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