Let’s start with a couple of stipulations: Assad’s government dumped neurotoxins on civilian neighborhoods in Damascus, and Obama is not interested in joining the Syrian civil war on the ground.
It seems very unlikely that anyone else would gas what are effectively their own rebel populations, although the complexity of internecine strife in Syria doesn’t rule out some kind of rebel vs. rebel scenario. But the apparent means of delivery by rocket makes this far less likely.
I also believe Obama has zero appetite, regardless of political pressure, to get tangled up in Syria. He has no next term to protect, and he must know from years of intelligence briefings (to which I’m sure he listens closely, unlike some of his predecessors) that there is absolutely no upside.
What I would expect from him at this point, consistent with his actions in Libya for example, would be a deterrent response to the use of chemical weapons, clearly defined as different from some kind of intervention in the civil war. I would expect his policy to be one which raises the cost of any future use of chemical weapons by direct retaliation against Assad’s military infrastructure, carried out as far away as possible from the urban, civilian-occupied battlegrounds of the civil war. This is what our so-called “smart” weapons, like drones, are good for. For such a one-time strike, I would have expected him to brief key congressional chairmen and members, rather than looking to some kind of Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. All he has to tell us is that he is whacking the Syrian military in order to make it clear that they cannot gas civilians with impunity. We are one of the few powers that can effectively create this sort of deterrent.
This clearly defined, limited, single-strike policy of deterring chemical warfare, against a regime that is essentially genocidal, would have my support.
Instead, what I’m seeing is all the trappings of selling a broader intervention. The effort to establish simple deterrence is getting swallowed up in the circus of gaining allies (which produced a humiliating defeat in Parliament), selling Congress, and a bunch of pure bullshit from Secretary Kerry, who really, really should know better. Kerry’s most spectacular performance, just today, has been to claim that this is a “Munich” moment, which means that anyone voting against intervention is helping Hitler. Obama’s vocal Senate allies are John (“That One”) McCain and Lindsay (“Huckleberry”) Graham.
At this point, I think a lot of the resistance to Obama, at least from non-Obama-haters Democratic and Republican, is based on the undeniable resonance of all this ballyhoo with our memories of getting sucked into Iraq and Afghanistan. And that is a very rational and well-informed reaction of a broad base of our fellow citizens.
I don’t support Obama’s proposed intervention, because it is not clearly defined as a deterrent, I don’t know what good any other military action would do, and I don’t trust the rhetoric.
On day later, we see what ThatOne McCain’s support amounts to (NYT)—
Sen. John McCain says he will support President Barack Obama’s request to intervene in Syria if the move would “reverse the situation on the battlefield.”
Is this what Obama is signing up for?
This is an excellent summary of what we think we know and what it might mean by William Polk, printed in The Atlantic. Polk had a security policy role at State during the Kennedy administration.