On Syria: Be Clear, Then Hit Hard

A demonstration of American airpower and political will would help the President regain the high ground

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Evan Vucci / AP

President Barack Obama makes a statement about the crisis in Syria in the Rose Garden of the White House on Aug. 31, 2013

There is little to quarrel with in President Obama’s speech — beyond the usual observation that telling your opponents that your military attacks will be limited and short term is probably not the wisest course. Otherwise, he was clear. He is not letting the paralysis of the U.N. Security Council define his options, and he has agreed that Congress should be heard before further action is taken.

What needs to come next is more clarity about what he plans to accomplish in Syria. I don’t ask that the President share his innermost thoughts with the world at this time; I only ask that he develop a clear strategic concept in his own mind. If he has a serious strategy, the rest of the world can watch it unfold; military leaders are under no obligation to telegraph their moves.

A couple of essentially symbolic explosions on high-visibility targets may look like the safest option in the short term, but is unlikely to reverse the dramatic erosion of the President’s credibility (along with his strategy) in the Middle East and elsewhere. Moreover, if Syria, Iran and Hizballah have serious plans to retaliate (as opposed to the usual rhetoric that comes from those quarters), those plans are likely to proceed whether or not the U.S. military embraces what some are calling a “pinprick” strategy of largely symbolic attacks.

(MORE: Obama Asks Congress to Approve Military Strike on Syria)

The President’s smartest step now would be to surprise on the upside; much of the world has written him off as a ditherer and a weakling. A campaign that is unexpectedly focused and effective would overturn those expectations and offer the President his best chance of coming out of this situation with his prestige enhanced at home and abroad. A demonstration of American airpower and political will would, at this juncture, serve a useful political purpose and help the President regain the high ground in the diplomacy ahead. It’s unlikely (though nothing is impossible) that stepping up the intensity and effectiveness of the U.S. campaign would intensify retaliatory attacks; if anything, a healthy reminder of America’s power might encourage some much needed reflection on the other side.

This does not mean committing the U.S. to an indefinite air campaign, and it certainly does not mean using ground troops. By overplaying their hands, the President’s enemies and opponents abroad (I hope he understands by now that he has a significant number of these and that some of them helm major powers) have given him an opportunity for a dramatic win and a change in momentum. These chances don’t come so often that they can be carelessly discarded.

This is a suggestion for the President’s short-term strategy as he attempts to extricate himself from what has turned into an ugly mess. But it is not the answer to his (and our, and the world’s) Syria problem. The reality is that Syria is sinking into bloody anarchy, and that vital U.S. interests are directly threatened by the chaos there. While there are many ugly elements among the Syrian resistance, one fact needs to be held firmly in mind: the Syrian resistance isn’t the cause of the crisis in Syria. Misgovernment and brutality by President Bashar Assad are the root of the evil. There is no guarantee that things will begin to improve when and if Assad transitions to his postpresidential career, but as long as he clings to power under current conditions, the situation can only continue to get worse. The Syrian resistance didn’t turn Assad’s government into the ugly, failed dictatorship it has become, but Assad’s long and brutal fight for power has empowered the worst elements in the Syrian resistance, continues to radicalize opinion in Syria and elsewhere throughout the region, and ensures that with every day of continued war, the task of reconstruction will be harder.

(MORE: Three Reasons Congress May Not Approve Syrian Intervention)

The dangers that will inevitably follow an end of Assad’s struggle are real and they are ugly, but the longer that struggle goes on, the greater the costs both of the war and of the postwar chaos will be. From the standpoints of humanitarian concerns, regional stability and broader U.S. national interests, this struggle needs to end sooner rather than later.

Leading from behind, assembling coalitions, mixing diplomatic initiatives with work on the ground: all these can and perhaps should be part of the solution. And just as the U.S. should not take the lead in the push to overthrow Assad, we should not be the point man in international efforts at Syrian reconstruction. President Obama is right that we want as little to do with this as possible; the problem is that the longer we wait the higher the price we must ultimately pay. Sitting back to watch and wait as war in Syria wrecks the peace of the region will only give President Obama even less attractive alternatives down the road.

Again, the President does not need to share the innermost details of his Syria strategy on Facebook and Twitter. But he needs to convince Congress, the American people and our key allies overseas that he has one. If he can do that, he is likely to find enough support to press on.

MORE: U.S. Prepares for Military Action Against Syria

57 comments
TrajanSaldana
TrajanSaldana

and i thought Dubya and company were arrogant asses

atiladelmosat
atiladelmosat

Con el alma en las manos, para todos los pueblos la madre es el continente Africano, África con los pueblos  expresamos, el cáncer de la creación destructor de niños,niñas de toda la humanidad, su propósito,  es la burra esclava del pentágono se quedo en los tiempos ya pasados, no existe dolor mas grande que la destrucción y asesinatos de la inocencia de los niños y niñas, su actualidad es ser servidumbre así lo entiende, la esclavitud ya no existe por las luchas de las almas guerrera de los pueblos esto es el progreso natural, lo sublime para nuestra civilización, el planeta con la humanidad no existe nada  que tenga mas importancia. La burra del pentágono se odia a si mismo 

SukeMadiq
SukeMadiq

It is better than Bush announcing "Shock and Awe" in Iraq....

