The Standard for a Syria Strike: Avoiding Mockery?

Via the LATSyria chemical weapons response poses major test for Obama we find a possible standard for assessing a strike on Syria:

One U.S. official who has been briefed on the options on Syria said he believed the White House would seek a level of intensity "just muscular enough not to get mocked" but not so devastating that it would prompt a response from Syrian allies Iran and Russia.

"They are looking at what is just enough to mean something, just enough to be more than symbolic," he said.

Yes, it is an anonymous quote, but I think it does (unfortunately) capture what the administration is trying to do here.

In the grand scheme of things, however, this does not strike me as an especially good standard for assessing a military action.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. DC Loser says:

    We’ve basically signaled Assad to expect a small attack, and requested him not to respond. Assad now has plenty of time to move his people and weapons to safe hiding places so the attack will have no effect on the war, and everybody gets to look tough.

  2. Mikey says:

    This is rapidly shaping up to be the most inane military operation in American history.

    No US interest in danger? Check.
    Lack of a plausible objective? Check.
    Telegraphing many important details of the pending operation? Check.
    Stupid, banal rationales? Check.
    Pushing forward in the face of 91% opposition from the American people? Check.
    Risk of inadvertently escalating the situation to something actually bad? Check.

    Nothing good will come of this.

  3. Scott says:

    @Mikey: Given the pushback from certain elements of the right and from Congressional leaders, I think the good that can come out of this is a revisit to the War Powers Act and a thorough reassessment of authorities in using military action to accomplish national objectives. That would never happen under a Republican President.

  4. C. Clavin says:

    Based on nothing…I suspect this is going to work out differently than everyone currently thinks.
    Maybe I’m gulping kool-aid…but I don’t see someone as smart as Obama getting sucked into somethiing this silly and pointless.

  5. Tony W says:


    Nothing good will come of this.

    Unless there is no attack. Then we keep them guessing for a long time….

  6. Mikey says:


    I think the good that can come out of this is a revisit to the War Powers Act and a thorough reassessment of authorities in using military action to accomplish national objectives.

    That would be a good thing. However, in light of the great many previous opportunities to do so that have been foregone, if it actually happens I will eat my own underpants.

  7. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @C. Clavin: Maybe I’m gulping kool-aid…but I don’t see someone as smart as Obama getting sucked into somethiing this silly and pointless.

    How typically Cliffy…. a blind belief in Obama’s brilliance trumps any reality.

    Never mind that Obama’s “smartness” is something that everyone presumes, but no one ever actually verifies. Oh, he’s got a long list of credentials, but actual acccomplishments? Areas where his intelligence has been put on display? Happy hunting.

    Wrap your little mind around this, Cliffy: Obama’s “smartness” wasn’t enough to keep him from making that stupid “red line” declaration. Why do you think he’s smart enough to get out of the mess he got himself into?

  8. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    Let’s take a little trip in the Wayback Machine and see what certain people said a few years ago…

    Q. In what circumstances, if any, would the president have constitutional authority to bomb Iran without seeking a use-of-force authorization from Congress? (Specifically, what about the strategic bombing of suspected nuclear sites — a situation that does not involve stopping an IMMINENT threat?)

    OBAMA: The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.

    As Commander-in-Chief, the President does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent.;

    And his hand-picked choice for #2:

    Vice President Joe Biden, who voted for the Iraq War, agreed with Obama.

    “The president has no constitutional authority to take this country to war… unless we’re attacked or unless there is proof that we are about to be attacked,” Biden said in 2007.

    Biden, then a Democratic senator from Delaware, suggested presidential war-making was an impeachable offense.

    Oh, and an even better one from Slow Joe:

    It is precisely because the consequences of war – intended or otherwise – can be so profound and complicated that our Founding Fathers vested in Congress, not the President, the power to initiate war, except to repel an imminent attack on the United States or its citizens. They reasoned that requiring the President to come to Congress first would slow things down… allow for more careful decision making before sending Americans to fight and die… and ensure broader public support.

    The Founding Fathers were, as in most things, profoundly right. That’s why I want to be very clear: if the President takes us to war with Iran without Congressional approval, I will call for his impeachment.

    I do not say this lightly or to be provocative. I am dead serious. I have chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee. I still teach constitutional law. I’ve consulted with some of our leading constitutional scholars. The Constitution is clear. And so am I.

    I’m saying this now to put the administration on notice and hopefully to deter the President from taking unilateral action in the last year of his administration. If war is warranted with a nation of 70 million people, it warrants coming to Congress and the American people first.

  9. edmondo says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    Candidate Obama has absolutely nothing to do with President Obama. Haven’t the last five years proved that yet?

  10. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @edmondo: And I hereby denounce both of us as racists for daring to compare Senator Obama with President Obama.

