Do Putin or Assad Actually Fear U.S. Strikes?

I’m skeptical. First off, both leaders undoubtedly know that the force authorization was going to die in Congress. They can read the whip counts and it’s pretty clear by now that this isn’t going to pass. Here’s Ezra Klein commenting on the potential compromise of Assad handing over his chemical weapons:

That deal will fall apart if Syria and Russia conclude that the White House’s threats are empty. Obama needs the country’s backing to strike Syria so he can strike a diplomatic bargain to get rid of Assad’s chemical arsenal, thus ending America’s interest in striking Syria.

But Obama can’t get that support by going on prime time and asking Americans to help him bluff Russia.

What exactly do Syria and Russia fear? The only thing I can think of is that they believe the President will authorize the strikes without Congressional approval. I don’t see that happening. Maybe that’s a large enough risk that Putin and Assad are open to negotiations to avoid it. But they certainly shouldn’t fear that Congress will approve of the strikes.

Here’s Klein again this morning on why the White House postponed the vote:

The other is that the White House would very likely lose — if they were going to win, they’d hold the vote and use the authorization as leverage with Russia and Syria.

It’s not like Putin and Assad don’t understand this either! If Obama had the votes, there would be no reason for the White House to delay. It would give the Administration leverage over Assad and allow them to speed up the negotiating process since the President would have the authority to strike at any time.

So, what motivated Syria and Russia to look for a compromise? I’m not sure, but I can’t see how the President’s bluff had anything to do with it.

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Rep. Tom Cotton: America Needs To Be The Strong Horse

Representative Tom Cotton (R-AR) delivered the keynote address today at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) where he discussed the new threats that the U.S. faces from Al Qaeda and radical Islam. The first-term Congressman is a rising star in the Republican ranks and is challenging Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR) for his seat in 2014. His resume is even more impressive: graduate of Harvard University undergrad and law school, clerkship on the U.S. Court of Appeals and time at McKinsey & Co. But what Cotton values most, and talks about frequently, is his time in the Army in both Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s how Cotton began today’s speech as well.

“For much of 2006, I patrolled the streets of Baghdad as a platoon leader with the 101st airborne,” he said. “My soldiers and I knew in a very concrete and personal way that we needed more troops and we needed a new strategy, even if few of us could articulate what it might be.”

Cotton praised AEI for the organization’s contributions to the Iraq Surge and then shifted from talking about his military background to the main theme of his speech: the growing threat of Al Qaeda.

Tom Cotton speaks at AEI.
Rep. Tom Cotton speaks at AEI.

“To put it simply, Al Qaeda today remains a great threat that too many policymakers misunderstand and want to wish away,” he said. “We have to recognize and understand this threat before we can defeat it. And we need to have strength and confidence to fight Al Qaeda using all the tools and resources that have proven to work over the years,”

Before 9/11, few people were aware of the threat Al Qaeda posed to the United States, he said. Afterwards, that quickly changed as the U.S. joined the war against radical Islam. Cotton emphasized that the U.S. joined the war, which radical Islam had started decades earlier. It had taken the United State an event as tragic as 9/11 to get it to stand up and fight, despite repeated terrorist attacks during the 1990s. Cotton worried that a similar complacency and disregard for Al Qaeda was setting in on both lawmakers and the American people in recent years.

“Regrettably, too many Americans believe that the threat from Al Qaeda ended in 2011 with the killing of Osama Bin Laden,” he said. “And too many policymakers in Washington want to believe that these terrorist groups aren’t affiliated with each other or what might be called Core Al Qaeda.”

Cotton stressed that Al Qaeda has grown in strength over the past four years due to the Obama Administration’s neglect for counterterrorism policies. For years, the U.S. military had kept Al Qaeda in a defensive position, pushing them into the hills of Afghanistan where it was near impossible to coordinate a terrorist attack. The United States was the “strong horse” and Al Qaeda the weak, he said.

In recent years though, Al Qaeda has resurged in unstable regions throughout the Middle East. It is no longer a centralized organization, but a network of groups that are increasingly looking at the United States as the “weak horse,” not the strong. Cotton declared his support for many of the counterterrorism strategies that the United States has used over the past decade including drone strikes, indefinite detention and interrogation of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and the National Security Agency’s surveillance methods. He denounced sequestration’s defense cuts, arguing that “the consequences will be historic – and not in a good way.”

All of these things have altered the balance in the War on Terror, Cotton said. In particular, he criticized President Obama for failing to support the moderate groups in Syria years ago, leading to the messy situation that exists there today.* He emphasized that the Obama Administration has not shown the will and confidence to continue to fight Al Qaeda and that this indifference has begun switching the balance of power so that the United States looks more and more like the “weak horse.”

“In the end, the key trait of the strong horse is the will to win,” he concluded. “Our enemies still have the will to win. America had the will to win for a long time and I believe most Americans still do have the will to win. I know that our troops and intelligence professionals do. But I do worry that many of our elected leaders do not and that is dangerous, because in the end, the strong horse does win.”

*Cotton published an op-ed with Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KA) supporting Obama’s plan for Syria a week ago.

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.