Wishful Thinking

Frustrated with Obama's Syria speech? Here are two better ones he could have given.

Like millions of other Americans, I listened to President Obama's speech last night with a sense of growing dismay. We wanted decisiveness; we got delay. We wanted clarity; we got contradictions. We wanted strategy; we got simplistic moralism. We wanted principle; we got peevish pedantry. We wanted honesty; we got hypocrisy.

OK, I know. It's easy to take cheap, alliterative potshots; it's much harder to get this stuff right. So instead of dissecting the president's speech line by line -- an activity currently engaging scores of pundits -- let me instead suggest two alternative speeches Obama might have made instead. (And still could make, in the days to come.)

The first alternative speech -- Fantasy Speech #1 -- explains why the U.S. should not be intervening militarily in Syria at all. The second -- Fantasy Speech #2 -- explains why the U.S. should be launching a robust, full-scale military intervention in Syria,an intervention aimed not merely at preventing the future use of chemical weapons, but at ousting Assad, ending the slaughter, and fostering the creation of a new, interim Syrian government.

I'm honestly not sure which of these two approaches would be better, but I'm increasingly convinced that these are the only two principled options currently before us. Instead of arguing over whether multiple half-measures add up to a whole, let's face the real questions: Does the U.S. have an urgent national security interest in Syria? Do we have a moral obligation to try to end the killing? And is there any U.S. military intervention that has a decent prospect of accomplishing worthwhile goals?

So, you be the judge. Which of these two "speeches-that-might-have-been" is most persuasive? Is there a third speech you wish the president had given? You can e-mail me with your thoughts at rosa.brooks@foreignpolicy.com.

Fantasy Speech 1: The Case for Refraining from Military Action in Syria

My fellow Americans, I can't watch those videos of dying children without feeling sick with grief and rage.

I want to get on a plane to Damascus and strangle Bashar al-Assad with my bare hands. I want to bomb his troops back into the Stone Age. I want to take every single dollar, every single weapon, and every single warrior we have and use them all to destroy Assad and every other criminal who slaughters the innocent.

Those are the emotions that led me to decide, two weeks ago, that the U.S. should use military force against the Assad regime.

But in the last few weeks, I've also been listening hard to you, the American people. I've listened to members of Congress from both parties, and to my top military and diplomatic advisors. Together, you've helped remind me that horror and rage are no substitute for strategy.

For a few weeks, I forgot that painful truth, but you made me slow down and rediscover it. And though it hurts to say this, I've now come back around to the position I've held for most of the last two years: U.S. military action is Syria would be a mistake. It would be a mistake motivated by the best of intentions, but it would still be a mistake.

Here's the plain truth: We live in a world that's brimming over with cruelty and pain, and we can't stop all of it.

The world reminds us of this every single day. In Afghanistan, more than a thousand civilians have been killed so far this year. In Egypt, more than a thousand people have been killed in the last month. In Iraq, bomb blasts and other attacks killed more than a thousand people in July alone, and nearly as many died in August. In Mexico, wars between drug cartels have killed an estimated 60,000 people in the last six years. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a long-running civil conflict has killed millions.

And that's just a snapshot of conflict-related deaths. You don't need me to tell you that there are plenty of other ways to die. Every single hour, 300 children die of malnutrition. Another 1.3 million children die of pneumonia each year, while simple diarrhea kills 700,000 more.  

Everywhere we look, tragedies and crimes cry out for our attention. There are homeless families living on our own streets and abused children, beaten by the very people who should care for them, languishing in foster homes. Suffering is all around us.

So the question for the United States isn't whether the deaths of 100,000 Syrians is a tragedy. We know it's a tragedy, and we know the Assad regime has committed countless war crimes during Syria's two-year-old civil war. Using chemical weapons was just one more appalling example of the regime's indiscriminate brutality.

The question for the United States is this: Which of the world's many tragedies and crimes can be stopped, and at what price to our own people?

When it comes to Syria, I wish with all my heart that we could stop the carnage, but I don't believe we can.

The Syrian civil war isn't a simple matter of good guys versus bad guys. There's no question that Assad is a dictator of frightful brutality, but a sizeable percentage of ordinary Syrian civilians still appear to support his regime, despite its egregious crimes.

Meanwhile, the anti-Assad insurgency is badly fractured, and a number of rebel groups have also been credibly accused of war crimes, although on a smaller scale than those of the Assad regime. The more moderate rebel organizations most likely lack both the infrastructure and the popular support to be able to govern if Assad falls, and our intelligence agencies estimate that about 20 percent of the insurgent groups are linked to al Qaeda.

