A colleague of mine had a bumper sticker on his Prius that read “War Is Not The Answer.” One day I popped my head in his office door and asked: “Can you think of a three letter word for armed conflict?” He blurted out the obvious. “See,” I replied, “sometimes war is the answer.”
President Obama seems to think that war is the answer if the question is what to do now that the Syrian regime crossed his red line and murdered hundreds of innocent people with chemical weapons. The trouble is that we have very little idea of what the President is really proposing or how he understands the question.
The most sensible policy statement that the President could make would go something like this. Chemical weapons are more terrible than conventional weapons, especially for civilians. We want to prohibit their use by regimes such as Assad’s and the only way to do that is impose a prohibitive cost on the regime.
That raises as many questions as it answers. To begin with, who are “we”? Not the United Nations. Russia and China will never go along. Not the U.S. and its most steadfast ally, Britain. PM David Cameron asked Parliament to endorse military action and Parliament handed him his head. Rest assured that the French are still on board. The Administration has decided, apparently, to ask Congress to authorize a military strike. They are making a full court press on that front right now. Unfortunately, the American people are more opposed to such an action than they have been to anything like it in the past. With an election little more than a year away, how many members of his own party will be there to back him up?
Another question is this. What kind of military strike will be sufficient to make Bashar al-Assad really, truly, sorry? More to the point, what kind of strike will strike fear into the hearts of other cutthroats around the globe who might be sitting on their own chemical stockpiles? The President has three basic choices. He could attempt to do what he did in Libya: decapitate the regime. Or he could destroy Syrian airpower, which is the one thing that is keeping Assad’s regime ahead of the rebels. Either would mean a rebel victory and, with thousands of al Qaeda fighters in Syria, that means rolling a very scary set of bones. Finally, he could just lob a few tomahawk missiles at a few targets, announced well in advance. That would make Obama feel better about himself, but it would also demonstrate that the red line against the use of chemical weapons is like the speed limit in Western Texas: just a suggestion.
It’s not clear what policy the Administration should pursue in Syria. It is abundantly clear that the Administration has spent a year without bothering much to formulate a policy. Secretary of State Clinton said that Assad must go back when it looked like Assad was going without any trouble on our part. That’s putting a wishbone where your backbone ought to be. There is no evidence that Mr. Obama and his team had any idea what to do to make those words meaningful or that they tried to figure it out.
Then Mr. Obama famously said that any use of chemical weapons would cross a red line. That’s the kind of thing you want to say after you’ve got your allies behind you and you’ve assembled a coalition in both houses of Congress. Or at the very least, you want to start building your coalitions immediately afterward. Instead, Mr. Obama waited until the line had actually been crossed to finally start doing his job.
Obama’s critics frequently compare him to the unfortunate Jimmy Carter. That is unfair. To Carter. President Carter’s foreign policy was based on naïve assumptions about the motives of our enemies and it was so weak that he failed to respond adequately when an American embassy was occupied by a hostile power. He did at least have policies and he worked very hard to formulate and implement them. Now, at the eleventh hour, we still have no idea what Mr. Obama’s Syria policy is and as far as one can tell neither does he.
Perhaps the most telling item in this story comes from The Politico.
Sunday, administration officials made the case to lawmakers that rejecting Obama’s war resolution would stain his credibility on the international stage.
That is no doubt true. It is also pathetic. He wants Congress to make an honest man out of him. Is it really within the powers of Congress to do this? Can they restore the President’s credibility when he has frittered it away with a year of dithering and missing in action leadership?