|In Syria, An Invitation for Disappointment|
By Troy Senik
Thursday, August 29 2013
Nearly half a decade after he won the presidency, we can now look back on Barack Obama’s rise to power with perspective that wasn’t available at the time, when his status as a dashboard saint of American politics made it difficult to subject the soon-to-be chief executive to any critical scrutiny.
As I’ve written in the past, successful presidential candidates often exploit contrasts with their predecessor’s shortcomings. One of the methods by which Obama did this was portraying his decision-making process as the very antithesis of the confident, go-with-your-gut style of George W. Bush.
Obama went out of his way, both in his speeches and his writings, to display an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand sensitivity to competing arguments. The grass always being greener on the other side, the American electorate found the contrast admirable. This seemed like the kind of elevated moral reasoning one should expect from a President of the United States.
Five years later, what once seemed like a penchant for sober consideration of the issues now looks more like a proclivity for paralysis by analysis. And nowhere is that trend clearer than in Syria, where Obama is now boxed into a dilemma of his own making.
It was a year ago, during a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room that the President told Chuck Todd of NBC News that “seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized” in Syria would constitute a “red line … that would change my equation.”
When evidence of chemical attacks against the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad emerged in June, the Obama Administration floated a plan to begin directly supplying the rebels in response. The proposal, however, relied primarily on small arms (which wouldn’t change the relative strength of the rebels one iota) … and it never ended up being implemented.
After hundreds of Syrians were killed last week by a nerve gas attack in the Damascus suburbs, the U.S. is once again being pressured to act – and the Obama Administration is sending mixed messages in response.
On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry called the chemical attacks “a moral obscenity” and declared that “President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.” Kerry, however, seems more convinced of Obama’s conviction than the president himself, who has dedicated the bulk of his public remarks to warning of the complexity of the Syria issue and tamping down expectations.
Here’s the thing: Obama isn’t wrong. Syria is complex and the geopolitical implications (and the possibility of unintended consequences) stemming from a potential American intervention there are fraught with peril – which is precisely why the “red line” threat was a bad idea in the first place.
You make such threats, of course, hoping that you’ll never have to act on them. The whole point of deterrence is to issue warnings sufficiently daunting to convince your enemy to stand down.
In order for deterrence to work, however, it has to meet three criteria. It has to be clear (your enemy understands precisely what you’re threatening). You have to be capable (i.e., you have to have the material resources to follow through on the threat). And it has to be credible (your enemy has to believe that you’ll actually follow through on the threat if he doesn’t meet your terms).
The problem with the “red line” threat was that it only met one of those three standards: capability. No one doubts that the United States has the ability to level Syria if it so desires. But was it clear? Who knows what “it would change my equation” means? Certainly some sort of escalation, but it’s diaphanous beyond that. And is it credible? Well, based on the fact that the revelations of chemical attacks in June produced no real consequences, we’d have to say no.
This creates a dangerous image of America as a paper tiger. And, as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was fond of noting, weakness is provocative. You can be sure that Iran and North Korea are taking notes.
The tragedy of this whole affair is that there’s no national security interest at stake in Syria worth putting American credibility on the line in the first place. There’s no question that the use of chemical weapons is a sign of utter depravity, but is there a significant moral distinction between the few hundred Syrians who died from nerve gas and the approximately 100,000 who’ve lost their lives via less exotic means over the course of the country’s civil war? We were never, after all, on the warpath when they were the ones suffering.
Anyone with the slightest shred of humanity wants that suffering to end, but a serious analysis of both the human rights concerns and the national security issues yields the same conclusion: There’s nothing to be gained from hastening the end of Syria’s civil war.
It’s true that an Assad regime that managed to re-consolidate its power would be an advantage for Iran and Hezbollah, and would also likely continue to perpetuate atrocities against the nation’s majority Sunni population. Yet a win for the rebel opposition would empower Sunni radicals with ties to Al Qaeda – a group that has already shown itself happy to target Christians, Kurds and other groups for violence. There’s simply no possible outcome worthy of the American imprimatur.
To his credit, President Obama seems to know this. To his shame, that is why it looks increasingly likely that he’ll choose a hopeless middle path that consists of little more than firing a few missiles at regime assets.
One anonymous source within the federal government described it to the Los Angeles Times as a response "just muscular enough not to get mocked." What the President hopes to accomplish is anyone’s guess.
What does a military offensive that is (A) powerful enough to keep Assad from using chemical weapons and (B) sufficiently mild that it doesn’t topple his government look like? A squared circle. It’s an entirely fictive notion. But this is what happens when an American president is forced to follow through on a promise he never really meant in the first place – he’ll do just enough to not look like an outright liar.
Nearly five years into his presidency, it’s worth reconsidering whether Obama’s deliberative style is quite the virtue it was once believed. It was his supposedly injudicious predecessor, after all, who once said “When I take action, I’m not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the ass.” Presidents occasionally have better aim when shooting from the hip.
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