To be honest, that number may even be a lot higher. Because we don't really have a handle on what's going on in Syria. We have only a finite number of surveillance tools at our disposal, and most of those are already fully deployed in other trouble spots around the globe, from Afghanistan to Yemen. We have few reliable sources of intelligence on the ground in Syria. The upshot is that we don't really understand the political or military dynamics in Syria -- and as a result, any U.S. military intervention could easily make a terrible situation even worse.

When I say we could end up making things worse, I mean both that we could fail to stop the slaughter and that we could end up sacrificing a great deal of American blood and treasure.

I could keep promising you that a U.S. military intervention in Syria would be limited in scope and duration. I could promise you that we'll never, ever put U.S. troops on the ground.

But here's another truth: Anyone who makes such promises is a fool or a liar. I know that, and I'm sorry I've ever suggested otherwise. Chalk it up to watching those videos: Rage displaced reason for a few weeks.

We all know war is one of those things you can't control. Yes, we might start with a small number of carefully targeted cruise missile strikes. But there are a thousand what-ifs, and a thousand unknowns.

What if our strikes fail to deter Assad, and he uses chemical weapons again, on an even larger scale? Or what if he just uses heavy explosives to kill thousands more civilians? What if he attacks Israel? What if Iran unleashes Hezbollah against U.S. or Israeli interests? What if U.S. airstrikes targeting chemical weapons facilities inadvertently scatter poison gas, killing more civilians? What if one or more of our missiles goes astray and kills the wrong people? What if Assad falls, and the bloody civil war just gets bloodier and more chaotic? What if rebels linked to al Qaeda are able to seize power?

What then? If things got worse because of U.S. military intervention, would we shrug and walk away?

I don't think we could. I think we might easily find ourselves drawn in, forced to put troops on the ground to protect civilian enclaves, restore security, or destroy extremist rebel groups.

As Colin Powell said 20 years ago, "We should always be skeptical when so-called experts suggest that all a particular crisis calls for is a little surgical bombing or a limited attack. When the 'surgery' is over and the desired result is not obtained, a new set of experts then comes forward with talk of just a little escalation -- more bombs, more men and women, more force. History has not been kind to this approach to war-making."

And I think we've all learned a painful lesson in the last decade: When we overreach, things often end badly. Think of Iraq: We intervened -- without U.N. Security Council authorization -- to oust a brutal dictator who had also once used chemical weapons against his own people. A decade later, all we have to show for it is a record-setting budget deficit, 4,500 dead American service members, somewhere between 100,000 and 600,000 dead Iraqis, and an international community that no longer believes America can be relied on to tell the truth.

I know most of you share my view that the Iraq war was a tragic mistake. I don't want to be the man who repeats that mistake again.

Yes, we have the strongest military in the world, but not every challenge has a military solution. You've reminded me that there are other, better paths to peace in Syria.

Those are the paths we are going to pursue, with redoubled energy. We'll leave no stone unturned. We'll do everything possible to work with Russia and others on a viable mechanism for getting chemical weapons out of Assad's hands and pushing the parties toward a negotiated settlement. We'll continue to isolate Assad and provide support for Syria's moderate opposition groups. We'll continue our efforts to build consensus for a coordinated international response to the conflict in Syria.

It may not work. I can't make you any promises there either. But for now, we have to continue to try.

Meanwhile, we'll closely monitor events on the ground, increasing our situational awareness, and we'll continue to make contingency plans, including plans involving the use of military force.

There may yet come a time when military force becomes a viable and necessary approach. But this is not that time.  

My fellow Americans, the weeks and months ahead will bring more painful images from Syria to our TV screens, and it will be difficult to remain unaffected. But there is pain and suffering in so many other places around the globe, as well, including right here at home. 

In these last few weeks, you have reminded me that we can't let our emotions drive our policies. I will remember that lesson in the days ahead.

Thank you for your support, and thank you for your wisdom.

Fantasy Speech #2: The Case for Full-Scale Military Intervention in Syria

My fellow Americans, I can't watch those videos of dying Syrian children without feeling sick with grief and rage. Enough is enough.

Assad's brutality sparked a civil war that has now left more than 100,000 Syrians dead. The use of chemical weapons demonstrates, fully and finally, that his regime is devoid of the most basic impulses of humanity.

For more than two years now, we've tried every diplomatic trick in the book to isolate Assad and stop the killing. We imposed sanctions, we negotiated, we went back to the U.N. Security Council again and again. Again and again, the council proved incapable of action.

