Obama on Syria: This time I really, really mean it


Article Highlights

  • A few tomahawks, a few big bangs, and the only message Assad will get is, America has nice weapons.

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  • There is no good answer for Syria, but there are better and worse answers.

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  • We care about the outcome in Syria, despite the fact that the president has by his hemming and hawing effectively embraced the notion that we do not.

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As the likelihood of some sort of limited US strike on Syrian targets increases, the rumble of concern from Washington lawmakers on both sides of the aisle grows louder. The loudest (and most serious) objections have come from those who suggest there is no strategy behind any use of stand-off weaponry against Syrian regime targets. And indeed, it’s hard to argue; the White House hasn’t mentioned strategy. Instead, the language used by the president and his proxies conjures a swashbuckling cartoon character: Assad had “better not do it again” and chemical attacks require “international consequences.” We’ve yet to hear that Assad “messed with the wrong guy,” but doubtless that’s still in the talking points holster.

Meanwhile, the president asserts (in what may be a classic in Washington headlines) that he has “not made a decision” regarding action against Assad. But he has let it be known that his models are the two feckless Clinton administration attacks on a suspected al Qaeda facility in Sudan and a training camp in Afghanistan in 1998. Luckily those knocked al Qaeda back on its heels, sent an effective message, seemed better than doing nothing. In other words, those are indeed the model for this president.

Let’s be clear: Assad likely used chemical weapons. But the war in Syria has already claimed 100,000-plus lives; whether those innocent people were killed by guns or gas is of little consequence at the end of the day. We knew Assad had chemical weapons; we knew he might use them. This is not a casus belli of serious moment. It is an opportunity to do the right thing. But that’s not what the president has in mind. A few tomahawks, a few big bangs, and the only message Assad will get is, America has nice weapons. And we do. Should the president decide that now is the time — belatedly — to assist those Syrians whom we support to defeat Assad, rather than waiting for more atrocities to drag us in, that would be good. Should his weapons strike be the opening salvo in a new strategy to decisively defeat both Assad and the al Qaeda forces that have leeched their way into Syria, that too, would be good. But I suspect that’s not what’s coming.

In short, it would be a great pleasure to slam those who are questioning the president’s motives and strategic vision. But I can’t. At the end of the day, I can only say what I have said dozens of times: We care about the outcome in Syria, despite the fact that the president has by his hemming and hawing effectively embraced the notion that we do not. Hundreds of thousands dying is a concern to the world’s super power. In addition, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq are important allies and neighbors of Syria that will be affected by the ongoing war. Whether we want to believe it or not, the rise of jihadists among the rebels in Syria will also touch the United States and its interests at some point. We have a choice about whether to try to affect the outcome in Syria. We cannot turn back time; we cannot restore Assad; we cannot make Barack Obama a better leader than he is; we cannot magically put the genies unleashed in Syria back into the bottle. But we can seek to tip the balance back to those who might — and I can only say might — set Syria on a peaceful future path that will neither threaten America nor its friends. There is no good answer, but there are better and worse answers. Sure, knock out a couple of Assad’s buildings. But then be certain to aggressively support, arm, and yes, provide some necessary air support (in the form of taking out air fields, for example) to those who are better among the rebels. Otherwise, Mr. President, be prepared to face your party and the opposition asking some very hard questions that you, right now, seem incapable of answering coherently.

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About the Author



  • As a long-time Senate Committee on Foreign Relation senior professional staff member for the Near East and South Asia, Danielle Pletka was the point person on Middle East, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan issues. As the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI, Pletka writes on national security matters with a focus on Iran and weapons proliferation, the Middle East, Syria, Israel and the Arab Spring. She also studies and writes about South Asia: Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.

    Pletka is the co-editor of “Dissent and Reform in the Arab World: Empowering Democrats” (AEI Press, 2008) and the co-author of “Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran” (AEI Press, 2011) and “Iranian influence in the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan” (AEI Press, 2012). Her most recent study, “America vs. Iran: The competition for the future of the Middle East,” was published in January 2014.


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