The more the Obama Administration tries to make the case for limited, precise strikes against Syria, the worse their idea looks. Secretary of State John Kerry made a series of eloquent speeches arguing in favor of attacking the Assad regime. He has had bravura performances in front of Senate and House committees accompanied by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey. Yet, each time the President has undercut the case being made by his own cabinet secretaries and senior military advisors. When the White House seems to be changing its mind, its story and its policy on the fly, the case for action is diminished.
Perhaps this is because even Obama is finding his subordinates’ arguments unconvincing. It is difficult to believe that the use of chemical weapons by a government against its own citizens is crossing “the world’s red line” when the majority of the world seems opposed to our proposed course of action and our closest ally in the world, Great Britain, voted against military strikes. It is hard to square the high moral and strategic tone taken by Kerry, Hagel and Dempsey with the narrow character of and purposes ascribed to the military operation. Remember that the alternative to Munich in 1938 was war, not limited airstrikes conducted for no more than ninety days. The limited option of the times, giving Hitler what he wanted, was not sufficient to prevent war less than a year later. Why should a limited military operation against Syria not be viewed by Assad and the other tyrannical regimes as “Munich-like” and an incentive to domestic barbarism, international aggression and global proliferation?
Then there is the bizarre argument about war and not war. Because Secretary Kerry doesn’t believe it is a war, it just isn’t one. Reminds me of a line from an old movie: So let it be written; so let it be done. As long as President Obama is in the mood to fight to maintain international norms, can we also fight for standards in the use of the English language? Everyone not in the administration seems to understand that the proposed military action against Syria constitutes an act of war. That’s what has them so nervous.
Not that the President’s own arguments are much better. If, as he said today, the prohibition against the use of chemical weapons is “a norm too important for him to allow it to be undermined” and that “the security of the United States,” née “the world,” is at stake, then why is he proposing a limited military operation? If it is really “about the children,” can it matter what kind of weapon the regime used to kill them? What about the children killed tomorrow with conventional bombs and bullets?
Perhaps, the President has a sense of irony insofar as having risen to power largely on the basis of his opposition to the war in Iraq, he now finds his administration making the same arguments regarding Syria that the neocons made about that other war: the need to deal with a tyrant murdering his own people, using prohibited weapons and threatening the stability of the region. Or it might even be the fact that the President sees before him the same slippery slope experienced by the two Bush presidencies when an initial limited military operation morphed into two decades of no-fly zones and, eventually, the perceived need to change regimes?
Discussion of the military options hasn’t helped. We have been told that, even though the Syrian regime has had weeks of warning of possible U.S. strikes and has been moving weapons, munitions stockpiles and personnel to safer locations, we can conduct effective strikes not only today but tomorrow or next month. Moreover, anyone familiar with military affairs knows that terms such as “deter” and “degrade” are not merely vague but entirely subjective and largely in the eye not just of the beholder but of those on the other side. If 20,000 bombs delivered on Iraq in 2003 or 200 cruise missiles fired against Libya in 2011 were not sufficient to deter Syria from crossing the infamous red line then why would a limited strike do so? We will only find out the effect of such strikes on deterrence after the fact and even then, only in the negative sense, that is if Assad again uses chemical weapons or escalates in some other fashion. If limited U.S. strikes degrade the Syrian chemical warfare capability by 50 percent, which would constitute a very successful operation, this would still leave some 500 tons of such weapons to use the next time. Who deliberately pokes at the hornet’s nest and then stands around waiting for their reaction?
The more the administration talks about its policies vis-à-vis Syria, briefs Congress, engages in press conferences, the worse their idea looks. This is much like trying to put lipstick on a pig. No, it is more like trying to paint the entire sty.
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