The Buzz

Syria: Deterrence Defanged

Whether or not President Obama actually enforces his “red line” by attacking Syria, his decision to seek authority to act from Congress, after his administration already conveyed its intention to strike, has seriously undermined American credibility. The Syrian regime and its Iranian backers – and U.S. friends and foes alike – have surely taken note.

After the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons outside Damascus on August 21, the administration quickly created the impression that it would respond with force, and soon. Following the House of Commons’ vote against any British involvement in a potential military action against Syria, the administration announced its willingness to even take unilateral action against Syria.

These declarations to back U.S. threats with actual action seemed commendable at the time, although Obama’s irresolution has since become increasingly apparent.

On August 31, Obama bowed to calls from members of Congress – Republicans and Democrats – that he obtain congressional approval before taking action in Syria. Any notions that the U.S. would intervene decisively, in a manner that might tilt today’s military balance in the rebels’ favor, were quickly dispelled: a limited, three-day strike employing only stand-off weaponry was envisioned. It would be, in the words of one U.S. official briefed on the administration’s options on Syria, "just muscular enough not to get mocked.” Nonetheless, mocked this proposed use of limited force certainly was.

In the face of these criticisms, reports on Thursday indicated that President Obama has ordered the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of targets in Syria. This order was prompted by intelligence reports suggesting that the Assad regime has been relocating troops and materiel as Congress debates authorizing action; common sense would also suggest that the regime would react in this way. Now, the regime has even more time to ready itself for the increasingly uncertain prospect of limited American intervention, because the Senate is expected to vote sometime this week and another one-week delay is expected on the House side.

Understandably, Obama punted to Congress in order to obtain political cover to act, given the significant potential for events and American involvement in Syria to go horribly awry and expand considerably in scope. An even more cynical reading is that Obama sought political cover to not act: if Congress refuses to authorize force, which is certainly possible – and, as matters stand now, likely – Obama does not intend to act, Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said Friday.

This uncertainty concerning whether Congress will “allow” the president to act makes his threats to potentially employ force elsewhere – against, say, Iran – difficult to take seriously. Setting the precedent of seeking congressional support once fosters the impression that Congress will have a say – and potentially a veto – next time. There is a qualitative difference between the president conveying that he will use force in response to a given contingency, and declaring that he might act if Congress grants him permission to do so.

The president declared in his 2010 State of the Union address that “as Iran's leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: they, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise." This might have been taken seriously by Tehran then. Now, however, the Iranian regime would likely interpret Obama’s statement thusly: “…there should be significant doubt: they, too, might face growing consequences. That is a hope."