President Obama is in a huge jam on Syria, and it’s not clear how he gets out of it. The problem is twofold. First, he is preparing to take military action against Syria for the sole purpose of enforcing international law. Yet he has very little support from the organizations—or many members of those organizations—that are charged with enforcing international law. If the point of the intervention is to uphold the civilized world’s long-held norms (in this case, norms against the use of chemical weapons), and if he can’t persuade more than a couple other countries to go along, then he doesn’t have a very potent case.
This is not a technical-legal question. It’s central to the strategy and effectiveness of whatever sort of military action he might decide to launch. In his Aug. 28 PBS interview, Obama said that an attack, if he launched one, needed to send “a pretty strong signal that” Bashar al-Assad’s regime “had better not do it again”—i.e., had better not launch any more chemical weapons. And yet if Assad doesn’t see the world closing in on him, if he sees the attack as purely an American (or Western) campaign, against which he can mobilize the usual anti-American (or anti-Western) actors, then the “signal” is going to be pretty weak.
It must have come as a shock when the British Parliament voted down a motion to authorize military action, especially after Prime Minister David Cameron promised Obama that he would join an international coalition to punish Assad for his monstrous acts. Cameron may have thought the motion was a slam dunk. Not since 1782 has a British leader lost a war resolution (the last time was when Parliament decided, against the King’s urgings, to withdraw from the American Colonies). It’s unclear whether this defeat reflects Cameron’s weakness or Britain’s abdication of a role in global politics. But it’s clear in retrospect that Obama should have lined up his ducks before letting his top aides all but announce that the cruise missiles were on their way.
French President François Hollande, who doesn’t need his Parliament’s approval for such things, has said he will join Obama in the war (the first time the two countries have allied in battle without Britain since they jointly fought against Britain in the American Revolution). The Germans are reluctant. The Arab League is wavering, as usual. (Silent support is about all one can expect, though the Saudis have lately been shipping lots of weapons to the rebels in southern Syria). The Turks? Unclear, though their support is crucial, since Turkey is one of the few countries that could claim “self-defense,” as it sits on Syria’s northern border and would potentially face the fallout from a future chemical attack. And since it’s a member of NATO, Turkey could also invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty (an attack on one member is an attack on all) to rally the other allies.
But the second problem Obama faces is at least as serious. He has to figure out how to launch an attack that accomplishes his objectives—and that means first figuring out what those objectives are. He outlined what they weren’t in his PBS interview.
For instance, he said, “I’ve … concluded that direct military engagement, involvement in the civil war in Syria, would not help the situation on the ground.” So, one can surmise (in fact, it has long been clear) that one of his objectives is not to help the rebels win the war or to help topple Assad’s regime.
On a related point, he said, “I have no interest in any kind of open-ended conflict in Syria,” adding, “We can take limited, tailored approaches, not getting drawn into a long conflict, not a repetition of, you know, Iraq, which I know a lot of people are worried about.” So, he does not intend to get involved in the messy business of the aftermath of whatever he decides to do—no nation-building, no siding with any side or faction in the fight. (And, by the way, I believe him on this: Obama is extremely resistant to the chutes and ladders of escalation.)
His objective, he stressed, is limited to restoring the “red line” he drew over chemical weapons, preserving the international norms. “[W]e do have to make sure,” he said, “that when countries breach international norms on weapons like chemical weapons … they are held accountable.”
OK, but what kind of attack accomplishes that objective—and no more? Here, Obama’s remarks on PBS are a bit disturbing: “If we are saying in a clear and decisive but very limited way, we send a shot across the bow, saying, ‘Stop doing this,’ that can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term … and may have a positive impact in the sense that chemical weapons are not used again on innocent civilians.” (Emphasis added.)
A “shot across the bow,” in military parlance, means a single shot, or a single volley of shots, to signal the opponent that you mean business and to test his response, to see if he backs down, before going on to the next step. If this really is what Obama plans to do, it isn’t enough. In fact, it’s worse than doing nothing. Shots across the bow generally don’t work. (I’m tempted to say they never work, but there’s bound to be an obscure exception or two in the annals of history.) It would be especially feckless in this case, given that Assad, looking out on the horizon, would see only a scattered few countries attacking him, a lot of those countries’ putative allies staying away, his own protectors (chiefly Iran and Russia) sticking by him, and his power base at home fairly stable.