And nothing got better. More innocents died, and the ongoing civil war has also enabled al Qaeda-linked factions to proliferate in the chaos. Ordinary Syrians, abandoned by the international community, are turning to extremist factions out of sheer desperation.

Enough is enough.

God knows no one wants war. And no one wants to use force without clear Security Council authorization. But the U.N. was founded to protect human beings, not to provide excuses for inaction or shield the interests of obstructionist states.

The paralysis and dysfunction of international institutions cannot justify continued inaction as the slaughter in Syria continues. It cannot justify continued inaction as the forces of extremism grow stronger by the day.

There's a time for diplomacy, and there's a time for force. Today, I have decided that the United States must use military force to oust the Assad regime, end the Syrian conflict, and restore security in that war-torn country.

For a time, I considered using limited military strikes designed only to deter Assad from using chemical weapons again. But I've been listening to you, and I've had long and intense discussions with members of Congress and my top military and civilian advisers. In the end, I came to the conclusion that such limited strikes would be a pointless half-measure.

There's no sense in preventing Assad from using chemical weapons but allowing him to continue to kill thousands more civilians using conventional weapons. Yes, using chemical weapons violates international law -- but the deliberate targeting of civilians always violates international law, regardless of the means used. War crimes are war crimes, and the parents of dead children don't care whether their children were killed by poison gas, bombs, guns or machetes.

I've also come to the conclusion that "limited" military strikes are unlikely to accomplish anything worthwhile -- in fact, they might just accelerate the fighting, wounding the Assad regime just enough to embolden rebel forces without enabling them to reach a decisive victory. In the end, even more civilians could suffer -- or al Qaeda-linked rebels might gain the upper hand.

I don't think you can "go halfsies" on war. Remember Colin Powell's words, 20 years ago: "We should always be skeptical when so-called experts suggest that all a particular crisis calls for is a little surgical bombing or a limited attack. When the ‘surgery' is over and the desired result is not obtained, a new set of experts then comes forward with talk of just a little escalation -- more bombs, more men and women, more force. History has not been kind to this approach to war-making."

That's why I've become convinced -- after listening to you, and after discussions with my military advisors -- that effective military action in Syria will require both a sustained air campaign and American troops on the ground. At a minimum, we will need to send in Special Operations Forces to link up with moderate rebels and provide vital ground intelligence. Depending on how events unfold, it is entirely possible that a larger troop presence will be necessary.

I'm not going to lie to you and promise a bloodless victory.

American troops may well die in Syria. American troops may well die -- as American troops died in World War II and countless other conflicts -- to save the lives of innocent civilians, topple a murderous regime, and prevent violent extremists from taking over. American troops may well die in Syria, and if they do, we will all grieve. But there are some causes worth fighting for. There are some causes worth dying for.

I believe this is one of them.

Some might argue that if Syria is a worthy cause, we should also intervene in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and countless other places in which civilians have been slaughtered.

I truly wish that the United States had the power to solve every problem and save every innocent. But we don't. Some conflicts are both too intractable and too remote in their impact on our national interests to justify U.S. military action.

Nevertheless, the fact that we can't solve every problem does not mean we shouldn't try to solve any problems. In Syria, the murder of thousands of civilians tugs at our consciences, but I also believe vital U.S. interests are truly at stake. The use of chemical weapons, the increasing spillover of the conflict into neighboring states, and the rising influence of al Qaeda-linked rebel groups all pose real threats to U.S. security.

I also believe that in Syria -- unlike in the DRC or many other conflict-stricken regions -- a U.S. military intervention can actually make a positive difference.

This is every bit as important as having a just cause. America should never go to war without just cause -- but equally, we should never go to war without clear goals and solid prospects of achieving those goals.

In Syria, our goals are simple: We will remove Assad from power, bring an end to large-scale conflict, and restore basic security. And we will stay long enough -- but only long enough -- to foster the creation of an interim Syrian government, a government made up of all groups willing to foreswear the use of violence and commit to a peaceful political process.

We aren't seeking perfection, and we aren't seeking revenge. There are few angels among Syria's opposing military forces. But the path to peace will always be available to those willing to walk down it. If members of Assad's government and military foreswear violence, they can be part of Syria's future government. If extremist groups within the insurgency are willing to make the same commitment, they too can participate.

For America cannot decide the shape of Syria's future or punish every wrongdoer. Only the Syrian people can do that. What America can do is stop the wholesale slaughter and create the minimal conditions that will enable Syrians to peacefully choose their own destiny.  

