The Least-Worst Option
Published: Saturday, September 7, 2013
Updated: Monday, September 9, 2013 00:09
In a surprise move, President Obama endorsed limited strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime but announced he will seek Congressional approval before beginning attacks. Like so many choices made by this president, his final decision left relatively few people satisfied.
But the president was wise here, both to endorse military force against the Syrian regime at this juncture and to include Congress in his decision making process.
The argument for the use of force has been steadily growing for months. Assad’s August 21 chemical attacks on the suburbs of Damascus were so gruesome and detestable that even the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted that he "completely and strongly condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria.”
Obama has thus far been cautious about committing to any broad intervention in Syria. His latest endorsement has similarly been careful not to conflate “limited” strikes with any of the rhetoric or visions of imposed “regime change” favored by former President George Bush. Instead, Obama has delicately decoupled larger strategy in Syria from his stated “core national interest:” chemical weapons.
But with indisputable evidence of a chemical weapon attack, military strikes on key political and military targets are necessary. Robust strikes would be an important step toward deterring Assad and other criminal regimes from freely using chemical weapons. As presented by Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Anthony H. Cordesman, strikes against Assad’s palace, intelligence and secret policy headquarters, Al Quds bases and trainings centers as well as a mix of airbases and ground support facilities will significantly degrade Assad’s capacity to command his murderous army.
We must keep in mind that these strikes will not end the civil war in Syria and will likely produce an assortment of unintended consequences — including the loss of innocent civilian life. But I believe that these dreadful outcomes are necessary evils to both further deter the use of chemical weapons and to reiterate their status as untouchable weapons of war.
But to many senators and representatives, rhetoric about weapons of mass destruction is reminiscent of the run-up to the war in Iraq. That constitutes one of the reasons that Obama’s inclusion of Congress was both necessary and wise.
I see the former University of Chicago constitutional law professor’s gambit with Congress as shrewd rather than the dithering move critics make it out to be. It was intended to force a broader conversation in the public and transform Congressional critics into co-pilots of any limited war.
Forcing Congressional debate on military intervention in Syria steals primetime CNN coverage from Miley Cyrus and other such news topics. It forces Americans to understand what is happening, why deterring chemical weapons is so important and why these limited strikes are different from action in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya.
Obama appears to have calculated that, confronted with undeniable evidence, Congress would be unable to reject his request for the authorization of force. While the American public may crave a more commanding and decisive leader than Obama at this time, military action this nuanced and unpredictable will benefit from additional time to be rolled out, explained and planned.
Every column about Syria should probably include the disclaimer: There are no good options in Syria. The blatant use of chemical weapons doesn’t alter how attractive our options are, but it does change the potential consequences for inaction. With indisputable evidence, the president is preparing the nation for limited war, masterfully using Congressional approval as a mechanism to engage the public in a complex debate. While Obama’s decision to move slowly and deliberately pleases few right now, his decision will ultimately pay dividends for our country, the international community and, hopefully, the Syrian people.
Mike B. Schoengold is starting his second year of his three year dual graduate degree program at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service and McDonough School of Business. Last summer he interned at the Department of Defense and previously worked in southern Afghanistan on a USAID-funded stabilization program.