  11. C. Clavin says:

    Jenos…given that you are too dumb to realize that you yourself are a stupid fvcker…then I can only assume you ability to recognize intelligence in anyone else is similarly impaired.
    It would take you about :30 seconds to google an extensive list of Obama’s numerous accomplishments.
    Clearly that is beyond the capability of your pea-brain because otherwise you wouldn’t be asking for help.

  12. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @C. Clavin: Cliffy, for you to call someone else stupid is exceptional irony.

    The list of “accomplishments” you imagine are not accomplishments, but credentials.

    Editor of Law Review? What did he do while there that was noteworthy?

    Wrote two books? They were about himself.

    Constitutional law professor? What papers did he write and publish?

    State and US Senator? What bills did he write and pass?

    Harvard grad? So was Bush.

    That might impress the feeble-minded like you, but it doesn’t mean a damned thing if there’s nothing to show for it. It’s like getting an A for attendance.

  13. @DC Loser: Any chance we could talk about Syria on the Syra thread?

    This little trip back to the 2008 campaign has been fun and all, but it is rather counterproductive.

  14. Oops–that was supposed be addressed to @Jenos Idanian #13.

  15. Grumpy says:

    @C. Clavin: Yep, I’d say managing to get elected president and having the media cover up as much of his past.. as they have for Obama is quite an accomplishment..

  16. C. Clavin says:

    @ Grumpy…
    Plus he managed to travel back in time and forge his birth certificate.
    F’ing time travel…that’s not an accomplishment?

  17. C. Clavin says:

    @ Jenos…
    I’ll try once more…

    It would take you about :30 seconds to google an extensive list of Obama’s numerous accomplishments.
    Clearly that is beyond the capability of your pea-brain because otherwise you wouldn’t be asking for help.

  18. @C. Clavin: Trust me, he will concede nothing.

    Anyway, how about that wacky Syria situation?…

  19. C. Clavin says:

    @ Steven…
    Yeah, I feel your pain. It’s just so easy.

    There are two things about the Syria situation that bother me.
    First…is this typical pointless conjecture that we do everytime there is some situation…which we know almost nothing about. What does Obama know about events that we don’t? What’s happening behind the scenes that we don’t know…diplomatic efforts, etc.
    I guess when Obama tore up Trump at the Correspondents Dinner when all the while Seal Team Six was bearing down on OBL showed me to sit back and see what comes. Hence my comment at the top. We’ll know what we know when we know it.
    Second…is that for the most part the Press seems to have learned nothing from Iraq and is banging the same damn war-drums all over again. I cannot stress this enough….If the press did their job we would have never invaded Iraq, and we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation re: Syria.

  20. @C. Clavin: I was burned in 2003 in assuming that people making decisions knew more than they were letting on, and really history tends to indicate that skepticism is the more prudent road.

    I totally agree about the press.

  21. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Sorry, I was responding to Cliffy’s “if someone as smart as Obama says it’s OK, then it’s fine with me” response.

    As in the quotes I cited, there’s no excuse for Obama to take unilateral action. He still will, of course, if he chooses to; he’s shown that before.

  22. edmondo says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Yes, Jenos was practicing the worst form of demagoguery when he accurately quoted the candidate’s views when the other party was controlling the White House.

    Perhaps we might have a stronger “press” if the current administration would stop wiretapping reporters. But that’s hearsay on this board.

  23. @edmondo: Yes, one of the most shocking events in politics is when a member of the legislature argues for the prerogatives of the legislature and then, having become a member of the executive branch, argues for the prerogatives of the executive branch.

    I concur, btw, that President Obama is contradicting Senator Obama. All well and good, but not the point of the post (all of my Syria posts have, in one way or another, been critical of the President’s chosen path, so the issue is not one of defending Obama).

    And, as best as I can tell, the writers of this blog have, collectively, been opposed to the increasing national security state, regardless of the occupant of the WH.

    However, my main ire was on the silly “accomplishment” meme which really is so very 2008 (and pointless to boot). I also asked C. Clavin to return to the topic at hand, as I felt like we were headed into a pointless digression.

  24. C. Clavin says:

    Jenos…if you have to lie about what I typed…then you are a liar.
    But we all knew that already.

  25. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @C. Clavin: Cliffy, I paraphrased what you said, because it boiled down to you trust Obama is too smart to do something really stupid. You offered no other arguments or reasons apart from faith — blind faith.

    Senators Obama and Biden offered very strong, very cogent, and very sound reasons why presidents should not unilaterally take the country to war (or whatever euphemism you want to use for the application of military force against a sovereign state). I don’t see any reason why those reasons became invalid simply because the man in the Oval Office has changed.

  26. C. Clavin says:

    No time for liars