The United States will support all Syrian organizations committed to a peaceful political process with funds and technical assistance, but as soon as basic security and an interim government have been established, American ground forces will leave.

We will not occupy Syria militarily. But when we leave, we will send the following, very clear message to all Syrian political actors:  We will not hesitate to use military force again if future events in Syria require it, or if any political actors break their end of the bargain and seek to again plunge Syria into mass violence. We will leave -- but if we have to, we will return.

Our goals are clear, and if we avoid half-measures, we have the ability to achieve those goals. We all know there's no such thing as a risk-free military intervention, for us or for the Syrian people. So I'm not going to make any promises I'm not certain I can keep: I won't promise to bring the troops home by Christmas, or tell you that this will be a cakewalk, or that our forces will be greeted with ticker-tape parades.

The honest truth is that we're going into a complicated, messy situation. The situation in Syria could evolve in any number of unpredictable ways. We may have setbacks as well as successes, and we may see more tragedy -- more dead children, more painful images -- before we see a stable Syria.

But we're going in with our eyes open. And I can promise you this: I believe our military leaders have a solid, achievable plan for decisive success, and I believe they have considered every reasonable contingency. We will go in with a solid, responsible plan, and we will adapt that plan as needed.

I am not going to discuss details of timelines, troop numbers, targets, or tactics. That would enable our adversaries to prepare.

I will, however, work with Congressional leaders to ensure that the House and Senate are fully informed of the relevant details, and if future circumstances warrant it, I will request that Congress formally authorize the use of force. But as commander in chief, I have the authority and the obligation to use force when I consider it necessary to protect U.S. interests -- and this is the case now.

As for the international community, I will continue to urge other Security Council members to stand with us as we embark on this struggle. But if the United States is the only nation with the will and the strength to stanch the bleeding in Syria, so be it. We will act with others whenever possible, but we will act alone when truly necessary.

Thank you for your support, and thank you for your wisdom.

WIN MCNAMEE/Getty Images

By Other Means

Obama Can't Win

Even if Congress approves the Syria adventure, the president still loses.

My late grandfather, a dedicated communist until Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest in 1956, was fond of quoting Marxist aphorisms (an enthusiasm that long outlasted his admiration for the Communist Party). Among his favorites was the much-cited opening passage of Marx's The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, published in 1852:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

It's a great line, with the double virtue of being eminently quotable and giving Hegel -- that's Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, not to be confused with Chuck -- a nice little backhand smack on the nose. But it's also much too pat. Sure, history repeats itself, and sure, sometimes things get farcical. Mostly, though, the second go-round brings only more tragedy.

So it is with President Barack Obama and Syria.

Because you've heard this one before, right? An American president tells the world that brief, decisive military action is necessary to keep a murderous Middle Eastern despot from using weapons of mass destruction. The world is skeptical (as is the U.S. public). Declassified U.S. intelligence reports are bandied about. Foreign leaders remain unconvinced, urging patience and diplomacy as U.N. inspectors prepare a report of their own. The American president insists he'll use force unilaterally if necessary, and dares Congress to disagree. Congress caves.

The first time -- that would be Iraq, for those of you who are new around here -- things ended badly. You'll recall that the intelligence turned out to have been cooked (if not cooked through, it was at least half-baked). The U.N. secretary-general declared the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq illegal. And despite early Bush administration promises that the use of U.S. military force would be limited in scope and duration, the United States soon found itself embroiled in a multi-sided conflict that lasted eight years, cost more than a trillion dollars and killed nearly 4,500 American servicemembers (not to mention untold thousands of Iraqis).

You may also recall a young senator named Barack Obama, whose principled opposition to the Iraq War brought him national fame. In October 2002, Obama had this to say about the Bush administration's case for war in Iraq:

I don't oppose all wars ... What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war ... I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied U.N. resolutions, thwarted U.N. inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity ... But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors ... I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al Qaeda.

It was a good speech. The kind of speech -- full of passion and honesty and good sense -- that eventually propelled Obama into the White House.

Ten years later, of course, it's President Obama who finds himself trying to sell a U.S. military intervention to a reluctant world. The ironies are staggering, and sad.

I won't belabor the parallels, for there are very real differences between Iraq and Syria, and between Bush and Obama. Saddam Hussein's most egregious acts of butchery were largely over by 2003, while the butchery in Syria is ongoing. Bush embraced the war in Iraq with enthusiasm, while Obama came only reluctantly to his current embrace of military action in Syria. And while regime change was a stated objective of the Iraq War, Obama has explicitly foresworn regime change as an objective in Syria.

