The last of the ancient kings of Rome, Tarquin the Proud, was approached one day by a woman who offered nine books of prophecy at a steep price. The king refused; the price was too high. The woman burned three of the books and offered the remaining six at the original price. Nothing doing, said the king. She burned three more of the books and offered the remaining three books at the same price.
But this time, the king bought.
That story is not a bad was to describe President Barack Obama’s approach to Syria. Originally, he had a chance to nip the destructive civil war in the bud, dealing Iran and Russia a major blow, isolating Hizballah, preventing genocidal levels of slaughter, reassuring key allies about his commitment and resolve, and preventing the development of a new wave of trained and funded jihadis in the heart of the Middle East.
No deal, Obama said, too expensive.
Then the slaughter came, the jihadi groups gained prestige and funding, and Hizballah jumped into the war. But the president still had the opportunity to solidify his alliances in the region, and blunt the effects of Russian and Iranian support for Bashar Assad.
No, Obama said; it still costs too much.
As time went by, the Egyptian military and the Saudis lost more and more confidence in an administration they believed to be trapped in a fog of moralism and illusion. They acted in concert against the President’s Muslim Brotherhood allies in Egypt, ruining the White House’s hopes to work with moderate and democratic Islamist groups in the region and handing the White House a first-class humiliation when the bloody non-coup coup went ahead.
And so now, when most of the possible gains that could come from intervention in Syria have been lost, the president finally seems ready to act. Like King Tarquin the Proud, Obama is now getting ready to put his money down, even though most of the goodies have been taken off the table.
If we are to believe the latest talk coming out of Washington, the White House is now considering a plan for punitive strikes in Syria in response to what it claims is overwhelming evidence that pro-Assad forces used have used chemical weapons. But this appears to be less out of conviction than out of a reluctant recognition that the President is “boxed in” (as The Hill put it) by his own rhetoric.
A President who would not go to war to stop massacres, who would not intervene to prevent terrorists from establishing enclaves in the heart of the Middle East, who would not move either to frustrate his most bitter international opponents or to oblige his closest regional allies is about to bomb Syria simply because he finds himself in a politically intolerable position.
The word in Washington seems to be that the president plans to split the difference between war and peace. He is looking to order some military strikes against Syria while making clear that his goal isn’t to ensure Assad’s downfall or to launch a renewed U.S. push to make post-war Syria a somewhat less horrible and less dangerous place than it now seems destined to become. He won’t put it this way, but the Obama’s goal appears to send just enough cruise missiles or bombs into Syria to prevent everyone from saying he flinched on his “red line” comment. He will say he is bombing in righteous rage; his enemies will say he is bombing to save face.
This kind of decision is exactly the kind of split the difference thinking that has gotten the President into trouble in the past. Surge in Afghanistan — but pre-announce your withdrawal. Attack Syria, but make it clear to everyone that you don’t mean anything serious by it.
That kind of thinking will not impress America’s wavering Middle East allies. It will likely not impress Butcher Assad or his friends in the Kremlin and Teheran. It will not strengthen the moderates in the Syrian opposition. It will not stop or even slow the killing. It will not bolster the President’s credibility at home. King Tarquin got a better deal.
The White House has not yet announced what its decision on Syria will be. We hope that wise counsels will prevail — that the White House understands that it has a strategic Syria problem and not merely a humanitarian chemical weapons problem, and that it will act decisively, strategically and legally to address the danger that the ongoing war in Syria presents to vital US interests. Obama must aim to make a difference and not just a point; whatever the US does should be about changing the equation in Syria and not just a display of kinetic moral dudgeon.
This won’t be easy. As Clausewitz reminds us, the goal of force must be political. Is Obama trying to bomb Assad to the bargaining table? Weaken him enough so that he gets on a plane to retire in Sochi? Bomb him just hard enough so that Assad only massacres Syrians in the many ways that don’t involve testing Obama’s red lines? Can Assad kill another 50,000 or 100,000 or more Syrians as long as he keeps his hands off the chemical weapons? The president needs a goal in Syria for bombing to be more than an act of moral pique; it’s not clear that he has one.
The situation in Syria demands a serious response from the United States. Let’s hope that President Obama has realized at long last just how dangerous the horror in Syria has become, and that whatever steps he announces in the coming days will be only the first pieces of a coherent and hard headed approach to the steadily deteriorating situation in a region of vital interest to the United States and its allies around the world.