Reality Check

Can Obama Afford Not to Bomb Syria?

The White House seems to be confusing the least bad option with a strategic necessity.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Last week, I wrote that if President Obama didn't bomb Syria, you might as well hang a "Closed for the season" sign on his credibility -- and America's -- for the remainder of his second term.

Administration officials have been even more forceful. Indeed, if you listen to some members of the administration's national security team -- notably the eloquent and forceful secretary of state, John Kerry -- you might conclude that Syria has become the fulcrum of Western civilization and that failure to act will bring the barbarians to the gates.

But how strong is the administration's case? How damaging would a failure to act really be on U.S. influence and interests?

Last week, I wrote that if President Obama didn’t bomb Syria, you might as well hang a "Closed for the season" sign on his credibility — and America’s — for the remainder of his second term.

Administration officials have been even more forceful. Indeed, if you listen to some members of the administration’s national security team — notably the eloquent and forceful secretary of state, John Kerry — you might conclude that Syria has become the fulcrum of Western civilization and that failure to act will bring the barbarians to the gates.

But how strong is the administration’s case? How damaging would a failure to act really be on U.S. influence and interests?

That’s pretty tough to game out. But before Congress votes on whether to authorize the president to use force, let’s try.

The proponents of military action base their arguments on four core assumptions.

1. Iran will be emboldened: Proponents of military action argue that failure to strike Syria for violating the president’s red line on chemical weapons will encourage Iran to violate the American red line on nuclear weapons. Show U.S. weakness on one prohibition, and America’s lack of resolve will be assumed on the other, too.

I understand the connection, particularly if Congress tortures itself to death and doesn’t grant the president authorization to use force, or if one house does and the other doesn’t.

But is failure to act against Syria really the key or even a key variable in Iran’s nuclear program? You could argue that striking Assad might accelerate Iran’s search for a nuclear weapon. And should Assad be truly weakened or fall, Tehran could feel encircled by a Western-Sunni arc and seek the protection of a nuclear deterrent.

For Iran, the nuclear issue is an enduring one. Had the shah not been overthrown in 1979, Iran would likely already be a nuclear power. The mullahs’ calculations about the bomb — yes or no, why or why not, today or tomorrow — involve issues much broader than whether the United States launches cruise missile strikes against Syria for using chemicals. The economic, social, and political cost of sanctions, the incentives the United States is prepared to provide as part of a negotiated deal, and of course the likelihood of a U.S. or Israeli military strike on Iran are far more determinative.

But wouldn’t Obama’s failure to use military force against Syria mean he’d be less likely to act against Iran? I’m not sure that logic really applies, or that Tehran would automatically accept it, either.

The dithering, indecision, and angst over Syria reflect the reality that attacking Assad really isn’t a vital U.S. interest. If it were, and if it were perceived that way, it’s likely the president would have acted without going to Congress, and the current debate wouldn’t be as muddled.

By contrast, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons has been the policy of three American administrations. The factors that would impel a U.S. president to attack Iran would be fundamentally different, as would the domestic and international environments in which a debate about the use of force would be conducted — particularly if the administration tried serious diplomacy first and laid out the case effectively. The idea that if you respond forcefully to less egregious criminal acts, you can prevent more serious crimes — the "broken-windows" approach — may apply to cities, but it isn’t necessarily germane to deterrence in the Middle East, particularly when you have two different perpetrators.

2. Assad will be emboldened, too: Proponents of military action maintain that failure to use force will strengthen the regime and persuade Assad that he can act with impunity.

This is a stronger argument. There’s no doubt that Assad will be emboldened and much of the opposition demoralized if the Obama administration fails to act. But — putting aside for a moment the question of how destructive a U.S. strike might be — would failure to act raise the odds significantly that Assad would deploy chemical weapons again? Alternatively, could striking really guarantee Syria would never use them again?

Cleary, we cannot be sure. Those in favor of military action, however, seem all but convinced that, although striking cannot ensure a stop to chemical weapons attacks, not acting will virtually guarantee that Assad will use such weapons more routinely. The administration believes this is one of its most compelling arguments — that if the international community doesn’t act, it will establish a horrible new norm whereby dictators have a green light to use chemical weapons — but it is an extremely difficult proposition to prove. And there’s more than a little hypocrisy on the part of the United States given its own acquiescence in — even support for — Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against the Iranians.