But I'm not sure these differences make the current situation less tragic. In many ways, they make it more so.

It's painful to see Obama, who was once so famously moved by Samantha Power's book on the Rwandan genocide, insist that a hundred thousand dead Syrians is very sad, but not America's problem. Most of the dead civilians unwisely got themselves killed in the traditional manner, with bullets and bombs; it's only the 1,400 Syrians killed by chemical weapons who merit U.S. action (as opposed to U.S. sympathy). Why? Because for some reason the international laws prohibiting chemical weapons require reaffirmation through the use of U.S. military force, whereas the international laws prohibiting other war crimes require no such reaffirmation.

It's painful to see the president insist that the United States doesn't want regime change, in one of the few situations in which urging regime change would surely be justified. Assad is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of his own citizens in a brutal, ongoing conflict, and we don't hope he'll be ousted?

Most of all, it's painful to see this president -- the man who once spoke so eloquently against "rash wars" driven by "cynicism" and "politics" -- going to war to solely because he's boxed himself into a rhetorical corner. Sure, "credibility" is important -- but is living up to one thoughtless remark about red lines more important than avoiding pointless, poorly thought-through military action?

Oddly, many in the media seem convinced that Obama's pledge to seek congressional authorization for a Syria intervention was a clever gamble. It wasn't. It was, to paraphrase Obama, a dumb gamble. That's because there is now no good outcome for Obama, only a range of painfully ironic outcomes.

Consider the possibilities:

One: Congress votes against authorizing military action in Syria, so Obama decides not to move ahead with military action. But wait: Obama already informed the nation that as commander-in-chief, he has "decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets ... based on what I am convinced is our national security interests." If that's true -- and if Obama also believes he has the authority to act without congressional authorization -- how can he possibly refrain from military action merely because he can't get enough votes in a famously dysfunctional, do-nothing Congress?

Two: Congress votes against authorizing military action in Syria, and Obama -- the one-time constitutional law professor -- goes ahead with airstrikes anyway, ignoring the clearly expressed will of Congress.

Three: Congress votes in favor of authorizing military action in Syria, leaving Obama permanently beholden to congressional Republicans. This means the White House can kiss its domestic legislative agenda goodbye.

These are all rotten outcomes for Obama. And, lest I forget, U.S. military action in Syria is also a tragic outcome. The president proposed limited "punitive" air strikes aimed merely at destroying the Assad regime's chemical weapons capabilities, but these are probably pointless: They won't change the balance of power in Syria. If we want to change the balance of power -- which Obama says doesn't interest him -- we'll need more extensive strikes aimed at degrading the Assad regime's military capabilities more broadly. But this, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey warned last week, could easily "escalate and ... commit us decisively to the conflict." (See: Iraq, 2003.) 

All right -- but Syria isn't Iraq, and perhaps we should commit ourselves decisively to the conflict. But if we do so, let's do so for the right reason (stopping the violence altogether, not just making an empty "statement" about chemical weapons). And let's do so with our eyes wide open to the many risks: Humanitarian intervention can have as many unintended and terrible consequences as any other kind of military intervention.

I'll fess up to being thoroughly ambivalent about this. My gut feeling is that the United States might have successfully intervened to end the slaughter 18 months ago, but by now it's probably too late. The conflict has metastasized: It's no longer a popular revolution against a repressive regime, but a multi-party conflict in which al Qaeda-linked insurgents have gained the upper hand over secular rebel factions, and multiple other states have already been drawn in. As a result, a wholesale U.S. intervention could easily end up just making a bloody mess messier and bloodier still -- both for the Syrian people and for the United States.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe, even now, the United States has the ability to stop the conflict, restore security, and enable a less predatory Syrian government to take hold. But either way, it's now largely irrelevant: Obama has made it clear that the only norm he's interested in trying to enforce militarily is the narrow norm against using chemical weapons, not the broader norm against slaughtering civilians.

It was the German philosopher Hegel -- Marx's foil in the opening lines of the Eighteenth Brumaire -- who famously insisted that true tragedy involves something far more complex and ambiguous than the defeat of good by evil. True tragedy, Hegel argued, involves a conflict between two goods, each too rigidly defined.

Marx got the best of Hegel rhetorically, but there's nothing farcical about Obama's handling of the crisis in Syria. History repeats itself, and it's tragedy every time.

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