In his meandering press conference in St. Petersburg, President Obama made – albeit inadvertently – three key points. First, citing the Rwanda massacre, he explained that his motivation for striking Syria was humanitarian. But of the 100,000 dead Syrians, 2,000 perished by chemical gas. Deterrence of another use of chemicals does not stop the killing. Assad is being warned he can murder with a knife but not an axe.
Second, Mr. Obama repeated that bombing was necessary because the use of chemicals violated international norms. In fact, he has invented a new red line. From 1982 to 1988, Iran and Iraq used hundreds of chemical weapons in their war, killing many thousands of civilians. The world community and American press never raised a fuss or questioned Mr. Reagan’s credibility because he did not bomb either side.
Credibility is a serious but elastic concept. Leaders make decisions based upon future expectations, not what happened in the past. Iran seized our embassy in Tehran while President Carter was in office; Iran immediately released our diplomats when Mr. Reagan took office. Credibility waxes and wanes, depending largely upon presidential leadership. At this point in the public circus, how much higher or lower can Mr. Obama’s credibility oscillate in the judgment of our enemies and allies?
Third, Mr. Obama stressed that his proposed strike will be “proportional.” If the humanitarian goal is to prevent mass murder, the response should be disproportionate. Smite the evil regime a mighty blow. Break its ribs. Render it incapable of resisting the rebels. Kill Assad. But Mr. Obama seeks no regime change. So Assad is spared, and others must die in his stead. Is it proportionate to kill 2,000 underlings, or 4,000? To launch 100 missiles, or 200?
The Senate resolution authorizing a strike does include the words: “It is the policy of the United States to change the momentum of the war.” It is a meaningless sentence. The Constitution does not give Congress the authority to direct how to wage war, such as by ‘changing momentum,’ or to make foreign policy.
Mr. Obama, however, insisted in St. Petersburg that the target list has not changed. Those who claim, as Senators McCain and Lindsey Graham do, that a strike is related to changing the course of the war are choosing to ignore what the commander-in-chief is saying.
The strike is a one-off, one-time posturing to rescue Mr. Obama from rash words spoken a year ago by shifting responsibility and hugely enlarging the stakes.
Among those stakes is the fact that a positive vote establishes a dangerous precedent; namely, that the United States should go to war in the future whenever a nation employs chemical weapons.
Most likely the Senate, with a Democratic majority and wishful thinkers like Senator McCain, will vote to authorize the strike. That should be enough for the president to do so, even if the House votes no. Chances are that we do strike, Assad avoids a spasmodic response, and the president and congress turn their attention to fiscal matters. We are going to war for a few days or a few months. Then we are quitting, and the war will go on without us.
In sum, there is no strategy behind the strike. A humanitarian rather than a national-security rationale is the basis for going to war, while hoping that the war is short and one-sided. When asked in the Senate hearing what we are seeking to accomplish by the strike, the chairman of the joint chiefs, General Dempsey, glumly answered, “I can’t answer that, what we’re seeking.”