Painted into a Corner, Obama Ponders Cosmetic Strikes
Published on: August 30, 2013
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  • Nathan

    Adam, I’m wondering whether you have a take on this article from NOW Lebanon that showed up on Real Clear World that I read about a week ago:

    On one hand, it paints a MUCH prettier picture of the rebels than we tend to hear in the media, and it smells a lot like “please give me money” propaganda. On the other hand, the Western media narrative is so one-sided about the rebels (usually implying that they are almost all Al Qaeda-types) that I’m not inclined to trust them either.

    The extent to which the US has a portion of the rebel force that it could credibly back matters a great deal here I think. It would give us a perhaps middle/heavy-weight option, something like:

    1. Bomb Assad
    2. Arm moderate rebels (and try to convince the Saudis ect to change horses)
    3. Bomb AQ Rebels
    4. Repeat as necessary
    5. Completely unknown endstate (but that isn’t different from any other plan available)

    I could maybe also toss in a ground forces mission to secure chemical weapons and get out but I suspect that I’ve exceeded my Pollyanna limit before we get to there.

    Any thoughts? Have you heard anything to suggest that the AQ-ness of the rebels in the media narrative is exaggerated?

  • Anthony

    “The use of force to no deliberate political end is worse than no use of force at all.” Adam Garfinkle in one sentence sums it up exquisitively; but for emphasis, last two sentences of essays say all that needs saying regarding contemplation.

  • Adam, this is a police action intended to punish insubordination and thereby restore the authority of the United States as the guardian of the international order. The logic is simple: in order to manage a string of subordinate states and regulate inter-state relations, it is much more effective for the dominant state to follow a policy of severely punishing insubordination even when it has no vital interest at stake. This deters other subordinate states from challenging the authority of the dominant state and thereby reduces the cost of running the international system.

    Of course, one may prefer that the US relinquish its role as a global policeman and cease exercising ‘superpower functions.’ Pursued logically this is tantamount to neoisolationism. Which, to be fair, is a consistent grand-strrategy: the US is supremely secure and there is no need to chase demons. There are plenty of realists who prescribe to this position. I didn’t think you shared this view.

    And if this isn’t your position – that is, you prefer that the US continue to protect the global commons, impose itself in the ME and beyond, and organize large-scale politico-military actions globally – don’t you see that such punishment is necessary to deter insubordination?

    • You have missed the point, I’m afraid, so I will repeat it: It does not service or strengthen America’s role as a supplier of common security goods to use force fecklessly and counterproductively. As for your right=angled, syllogistical way of framing the issue, it shows your training in disciplines that do not require the subtleties of the art to hand. This is not an either/or world. Just as a parent does not punish a young child the same way for every infraction of a rule, so a peace-interested great power does not, or rather should not, routinize its reactions, but rather judge efficacy from context.

  • WigWag

    Let’s give President Obama his due; it takes a special talent to turn a show of force into a show of weakness. Miraculously Obama has accomplished that feat; he’s planning to launch scores if not hundreds of tomahawk missiles towards Syria and just about everyone in the world views it as a sign of fecklessness. It’s extraordinary really; Obama is universally viewed as so weak, cowardly, indecisive and strategically inept that even his decision to blow to smithereens buildings and military installations important to his adversary still can’t win him any respect. If Adam can recall another instance where American military power was viewed as so inconsequential, it would be kind of him to remind his loyal readers what it was. The only thing I can think of was Jimmy Carter’s failed attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran.

    In his essay, Adam compares Obama to Hamlet; frankly I think that the comparison is an insult to the Danish Prince. While no master of decisiveness, Hamlet was far more resolute than Obama. After all, he did impale Polonius on his sword under the mistaken belief that it was his usurping uncle. Of course Polonius was out of sight because he was hiding in a closet, which is exactly where it would appear Obama wishes he could hide right about now.

    Nor did Hamlet convene the Danish legislature or his fellow nobles to seek their permission to exact his revenge; now that Obama is going to Congress to get their permission to attack (despite his statement that he doesn’t need their authority) we have even more evidence of the President’s cowardice. Apparently our Commander-in-Chief is not only fearful of the Syrians, the Iranians and the Russians, it would also seem that he is afraid of the House Republicans, Rand Paul and

    The Saudis, the Israelis and the Jordanians must be watching all of this with utter astonishment. Whatever their disagreements, Prince Bandar and Prime Minister Netanyahu must agree on one thing; that Obama is the most clueless American President in their lifetimes.
    Surely they are drawing the only logical conclusion; they need to look elsewhere for capable world leadership.

