- By Kori SchakeKori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and contributor to Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government blog.
The case Barack Obama made to the nation, to the world, last night to build support for his policy on Syria was remarkably — alarmingly — flabby. Unserious. Early polling suggests the man who considers himself a better speechwriter than his speechwriters and a better policy analyst than his policy analysts proved himself neither. Even his supporters in Congress sound relieved at not having to support him.
The main problem with the president’s speech — with his policy, as well — is that the sweeping claims he makes of the importance of the issue don’t match either his policy in the past two years or the means he proposes. President Obama spoke movingly about little children killed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but he proposes to do nothing about the tens of thousands of Syrian children killed by their government with conventional weapons. President Assad’s forces used chemical weapons 13 times before the Aug. 21 incident, but none of those affronts to the international norm that the president insists must be upheld precipitated a change in his policy. Obama insisted we have a moral responsibility to take action, while insisting we will not get involved in the conflict. He will need to reconcile these contradictions in order to build support for military action.
The most jarring part of the president’s address to the nation was his dangerous assertions about war. He seems genuinely not to understand the logic of conflict. It was deeply unsettling to hear his braggadocio that "the United States military doesn’t do pinpricks" when that’s exactly what he’s proposing.
Obama claimed that the Syrian military doesn’t have the ability to damage ours; a decade fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan should have induced greater respect for our enemies. Syria fighting a total war can defeat the United States fighting a limited war. The president is conveying the limits of our interest and potential involvement to our adversaries; they would be stupid indeed if they did not find ways to capitalize on the vulnerabilities he is broadcasting.
The commander in chief also grandly asserted that Assad has no interest in escalation. Yet just the day before, Assad was threatening escalation should we attack. Given Obama’s evident unwillingness to be drawn into the Syrian war, why would Assad not counter our strike with attacks on refugee camps or fomenting civil war in Lebanon or limited chemical use that American intelligence could pick up but would be unpersuasive to a general audience? Before committing our country to war, the president ought to give a lot more thought to the enemy’s perspective and options. Iran’s motivations or potential action also went unaddressed, even though they have been arming and are now actually fighting alongside Assad’s forces.
Sadly, the only neighboring country whose welfare the president seemed interested in was Israel. He boasted that Israel can defend itself; surely true, but our action would be putting them in the position of having to, and that’s not inconsequential. Moreover, the president was completely silent on our friends with lesser ability to protect themselves: Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon. That is not only endangering to our allies, but it misses opportunities to build support by giving nations a reason to help us achieve what the president is advocating.
The president’s policy is insupportable. But even within the confines he has established, he could have done a much better job of justifying his choices. Here are things the president should have said and elements his policy should incorporate if he actually intends to carry out the actions he argued for last night:
- Serious violations of the laws of war demand serious responses. The Assad government has repeatedly targeted civilians, repeatedly used chemical weapons, and repeatedly violated the Geneva Conventions. Assad is a war criminal, and we will see him tried in The Hague for his actions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has offered to lead the international effort to bring Bashar al-Assad to justice, and America thanks her for Germany’s leadership on this crucial issue.
- I appeal to the Syrian military not to carry out orders in violation of the laws of war. The intelligence communities of the United States and our allies are paying careful attention and — from this moment forward — will begin compiling dossiers for prosecution of commanders who target civilians or use chemical weapons. You will be hunted down and held to account. Britain and France, two of America’s closest allies and two of the world’s most capable intelligence services, will lead and coordinate the efforts of numerous countries in the region and beyond to provide the best possible information to the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, and to the world.
- I say to Bashar al-Assad: We will take your military away from you if you continue to kill Syria’s people. For every attack on schools or apartment buildings, we will destroy some of your military forces. Your ability to defeat the rebel forces will diminish every time you attack. We are assembling a military coalition of countries that will attack you, individually and in concerted actions.
- The United States will dramatically accelerate our military assistance to Syrian rebels whom we vet and support. Rebels fighting Assad’s forces have turned to al-Nusra and other extremists for support because they could not get support elsewhere. With our involvement, we seek — we demand — extremists be renounced by Syrians as a condition of our assistance.
- We are working closely with our allies and friends in the region to ensure they have the best possible preparation — and all the assistance we can provide them — to protect themselves in the event of retaliation against them by the Assad government. This includes Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel.
- It also includes the military government in Egypt, with whom we have common cause in preventing radicalization of the rebellion in Syria. It includes our friends in Saudi Arabia and Qatar and throughout the Gulf who have been providing assistance to the Syrian rebels and with whom we have been working closely.
- I have asked the vice president to travel to the region to consult with our friends, allies, and the Arab League to get their counsel about how to build a long-term solution that will be supported by their leadership and active involvement. The Middle East is undergoing an enormous upheaval; we must work with our friends to help them build a stable future with greater opportunities for the people of the region.
- To the government of Iran, I say you cannot spread terror with impunity. The Persian people have urgent needs their government should attend and which we hope President Rouhani’s election portends progress on. Destabilizing Syria, Lebanon, and other countries in the region has made your neighbors into your enemies. They, and we, will publicize any evidence we find of your involvement, destroy any weapons shipments we identify, and consider your military fighting in Syria to be legitimate targets.
- To the Syrian National Congress and other groups, I urge you to cooperate. Your disunity has prevented greater support for your cause. You must compromise and show that you have the ability to govern a new Syria. So far, you have not given confidence to those of us who want to help Syria. You are keeping Bashar al-Assad in power by failing to show the world there are practical alternatives.
- In closing, I want to emphasize that the main effort of our intervention will not be military. It will be support for Syrians displaced by this horrific war, now crowded in refugee camps or desperately seeking shelter. We will fund and support the work of NGOs and governments to provide urgent assistance to refugees.
- We will also help build infrastructure and governance in the camps: schools, civic organizations, water boards — the mundane and essential work of any society. The longer Bashar al-Assad makes refugees of Syria’s people, the better organized they will be for self-governance. What Operation Provide Comfort did in northern Iraq in the 1990s, we will organize the international community to do in the areas of Syria not under government control. In this way, we will encourage the leaders and grow the capacity of Syria’s people for a better future when Assad is gone.
- To this end, I have asked the Congress today to appropriate $5 billion in emergency funding to rush necessary support to Syria’s needy and ensure the military forces are ready and inventories replenished. I have been assured by Senator Reid, Senator McConnell, Speaker Boehner, and Minority Leader Pelosi, who join me here today, that the American people, through their elected representatives, support this effort to punish a brutal dictator.
- Secretary Kerry has been dispatched on a worldwide campaign to elicit help from countries that believe as we do that governments rule by consent of the governed, that even in war boundaries exist that benefit us all, and that barbarism of the kind and magnitude Bashar al-Assad has perpetrated must be countered. We want any contributions of any kind that can help in the campaign to help the people of Syria. Countries that are willing to fight alongside us we will ensure do so with a maximum of effectiveness and a minimum of risk. Countries that have nonmilitary contributions to make will be welcomed. Anything added is an encouragement and an assistance to the people of Syria, a furtherance of our values and our interests in the world, and an investment in a more peaceful international order.
- My fellow Americans, you know as well as I that the money needs to come from somewhere. We have for too long borrowed from our children’s future. My plan for Syria would cost us each $17. What we cannot raise in contributions from other countries, we will need to pay ourselves. I will be working with the Congress both to cut spending where possible and to increases taxes where necessary so that we do not weaken our country by helping others.