Washington is buzzing over President Obama's bombshell announcement that he'll seek congressional approval for an attack on Syria. But that wasn't the most surprising thing, or the biggest sign of weakness, to come out of the White House this past week. That would be the big, juicy bone tossed to Bashar al-Assad by this administration.
For the last two years, we've heard the president and his advisers say time after time that Assad had lost his legitimacy and it was time for him to go. Yet in the wake of Assad's most despicable act yet — the hellish gassing of more than 1,400 of his own citizens, an estimated 426 of them children — what did the administration do? It said Assad must be punished, must be taught a lesson — but that regime change was not a goal of any limited, narrow action that America would undertake.
In other words, a mass murderer gets a mere slap on the wrist. Boy, that'll teach Assad to mind his manners.
You can almost hear the snickering of Assad and his henchmen. A ruthless grip on power is their one and only priority — it's certainly not the well-being of their own citizenry — and the White House has just signaled that whatever may be coming their way, they'll probably be able to hunker down and ride it out.
Worse, this half-hearted American strategy sends a signal to Syria's benefactors in Iran and Russia, not to mention North Korea, that the United States can't be taken seriously on the world stage. It encourages exactly the opposite of what the president wishes to prevent, namely more provocative behavior from rogue states. In Tehran's case, it means lesser odds of a showdown over its ongoing nuclear weapons program. As for North Korea, which successfully tested nuclear weapons during the Bush era, the interpretation is likely one of U.S. weakness.
It's this sort of strategic incoherence that is fueling the considerable skepticism in Congress about any U.S. military action in Syria. The administration tried to address this last week with a 90-minute briefing for House and Senate leaders, but sources privy to the discussion say it raised more questions than it answered: What's the overall American mission? If we're not going to take Assad down, what will we do to him? How do we define a successful outcome, and how much will it cost? What happens if things don't go according to plan? Do we escalate? And what are the anticipated Iranian and Russian reactions and how will we deal with them?
It's not just Congress that needs convincing. Half of Americans oppose a U.S. attack on Syria. The president has yet to take his case directly to the American people. He must do so.
All that said, not all criticism of Obama on Syria is warranted. There have been questions, for instance, about why the death of 1,400 people in a chemical weapons attack are enough to justify action, but not that of the 100,000 people who perished prior to the August 21 atrocity.
That's a fair question, and the answer, sadly, is that America cannot be the world's policeman and shouldn't be wading into the civil wars of others, tragic though they may be, unless there is a perceived threat to our own security or strategic interests.
Obama understands — correctly, in my view — that chemical weapons pose such a threat. In addition to sarin — the colorless, odorless gas believed to have been used in the August 21 massacre — Syria's chemical weapons arsenal is said to include mustard gas and tabun. Some analysts think it has also tried to weaponize VX, which is particularly deadly. The CIA estimates that Syria, which has refused to sign international chemical weapons treaties, has several hundred liters of these murderous gases.
But short of marching into Syria and physically seizing these weapons, which won't happen, Obama has no strategy to contain this threat. A "shot across the bow" with the naïve hope of somehow deterring a murderous tyrant who has nothing to lose won't work. What will Obama do then? There are only two players who have leverage on Assad: Vladimir Putin and Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran. Obama isn't on speaking terms with the former and has never spoken with the latter.
The president has boxed himself into a corner. Congress is skeptical. The American people are generally opposed. Even the British won't get involved. Just France and Turkey — hardly a robust alliance — are on board for military action. America's credibility, already badly damaged in the past decade, may have taken yet another hit. And Obama may well have emboldened our enemies.
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