President Obama’s speech Tuesday night was the address of a deeply conflicted man.
One could almost see his relief that Russia has provided what may be a face-saving proposal that allows him to pull back from war while claiming victory. He is fighting a losing battle to persuade the world, the American people, and Congress that an attack on Syria is necessary. He doesn’t have the votes, and he knows it.
In his speech Tuesday night, the president focused narrowly on the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, casting them only indirectly as threats to U.S. security. He bent over backwards to assure the American people that any actions he takes will be strictly limited (though the United States does not do “pinpricks,” he insisted).
The American public’s skepticism is often blamed on war-weariness. But the reality is that every central point the president, the administration, and war supporters have made has been almost impossible to defend. The American people might not be foreign-policy experts, but they know a weak argument when they see one. Here are nine examples of the contradictions in the case presented so far:
1. We are defending international “norms.”
How can one defend international norms by going against international majorities? How can we defend one norm (a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons) while breaking another (attacking another state, without U.N. Security Council support, in a case that’s clearly not about self-defense)?
2. If we don’t act, Bashar Assad will use chemical weapons again.
The Syrian leader doesn’t need to use them against his own people, especially when Russia is more than happy to supply him with conventional arms. In fact, one of the weaknesses of the evidence against him is that, in the absence of a real smoking gun, the administration still hasn’t explained why he used them in the first place; we know he is ruthless, but he had other means and he stood to lose more than he would gain. That remains the case in the future.
Then there’s Israel, often seen as threatened by Assad’s arsenal of poison gases. But the use of chemical weapons against the helpless is different from using them against states that can retaliate; since 1973, Assad hasn’t sent a single soldier to try to liberate the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, knowing what Israel could do to him if he tried.
In desperation, of course, leaders will often do the unthinkable. Whether or not we intervene, if Assad is going down, nothing — especially not “norms” — will stop him from using them.
3. If we don’t act, terrorist groups and militias may draw the lesson that they can use chemical weapons with impunity.
Terrorist groups don’t care about international norms; they are the anti-norm, and they are also less sensitive to deterrence; the only thing preventing al Qaeda from using WMD against its enemies is its lack of WMD.
What’s more, Syria is awash in jihadist groups, including affiliates of al Qaeda. Further weakening Assad’s control over his chemical arsenal would increase rather than decrease the possibility of such weapons falling into the wrong hands.
As for Hezbollah, Assad’s critical ally, if he is going down, the chances that he will try to hand the group chemical weapons increase, not decrease.
4. U.S. credibility is on the line if Obama doesn’t act.
What credibility? Arabs think America intervenes too much, not too little, and conspiracy theories blame the United States for most problems in almost every country. The problem is not the absence of American will to intervene, but lack of trust in American aims. Intervention will only increase that anger and suspicion.
It is not enough in any case to go to war over “credibility”; that’s the kind of thinking that got us into Korea and Vietnam.
5. Iran will be emboldened if we don’t act:
Iran, like the rest of the region, doesn’t believe a possible American intervention in Syria would be over WMD. And seeing how hard it has been to get even a limited strike approved by Congress, this will hardly scare them.
Moreover, if U.S. voters see the consequences of a Syria strike as costly, imagine how they’ll feel when they contemplate the price tag of bombing Iran.
Nor is it clear how Iran would react. Iranian leaders might well note that the United States attacked Iraq and Syria, but not nuclear North Korea. Their incentive to acquire nukes only increases.
6. It’s the moral thing to do.
While Assad’s behavior is almost universally acknowledged to be morally abhorrent, even beyond his use of chemical weapons, what’s at stake now is whether the world’s response is seen as “moral.”
If a military response without a Security Council resolution is moral, why is it the case that even many U.S. allies, who are offended by Assad’s behavior, think it is the wrong thing to do? These allies worry that the proposed action is unlikely to impact the balance of the war; any degradation of Assad’s army will likely be met by an increase in Russian support and in anti-American sentiment.
All of which raises the question: Can moral action be taken without regard to consequences? Is punitive action moral if it has no behavioral consequences — knowing that innocent lives will inevitably be lost in the process?
7. Assad has broken the world’s red line.
The case that Assad broke norms on the use of chemical weapons is strong. But where is the international norm requiring that the response in such cases must be military action, or that this military action must be taken by the United States?
8. Assad has broken Obama’s red line.
Perhaps, but defending a president’s words is hardly reason for a nation to go to war. It’s also worth noting that the president never said that if Assad used chemical weapons, the United States would use force against him, let alone without the Security Council’s support. Obama has allowed his opponents to define the meaning of his own words.
9. “We are the United States of America.”
This is hardly persuasive when memory of the Iraq war looms large: the lowest estimate of civilians killed in the American-led war is higher than all the casualties in the Syrian conflict so far. And if anything, precisely because the United States is a proud democracy, our presidents shouldn’t go to war without the support of the American people.
While the president’s address focused mostly on preventing Syria from using chemical weapons and keeping those weapons from falling into the wrong hands, it is clear that the proposed military action does not promise either. Its presumed effectiveness, moreover, rests on the assumption that the mere threat of escalation will deter Assad in the future. And yet the president promised only limited action, and all but promised not to act without the consent of Congress.
The Russian proposal cuts both ways for the president. On the one hand, it enhances his case with Congress, where arguably the credible threat of using force is the best leverage to get a favorable deal. On the other hand, it promises, through diplomacy, to neutralize Assad’s chemical weapons, exposing the fact that the proposed military action does not do the same.
This article was originally published by Politico.