The American Interest
Essays & Longer Thoughts
Published on August 30, 2013
Painted into a Corner, Obama Ponders Cosmetic Strikes


This is a guest post by Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest. It is cross-posted from his blog elsewhere on this site. Be sure to bookmark his page!

It is often remarked, mainly by frustrated parents and disrespected teachers, that two wrong do not make a right. But then what do they make? The scolds never tell us that. Well, judging from the skein of events, now more than two years old, that appear to be leading to a U.S.-led attack on Syria, one would have to conclude that two wrongs make a mistake.

The first wrong was the President’s declaration that Bashir al-Assad “must go”, and then doing less than nothing to redeem his own words. “Less than nothing” because the Administration actually discouraged other parties who were inclined to act early in the Syrian civil conflict to keep it from worsening and spreading—if only they could secure U.S. pledges to “lead from behind” with diplomatic cover and logistical support. They could not secure such pledges.

The second wrong was the Presidential declaration of a “red line” concerning the use of chemical weapons, followed by, once again, doing nothing when the Syrian regime crossed that red line. Not that the line made any sense, since it implied that killing 1,000 innocent people with chemical weapons was somehow worse than killing 100,000 in more old-fashioned ways, but the equivocations that the U.S. government displayed at the time made Bill Clinton’s peregrinations over the meaning of “is” look quaint by comparison.

As a result of these two wrongs, the credibility of both the President and the United States more broadly has suffered grievously, and now the Syrian regime—apparently—has forced the issue (whether deliberately or not we will take up below). The sense now is that if the United States does not draw blood, the presumption of U.S. fecklessness will worsen, rendering the real target of American strategic concern in the region, Iran, less fearful than ever that America will redeem its pledge to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. That, in turn, would hasten the day when Israeli fears may drive it to act alone. No one wants that, particularly the Israelis.

So whatever the Administration has said about the purpose of an attack being to “degrade and deter” Syrian capabilities, but not to change the regime, everyone expects the attacks to be modest and brief, thus not to much affect the battlefield balance, and once ceased to stay ceased. That is because the Administration’s reticence at being drawn into the bowels of Syrian madness is both well established and well justified. The attacks, then, will likely not degrade or deter anything really; they will be offered up only as a safety net to catch the falling reputation of the President as it drops toward the nether regions of strategic oblivion.

If that is the case—if the military activity in prospect is of only wrist-slap symbolic magnitude—then better to forgo it altogether. It would be a mistake.

* * *

An attack designed manifestly for reputational purposes—and we have once again foolishly told the world, Hamlet-like, everything we’re thinking if not everything we’re planning—will be counterproductive precisely in that reputational vein. It will enable al-Assad to say he faced down the United States and survived. It will bolster the morale of his side and crush that of rebel forces. It may encourage the Syrian regime to accelerate and deepen the use of chemical weapons (which we cannot effectively neutralize with air power alone) against his enemies, just as the Kosovo air campaign worsened dramatically the humanitarian horrors we said we were trying to stop. It will cheer the Russian thugs who have supported Assad and benefitted from it politically at zero cost to themselves.

Above all, it will illustrate for the whole world to see that a great military power— indeed, the greatest in the world—either does not know how to use force to achieve political ends, or that it cannot stomach the sacrifices it might entail. The use of force to no deliberate political end is worse than no use of force at all. It expresses strategic illiteracy. It predestines failure even if it hits every target on its short list.

Moreover, if undertaken only with European and Turkish support—and no public Arab endorsement (who gives a duck shadow flying backwards about the UN?)—an attack will come across to most Arabs as yet another example of heartless and arrogant imperial hubris visited on their poor, helpless heads. Indeed, with the Turks associated with the effort (prospective U.S. Air Force participation might base itself from Turkish soil), we risk compounding the humiliation with not one, not two, but three consecutive eras of imperial assault—Ottoman, French and American—all rolled into one. (Yesterday’s British parliamentary vote gets the UK surprisingly off the hook.) That this represents a warped and distorted caricature of present political realities is certainly true. It also certainly doesn’t make a whit of difference; we cannot disabuse the Arabs of their victimization syndrome or their broader grievance culture, however much we may wish to do so.

