Obama’s Syria Plan As Confused As Ever
President Obama's plans in Syria are as unclear as they were before he spoke last night.
James Joyner’s latest for The National Interest “Obama’s Goldilocks Syria Plan” has posted:
In a speech to the nation, President Obama warned that if the United States does not launch a punitive strike against Syria, Iran will pursue nuclear weapons, Al Qaeda will try to kill Americans, and bad men will do bad things.
Despite “a brutal civil war” in which more than “a hundred thousand have been killed” and “millions have fled the country,” the president “resisted calls for military action because we cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force, particularly after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Alas, the “situation profoundly changed” three weeks earlier when “Assad’s government gassed to death over a thousand people, including hundreds of children.”
Obama explained America must go to war over a thousand dead—after limiting ourselves to “humanitarian support” as 99,000 others were killed over more than two years—because “the civilized world has spent a century working to ban” chemical weapons and that their use is “a crime against humanity and a violation of the laws of war.” The president noted that they can “kill on a mass scale, with no distinction between soldier and infant,” which hardly distinguishes them from other weapons that Assad has used and that, indeed, the United States routinely employs. The difference is that we prioritize minimizing civilian casualties and Assad does not.
The president correctly observed that, “When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory” and proclaimed, “The question now is what the United States of America and the international community is prepared to do about it, because what happened to those people, to those children, is not only a violation of international law, it’s also a danger to our security.”
The problem with invoking international law here is that, while Assad has likely violated it, so would our enforcement of it through military force without authorization from the United Nations Security Council. To be sure, this would not be the first time we’ve elided that nicety of the UN Charter, which happens to be not only international law but, as a treaty ratified by the Senate, U.S. law as well. But it would be the first time we’ve done so to enforce an international treaty which itself specifies the enforcement mechanism.
The problem with declaring Assad’s use of chemical weapons in a civil war far away “a danger to our security” is that it is sheer and utter nonsense.
The president’s rationale is the most slippery of slippery slopes.
He declared that the use of chemical weapons by a dictator in a civil war, an event which is sadly far from unprecedented, means that United States soldiers would face them on the battlefield, despite the passage of a century since that has happened without an American military strike in support of the principle. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons while getting direct intelligence support from a United States government fully aware he was using them, and yet dared not use them in two subsequent wars against the United States, the second of which had the express purpose of ousting him from power and led to him being hanged. What has changed? The president didn’t say.
The president declared—without evidence or explanation—that chemical weapons might somehow spill over into Turkey, Jordan, and Israel if left unchecked. This, despite later acknowledging in the same speech that “Neither Assad nor his allies have any interest in escalation that would lead to his demise, and our ally, Israel, can defend itself with overwhelming force.” Additionally, he forthrightly promised that we can target Assad with impunity because “the Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military” and that “any other retaliation they might seek is in line with threats that we face every day.”
He claimed that “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.” Yet Iran has been pursuing nuclear weapons since before Assad’s father came to power and will surely continue regardless of what we do in response to the son’s deployment of chemical weapons. Indeed, if anything, military strikes against an ally will only reinforce the need to acquire nuclear weapons as a bulwark against American military action.
Similarly, the president argues that “Al Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death.” But, of course, Al Qaeda has been targeting innocent civilians for going on two decades now and is on the opposite side of this fight.
Much more at the link.
This is getting repetitious.
– acknowledge crimes against civilians
– acknowledge violations of international law
– throw up hands and say that only the UN can deal with such things
You now, the right used to have a fairly entrenched position that the UN did not have sovereignty over the United States and its prerogatives. Now, of all times to embrace the UN as the One World Government, it is when it turns a blind eye to atrocities?
Something is deeply wrong here. It goes beyond merely arguments of convenience. It builds a policy of acceptance around war on civilians, and even genocide, if someone on the UN Security Council has a veto to protect it.
Things are in flux right now. We might want to just calm down and give it a few days.
The UN nor the US should be One World Government. With no national interest, no international consensus, why should the US involve itself in another country’s civil war? And why this civil war as oppose to those other civil wars?
And why…when the plan is to do little damage and not hurt anyone’s feelings instead of kill Assad or destroy any and every location chemical weapons might be on both sides?
What an odd paragraph:
The US has made many diplomatic *(and covert) efforts to block those Iranian nuclear weapons.
