President Obama needs to be thinking along the lines of building international support for action, but not necessarily military action. A unilateral military attack by the United States—or one by NATO-light involving the addition of only the United Kingdom and France—is a bad idea. Unless cruise missiles or gravity bombs kill him, an attack will not unseat Assad. Instead it will be manipulated by the Syrian regime and others—Russia—to further inflame anti-American passions. And if history is a fair judge, it will not have a deterrent effect. The 1986 attack on Libya did not end Qaddafi’s sponsorship of terror. He immediately retaliated by having his secret service “buy” one of the U.S. hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon—Peter Kilburn, a librarian at the American University in Beirut—and kill him. Two years later, Qaddafi ordered the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103, which crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland and killed 270 people. Unless the U.S. attack kills Assad, the madness will continue.
It is not really clear why this is our fight. What did President Obama really mean last August when he apparently drew a red line over the use of WMDs by the Syrians? Obama said that his reluctance to intervene would change if he received evidence of a “whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” He never made clear what a “whole bunch” meant or why this made the issue a U.S. military rather than a humanitarian issue. If he were thinking about civilian deaths as a threshold, why would it matter whether the deaths were caused by unconventional weapons? Until historians have at the entrails of the Obama administration in 40 years (or before then if the Obama team produces better than average memoirs), we may not be able to figure out whether the president just goofed. It is hard to believe that he thought a statement would deter a desperate tyrant. Moreover, the statement seems too uncharacteristically inarticulate to have been planned.
In any case, there is an opportunity here to help Syrians attacked by their own government and strengthen international ethics. If the Obama administration were just to release the information it has and not act as if it wanted permission for a decision already made, it might be able to transform this situation from Assad vs. Obama into what it ought to have been all along: a case of Assad vs. the conscience of the world.
Assuming that the intelligence is of the Kennedy/Reagan and not the George W. Bush standard, the release would encourage a welcome global discussion of Assad’s criminal behavior without the distraction of yet another annoying and self-righteous “Why must Americans act like the world’s policeman” gripe session among European elites. Some will claim that the information is deception from the United States and Israel, but if the actual intercepts are released the case will be harder to dispute. (If there is audio, the accents and vocabulary would give the Syrians away.) At the same time, this release would expose Assad’s international supporters to the condemnation that they deserve. The Soviet Union finally acknowledged what the photographs showed, that it put missiles in Cuba. And this time, U.S. intelligence evidence would similarly complicate Russia’s ability to help a troublesome ally.
As human beings, we ought to be concerned about the plight of Syrian civilians. But this crime against humanity should not be viewed as an American policy challenge—that’s a bit arrogant, isn’t it? It is the world’s problem. Obama has the opportunity to shame the world into doing the right thing. If that’s what he meant by saying during the 2012 campaign that we are “the one indispensable nation in world affairs,” great. Let’s use some of the products of the many billions we probably spend on intelligence each year to force international action to deal with yet another Middle East tyrant. The raw intelligence should be shared with the United Nations, with Doctors Without Borders and with the International Court of Justice at the Hague without being processed into a sanitized U.S. government white paper. Let those organizations, helped by social media, spark a global conversation over what the world community ought to do about it.
Meanwhile, we could join the British and the French (and I would expect, the Canadians) in working behind the scenes with some newly developed nations to demand action in the U.N. General Assembly. Among the responsibilities of being the sole global superpower is the obligation to use restraint when prudent.
However, if what is meant by “indispensable nation” is that we ought to launch tomahawks at Damascus to send a message (because we can), everyone should take a deep breath and be reminded of yesterday’s news from Baghdad, where a rash of car bombs has delivered yet more death and destruction to the civilian population of a former foreign policy project of ours.