Last week, I wrote that if President Obama didn't bomb Syria, you might as well hang a "Closed for the season" sign on his credibility -- and America's -- for the remainder of his second term.
Administration officials have been even more forceful. Indeed, if you listen to some members of the administration's national security team -- notably the eloquent and forceful secretary of state, John Kerry -- you might conclude that Syria has become the fulcrum of Western civilization and that failure to act will bring the barbarians to the gates.
But how strong is the administration's case? How damaging would a failure to act really be on U.S. influence and interests?
That's pretty tough to game out. But before Congress votes on whether to authorize the president to use force, let's try.
The proponents of military action base their arguments on four core assumptions.
1. Iran will be emboldened: Proponents of military action argue that failure to strike Syria for violating the president's red line on chemical weapons will encourage Iran to violate the American red line on nuclear weapons. Show U.S. weakness on one prohibition, and America's lack of resolve will be assumed on the other, too.
I understand the connection, particularly if Congress tortures itself to death and doesn't grant the president authorization to use force, or if one house does and the other doesn't.
But is failure to act against Syria really the key or even a key variable in Iran's nuclear program? You could argue that striking Assad might accelerate Iran's search for a nuclear weapon. And should Assad be truly weakened or fall, Tehran could feel encircled by a Western-Sunni arc and seek the protection of a nuclear deterrent.
For Iran, the nuclear issue is an enduring one. Had the shah not been overthrown in 1979, Iran would likely already be a nuclear power. The mullahs' calculations about the bomb -- yes or no, why or why not, today or tomorrow -- involve issues much broader than whether the United States launches cruise missile strikes against Syria for using chemicals. The economic, social, and political cost of sanctions, the incentives the United States is prepared to provide as part of a negotiated deal, and of course the likelihood of a U.S. or Israeli military strike on Iran are far more determinative.
But wouldn't Obama's failure to use military force against Syria mean he'd be less likely to act against Iran? I'm not sure that logic really applies, or that Tehran would automatically accept it, either.
The dithering, indecision, and angst over Syria reflect the reality that attacking Assad really isn't a vital U.S. interest. If it were, and if it were perceived that way, it's likely the president would have acted without going to Congress, and the current debate wouldn't be as muddled.
By contrast, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons has been the policy of three American administrations. The factors that would impel a U.S. president to attack Iran would be fundamentally different, as would the domestic and international environments in which a debate about the use of force would be conducted -- particularly if the administration tried serious diplomacy first and laid out the case effectively. The idea that if you respond forcefully to less egregious criminal acts, you can prevent more serious crimes -- the "broken-windows" approach -- may apply to cities, but it isn't necessarily germane to deterrence in the Middle East, particularly when you have two different perpetrators.