Is James suggesting that nuclear proliferation should be given a pass at this point, and that “commensurate responses” in that domain should also be opposed?
That would be a pretty extreme disengagement.
Why is there an international ban on Chemical Weapons?
(Because at one time we believed that it was in human interest to bind all nations to a higher level of behavior. If we punt on that, we are turning to an extreme isolationism, one in which there are no red lines, not for gas, and not for genocide.)
In an alternate universe when Obama is refusing to consider military action in Syria, JKB is explaining how this proves Obama is a weakling empty suit, that our enemies no longer fear us, and that Obama has ended American exceptionalism and greatness.
@anjin-san: “In an alternate universe when Obama is refusing to consider military action in Syria, JKB is explaining how this proves Obama is a weakling empty suit, that our enemies no longer fear us, and that Obama has ended American exceptionalism and greatness. ”
I believe that alternate universe is called “Tuesday.”
Wasn’t that the GOP line until recently? [Granted, not the Paulite minority position]
It’s the classic “politician’s fallacy”:
1. We must do something.
2. This is something.
3. Therefore, we must do this.
The “this” suggested, is actually about the best you could ask for. First, the administration is open to diplomatic settlement. Second, if force is used it would be with stand-off weapons, and with the limited goal of degrading Assad’s military capabilities.
Note that the real proposal, limited and stand-off attacks, are never really acknowledged by dissenters.
That is a “tell.”
Untrue. It was acknowledged, and some problems were noted:
1) Such very limited strikes seem unlikely to accomplish the stated goals and, thefefore
2) Escalation was entirely possible.
This was then denounced as being the slippery slope fallacy.
JP, you’re really on your high horse about supposed dishonesty amongst the ant- crowd. You’re finding it where it does not exist. Whatever floats your boat, I guess.
@Rob in CT:
Sure I am on the high horse, or as I’d call it the high ground.
When you have to pretend that Obama is leading us to full on war in Syria, that probably means you don’t have a strong case in the real world.
There is no strong real world case that stand-off attacks in Syria would lead to anything like that. The political resistance to it is one factor, but underlying that is that full war has no advantage for Obama or the Democrats, whatsoever.
Put shortest: There is no war lobby.
It is quite strange. Obama is supposedly ‘going to war!’ and wasting time with pinpricks. He is a complete failure who has it seems failed by getting more than he had asked for and gotten it for free. I wish the Obama haters could manage just a little consistency beyond consistently hating Obama.
Put redundantly: The only evidence the boots-on-ground crowd offer is their own fear.
I haven’t heard of any tank battalions mobilized, as in the real ground wars, have you?
Yes, there is. It’s not necessarily *likely*, sure. But if you do airstrikes and they don’t work, then what? Escalation is one option. That’s real-world. But you wave it away, so it’s not real world to you. Bah.
But you go on proclaiming how correct you are, John. I know how you are when you get like this. It’s tiresome, but there’s nothing I can do about it.
By Obama’s own admission, the limited strikes would not eliminate the weapons, Assad, Assad’s ability to conduct further chemical weapon attacks, or his ability to continue the civil war. Given that, what happens if Assad’s response to the strike is to launch another chemical weapon attack?
Do you seriously think we’ll just throw up our hands and go “well we tried, guess there’s nothing that can be done”? Or do you think Obama will call for a more involved response under that argument that we can’t afford to appear impotent as Assad flaunts his defiance?
Geez guys, you know that GWB won some polls as “the worst President ever” based on his leading us into Iraq.
You are actually asking me to believe Obama knows this and doesn’t care? That he has some personal reason to repeat Iraq II and displace Bush in the great hall of failure?
Pull the other one.
I don’t think he WANTS to repeat Iraq II, but he seems to be falling into the same line of reasoning that got us into Iraq. That we can just “go to war a little” and everything will magically get better because we mean well and things will always go right when you mean well.
Unfortunately when things don’t go well, the politician’s are put into a choice between admiting that maybe wishful thinking isn’t the best basis for strategic policy or doubling down on a bad policy. Now maybe Obama is the 1 politician in a million who will avoid doubling down to save his “legacy”, but I find that unlikely.
Of course Obama remembers Iraq, The Sequel, and does not want a repeat. You don’t always get what you want, and backing yourself into corners and issuing serious threats can be the way you end up in a place you didn’t want to go.
