Obama’s Red Line Gives Him No Choice

In a primetime address last night, President Obama laid out his reasons why the U.S. should strike Syria in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. Despite the “power” of the bully pulpit, I doubt that the speech will convince many people to support the President’s plan.

Why? Because Obama’s arguments are clearly wrong. It’s that simple. That’s the reason why the American people are so against it. That’s the reason why Congress is so against it. No speech by Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry or anyone else in the Administration is going to change that.

Let’s go through the President’s address and show why. Here’s his first argument for striking Syria:

If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons.

As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them. Over time our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield, and it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons and to use them to attack civilians.

First off, launching a couple of cruise missiles at Damascus isn’t going to deter Assad very much, especially when he sees the U.S. Congress and American people so strongly against the use of military force. The President was emphatic that such a strike would not be a “pinprick” (or “unbelievably small” as Kerry said), but the fact is that it wouldn’t be much more than a pinprick either. Will Assad really believe that the U.S. will destroy him if he uses chemical weapons again? Or that we’ll deploy ground troops? Not at all.

Second, are other tyrants going to be deterred by such a minor response? Unlikely. Such a small response doesn’t demonstrate U.S. strength. The other option of not responding at all isn’t that much less of a deterrent, but it does carry with it the possibility of escalation in Syria. The small deterrence towards other tyrants isn’t worth that risk.

Third, any leader knows that if he gasses U.S. troops, we’ll wipe him off the face of the planet. What we do in Syria has absolutely no impact on that.

Fourth, how does our lack of a response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons make it easier for terrorists to obtain such weapons? There’s no connection here.

Obama then pivoted to how our response affects our allies in the region:

If fighting spills beyond Syria’s borders, these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel.

And a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path.

Fighting could spill beyond Syria’s border anyways. A U.S. strike on Syria also risks Assad retaliating against those countries as well. In addition, Obama negates this argument later when he says, “our ally Israel can defend itself with overwhelming force, as well as the unshakable support of the United States of America.” If Israel can defend itself against retaliation, it can defend itself from fighting spilling over Syria’s borders as well.

As for Iran, there is no connection between the United State’s response to Assad’s use of chemical response and the Iranian decision to acquire a nuclear bomb. Iran knows that if it attempts to build a nuke, the American people and U.S. Congress will not sit back and allow it to happen. Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people was a crime against humanity, but an Iranian attempt to build a nuclear bomb would threaten the national security of the United States and Israel. Iran knows that we are much more committed to stopping them from acquiring a nuclear weapon than we are about deterring Assad. Our response to the Syrian president has no implications on Iran. The only connection between the two is that Obama drew red lines around both.

This gets me to my larger point: Obama’s red line on chemical weapons has forced his hand. I bet the President understands that every reason he outlined above is easily refuted. I bet he understands that Assad’s use of chemical weapons doesn’t actually threaten America’s national security. I bet he doesn’t even want to strike Syria. But he has no choice. He drew a red line around chemical weapons usage and Assad has unequivocally crossed that line. What else can he do at this point? Backtrack and say he didn’t mean it? Not an option. His only move is to go ahead and pursue a strike so “unbelievably small” that it does not risk destabilizing the region or a disproportionate retaliation from Assad while still “enforcing” his red line.

If the President hadn’t set such a red line, he could condemn the attack, demand Assad hand over his chemical weapons and respond in plenty of other ways. But he wouldn’t be cornered into a position where he had to respond with U.S. military force. He’s trapped himself in a corner and there’s no way out. That’s the reason every speech him or an Administration official gives supporting a strike comes off as weak. The use of force is not in the U.S.’s national interest.

Afterwards, CNN’s Jake Tapper summed up the speech aptly:

A speech to a public that doesn’t want to go to war by a president who doesn’t want to go to war.

Unfortunately, Obama doesn’t have a choice.

A New Proposal for Syria

Here’s an idea for a way the President and Congress could enforce its red line over Syria using chemical weapons without actually lobbing cruise missiles at Damascus: Congress could pass a bill authorizing President Obama to use force against Assad if he uses chemical weapons again. The goal here is to enforce the red line without actually enforcing it. It’s tough to accomplish, but it’s doable.

Let’s start by stipulating that the Administration’s goal right now is to deter Assad or any other ruler from ever using chemical weapons again. The question, then, is what is the best way to accomplish that while also looking out for our national security?

Obama has decided that only a forceful response will demonstrate to Assad that he meant it when he said chemical weapons use was a red line. But the military strategy the President has proposed was described by Secretary of State John Kerry as “unbelievably small” and would likely inflict limited damage on Assad’s capabilities. The strike would be more symbolic than anything else.

There are no good options on Syria.

There are no good options on Syria.

The problem is that this attack has many risks and limited upside. Shooting a couple of missiles a Syria will do little to convince Assad that the United States is ready to inflict serious harm upon him if he uses chemical weapons again. The widespread disapproval of a war against Assad demonstrates this clearly. In addition, Assad could respond to such an attack with a disproportionate use of force, such as by attacking Israel, or by using chemical weapons yet again, challenging the U.S. to respond with greater military strength. Escalation is a distinct possibility. Is it worth risking destabilizing the region and possibly drawing the United State into another war in the Middle East to send a weak message?

At the same time, doing nothing indicates to Assad that his use of chemical weapons has no consequences. It’s a dangerous message to send. The Syrian leader could begin gassing his people on a wider scale, under the expectation that the U.S. will respond weakly or not at all. Since Congress has been so resistant to responding to Assad’s use of chemical weapons this time, it’s not unrealistic to think they will respond weakly to another attack as well. That’s a situation we desperately want to avoid.

As the President and Congressmen have said repeatedly, there are no good options here.