    Obama seems to have abandoned his approach of leading from behind to test out a new theory; he is promising to lead while hiding under the bed assuming Congress gives him permission to.

    Everyone has seen those before and after pictures of American presidents; they almost always look far worse after their terms are up (the one exception was Bill Clinton who looked older but better after his eight years in the presidency). Obama is looking particularly haggard right now; I suspect its because despite being feckless, he’s not stupid. Even he must realize how seriously he’s blown it in the Middle East.

    Obama has turned himself into Rodney Dangerfield; he just doesn’t get any respect. When you threaten to blow up your adversary and the whole world rolls its collective eyes, its pretty much of a sign that your gig is up.

    • I did not compare Obama to Hamlet; I compared the Administration as a whole’s public posture to Hamlet. Deliberating and agonizing in public is never a good idea, especially when it takes long enough for the target to disperse and otherwise shield his most valuable assets.

      • WigWag

        Right, but considering his track record isn’t it plausible that his public dithering is specifically intended to give the Syrians time to disperse and hide their assets? After all, if Obama’s goal is to use the symbolism of a display of lethal force to restore his tattered credibility while leaving the facts on the ground in Syria unchanged, then delaying so Assad can shield his assets may actually be the point.

        On the other hand I have read reports that Obama was ready to order an attack without Congressional approval when, at the eleventh hour his Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough convinced Obama to change his mind and ask Congress to weigh in.

        Maybe Hamlet isn’t the right metaphor for Obama and the keystone cops he calls his cabinet and advisors. Rather than Hamlet, I think that Obama is beginning to resemble Falstaff more and more every day.

        • Intended to help the Syrians? Nonsense. See reply to John Burke, above, on the weird working of the narrowly legal mind.

  • Frank Arden

    Hey, it’s rough out dere. I tell ya.

    When I was president things got so bad they had to tie a bone around my neck just to get the dog to play with me. I told Michele “no more president jokes in the White House” and drew a red line. She crossed it. I drew another and another and she crossed them all. The last red line was down the middle of our bed. She never crossed that one. No respect I tell ya!

    If you think that’s bad, lemme tell ya this. I told the American people we still need hope and change. They gave me 34 cents and said,
    “We hope you leave.”

    No respect, no respect at all.

    –With apologies to the great Rodney Dangerfield.

    • WigWag

      Even in high school Obama got no respect. I heard he used to share a locker with a mop.

  • John Burke

    Presidents have made a lot of mistakes in my lifetime and my clear memory goes back to Ike, but I am hard-pressed to recall another instance where everyone, friend and foe, knows openly that US policy involving a military attack is being made solely to vindicate something the President said by mistake. And given that the President’s ill chosen words could have been “clarified” into oblivion long ago instead of left hanging there, it leads me to wonder whether anyone in responsible positions in the Administration is paying attention — particularly since no one in the world has for many months expected that the US had any inclination to intervene in Syria.

    • Yes, a sharp observation; but there’s more here. There also seems to me to be a narrowly legal mind at work here, a judicial attitude bereft of strategic thought: Assad is guilty and hence must be punished, and it matters not if the act of punishment works this way or that–only that it doesn’t jeopardize the safety and status of the judge.

      • John Burke

        I’m sure you’re right that there is a lot of that mentality at work in all this somewhere. Also, Obama would be delighted if he could manage somehow (cheaply) to get credit for putting Assad in the dock at The Hague while liberated Syrians join Kosovars singing hosannas to America — and him.

        But what I find most striking is that after the red line statement, there was no effort to bury it, and after the line was crossed the first time, Obama “clarified” it by doubling down but adding the proviso that it would have to be “a whole lot” of CW “moving around.”

        After the initial statement, it would have been fairly easy to shroud it in a fog of words through an impersonal White House statement or something from State: “The United States and the international community deplore any deliberate mass assault on innocent civilians by any party in the Syrian conflict, regardless of the specific means employed. That certainly is a red line we hope will not be crossed, will continue to monitor developments closely, and reserve the right to respond appropriately in consultation with allies and partners.”

