This is what desperation looks like.
With the White House selling an increasingly skeptical Congress and public on airstrikes in Syria, President Obama and his lieutenants have rolled out just about every possible argument to marshal support on the Hill ahead of Obama’s big Syria speech on Tuesday evening. It’s akin to throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks.
Is Syria’s use of chemical weapons a threat to U.S. national security? You bet, says National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Does the United States have a moral obligation to enforce international norms against chemical weapons use? It certainly does, says White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. Does the current crisis bear a frightening resemblance to Munich circa 1938? Most certainly, says Secretary of State John Kerry. And is there a need to send a strong message to the mullahs in Tehran about their nuclear ambitions? Damn straight, says U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power.
Welcome to the spaghettification of U.S. foreign policy.
A case in point: the appearance Sunday of McDonough, the White House chief of staff, on NBC’s Meet the Press. First McDonough noted that Congress’s decision on Syria "will be listened to very clearly in Damascus, but not just in the Damascus — also in Tehran … and among Lebanese Hezbollah." Three questions later, the proposal for strikes was all about the importance of discouraging chemical weapons use. "This is a targeted, limited consequential action to reinforce this prohibition against these weapons that unless we reinforce this prohibition, will proliferate and threaten our friends and our allies." Lest the administration be accused of short-sightedness, McDonough was quick to emphasize that strikes would hasten the arrival of a long-term solution to the conflict. "And our effort to target this effectively will only help that political diplomatic resolution."
Got all that? To recap, a limited U.S. military engagement will prevent the use of chemical weapons elsewhere, encourage a political resolution to the conflict, and discourage Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
But wait, that’s not all. "Israel is at risk, Jordan is at risk, Turkey is at risk, the region is at risk," Kerry proclaimed on Meet the Press the prior week. Then, on Saturday, Kerry went so far as to say that "this is our Munich moment" — a reference to the 1938 deal in Munich that ceded parts of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in an attempt to avoid war. According to the White House, however, these risks aren’t limited to bloodshed inside Syria. An unpunished Assad regime, Rice, the national security advisor, argued on Monday, puts "Americans at risk of chemical attacks, targeted at our soldiers and diplomats in the region and potentially our citizens at home" (McDonough made a similar point on the Sunday talk shows).
Not only is the White House raising the specter of the Holocaust, it is also warning that Assad’s chemical weapons use threatens the U.S. homeland.
The administration’s case has evolved significantly since John Kerry first sketched out the rationale for carrying out a punitive strike on Syria in humanitarian terms. "What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world," Kerry said on Aug. 26. "It defies any code of morality. Let me be clear. The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable." That moral outrage remains — as when Rice said Monday that "as a parent I cannot look at those pictures, those little children laying on the ground … and not think of my own two kids" — but in selling the argument to an unconvinced Congress, every argument possible has gotten tacked on as well.
The White House, of course, would contend that, taken together, all these arguments add up to a compelling case for intervening militarily in Syria. Its critics would contend that they are emblematic of a muddled rationale for war. Perhaps by Tuesday, when Obama addresses the nation he hopes to once more lead into conflict, the White House will have thrown enough spaghetti against the wall to have found an argument that sticks.
Or, just maybe, war will be averted by the one argument that wasn’t in the White House’s long list of talking points.