Still No Strategy

by Michael Auslin

President Obama’s speech on Syria may have been the most hawkish of his presidency. It laid out clearly why not responding to Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons could lead to a far more dangerous world. It is all about international norms: what is seen not simply as unacceptable, but what is understood to have consequences if engaged in. We can thank the president for being clear.

Beyond that, however, the president once again failed to explain what his strategy is. His goal ostensibly is to “deter” Assad from using chemical weapons again, and even to “degrade” his ability to do so. Yet how will he judge whether his use of force — almost certainly limited only to U.S. airstrikes — is sufficient to achieve this outcome? What, exactly, will the president see as the appropriate use of force? He and his advisors have repeatedly said that any action will not be designed to overthrow Assad, destroy all his warmaking capability, or to ensure the victory of the rebels fighting against him. If that is the case, then how will the president use American force to deter Assad, and how much degradation will he order? A brief, chest-thumping salvo of cruise missiles may be politically attractive and yet militarily insignificant. If the chemical weapons themselves cannot be destroyed (due to concerns about releasing them into the air), will the president authorize the massive attack necessary to destroy all of Assad’s missiles, command centers, airfields, etc.?

If President Obama is hoping that tonight’s speech will shore up support in Congress, the people’s representatives are undoubtedly as much in the dark as they were before the speech. And the people themselves may better understand the danger of not responding to the use of chemical weapons, but still have no idea what the president considers success in his venture.

Further, he only briefly mentioned the sudden Russian gambit to take Secretary of State Kerry’s offhand suggestion about international control of Syria’s chemical weapons seriously. Perhaps Obama’s worst relationship with another world leader is with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Does the president trust Putin to be an honest broker or disinterested third party? Moscow is the single biggest supporter and supporter of Assad. What bounds will the president put on Russia’s discretion in crafting a diplomatic process to remove Syria’s thousands of tons of chemical weapons in the middle of a raging civil war? How long will he play a diplomatic game once he has committed to such a process? As we have seen with North Korea, this dialogue-dependency trap can be open-ended, running on for years.

Finally, one paragraph of the president’s speech especially leapt out at me. It encapsulates all that is wrong with Barack Obama’s view of the world, even after five years as leader of America:

Several people wrote to me, ”we should not be the world’s policeman.” I agree. And I have a deeply held preference for peaceful solutions. Over the last two years my administration has tried diplomacy and sanctions, warnings and negotiations. But chemical weapons were still used by the Assad regime.

Everyone wants peaceful solutions, so that is not a particularly unique preference. Yet the president of the United States explicitly agrees that we should not be the world’s policeman. That is, actually, a terribly dangerous and naïve notion to hold. Above all, it ignores reality in favor of a chimerical idea that other nations will step up to uphold those values and norms that we all benefit from, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. It sends chilling signals to our allies, who depend on our commitments. It disheartens those striving for democracy and freedom, who look to us to uphold the norms that they are struggling to embrace. It encourages every bad actor who plagues liberal states and who seeks ways to increase their influence in their regions and over their neighbors. And the president himself admits his naïveté, in stating how much he has tried diplomacy and sanctions, only to find it a dead end. It would be better for the global order that the president is claiming to uphold if he would admit that only America can be the world’s policeman, whether we like it or not (which he implies at the end of his speech), and that he understands that diplomacy and sanctions are tools that can be used only by those willing to forgo them much earlier than he has shown so far in Syria.

Tonight’s speech may have been eloquent, but it failed to lay out a clear strategy and to convince a watching world that this president knows not only what he wants to do, but how he will do it.

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