JP, You keep mischaracterizing the arguments made by the anti-intervention folks. I don’t think it’s deliberate, as you have a track record of good-faith discussion. But you are doing it. Please stop.
I have to sign off. Going to pick up my weekly supply of free stuff, AKA “#ObamaLoot”…
“I don’t think he WANTS to repeat Iraq II, but he seems to be falling into the same line of reasoning that got us into Iraq. That we can just “go to war a little” and everything will magically get better because we mean well and things will always go right when you mean well.”
In what sense what Iraq II “going to war a little”? If that was not full-scale war, what do you think is?
Because it started out as just a no-fly zone to stop Sadam from slaughtering his civilians. Then it was just limited strikes to stop him from flaunting his defiance of UN sanctions. Then a quickl decapitating strike; the war will be over in 90 days; it’s just a few dead-enders; etc.; etc.; etc.
I’d say the full accounting of the Iraq War goes like this:
– it started as a major war (“The Gulf War”).
– Then sanctions, which inflicted a great deal of misery on the common people of Iraq.
– then there was a Shiite uprising, triggered in part by incitement by our government
– Saddam kicked the hell out of them. Eventually, we did a no-fly zone.
– The NFZ probably helped prevent slaughter of Kurds.
– Airstrikes in the late 90s.
– Regime change for WMDs he didn’t have. It’ll be quick, easy and cheap!
– Whoops, not so.
– Declare victory, go home.
And of course that’s not even the full extent of our involvement with Iraq.
Which is why some of us are a little down on foreign entanglements (or doctrines likely to lead to more of them, such as R2P).
Jesus H. Would someone kindly explain how cruise missile strikes are Iraq? Were people not paying attention during Iraq? We didn’t slippery slope into Iraq we massed troops for MONTHS and launched a deliberate invasion. The apt comparison would be to Mr. Clinton firing off cruise missiles or perhaps to Libya. But Iraq was an entirely different matter and only ignorance or dishonest political motivation explains obsessing this way over Iraq. Apples and oranges.
These people can’t remember what the president said yesterday. You expect them to remember the Iraq War? It is whatever they want it to be for today’s political expediency, updated daily.
Too soon. It’ll take decades to get over the chump feeling everyone has after being suckered into Iraq War 2.
We’re not saying cruise missle strikes = Iraq, The Sequel. Who is saying that?
We’re saying that such strikes could – not will, but could – escalate to more significant involvement, and we’d like to avoid the chance of that.
Anyway, given recent developments, I think it’s a good idea if we all calm down and let this play out a bit.
@Rob in CT:
Granted it is unwarranted to wave away the possibility of escalation in the event that airstrikes don’t work. But, aren’t you claiming the escalation option is both “not necessarily *likely*” and yet somehow inescapable via a slippery slope?
I don’t think it does your argument any more credit to overstate the potential negative outcomes than it does john personna to wave them off.
And frankly, with the diplomatic moves in the last couple of days, even the threat of intervention plays out differently. If Russia and Syria now renege on what they themselves proposed and have agreed to under the auspices of the UN, I don’t see how the US is in it by themselves anymore.
We have solid examples, with the Marine base bombing in Lebanon, the failed raid in Somalia, even the Stark incident, where very messy things did not become wars.
ONLY when there was a war lobby pushing past small things did we escalate.
Do not ignore my point above that there is now no war lobby.
Seriously guys, Blackhawk Down defines everything Obama should not do … and Obama is not stupid.
He has fully stand off weapons, like cruise missiles and drones, which allow targeted attack without even overflight of the country by US aviators (let alone photogenic aviators).
If Obama can satisfy his stated goals with cruise missiles, what is the counter argument? That cruise missile strikes realistically risk a land war? Or do you argue Obama is dumb, and will go for the Blackhawk playbook?
Of course, as noted above, Blackhawk did NOT lead to a land war.
Because. There. Was. No. War. Lobby.
For non interventionists, any military operation is always Operation Iraqi Freedom, even when it isn’t. Saves them the burden of analysis.
I don’t think I ignored your point – I’m in agreement. I think the slippery slope arguments apply very poorly to military engagement. It takes concerted effort to escalate into a war and the pertinent actors at this time have no interest in undertaking that effort.
I wouldn’t go so far as your claim that there is NO war lobby – there are still warmongers with media megaphones and the MIC will always pursue the course that best establishes the necessity of a ever growing Defense budget – but I’d agree the war lobbyists are currently in a weak position.
