Tuesday night, Barack Obama will take to the prime-time airwaves to make the case for an “unbelievably small” American strike on Syria. Though the decision to martial a full-court press by administration officials is the right one – any military operation should be hotly debated – for the president, it may be too little, too late. A decision to employ force is always complex, but the White House has made this decision substantially more difficult by mismanaging every aspect of the Syria challenge, from the basics of US policy to managing Congress, PR, and international relations. In order to persuade a very skeptical public and an almost equally skeptical legislature, Obama is going to have to fully and convincingly answer these questions:
1) Why now? Assad has reportedly used chemical weapons on 14 separate occasions. Why does this one matter? Suggesting that Syria crossed some sort of global “red line” isn’t going to cut it; by that standard, there are plenty of other violations of international treaties and norms that should have caused Obama to scramble the jets.
2) Why Congress? It’s not that Barack Obama is alone in displaying contempt for the people’s body, but relations between the 44th president and the Congress are lousy. He didn’t seek congressional authorization for more wide-ranging operations in Libya, so why this time? And somehow, Obama will also have to reassure members that it is not only to share the blame for an operation about which he’s completely unconvinced.
3) Why isn’t he arming the rebels? In June, in what can only be described as, er, an unbelievably small way, the White House let it be known it was going to start vetting and arming Syrian rebels. It hasn’t. Why not? If the president is so convinced that Assad should go, that the rebels should win, and that the only active intervention required of the United States is unbelievably small, what exactly are the president’s intentions?
4) Why America? What is our national interest? This isn’t actually a high bar for Obama to leap over, yet he has proven himself incapable of doing so on multiple occasions. Don’t want al Qaeda to get nerve gas? OK. Don’t want Hezbollah to get nerve gas? OK. Those seem reasonable propositions. What doesn’t seem reasonable is the humanitarian line. After all, 110,000 are dead, two million are refugees. Now he cares? But the biggest problem is the hardest question:
5) What is the strategy? Unbelievably small strike. On what? Then what? With whom? To what end? How does this advance the “Why America” argument? Can we get in and get out without going in again? How so?
6) And finally, what if he loses the vote in Congress? What of the influence of the president? American leadership? What do our allies think? Our enemies? Iran?
Consider this. August 21, we learned about the latest and most widespread chemical weapons attack by Assad on innocent civilians. In the coming days, evidence appeared irrefutable. What if Obama had done then what he now proposes rather than begin the national security soap opera that has become American foreign policy? One wonders if the president has any regrets; and suspects that his greatest regret is in suggesting he might do anything at all. Unbelievably small indeed.