Can Obama Afford Not to Bomb Syria?

The White House seems to be confusing the least bad option with a strategic necessity.

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.

2. Assad will be emboldened, too: Proponents of military action maintain that failure to use force will strengthen the regime and persuade Assad that he can act with impunity.

This is a stronger argument. There's no doubt that Assad will be emboldened and much of the opposition demoralized if the Obama administration fails to act. But -- putting aside for a moment the question of how destructive a U.S. strike might be -- would failure to act raise the odds significantly that Assad would deploy chemical weapons again? Alternatively, could striking really guarantee Syria would never use them again?

Cleary, we cannot be sure. Those in favor of military action, however, seem all but convinced that, although striking cannot ensure a stop to chemical weapons attacks, not acting will virtually guarantee that Assad will use such weapons more routinely. The administration believes this is one of its most compelling arguments -- that if the international community doesn't act, it will establish a horrible new norm whereby dictators have a green light to use chemical weapons -- but it is an extremely difficult proposition to prove. And there's more than a little hypocrisy on the part of the United States given its own acquiescence in -- even support for -- Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons against the Iranians.

I take and accept the general point that, while you can't stop war, you want to make it a little less barbarous and that enforcing international norms against the use of chemical weapons would help do that. But would it deter Assad? Maybe for now. But Assad and his murderous cohort are fighting for their survival, and if pressed, they will deploy chemical weapons again and again. Given the virtual certainty that the Syrian conflict will persist with many more regime and rebel ups and downs, a "one and we're done" set of strikes almost certainly cannot dissuade Assad from using chemical weapons again. Nor is it a foregone conclusion that a limited strike will forestall Dictator X or Y from using chemicals in the future, particularly if the U.S. action doesn't truly hurt the Assad regime.

3. Israel will be weakened: American supporters of military action against Syria -- and many Israelis, too -- take the position that failure to act will weaken the United States and thereby undermine Israel's security as well. This is presumably why AIPAC has been so active in supporting the administration's case on Capitol Hill.

There is some logic to the notion that when the United States appears ineffective and weak in the region, so does Israel. And that deterring bad guys in the Middle East is a critical component of both countries' policies.

But Israel is hardly a potted plant. It has demonstrated a consistent capacity to act even when the United States won't (see Iraq, 1981; Syria 2007, 2013). By now it should be pretty clear that, when it comes to security matters, the Israelis are pretty good at attending to their own business. They don't have a stake in seeing Assad or the opposition triumph in a definitive way, and they will continue to enforce their own red lines -- e.g., maintaining quiet in the Golan Heights and blocking weapons transfers to Hezbollah and other unfriendlies -- while the Syrian civil war continues. So I don't find the argument that U.S. inaction on Syria fundamentally weakens Israel all that compelling.

It is, however, a stunning demonstration of Israel's centrality in congressional debate that critics of U.S. military action contend the country might be harmed by a strike on Syria and that supporters argue a failure to strike would hurt its interests.

4. Failure to act will undermine U.S. credibility: Absent a strike against Syria, supporters of military action argue, U.S. credibility will be badly damaged.

There's a legitimate fear here, related to the gap between words and deeds, rhetoric and action. Presidents should say what they mean and mean what they say. Indeed, credibility really means believability, and when friends and foes don't believe a president's commitment, bad things can happen.

But we know that presidents don't always mean what they say, let alone act on their words. When Barack Obama calls for a settlements freeze, proclaims Assad must go, or promises consequences if the Chinese and the Russians don't cooperate on Edward Snowden and nothing happens, it hurts American street cred. And these days, most everyone says "no" to the United States without much cost or consequence. In other words, U.S. credibility is already very low. An attack without a strategic underpinning won't make it much better.

Still, the United States isn't doing all that badly in protecting its core interests in the challenging, angry, and dysfunctional Middle East. We're out of Iraq and getting out of Afghanistan; we're reducing our dependence on Arab hydrocarbons; we've prevented another major attack on the United States; and we're managing the U.S.-Israeli relationship. John Kerry has even managed to re-launch Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (and by the degree of radio silence attending the talks, he may even be making progress). And everyone's favorite Iranian president, Hasan Rouhani, is making the right noises about a more moderate course.

The fact is that, given the odds against success in this region, we're not doing badly on tangible and concrete things, even as we're not doing that well on the more amorphous matter of our credibility. Credibility can be a much overrated commodity, particularly if its pursuit leads to actions that make matters worse, or if it becomes a substitute for clear and realizable goals.

The real problem

Let's face it. Obama's in a real box. He's got bad options on Syria, he doesn't have a lot of support, and he faces the very real prospect that this situation won't end happily for him. Even the least bad option -- the one that falls in the middle between not acting and acting too expansively -- is a dog's lunch. A limited military strike -- even one that falls on the tougher end of the limited continuum -- isn't likely to have much of an impact. And that raises the very real possibility that not acting won't make all that much difference.