The potential downsides of a sharply limited attack do not stop there. Iran has threatened to respond to attacks on its ally, and it may have means to do so within the United States. The reason no al-Qaeda “sleeper cells” have been uncovered in the United States in the past dozen years is because there weren’t any. One cannot be so confident about Hizballah cells, or about the FBI’s ability to do anything in this regard beyond entrapping clueless amateurs. Sleeper cells aside, there may be lone wolves like Nidal Malik Hasan or the Tsarnaev brothers who will feel compelled to respond to a U.S. attack on a Muslim country in the terrorist tense.  Please do not misunderstand me: The United States of America should never be deterred from using force in the national interest by such piddling, third-order threats. But what is the point of running even such modest risks when the use of force is expressly designed to achieve no strategic or political objective?

A feckless use of American force could also have negative reputational effects both within and far from the greater Middle East. The recently indicted Ahmed abu-Khatallah in Libya will have himself a time dancing a Cyrenaican jig to the tune of an old Dave Clark Five song called “Catch Us If You Can.” Egyptian generals will take the full measure of our sagely advice to them, and of our punchless posturing over sequestering their aid money. Such a squandering of reputational capital might pivot all the way to the Pacific. The nutbags in Pyongyang will dance for joy, Gangnam-style presumably (boy, what a picture that conjures). Our friends in Tokyo, however, will hard-swallow much sake.

* * *

Of course, it is possible that the Administration knows all this and that, despite its past reticence, it is preparing an open-ended military campaign that would truly degrade and deter, and, if it does, that would necessarily change the state of battlefield play within Syria. To do that, however, the Administration would in effect be taking the country to war in a region it has been trying with all its might for five years to exit. Going large might also touch off an explosion of regional war engulfing the Gulf as well as Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, various and sundry Kurds, Turkey and Israel. It could also touch off a series of more isolated but violent reactions from Morocco to Baluchistan and back again.

To finish an effort just to end the fighting in Syria would take months, cost billions and put U.S. airmen and marines very much in harm’s way. Once the fighting ends, if we can make it end without putting troops on the ground (a dubious proposition), we would still be on the hook (unless we are completely irresponsible…) for managing if not manning a “Phase IV” stabilization and reconstruction effort.  That effort, however composed, would take at least 50,000 troops as long as a decade—and at a cost of at least $25 billion—to do adequately, since the Syrian state has been utterly destroyed. I doubt the Administration can work up any enthusiasm for such efforts. The uniformed services are not exactly thrilled by the prospect either.

Well, isn’t there something in between all-out engagement and mere symbolic military fecklessness? Can’t we devise a middle way—this President loves split-the-difference middle ways, after all—that can turn the trick in Syria but not expose ourselves to the dangers and costs of a major, open-ended campaign? Perhaps. If there is such a middle way, it would be worth pondering. Months ago I aired the option of using just a few very big sub-nuclear bombs (MOABs we call then now; we used to call a roughly similar ordnance a “daisy cutter”) to level (pun completely intended) at least Assad’s end of the playing field. And while cruise missiles launched from ships in the Mediterranean cannot readily crater airfields in Syria, the USAF can do so by other means. If I were in charge of such an effort, I would also not hesitate to attack some of the Salafi strongholds on the Sunni side of the street, lest they get the extremely pernicious notion in their fanatical little heads that we will dispatch their enemies for them free of cost.

Still, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that we can guarantee control over either the specific military outcome or the full array of other consequences of a middle-weight attack on Syria. Even assuming we could define such an attack (not so easy, so not so obvious), it would be damned risky to execute it.

* * *

I mooted above two wrongs the Obama Administration committed in Syria. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that these two exhaust the list.

