In an extraordinary series of disclosures last week, Obama administration officials said that the United States will launch only cruise missile strikes in Syria. The attacks will last roughly two or three days. And the administration’s goal will be to punish President Bashar al-Assad, not remove him from power.
But those clear efforts to placate opponents of military action appear to be failing. Warnings of “another Iraq” are fueling opposition to the use of force on both sides of the Atlantic. And the Obama administration’s contradictory record on secrecy is coming back to haunt it.
In Washington on Wednesday, one-third of the members of Congress asked that they be allowed to vote on any use of American force. In London on Thursday, Prime Minister David Cameron’s effort to gain support in Parliament for strikes failed, despite the release of an intelligence assessment that said Assad had used chemical weapons 14 times since 2012.
The risks are high, but President Obama should follow Cameron’s example. Obama should allow the U.N. inspectors to complete their work, unveil any U.S. evidence of Syrian government involvement in chemical attacks and give Congress an opportunity to vote on the use of force.
Post-Iraq skepticism of American military action is extraordinarily high. Obama should lead an open debate that helps restore confidence in the public’s control over the use of military force.
Americans fear that faulty intelligence could drag the U.S. into another conflict in the Middle East. And they apparently don’t trust Obama himself. The president’s unfulfilled promise of being more transparent than George W. Bush sows suspicion. So does the White House’s failure to fully disclose its counter-terrorism operations, from covert drone strikes to global cyber-surveillance.
Last week’s leak of detailed American military planning was unprecedented. It was also enormously hypocritical. An administration that has carried out more criminal leak investigations than all other administrations combined is giving itself a pass on sharing secrets. When it suits its political goals, this White House leaks like a sieve.
The danger of disclosing the limited scope of the potential strikes is that it undercuts a central goal: deterrence. Assad knows he can wait out a brief bombing campaign, emerge from a bunker and declare victory.
In Afghanistan, the Obama administration followed the same pattern. The president placed an 18-month time limit on the 2009 troop surge before it even started. The deadline eased concerns among the American public. But it also telegraphed to the Taliban that they could simply wait out the surge in their safe havens in Pakistan.
On Syria, White House promises of limited American action have so far failed to ease public concern. “Stay out” is the most common refrain. A new legacy is emerging from the presidency of George W. Bush: opposition to the use of American force in any form.
Whatever one’s view of the war in Iraq, the credible threat of military force is a vital foreign policy tool. The potential of lethal force can sometimes help defuse disputes and bring people to the bargaining table.
By telling Assad that the strikes will be limited, the White House gives the Syrian leader an easy way out. As Jeffrey Goldberg argued in Bloomberg View on Wednesday, too tepid an approach can backfire.
“If this is indeed the goal of the Obama administration,” Goldberg wrote, “to look tough without being tough, to avoid threatening the existence of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and to avoid angering Iran and Russia — then, really, let’s not bother with this attack at all.”
The best way for Obama to boost his credibility is to allow a congressional vote on the issue. Obama is not Bush. For two years, Obama has resisted calls for intervention in Syria. And by all accounts he remains deeply reluctant about intervening now.
Yet few Americans trust Obama to resist being drawn into the conflict, intentionally or unintentionally. A public debate will allow the president to present the evidence and make his case. It will give Obama and his aides a chance to argue why cruise missile strikes are not the equivalent of a ground invasion.
A credible case for a cruise missile attack does exist. If U.N. and American experts conclude that the Syrian government carried out the chemical attacks outside Damascus last week, Assad should pay a military price. A cruise missile attack would send a message to autocrats that the use of a weapon of mass destruction will not be tolerated. Acting militarily will restore credibility to American threats of force in the future.
At the same time, Americans are understandably wary of Syria. The goal of any military action should be to punish Assad for using chemical weapons, not quickly topple him.
If there is congressional support for altering the military balance in Syria, the United States should arm moderate members of Syria’s opposition as a counter-weight to jihadists. Under no circumstances should U.S. ground troops be deployed in Syria.
A best-case scenario is a negotiated settlement with Russia and Iran that prevents the dissolution of the country. But that will not occur until the military momentum shifts against Assad.
And, of course, Syria may already be too fractured for outside powers to salvage.
Publicly debating the difficult choices that the United States faces in Syria is vital. It may help exorcise the ghosts of Iraq. Or it may show how that war shackled American power forever.
Maine native David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a former reporter for The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor.