After years of inaction on atrocities in Syria, President Obama is finally prepared to act. The reason for this decision is clear: having said that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that the Assad regime could not cross, the evidence that he has done so has convinced the president that his already diminished credibility would be destroyed if he did nothing. But the leaks coming from figures inside the administration detailing what this reaction will entail raise more questions about the president’s policies than anything else. First among them is why what the New York Times describes as “a wide range of officials” have been empowered to lay out the plan, time, and extent of the attacks on the Syrian army.
As the Wall Street Journal notes in an editorial today, the leaks make the administration’s pursuit of Edward Snowden seem hypocritical, since the giving away of operational military plans strikes one as being every bit as dangerous, if not more so, than his giveaway of secrets about the National Security Agency’s counter-terror operations. But there is more to the leaks than mere hypocrisy. The signals emanating from the White House and the Pentagon constitute more than clear warnings to Damascus about what will happen. They are an attempt to spin the impending strikes to a skeptical American public that polls say wants no part of any involvement in the Syrian civil war no matter what horrors the participants have employed. If this were a novel, we might speculate the information coming from Washington is part of a plan of deception covering a more ambitious plan, but this isn’t a novel and no one in this administration appears to be that clever. Instead, what we are faced with is a military action whose purpose is to have as little effect on the war in Syria and the future of the Assad regime as possible. If true, it is hard to argue with those who will ask why the president is putting U.S. forces in jeopardy to accomplish so little.
It bears repeating that if the point of any such strikes is to hold Assad accountable, then a limited number of missile strikes on Syrian army targets that will neither topple the dictator (a goal that has been repeatedly endorsed and predicted by President Obama) or cripple his ability to go on committing atrocities doesn’t exactly fit the bill. If the strikes are what we are being led to expect, then what we are in store for is a noisy and dramatic version of a diplomatic note expressing American indignation.
As I noted yesterday, if the president doesn’t finish what he starts this week in Syria, it’s not clear there will be any real gains from the use of so many expensive military weapons. No matter how carefully this legion of Washington leakers spins the attacks, wars have a way of spinning out of the control of their planners. Should the U.S. strikes lead to missile attacks on Israel by Hezbollah, as that terrorist group’s Iranian masters warn, then the situation will turn out to be more complicated than the president thinks.
Just as dangerous is the likelihood that if Assad is still standing once the dust settles from a few days of limited U.S. attacks, America’s credibility will be in even worse shape than it is now. If a few weeks from now, the regime is not only still in place but still winning its war with Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah help, the president’s limited Syrian war will be seen as an empty gesture. Such an outcome would be a metaphor for a failed policy that will have serious implications for efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program. Seen in that light, rather than worrying so much about reassuring Americans that he doesn’t intend to do much in Syria, the president should be concerned about the implications of an episode that will be viewed as a metaphor for foreign-policy disaster.