For example, the Administration seems to have adopted the view that diplomacy could do no harm, and might do some good, in trying to deal with the Syria crisis. So in Micawberist fashion it encouraged the Kofi Annan UN peace mission, and it accepted the Russian notion of a conference to negotiate a political settlement to the war, hoping vainly that “something would turn up” to change the trajectory of events. But both of these efforts merely bought time for the Assad regime to change the terms of the war to its benefit. Diplomacy can indeed be harmful if one’s opposite number is not interested in quids pro quo unless and until faced with annihilation.

Very much related, the Administration seems to have adopted the time-honored but foolish view that the use of force or its threat should always be a last resort. The Neville Chamberlain School of foreign policy, as I call it, is blind to the fact that early resolve can sometimes head off nasty greater evils, which are precisely the kind of evils the Obama Administration faces today. So American errors in the Syria crucible have not been limited to unfortunate Presidential statements, not by a long shot.

But the United States need not be the only party to the conflict capable of making mistakes. Some see the recent use of Syrian chemical weapons as a mistake on Assad’s part. It may be, but to come to that conclusion one has to make a series of assumptions: that Assad ordered the attack rather than some other agent of the Syrian regime; that the scale of the attack was deliberate; and of course that the rebels did not somehow, very improbably, figure a way to do this in hopes of eliciting a Western intervention to their advantage. But let’s assume for the sake of discussion that Assad did order the chemical attack: Was it a mistake?

I heard a Washington Post reporter speaking on the radio a few evenings ago (I cannot remember the name, and even if I could I think it’s better left unmentioned) asking aloud, to wit: Why would Assad order such an attack just in advance of a UN inspection team coming to Syria? Why would he risk getting his murderous hand caught in the cookie jar? Well, this reporter, whoever he was, is in need of immediate remedial lessons in Hama Rules competitions.

Consider that when Kofi Annan engaged in his futile mission, lo these many months ago, the Syrian leadership with whom he engaged spared no effort to smile at him, lie through its teeth, and humiliate him at every turn. This is what Levantine Arab males, especially long-oppressed minority types like Alawis, enjoy doing most, particularly in the face of supposedly superior, preening do-gooders from the outside world. They derive exquisite pleasure from such games, and from the impact such engagements have on their endocrine systems, which they describe in ways similar to what our own sailors say about the smell of cordite. (If you cannot supply the punch-line here, it’s probably for the best.) So maybe Assad made a mistake with that chemical attack, and maybe he did not—time will tell, perhaps. But it’s not the least bit puzzling to see how he might have done it in full and conscious deliberation.

Why belabor this point? Because really understanding the enemy is critical to the impact of anything we may try to do militarily in Syria—whether middle-weight, heavy-weight or light-weight. Degrading enemy capabilities is to some extent an objective category, but deterring future Syrian regime behavior depends on subtler psychological and cultural factors. People at war, with their backs to an existential wall, are not as easy to influence as they are these days to kill. Just as no one can make you feel inferior without your consent (wisely said Eleanor Roosevelt), no one can either terrorize or deter you without your consent either. If the Obama Administration really sees a need to degrade and deter the Syrian regime, if it’s not just mumbling speechwriter-quality bullshit for press consumption, it’s got to order up some really serious violence to bend the will of those who are consummate connoisseurs of it. If it’s not prepared to do that, and to risk the consequences that entails, it should shut up and stand down.

[The Salaheddine district of the northern city of Aleppo, Syria. Photo courtesy Getty Images.]

  • rheddles

    If Obama fails to gain congressional authorization for his action, will his order to the military to conduct operations in Syria be legal? If illegal, need it be obeyed? If not obeyed, what action would be taken? If court martial, could the defendant seek removal to civilian courts due to undue command influence? Not all the bad things that could happen are in the Middle East.

  • bpuharic

    Wow. All over the board and still no message.

    We lost credibility when conservatives got 4400 US troops killed and spent 2 trillion in Iraq with NO success.In case no one’s told you guys, THAT little fiasco DID have some consequences for our credibility.

