Obama's Goldilocks Syria Plan

September 11, 2013 Topic: The PresidencyPoliticsSecurity Region: United States

Obama's Goldilocks Syria Plan

Diplomacy backed by the threat of a war that's not too big and not too small.


In a speech to the nation, President Obama warned that if the United States does not launch a punitive strike against Syria, Iran will pursue nuclear weapons, Al Qaeda will try to kill Americans, and bad men will do bad things.

Despite "a brutal civil war" in which more than "a hundred thousand have been killed" and "millions have fled the country," the president "resisted calls for military action because we cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force, particularly after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan." Alas, the "situation profoundly changed" three weeks earlier when "Assad’s government gassed to death over a thousand people, including hundreds of children."


Obama explained America must go to war over a thousand dead—after limiting ourselves to "humanitarian support" as 99,000 others were killed over more than two years—because "the civilized world has spent a century working to ban" chemical weapons and that their use is "a crime against humanity and a violation of the laws of war." The president noted that they can "kill on a mass scale, with no distinction between soldier and infant," which hardly distinguishes them from other weapons that Assad has used and that, indeed, the United States routinely employs. The difference is that we prioritize minimizing civilian casualties and Assad does not.

The president correctly observed that, "When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory" and proclaimed, "The question now is what the United States of America and the international community is prepared to do about it, because what happened to those people, to those children, is not only a violation of international law, it’s also a danger to our security."

The problem with invoking international law here is that, while Assad has likely violated it, so would our enforcement of it through military force without authorization from the United Nations Security Council. To be sure, this would not be the first time we've elided that nicety of the UN Charter, which happens to be not only international law but, as a treaty ratified by the Senate, U.S. law as well. But it would be the first time we've done so to enforce an international treaty which itself specifies the enforcement mechanism.

The problem with declaring Assad's use of chemical weapons in a civil war far away "a danger to our security" is that it is sheer and utter nonsense.

The president's rationale is the most slippery of slippery slopes.

He declared that the use of chemical weapons by a dictator in a civil war, an event which is sadly far from unprecedented, means that United States soldiers would face them on the battlefield, despite the passage of a century since that has happened without an American military strike in support of the principle. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons while getting direct intelligence support from a United States government fully aware he was using them, and yet dared not use them in two subsequent wars against the United States, the second of which had the express purpose of ousting him from power and led to him being hanged. What has changed? The president didn't say.

The president declared—without evidence or explanation—that chemical weapons might somehow spill over into Turkey, Jordan, and Israel if left unchecked. This, despite later acknowledging in the same speech that "Neither Assad nor his allies have any interest in escalation that would lead to his demise, and our ally, Israel, can defend itself with overwhelming force." Additionally, he forthrightly promised that we can target Assad with impunity because "the Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military" and that "any other retaliation they might seek is in line with threats that we face every day."

He claimed that "failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path." Yet Iran has been pursuing nuclear weapons since before Assad's father came to power and will surely continue regardless of what we do in response to the son's deployment of chemical weapons. Indeed, if anything, military strikes against an ally will only reinforce the need to acquire nuclear weapons as a bulwark against American military action.

Similarly, the president argues that "Al Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death." But, of course, Al Qaeda has been targeting innocent civilians for going on two decades now and is on the opposite side of this fight.

Meanwhile, we're told that "Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used." Not a single word of that is true. Our nation is just as secure as it was three weeks ago, when the latest of the chemical attacks allegedly perpetrated by the Assad regime occurred. We don't actually lead the world but, to the extent that we're the most powerful voice among sovereign equals, we're only weaker now than we were three weeks ago because of hysterical rhetoric emanating from this administration in support of a policy which seems to change by the hour.

Indeed, the president admits in the speech that he put the war on hold to seek approval from Congress because of the "absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security."

The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize laureate noted that he has "spent four and a half years working to end wars, not to start them." Which is true if one doesn't count the massive escalation of the war in Afghanistan, launching a war in Libya, and stepping up of our drone and special operations wars around the globe.

And, so, as important as it is to deter tyrants from using chemical weapons and avoiding the tenuous threats to our security, the president promised that he would not "put American boots on the ground," "pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan," or even "pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo." Rather, "This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective, deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad’s capabilities." At the same time, lest his audience get the wrong idea, "The United States military doesn't do pinpricks."

Additionally, after two years of declaring "Assad must go," the president told us "I don’t think we should remove another dictator with force. We learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next." So, no regime change, just a more-than-pinprick-less-than-Libya strike that would make "Assad—or any other dictator—think twice before using chemical weapons."

Perhaps we'll call this one Operation Goldilocks.

Assuming that there’s an operation at all. Oddly, after that long buildup justifying an authorization for war, the president told us he has "asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force" while he pursues the "diplomatic path" created by his secretary of state's off-the-cuff remark that Assad could avoid the more-than-pinprick-less-than-Libya strike that he so richly deserves if he hands over his chemical weapons. Yet, because a good outcome on that one is by no means certain, he has "ordered our military to maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails."

This is beginning to resemble a Monty Python sketch. Alas, Graham Chapman is no longer with us to interrupt and tell us this is too silly to continue.

James Joyner is an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow with the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. These views are his own.