Those demanding that the Obama administration attack Syria should first answer some simple questions: What is the desired result? How would it be achieved? And what will the United States do if a limited missile strike does not achieve that result?
That the Bashar Assad regime is demonstrably evil is not in dispute. Nor does there seem to be much doubt that it has used chemical weapons. And with that, it has clearly crossed a line into internationally condemned barbarism.
But it does not necessarily follow that dealing with Assad’s actions is a U.S. responsibility or that there is really anything to be done about it. In truth, the reflexive impulse to “do something” could well exacerbate an already wretched situation.
For starters, it is not at all clear what outcome would be best for American interests or for the region. That Assad is bad does not suggest – let alone prove – that what might follow would be good. Certainly, some of the rebels fighting his regime are secular reformers, but others are extreme Islamists, and many are aligned with Iran. It would do little good to oust an admittedly brutal dictator only to give al-Qaida or Hezbollah a new base and a state of their own. That would hardly be in the best interest of the United States, let alone that of Israel, Jordan or Lebanon.
It is also likely that U.S. missile strikes would have no effect on the long-term outcome of the Syrian civil war. But if that is the case, what is the point? If U.S. intelligence is of such quality that it could target truly vital facilities or equipment – or Assad himself – that would be one thing. But the history of retaliatory missile strikes and limited bombings suggests otherwise. And what would be the point of the military equivalent of a slap in the face?
The idea of using a missile strike to send message to Assad is ludicrous. Short of actually killing him, what a message could possibly get through to a man who has presided over the deaths of 100,000 of his fellow Syrians and gassed children? Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon tried for the better part of a decade to send a message to the leaders of North Vietnam. But messages do not matter to those who do not care to receive them.
Threats also have to be credible. Hanoi did not listen to Johnson or Nixon, in part, because its leaders knew the United States was not about to do what it would have taken to destroy them. Assad knows that, too. After Iraq and Afghanistan, the American people have no interest in a land war against a regime that, for all its evil, does not threaten the United States.
There is a good argument to the effect that the world community cannot let the use of gas go unpunished, that such a gross violation of international norms is more important than either Syria or Assad. Acting on that militarily makes sense, however, only if such a mission were to be conducted as a truly international intervention, perhaps as a NATO action with missiles fired from French ships or by Turkish troops. It need not, and should not, be conducted exclusively by U.S. forces after a unilateral decision by the president. We should not give anyone an excuse to blame the U.S. for more Muslim deaths.
Above all, what is needed now is clarity. President Barack Obama should be publicly clear as to U.S. goals and how far he is willing to go to achieve them. Then, he should hold himself to those limits.