    Neville Chamberlain? OK let’s set the Godwin’s law violation aside, indirect though it is, and see what our options are. “Assad must go”? Gee. Our options are rather limited.

    Garfinkle, WRM and the rest of the baying right wing horde have to understand one thing:

    There are dreams that can not be there are some storms we can not weather

    Some events are out of our control. Even the rabid right tried, with ALL the might of the US in Iraq to effect regime change. It went nowhere since Islamist fundamentalism, like Christian fundamentalism, is a suicidal poison that people are HAPPY to drink.

    Stay out of it. This is NOT our fight. You guys can blame Obama all you want for your failures, but the fact is


    US troops have died in wars started by Obama

    And That, ladies and gentlemen, is a SUCCESS

    • Tom

      It is also true that zero US troops died in wars started by Herbert Hoover.

  • USNK2

    Mr. Garfinkle mentions endocrine systems.
    I have been wondering if the USA could somehow deploy whatever it is that has neutered so many American men that ads for cures for ‘Low-T’ are now mainstream.
    btw, the Elmore Leonard-inspired drama “Justified” had the best ‘punchline’ for that feeling when Nick Searcy’s character Art Mullen, opined in “Get Drew [Thompson]:

  • wigwag

    Is it okay to mock a Commander-in-Chief who orders the U.S. military to launch a strike on Syria just strong enough not to be mocked?

    • bpuharic

      Mock him if he does

      Mock him if he don’t

      Mock him if he will

      Mock him if he won’t

      That’s the right wing WAAAAYYYY

  • Pete

    “Not that the line made any sense, since it implied that killing 1,000 innocent people with chemical weapons was somehow worse than killing 100,000 in more old-fashioned ways, ..”

    Well, yes, killing with chemical and/or biological weapons is indeed worse than the ‘old fashioned’ way with bombs and bullets.


    Because, the use of such weapons lowers the threshold of their further use by anyone and everyone. It’s a Pandora’s Box that’s best left close. That’s logic 101, Mr. Garfinkle.

  • Boritz

    The use of force to no deliberate political end is worse than no use of force at all. It expresses strategic illiteracy. -A.G.

    True if the main consideration is the Middle East. What O really wants is to go before the cameras in a few day and say he handled it. He called their bluff. He has it under control. An electorate that voted for him twice will believe him and thank their lucky stars we don’t have a foreign policy cowboy right winger in charge.

    • bpuharic

      Hey you’re right! Let’s do the right wing thing

      Kill 4400 US troops. spend 2 trillion for nation building! Mission accomplished!

  • wigwag

    To paraphrase William O. Douglas in Griswold v Connecticut, there are endless pnenumbras and emanations firing forth in all directions from Obama’s fecklessness. One of the most interesting is the humiliation rained upon Prime Minister Cameron of Great Britain. Cameron’s reputation is even more tattered than Obama’s. The indignity of losing a vote in Parliment and watching numerous members of your own Party and most of the MPs from your coalition partner abandon you when you ask for their support to launch military strike is almost too much to take. Obama may be a fool but its Cameron who is the clown.

    When was the last time a Prime Minister asked Parliment to support his desire for military action only to be turned down?

    Loyal readers of Via Meadia surely remember Professor Mead’s post where he compared the current occupant squatting at 10 Downing Street with Clement Atlee, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Professor Mead assured us that Prime Minister Cameron was putting the “great” back in Great Britain.

    Now that President Assad seems to have a firmer grip on power than the Right Honorable Prime Minister, I wonder whether Professor Mead has changed his mind.

    • USNK2

      Parliament has voted for every war since 1782, until now. Maybe Britain is finally war-weary, albeit still fighting in the Fourth Anglo-Afghan War (the First and Second Anglo-Sikh Wars were scheduled between the First Anglo-Afghan War, and the Crimean War, with a few other small wars in between)
      But, Cameron will rebound.
      His timing was awful, probably due to Obama’s timetable since he has to wrap up Syria before his visit to a synagogue in Sweden en route to the G20 next week.
      am in a very cynical mood this week, in that I was hoping Obama would lobby Syria for gun control and emigration reform. heh.