I take and accept the general point that, while you can’t stop war, you want to make it a little less barbarous and that enforcing international norms against the use of chemical weapons would help do that. But would it deter Assad? Maybe for now. But Assad and his murderous cohort are fighting for their survival, and if pressed, they will deploy chemical weapons again and again. Given the virtual certainty that the Syrian conflict will persist with many more regime and rebel ups and downs, a "one and we’re done" set of strikes almost certainly cannot dissuade Assad from using chemical weapons again. Nor is it a foregone conclusion that a limited strike will forestall Dictator X or Y from using chemicals in the future, particularly if the U.S. action doesn’t truly hurt the Assad regime.

3. Israel will be weakened: American supporters of military action against Syria — and many Israelis, too — take the position that failure to act will weaken the United States and thereby undermine Israel’s security as well. This is presumably why AIPAC has been so active in supporting the administration’s case on Capitol Hill.

There is some logic to the notion that when the United States appears ineffective and weak in the region, so does Israel. And that deterring bad guys in the Middle East is a critical component of both countries’ policies.

But Israel is hardly a potted plant. It has demonstrated a consistent capacity to act even when the United States won’t (see Iraq, 1981; Syria 2007, 2013). By now it should be pretty clear that, when it comes to security matters, the Israelis are pretty good at attending to their own business. They don’t have a stake in seeing Assad or the opposition triumph in a definitive way, and they will continue to enforce their own red lines — e.g., maintaining quiet in the Golan Heights and blocking weapons transfers to Hezbollah and other unfriendlies — while the Syrian civil war continues. So I don’t find the argument that U.S. inaction on Syria fundamentally weakens Israel all that compelling.

It is, however, a stunning demonstration of Israel’s centrality in congressional debate that critics of U.S. military action contend the country might be harmed by a strike on Syria and that supporters argue a failure to strike would hurt its interests.

4. Failure to act will undermine U.S. credibility: Absent a strike against Syria, supporters of military action argue, U.S. credibility will be badly damaged.

There’s a legitimate fear here, related to the gap between words and deeds, rhetoric and action. Presidents should say what they mean and mean what they say. Indeed, credibility really means believability, and when friends and foes don’t believe a president’s commitment, bad things can happen.

But we know that presidents don’t always mean what they say, let alone act on their words. When Barack Obama calls for a settlements freeze, proclaims Assad must go, or promises consequences if the Chinese and the Russians don’t cooperate on Edward Snowden and nothing happens, it hurts American street cred. And these days, most everyone says "no" to the United States without much cost or consequence. In other words, U.S. credibility is already very low. An attack without a strategic underpinning won’t make it much better.

Still, the United States isn’t doing all that badly in protecting its core interests in the challenging, angry, and dysfunctional Middle East. We’re out of Iraq and getting out of Afghanistan; we’re reducing our dependence on Arab hydrocarbons; we’ve prevented another major attack on the United States; and we’re managing the U.S.-Israeli relationship. John Kerry has even managed to re-launch Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (and by the degree of radio silence attending the talks, he may even be making progress). And everyone’s favorite Iranian president, Hasan Rouhani, is making the right noises about a more moderate course.

The fact is that, given the odds against success in this region, we’re not doing badly on tangible and concrete things, even as we’re not doing that well on the more amorphous matter of our credibility. Credibility can be a much overrated commodity, particularly if its pursuit leads to actions that make matters worse, or if it becomes a substitute for clear and realizable goals.

The real problem

Let’s face it. Obama’s in a real box. He’s got bad options on Syria, he doesn’t have a lot of support, and he faces the very real prospect that this situation won’t end happily for him. Even the least bad option — the one that falls in the middle between not acting and acting too expansively — is a dog’s lunch. A limited military strike — even one that falls on the tougher end of the limited continuum — isn’t likely to have much of an impact. And that raises the very real possibility that not acting won’t make all that much difference.

Having supported the president’s willful and wise decision to avoid militarizing the U.S. role in Syria for the past two years, I find myself struggling with bad options now. Doing nothing is unacceptable in the face of the largest single deployment of chemical weapons since Saddam gassed the Kurds; doing everything to change the battlefield balance is reckless and will ensure too much ownership of a Syrian problem we can’t fix. And that leaves the muddle in the middle.

If I were in government — a land where "doing something" is a built-in part of the job description — I’d be tempted to go with the limited strike option.

But I have no illusions. When you’re selling the least bad option as a strategic and consequential move, you know you have a problem. The international community knows that the kind of military action the United States is contemplating is no solution and could make matters worse; the American people know it; much of Congress knows it; and I suspect Barack Obama knows it, too. If the president ends up acting militarily against Syria, he knows that, more than likely, it will make a point rather than a significant difference. And when U.S. military power is deployed and American lives put in harm’s way, that is never a good outcome.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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