That said, there is still enough potential for unpalatable unintended consequences (short of escalation into war) that could come from these stand-off attacks, that I was opposed to unilateral US military intervention nonetheless. Which is why the recent turn of events is so important. The threats themselves seem to have been fruitful and if the diplomatic steps are allowed to play out, even if they fail, it is much less likely that the US is left owning the responsibility to respond by themselves.
Acknowledging our points of overlap, is there actually ANY political party or faction or candidate in the US which would benefit from real war, and boots on ground?
If no one is for it, it is really hard to get there.
Saw the pundits on the tube complaining about how disorganized it all seems. What are they comparing it to? Iraq II?
When you set out with a plan to start a war and are not instead reacting to actual events, things are bound to appear much more coherent. The pundits remind me of 4 year olds who are hearing the ice-cream truck music get fainter -and they know Daddy said “Maybe” at some point but never coughed up.
No, I see no party, faction or candidate which would benefit from boots on the ground given the current national mood.
Yet, I am mindful of two things:
Political benefit isn’t the only determinant: I voted for Obama because I thought he was the least inclined toward military adventurism of the viable candidates on the ballot in 2008 (and 2012 for that matter). Yet, it’s taken us longer to extract ourselves from Afghanistan than I thought, I was surprised by Libya and his use of drones is disconcerting. I don’t think my assessment of Obama’s relative bellicosity was terribly off, so I must conclude that international circumstances, and other information I am blind to, can and will trump the natural preferences of parties, factions and candidates.
It doesn’t take a lot to change the national mood. When I turned on the TV this morning, it was on a cable station replaying the news coverage of 9/11. The footage showing was of the Pentagon attack and it must have been early on, because the reporter was talking about a large bomb going off at the helipad and not about a crashed airplane. In my groggy state, I thought it was fresh terrorist attack – some car bomb at the helipad – and my first thought was “this means war!” Though I was mistaken on the situation, I still think my visceral reaction was correct. An successful terrorist action in the US would mean all the anti-war sentiment would fly out the window for far too many of my countrymen.
If you voted for Obama thinking he was a peace activist then you made a mistake. He regularly and repeatedly vowed to ramp up the drone war and, incidentally, to get Osama. He did both. So if you’re disappointed don’t pretend it’s Obama failing his constituents. I voted for him, and I’m pleased with the way he’s handles Iraq, Afghanistan and not much moved either way by Libya and now Syria.
i’m just enjoying the waffling by obama and co., it’s kind of funny how out of control this has gotten and how they can’t seem to figure out how to shut up their friends in the media. of course, putin handed obama his ass on a platter and none of what they say will happen will come to fruition. syria is a war zone and nobody is going to “observe” them handing all their chems to some russian buddies who in turn will hide them elsewhere. and the russians are still selling them arms……what a hoot.
obama got played and made our country look weak, what did you expect?
Humorous paraphrasing of Obama’s speech:
“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.”
“I been sayin’ that shit for years. And if you ever heard it, it meant your ass. I never really questioned what it meant. I thought it was just a cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker before you popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some shit from Putin a couple days ago that made me think twice. Now I’m thinkin’: it could mean Assad is the evil man. And I’m the righteous man. And Mr. Tomahawk here, he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could be Assad is the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is..Assad is the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin, Assad. I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.”
I would simply add the the constituency for putting the brakes on military adventurism, once it’s started, is thin. The accusations of weakness and fickleness seem to carry too much weight. I recall that Clinton’s foreign policy was frequently criticized as being too “small bore” and reactive, as opposed to the grand visions of Republican presidents, and such public criticism can affect debates over “limited” international actions. I think history shows that once you dabble in military action, the relaxing of action is usually treated as showing weakness by American media. The temptation will always be to ratchet up, not down. The limited strikes by Clinton get held up against Vietnam which escalated out of all reason, but they aren’t the majority of cases. It isn’t irrational to worry about limited punitive strikes against Syria escalating into something more. At the same time the Clinton example provides an example of a moment when escalation didn’t occur. This is a treacherous situation, and the possibility of escalation shouldn’t be dismissed.
It isn’t irrational to worry about limited punitive strikes against Syria escalating into something more.