Having supported the president's willful and wise decision to avoid militarizing the U.S. role in Syria for the past two years, I find myself struggling with bad options now. Doing nothing is unacceptable in the face of the largest single deployment of chemical weapons since Saddam gassed the Kurds; doing everything to change the battlefield balance is reckless and will ensure too much ownership of a Syrian problem we can't fix. And that leaves the muddle in the middle.

If I were in government -- a land where "doing something" is a built-in part of the job description -- I'd be tempted to go with the limited strike option.

But I have no illusions. When you're selling the least bad option as a strategic and consequential move, you know you have a problem. The international community knows that the kind of military action the United States is contemplating is no solution and could make matters worse; the American people know it; much of Congress knows it; and I suspect Barack Obama knows it, too. If the president ends up acting militarily against Syria, he knows that, more than likely, it will make a point rather than a significant difference. And when U.S. military power is deployed and American lives put in harm's way, that is never a good outcome.


Reality Check

Making a Virtue Out of a Necessity

The four reasons it was inevitable that Obama would go to Congress on Syria.

Confused about President Obama's foreign policy on Syria? Worried that the president is sending conflicting messages to our allies and adversaries, setting bad precedents that will erode presidential authority, and undermining American credibility?

By most accounts, you should be.

In the course of the same statement in the Rose Garden last weekend, the president made a compelling case for military action against Syria and then, in a dramatic pivot, put it all at risk by promising to seek authorization from Congress. In doing so, he raised the very real risk of being Cameronized.

But in reality, the turn is not so much a flip-flop as it is a reflection of the president's strategic understanding of the cruel, unchangeable realities he faces on Syria. Those who are urging him to push ahead unilaterally or mount a sustained campaign to tip the battlefield balance aren't being honest with themselves about where public opinion is on military intervention, the nature of the Syrian crisis, and just how bad U.S. options really are.

By having a congressional debate and resolution authorizing military action in Syria, the president is trying to make a virtue out of a necessity. Here are four reasons why the Rose Garden about-face was inevitable and necessary, however risky.

(1) There's not much support at home, or abroad. "It is a terrible thing," FDR told speechwriter Samuel Rosenman in 1937 after the tepid response to the president's quarantine speech in Chicago, "to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead, and to find no one there."

Obama is no FDR. I shudder at the comparison. But he does face a similar problem. The Brits have bailed; the U.N. isn't an option; there will be no NATO consensus and action like there was in Libya; and the U.S. public is largely skeptical of military intervention. So the president is not only a reluctant warrior with a set of bad options, he's a lonely one, too. When France is your only ally, you know something's not quite right with the world.

It makes sense, then, for Obama to seek a show of legislative support. And given both his record emphasizing the importance of going through Congress and his risk-averse temperament on foreign policy, we should have seen this coming. That so many people were surprised by the Rose Garden bombshell is an indication that his critics and supporters alike were seeing his world their way, not through the lens of the guy making the decisions.

Make no mistake, too: U.S. policy on Syria is the president's and has been for the past two years. The gap between Secretary of State John Kerry's moral outrage and hawkish temperament and the president's inherent hesitancy to act is on full display every time the two speak on Syria. That the president made this decision apparently without consulting Kerry, the public face of U.S. Syria policy who also has long experience with Congress, speaks for itself. It is Obama who's running the show.

(2) It's Iraq, stupid. The idea that this is just a debate on the merits of what to do about Syria is another misreading of the situation. I'm not sure we can even have a real debate on the merits of Syria qua Syria, because the ghost of the Iraq debacle is working overtime, much as it did in the British parliamentary debate last week.

Too many want to ignore Iraq or minimize its impact. But it's just not reasonable to expect the country to move on, seek closure, and ignore the discretionary and ill-advised nature of that war, which is among the United States' longest and most profitless conflicts. It is also wrong to assume Iraq -- or Afghanistan, for that matter -- doesn't provide much of the context in which the Syria debate is taking place.

As I've written before, boots on the ground is a fear; but the real parallel between Iraq and Syria is the wooly-headed way in which means and ends have been conceived. More specifically, they have spurred the question of what purpose American military power is meant to serve, and how precisely it has or can achieve enduring political goals in foreign lands riven with sectarian hatreds and history's traumas.

Iraq informs everything the president does; he is, after all, the extricator-in-chief, for whom getting America out of bad wars and avoiding new ones is a strategic goal. He does not want to repeat recent history, and that's where the Congress calculus comes in.

(3) There are only bad or worse options. For two years against the backdrop of more than 100,000 reported dead, a refugee problem that has taken its toll in the millions, and the regime's use of SCUD missiles and chemical weapons against civilians, Obama has willfully refused to militarize the U.S. role in Syria. Had it not been for his own "red line" and the largest single use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds, we wouldn't be where we are today.