      • wigwag

        I wouldn’t be so sure that Cameron will rebound. He’s about as popular right now as a tempeh dinner in a Morton’s Steak House and this most recent fiasco is sure to accelerate his decline.

        Ed Milliband, Cameron’s opponent in the Labor Party might not be a genius but he isn’t a total fool like the current British Prime Minister is.

        You have to be pretty pathetic to make Obama look like a heavyweight, but Cameron is such a lightweight that compared to him Obama floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.

        What we are witnessing is in many ways a complete collapse of Western influence in the Middle East and by extension, the rest of the world. You can be assured that leaders throughout Asia are watching Obama’s stumbling performance and Europe’s abdication and drawing the logical conclusion; the West no longer matters as much as it did.

        Can someone remind me why the U.K. and France are permitted to maintain their permanent seats on the Security Council? Why not just replace them with nations of equal consequence like Moldova or Bulgaria.

        Who would have guessed that Obama’s mindless performance on Syria would have ended up exposing Prime Minister Cameron as the most incompetent British leader in decades?

        Cameron is such a twit that even the clueless John Major looks good by comparison.

        What do you think USNK2; do you still think Professor Mead believes that Cameron “is a man with a plan?”

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    I think our incompetent President is to arrogant to ever even admit to a mistake, never mind learning from it. I think Obama’s response to the suggestion that he shut up and stand down, is “I won”.

  • Anthony

    “If the Obama administration really sees a need to degrade and deter the Syrian regime, if it’ not just mumbling speechwriter-quality bullshit for press consumption, it’s got to order up some really serious violence to bend the will of those who are consummate connoisseurs of it. If it’s not prepared to do that, and to risk the consequences that entails, it should shut up and stand down.” Given all talking points and punditry as well as public commentary, last two sentences of Adam Garfinkle’s essay simplifies presidential choice with latter sentence corresponding to prevailing view.

  • Brian O’Connor


    Syria is not a strategic imperative of the US. We should not attack Syria, either robustly or with pin-pricks.

    IF we are going to attack someone . . . IF . . . then we should attack Iran. We should take out Iran’s AD system then its nuke facilities, and whatever other military assets we can get at.


    1) Depriving Iran of her (prospective) nukes is a long-standing strategic objective of the US. Doing so would make the entire middle east safer from Iran’s hegemonic ambitions for the foreseeable future.

    2) It would be just that much harder for non-state Islamic terrorist organizations to acquire the bomb.

    3) The Norks might be a little more cautious.

    4) Assad and Hezbollah would both be seriously weakened. (Syria is nothing without Iran.)

    5) The world would receive the message that the US has stopped its withdrawal from international affairs and has re-engaged with them.


    1) It’s an act of war, an unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation. (Introducing Stuxnet was an act of war; invading Pakistan to assassinate UBL was an act of war; attempting to kill the Saudi ambassador to the US on US soil was, arguably, an act of war; sending forces to kill Americans in Iraq was an act of war; etc. The bottom line: We are already at war with radical Islamists, be they Sunni or Shi’ite)

    2) The Iranians would retaliate, especially against Israel. (But they threatened to respond disproportionately against Israel even in the event of “pin-prick” attacks against Syria. So we might as well earn the response.)

    3) The Russians would likely invade Georgia in protest, and shut down our northern supply lines into Afghanistan. (But we’re running away from Afghanistan as quickly as possible anyhow.) They’d do other things as well.

    4) There’d be terror attacks against all manner of western interests.

    5) There’d be other nasty consequences.


    The decision is between a bad outcome and one infinitely worse. So — What serves our interests better: stopping Iran from getting the bomb now, or trying to deal with an expansionist nuclear-armed Iran and, perhaps, a nuclear arms race in the middle east later?

    “If you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna.” — Napoleon