DesertRose
DesertRose

Obama drew the line in the sand and now he has to "save face?" This is no justification for our involvement.

Enough of policing the world. I don't see how any of our recent past military actions have made us any safer or any more respected. In fact, quite the opposite has happened.

Let the Middle-east take care of the Middle-east come what may.  We have our noses in there for two reasons: Israel and Oil. Please spare me any "Humanitarian" reasons for our  involvement. That's utter nonsense.

Israel needs to start getting along with her neighbors instead of constantly whining and calling foul, and we need to take the use of alternative means of energy seriously to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels.

We've lost thousands of service men/women and our military spending is way out of control. And for what?

We need to stay the hell away from Syria.

TarekNaga
TarekNaga

Since when wars are decided based on a president's "prestige enhanced", this president or any president? You are, sadly, just enforcing the concept of the "Ugly American" ...... 

Milly
Milly

The American people have some very strong feelings on fighting in Syria, and rightfully so. However, one thing I would ask people to keep in mind is the long term picture. Our president came out a while back and drew the line in the sand, it was the 'red line' comment. If we son't follow through with any kind of action what will the long-term consequences be? Think it's all just a joke, think about it from a smaller perspective. What do you think of people who demonstrate that they don't say what they mean and mean what they say? How do your kids act with authority figures that they know won't follow through with their threats or promises? Now ask yourself if that's how you want the rest of the world to view us. We already are highly disliked or hated by many countries throughout the world, we can't now let them start viewing us as cowards. This is a really unfortunate position to be in, but her we are. As the old saying goes, Obama better make his next move his best move.

Openminded1
Openminded1

Obama is a coward, and his only interest In Syria is his Muslim brotherhood, that is why he is be so slow and careful and do not forget passing the buck, he does that well.

benyaminshaker
benyaminshaker

It wont do anything , all that will do is create a genocide in Syria , iraq and lebanon. a REAL humanitarian crisis, then ruin any chance of reconciliation with Iran. One needs to remember the iranian people are rather pro american, unlike the arabs, therefore , if the US actually wants a safe ally, Iran will have to do, along with a sort of tripartite pact with Israel and Turkey to limit the arab influence. Therfore, the biggest mistake would be an intervention in syria, might lead to something worse than even Iraq

Sue_Purb
Sue_Purb

The lap dog media that helped to get this amateur elected President should be feeling ashamed right about now.

Hollywooddeed
Hollywooddeed

@Sue_Purb   We should have elected Willard Romney.  He has foreign policy experience in Switzerland, the south of France and the Caymens, after all.

CarlLegg
CarlLegg

Let me get this straight. We want kill people and destroy things to teach them a lesson about why it's wrong to kill people and destroy things? This writer sounds like all the other pundits who were wrong about all the other wars, but keep pushing the same old hawkish crap. 

Bill Pearlman said it best: "Right now the fighting is contained in Syria. Moslems killing other Moslems. Why would we want to get in the way of that? With any luck Assad kills off the whole country and then himself."



chriswest1973
chriswest1973

Walter Russell Mead.  You are a coward to the point that this article should be displayed in yellow.  Why don't move out from the safety of your computer, gear up, and go fight Assad yourself?  We will all be waiting here for you to come back, holding our welcome home signs, or perhaps wearing our yellow ribbons at your funeral.  Coward.  War PIG.  There is no 'vital' interest in Syria for We The People.  None at all.  

GaryRMcCray
GaryRMcCray

Sadly, in this case, devisive, partisan infighting is likely to stymie all attempts to do anything.

It is interesting that the Republicans who would normally be totally hawkish about this will now find themselves in the position of trying to decry and oppose it.

My guess is that their strategy will be to outline so many contingencies and demands that it will be impossible to proceed and then blame lack of progress on the President.

Chemical and bio-weapons have always been a sore point for the US, a line in the sand, closely akin to the Nuclear one.

It is important to understand that military's everywhere simply consider chemical bio and nuclear weapons just another piece of weaponry in their arsenal and that it is only the political and public horror that keep them from being unleashed on us all.

To do nothing when chemical weapons are being used is to bring closer that day when the sky explodes.

mrxexon
mrxexon

Based on what evidence exactly? What the Israelis gave us maybe?

I expect a whole wagon load of Israeli warmonger agents to be hard at work in the US press convincing us this is what we need to do.

To quote Nancy Reagan, "Just Say No".

And you should threaten to beat the hell out of any US representative that says yes.

 It's YOUR money. Make the wrong decision, it's going to be your sons and daughters next...

x

FrankBlank
FrankBlank

We must never forget: Leadership = Blowing People Up.