But what if Congress authorizes the President to use force in the case of another chemical weapons attack? There would have to be language in such a bill that outlined the criteria to evaluate whether chemical weapons were used and whether the Syrian government used them. It will be tricky to craft, but a combination of UN investigators (or the lack of Syrian support for them) plus government intelligence should be enough. In addition, the bill should strictly restrict the military options the President can use. It shouldn’t allow boots on the ground, for instance.

This accomplishes two things:

  1. The U.S. does not have to use force right now. The vast majority of Americans and Congress don’t want to use force. The risks are simply too high and benefits too low. By passing an AUMF for a future chemical weapons attack, it makes sure we do not use force right now.
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  2. At the same time, it deters Assad from using chemical weapons again. It’s not the strongest form of deterrence, as it still informs Assad that the consequence of him using chemical weapons will be limited in scope. But it is much more of a deterrent than doing nothing. Obama should also make clear that he will go back to Congress for the authorization to use greater military force if he deems Assad’s transgression consequential enough to require a stronger U.S. response.

Is this a weak response? Absolutely. But every response being contemplated is weak.

Here’s a pessimistic scenario: let’s say such a bill is passed and Assad takes it to mean that he can gas a number of Syrian civilians and expect a limited response. He goes ahead and does so and the President responds by following through on the AUMF. He goes back to Congress to ask for more military options, but is shot down again, confirming Assad’s belief that the U.S. doesn’t want to get too involved in Syria. That’s a bad outcome.

But look at how that scenario plays out if we do nothing now: Assad sees no U.S. response and believes that America will not respond (or will respond weakly) if he gasses his civilians again. Now, Obama asks Congress for the right to use military force. Maybe they give it to him now, but at best it restricts him to limited strikes anyways. If the U.S. doesn’t respond this time, it signals to Assad clearly that the U.S. is a paper tiger over chemical weapons use. That’s a huge risk. Passing the bill I’ve proposed at least eliminates this possibility.

And what about if we strike Syria now? Well that certainly acts as a greater deterrent to Assad, but as I’ve already noted, the risks involved in this are too high to go through with it.

This is a way to credibly deter Assad without the risks of using force. Assad will know with certainty that if he uses chemical weapons again, Obama will respond with military force. That may not be a strong enough deterrent, but it’s better than nothing in a world where there are no good options.

Does Obama Really Want to Attack Syria?

Wonkbook hypothesized today that the answer is no. It may sound a bit crazy, given how strongly Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama have spoken in favor of a strike, but it’s not as unrealistic as it sounds:

Boxed in by red-line rhetoric and the Sunday show warriors, the Obama administration needed to somehow mobilize the opposition to war in Syria. It did that by “fumbling” the roll-out terribly.

The arguments were lengthy and unclear. The White House expressly admitted that their strikes wouldn’t save Syrian lives or topple Assad or making anything better in any way, and they were instead asking Americans to bomb Syria in order to enforce abstract international norms of warfare.

But then Obama turned on a dime and decided to go to Congress at the last minute, making his administration look indecisive and fearful of shouldering the blame for this unpopular intervention, putting the decision in the hands of a body famous for being unable to make decisions, giving the argument for strikes more time to lose support, and giving an American public that opposes intervention in Syria more time and venues to be heard.

Ezra Klein, the author of Wonkbook, goes on to note that the Administration asked for an incredibly broad authorization for the use of force and that Kerry also fumbled questions about the potential for troops on the ground in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. Add everything up and the President has done an awful lot wrong if he’s trying to convince the country to go to war.

So, is it possible that underneath all the rhetoric, President Obama actually doesn’t want us to strike Syria? It’s a surprisingly real possibility.

The President has pushed off an attack for months now, even after reports confirmed that Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons previously. In a letter to Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) in April, the White House Director for Legislative Affairs, Michelle Rodriguez, wrote that U.S. intelligence agencies “assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.” The Administration wanted to investigate further, but once again reiterated that the use of chemical weapons was a red line.

Then, nothing happened. The international community continued to investigate, but no one called for a strike. Assad had already crossed the President’s red line when he gassed his own people again on August 20th.  At this point though, Obama could no longer ignore Assad’s transgressions. He had crossed the red line yet again and this time the U.S. had to react.

But how? A full-fledged toppling of the Assad regime would lead to a vacuum in the region that could easily be filled by Al Qaeda and other extremist groups. The U.S. certainly did not want that. It also did not want troops on the ground. Shooting off a couple of cruise missiles would only marginally damage the Assad regime while potentially destabilizing the region even more. The President may have examined the situation and realized that the best option for the U.S. was to do nothing. But he had drawn a red line. He couldn’t ignore the chemical weapon attack now.

But Congress can.

That’s why the President may have punted the decision and fumbled the roll out of the strike. He knew that it would be a tough sell in the House (less so in the Senate) and that the public would be against it. In addition, he’s following the letter of the law – something that would appease his opponents who are increasingly calling for his impeachment. The final question was how the U.S.’s credibility would look if he gave the decision to Congress and the legislative branch decided not to act. It wouldn’t be great – the U.S. would have allowed Assad to use chemical weapons on his own people without punishment. But it wouldn’t hurt the U.S.’s credibility much. It wouldn’t change Iran’s calculations about building a nuclear bomb – think Congress would vote against a strike on Iran if it developed nuclear capabilities? Of course not. It may not deter Assad from using chemical weapons in the future – but at least Assad would hear the President of the United States saying both that the U.S. must respond to the chemical weapon attack and that he has the power to take unilateral action. Congress’s inaction won’t deter Assad, but the President’s statements may at least give him pause that Obama will take unilateral action if Assad uses chemical weapons again.

Overall, the President retains U.S. credibility while not entering into a civil war that could easily escalate. He “enforces” his red line without actually enforcing it and that’s actually exactly what the American people want.