country is an act of war.”

“If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to want milk. If you start to implement strikes, you’re going to broaden out the war.” The question, he says, is how do you prevent the U.S. from getting too entangled in this financially and militarily?

The answer? You can’t. “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future,” says Gordon Adams, professor of International Relations at American University, invoking a quote from Mark Twain.

“It really depends,” he says. “The problem is, we don't really know what the president will actually do. It certainly sounds to me like it is not the intention of the administration to get engaged in the civil war. I can’t say it won't happen.”

Adams, whose focus is defense spending and national security issues, adds that the financial burden, of course, will land on the taxpayers.

“In money terms, for this 60-day operation--you’re talking minimally $100 – 200 million for operational costs. That’s cheap. The Pentagon won’t even notice that. But if you go to the opposite extreme—something like Libya—it could be $3 billion or more.” Even though that is a major concern, he says it is all in the realm of possibility at this point.

Congressional leaders, much like the general public, are wanting more clear answers from the Obama administration before they commit (or vote). Does this mean we’re going to war? Why do we have an obligation to act on another country’s civil war? And the most relevant question of all: When there is clearly a war in the streets of Chicago and Detroit, and a war on poverty, why put money towards solving another country’s domestic issues?

President Obama announced his military intentions on the heels of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where he spoke of continuing the fight for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream. The irony of such juxtaposed actions is apparent, particularly since it is no secret that King was against war—especially at the expense of education and jobs in America.

Stokes says President Obama is sticking his neck out on the line by pushing these attacks. “He’s really facing a lot of political risk,” he says. “He’s put a lot of political capital in this. If he fails then the question becomes will he do it anyway?”

With an unsure public and a seemingly over-cautious Congress, it’s clear that the Obama administration is headed for an uphill battle.