Not at all. The problem is many consider it inevitable. I think escalation would be quite unlikely, based on President Obama’s track record and the knowledge that Assad is not an irrational actor. If his military capabilities were to take a big hit, why would he do it again? Hell, Russia may just talk him into avoiding a strike entirely. He can win the civil war without chemical weapons. He can’t even hurt us. Which fight would he prefer?
Vietnam had a significant war lobby, grounded in the domino theory of communist expansion.
Geez, michael, I voted for Obama knowing exactly what I was going to get. As you well know, “peace activist” wasn’t on the menu in 2008. (I suppose you could argue that Kucinich was a peacenik, but he had no prayer of winning so much as a primary.) Yet despite his openness on how aggressively he planned to execute Iraq, Afghanistan and the WOT, Obama was still the pacifist when compared to Clinton and McCain. In 2012, when war fatigue was even greater than in the previous election, Romney ran on more military aggression (Iran) not less.
This is my point, as I’m evidently not being very clear. While john personna is correct that no one wants war now and thus it is very unlikely that Syria will escalate to boots on the ground, it does not follow that this condition can be considered stable and long lasting in a country where a candidate running on a platform of peace in our time and a massive reduction in Defense spending is seemingly an impossibility.
Yes, the war lobby is at a nadir. The peace lobby doesn’t exist. To my mind, that means that war will never be comfortably outside the realm of possibility.
NB: the existence of idiots like bill claiming Obama looks weak by getting more than he expected without actually firing off some rockets only reinforces my case.
That upvote is from me. Just saw your comment, it’s thought-provoking but I’m too blitzed to respond right now. Cool?
No, I am not. I’m pointing out a risk, not making a prediction.
You do realize of course that the no fly zone was immediately preceded by the Gulf War, aka Iraq War I (so really Syria would be Iraq III in this unlikely scenario). Then there was 9/11 and some people with grudges that were able to use it to take us into Iraq War II.
There is no Gulf War equivalent for us and Syria. This is not Iraq and the comparisons that have been made to it thus far have been facile at best. Do you honestly think there is more than some small fraction of a 1% chance that what Obama proposed would lead to Iraq War III?
I was/am conflicted about the whole venture, but it seems we are coming out of what looked like a no win situation with a small win.
if ‘pin-pricks’ wouldn’t deter Assad, why has he agreed to the Russian plan?
Everyone is discussing the Syria situation instead of the column, and missing a significant error which calls into question the value of anything Joyner might have to say on this issue.
“Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons while getting direct intelligence support from a United States government fully aware he was using them, and yet dared not use them in two subsequent wars against the United States, the second of which had the express purpose of ousting him from power and led to him being hanged. What has changed? The president didn’t say.”
I’m not sure what he’s trying to say with that first phrase. Yes, the US assisted in the use of chemical weapons in war and against civilians. And? Reagan was an evil man, despite all the people who would wish to remember him as their kindly grandfather. This country had an evil president, who used the nations resources to commit an evil act. Does this mean we can never again take the high road? We have had four presidents since then.
The last phrase is half poorly-reasoned, and half flat-out false. In the first Gulf war, Saddam knew he was going to lose Kuwait once we started sending troops and equipment over. The only question was if he was going to lose his head. We kicked him out of Kuwait, and stopped. Much to the chagrin of many armchair warriors who thought we should “finish the job”. Of course he didn’t use chemical weapons. He knew that if he did, we would be on the road to Baghdad, and he was done. It had nothing to do with “dare not”, and was a straight-up calculation. I am fairly certain that if Bush I had not stopped, but kept on going as he was being urged to, we would have seen chemical weapons used against our troops. Why not? What would he have to lose?
As for the flat-out falsehood, the reason Saddam “dared not” use chemical weapons against us in the second Gulf war was BECAUSE HE DIDN’T HAVE ANY! Remember? How we looked and looked and just couldn’t find those WMD’s that we had been assured were all over the place? East, west, south and north, somewhat? Remember? Kind of hard to “dare not” use something you don’t have…
I’m thinking the title of this post should be “Joyner’s Syria Column As Confused As Ever”.
only reason it is confusing is because journalists and the information marketplace (there is no credible news media anymore) do a lousy job of explaining it to the public. After all many journalists are too dumb themselves to understand simple english language.
We have a succinct statement of opinion that is dead on.
I could not agree more.
“owned, pt 2”