        • Good Lord, you missed your calling! You’d have been a terrific speechwriter or press spokesman.

          • John Burke

            I have been both.

          • elaborate please

          • John Burke

            Many years ago, I was a speechwriter for top execs of two major global corporations. I also worked on quite a few political campaigns, but more recently, before my retirement several years ago, I was a senior member of a PR firm, representing mainly big companies, trade groups and other institutions. The bulk of our work was in strategic communications — crisis management, financial transactions, CEO transitions, and the like.

          • OK, thanks. Not government work, but close enough for folk music.

  • Frank Arden

    I recall about five years ago the president said a nuclear-armed Iran was “unacceptable.” Now we know what he meant by “unacceptable,” i.e., “I’m not really serious.”

    For argument’s sake, consider Iran had nukes today and had drawn its own red line in the Syrian dust and told the president, “You will not attack Damascus.” What would he do then with his red line?

    Given his actions thus far, I suppose he would draw a yellow one.

    Speaking of Iran, I have not read anywhere for some time in the media about sanctions having any effect. I did read that Iran continues to add centrifuges apparently unabated.

    It seems to me, of all the killer thugs with real threats, Iran is the biggest cat in that cage, not Syria. I know of no Middle East country that wants a nuclear-armed Iran (except Syria). While the president bum fumbles his way through Libya, Egypt and now Syria, the Persian Cat eats and grows and lies in the tall grass.

    The one thing that could unite the Middle East (or could have when the US had a modicum of credibility left in the ME), friend and foe alike, especially Sunnis and Israel, would be an unswerving red line drawn through the heart of a pre-nuclear Tehran.

    If the line is crossed, a limited surgical strike against the nuke farms is out of the question. It would only delay the inevitable.

    The threat to Iran must be clear. The attack would be an all out assault against its government and military assets including unlimited bombing on its nuke factories.

    We know that a significant of Iranians want regime change. Most young Iranians are willing to be democratized and have fair elections. They want western goods. They want trade with the West. They want to make money and provide for their families and they will rise up to claim these things. They will fight for regime change if they know the world is behind them and the ayatollahs eviscerated.

    And the great carrot we will offer them for regime change should be the total lifting of economic sanctions.

    Something like this is gutsy, bloody, dangerous, expensive, complicated, risky and hard: but strategic.

    Yet, attacking Syria rises only to a level somewhere below tactical importance and a weak presumption of significance, and that weak presumption, without a strategy, falls below even a weak inference of significance.

    Syria is not the problem. Iran is the problem.

  • David K.

    I am curious about what your thoughts are on the language from the Arab League calling for international intervention. While it does not grant legal cover, it does create the perception of a local coalition which does help to legitimize a western strike on Assad’s forces.

    Also, do you think it is possible that the last minute hesitancy could have been a strategic play to force Saudi Arabia’s hand and possibly give PM Cameron cause to return to the Commons for another vote?


    • The Arab League language lately is helpful but hardly what the White House wants. If you look closely at the Saudi statement, it says that it’s OK to intervene if the Syrian people want it. But who knows what the Syrian people as a whole, if such a beast even exists anymore, wants? It’s a standard asinine locution designed to get them off the hook; they’re seeking cover no less than the White House.

      As for a 2nd British vote, I think that unlikely. He’d just lose again, probably. Too big a risk for Cameron to take, seems to me–but I am not in London……

      • David K.


        I was also wondering, any suggested reading for those wanting to bone up on Syria (better late than never)?

        • There’s lots of good stuff. If you like, you can start with my “The Forces Behind Syrian Politics,” Middle East Review, Fall 1984. Still useful after all these years.

  • Frank Arden


    I think your essay was spot on as was your above answer to our friend, David K.

    It occurs to me that the president found only a toothless answer from the Arab League, rejection from the UN, and an even more humilliating response from the the UK.

    It was only then that he sought the war authorization from the congress. He should have gone there first, not last.

    Even Obama must know, as the old joke goes about the French, that despite the tacit approval to attack Syria by the French, going to war with the French is like going hunting without an accordion.

    Nobody is going to come to dig him out of his self-created hole. The best chance he has is with republicans in the congress. I predict they will let him twist in the wind as democrats smell the political winds of 2014 blown by 80% of the voters.

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