Obama has concluded that even if he had Superman, Batman, and the Wolverine in his Cabinet, the U.S. could not end the civil war or fix Syria. That point is in almost every public discussion of the subject. To what extent he's personally troubled by the woulda-coulda-shoulda trope that, had the U.S. intervened a year ago, everything would be better is unknown. Syria was a mess then; admittedly, it's a bigger mess today.

But the dynamics that have put the Syrian civil war beyond resolution for now were in place then: a divided, distracted, and self-interested international community that won't or can't define a common strategy; a sectarian powder keg that predated the Arab Spring; an inchoate opposition to a dictator; and a minority regime willing to do just about anything to survive.

Under these circumstances, Obama has been risk-averse not because he's flawed, morally obtuse, weak, or traumatized. It's because he sees no real options and refuses to buy into the happy talk about this terrific military option or that. We couldn't fix Iraq with hundreds of thousands of boots on the ground and trillions expended; and we can't fix Syria from the air.

The president knows this, and that going to Congress and making it a partner and party to the uncertainties of the Syria situation will help distribute some of the risk of limited action. If strikes go badly, Obama will take the hit. But it would be much worse if he plunged ahead without public or congressional support.

(4) The president doesn't want to rush toward disaster. I've written elsewhere that Obama has three options on Syria: do nothing; do everything; and or choose a middle way I call muddle through. The first is unconscionable and would lead to hanging a closed-for-the-season sign on U.S. credibility for the remainder of Obama's term. The second is reckless and would result both in an open-ended commitment and most likely to America owning Syria in some fashion. The third option -- the so-called "limited strike" -- could easily prove ineffective and thus carries risk, too.

We should be under no illusions that the president is enthusiastic about the effectiveness of option three, which he now favors. On the contrary, I suspect he has deep doubts about it, particularly the idea that a so-called limited strike would deter Assad from using chemical weapons and degrade his capacity to do so.

Once military action starts, whole new worlds of potential disasters open up. The pressure and expectation to strike again increase with each new horror Assad inflicts, either with chemical or unconventional weapons. A tit-for-tat escalatory cycle kicks in, whereby the U.S. is drawn in deeper without producing quick or determinative results. Washington gets into a proxy war with Iran, Hezbollah, the Russians, and a Syrian regime that will do just about anything to survive. And who are America's partners in such a campaign? The Israelis, Saudis, Qataris, and the jihadist groups on the ground -- each with its own agenda? What a collection of allies.

Because of these uncertainties, a congressionally mandated authorization for the use of force could help the president by bounding U.S. actions. The president's critics may call it hiding behind Congress; I'd call it developing limits so that the U.S. hopefully doesn't get sucked into a rabbit hole. We can't afford it. Let Congress say so and make disaster less likely.

THAT BRINGS US to where we are today. Stripped of allies, arguments, and an overpowering logic and vital national interest to create a sustained military strategy that would end Syria's civil war, the president is seeking Congressional backing for the still-risky military option he is prepared to implement.

It is a risky gamble, for sure. But not, as some believe, because it's a cosmic turning point in the debate over the War Powers Resolution; a wholesale abdication of presidential authority; or a dangerous precedent-setter that will turn Obama into a potted plant for the remainder of his term when it comes to military action against Iran. The notion that presidents should always act unilaterally so as not to diminish their own power, as the American Enterprise Institute's Norman Ornstein told me, can be counterproductive and dangerous. In the future, if the president has a clear and compelling case to use force, particularly if there's urgency, he'll retain the power and authority to act, regardless of what happens next week on Capitol Hill.

Since the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons two weeks ago and Obama's Rose Garden speech, the president has created a steady drumbeat that he's ready, able, and willing to strike Syria. Through both his statements as well as Kerry's, the president has cast the need for military action in highly principled terms. More than that, the amount of loose talk -- on and off the record -- about the nature of an impending the strike has virtually made it one of the most telegraphed and well-advertised moves in the history of warfare. Moreover, the 24/7 media environment, with its graphics about naval movements, target sets, and instant analysis of Syria's chemical weapons facilities, has made what is still only possible seemingly real.

As this drumbeat continues, a limited strike approved by Congress is the least undesirable option in comparison with doing nothing or trying to do too much, and doing either alone. The real problem now for the president -- and for the rest of us -- is the one that has made him wary of militarizing America's role from the beginning: what to do the day after an attack and how to prevent the slide toward even greater U.S. involvement in the Syrian trap. And that has much more to do with Assad's reaction and the uncertainties flowing from a brutal and seemingly never-ending civil war than from the vagaries of a partisan and suspicious Congress.  

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images