Ostensibly, even an intervention of the most restricted sort in Syria, given the loud proclamations of the limited nature of cruise-missile attacks, should not pose geostrategic risks anything like costlier major ground operations of the sort we conducted in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But unfortunately, even a limited, brief intervention now has far greater implications. Syria is on the Mediterranean; it borders our ally Israel and the hotbed of Middle East factionalism in Lebanon. Assad is an ally of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. China smells an occasion to demonstrate U.S. confusion. We are in the midst of the Arab Winter and unrest throughout the Arab Middle East. Many of the fault lines between Iran and the Gulf monarchies, as well as Sunni/al-Qaeda and Shiite/Hezbollah, run through the civil war in Syria. There are lots of dangerous weapons, from WMD to surface-to-air missiles, in the hands of lots of diverse and awful non-state actors. At home, the cumulative confused statements of the secretary of state, the president of the United States, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs are not only mutually contradictory but also self-contradictory.
But more important, whatever critics thought of George W. Bush, there was no question that he was both a decisive and at times an unpredictable leader that enemies were not comfortable testing.
In contrast, fairly or not, Obama has earned a reputation for predictable equivocation, rhetorically eloquent, but not decisive, sermonizing without consequences, judgmental but not muscular — as we saw from serial but meaningless deadlines to Iran, simultaneous surges and withdrawal dates in Afghanistan, pink-lines in Syria, leading from behind in Libya, unpunished killers in Benghazi, flip-flop-flip in Egypt, failed flirtations with the Muslim Brotherhood and the new Ottomanism, and reset reset with Putin — all at a time of massive defense cuts, the so-called pivot, Anglo-American dissolution, and loud proclamations about a new, reduced U.S. profile abroad.
The result is that our rivals and enemies seem more rash than at any time in the last 15 years, our allies never more bewildered. Should we bomb Assad, in theory Russia, China, Iran, Hezbollah, or its various surrogates would be foolish to test U.S. resolve either in the region or elsewhere.
But in fact? Who knows?
Let us hope that there is not enough doubt about American credibility to tempt someone to try something stupid, like sending a missile at a U.S. capital ship, dispatching terrorists to a U.S. embassy, attacking Israel, or cashing in chips elsewhere on the theory that the Americans cannot or will not do much of anything about it.
Obama is in that most dangerous cycle now of trying to restore his squandered credibility (think the Carter Doctrine after Russians went into Afghanistan, Communists arose in Central America, China attacked Vietnam, and hostages were taken in Tehran). And the result is that everything is up in the air and so quite unpredictable.
My worry is that while bright and sober people in the Democratic party and the non-partisan foreign-policy establishment have finally convinced Obama of the dangerous folly of equivocation and empty blustering, I don’t think sending some cruise missiles into Syria will achieve much restoration, but instead may set him up even for greater defiance and loss of face from Assad as he periodically emerges from his bunker to dare us again, on the theory that this impending missile barrage is a one-time, half-hearted make-up strike.
All Americans, in non-partisan fashion, should be concerned that the floundering American whale is not drawing in opportunistic sharks who smell blood. The rub at this late date is best how to disabuse our enemies of that notion and reassure our friends of our unquestioned reliability. Yet after 99,000 Syrian dead, red-lines, and orders for Assad to abdicate, finally shooting off some missiles at who knows what for the benefit of no one quite knows over the principle of what we are not quite sure may make the mess even worse.