Syria Crisis

09.09.13

Obama’s Syria Strategy in Washington is Hopeless, Militarily it’s Even Worse

As President Obama waits for the Congressional verdict on military action in Syria, David Frum asks if the White House even has a plan?

"Congress wants this to pass. They just don't want to vote for it." On NBC's "Meet the Press" yesterday, former Democratic Representative Jane Harman astutely summed up President Obama's political dilemma. She could have added: the president himself has made this dilemma much worse.

President Barack Obama
US President Barack Obama disembarks from Air Force One as he arrives in Saint Petersburg on September 5, 2013 to attend G20 summit. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty)

Think about the incentives facing a wavering member of Congress.

His or her phone lines are burning up 8-1, 9-1, or more, against intervention. On the other hand, he or she is authentically horrified by the Syrian regime's chemical warfare atrocities - and worried about America's standing in the region if Syria can gas with impunity. What to do? How to vote?

At his press conference in St. Petersburg last week, President Obama provided a clue. Asked repeatedly whether he would proceed with strikes on Syria if Congress voted "no," the president finally said, "You’re not getting a direct response."

In other words: the president might well do it! From the point of view of the wavering member of Congress, that's great news. They can vote the way their constituents prefer, without wholly turning their back on the Syria problem. The president himself had indicated he might proceed anyway. Burden shifted; responsibility absolved - at least in very considerable part.

If the administration's management of the domestic politics of the Syria intervention has been bizarrely lacking in strategic thought, its management of the actual military strategy seems even worse. What, exactly, is the plan? As best as outsiders can tell, the administration wants to hit the Assad regime hard enough to "teach it a lesson," but not so hard that the regime actually falls. The administration appears to fear that the failure of the regime would either bring to power Islamic radicals or - more likely - crack the Syrian state altogether, plunging Syria into a generation of chaos like that suffered by Lebanon from the mid-1970s through the early 1990s.

The administration wants to hurt Assad enough to change his behavior - but not so much that he and his Iranian and Hezbollah allies will seek to retaliate against US interests. It wants to degrade his power enough so that he will not use chemical weapons again, but not so much that he decides he has nothing to lose and unleashes every atrocity in his inventory.

If Syria isn't worth a fight to the end, it's better not to start.

But can the violence of air bombing really be micro-managed so precisely? It seems incredible. Violence, once unleashed, is hard to calibrate. Wars are messy things, hard to predict. Once the United States openly joins the campaign against Assad, then the interests of US prestige will demand that the United States not lose. Once a country is determined not to lose, it responds to disappointment by escalating its commitment. If the first strike against Syria does not achieve exactly the result the Obama administration hoped for, the administration will feel enormous pressure to do more … without any very clear idea of what "more" will mean.

If Syria isn't worth a fight to the end, it's better not to start. If you can't be sure that Congress will vote your way, don't ask in the first place. That's strategy -and strategy is the thing that's been missing from the Obama administration's Syria policy all the way through.