John Kerry explained to senators Tuesday how the U.S. could end up with soldiers on the ground in Syria. He spent much of the rest of his testimony walking it back.
The secretary of state clarified: President Barack Obama “has no intention and will not and we do not want to put American troops on the ground to fight this or be involved in the fighting of the civil war.” Kerry called the earlier scenario he’d painted merely “a hypothetical question,” the result of “thinking out loud.”
There may be no better description of Obama’s strategy toward Syria and its dictator, Bashar al-Assad, than “thinking out loud.” That is one reason our best option is not to attack Syria.
Here’s what “thinking out loud” has gotten us so far:
Obama famously improvised his “red line” remark about Syria and chemical weapons in August 2012. Yet, he did not spend the ensuing months preparing for the possibility Assad would cross it. There was no broad international coalition waiting in the wings. Nor did Obama lay the necessary groundwork with Congress so that we might act suddenly and decisively.
Instead, Obama maintained he did not need Congress’ permission to strike. Then, last weekend, he said he would let Congress speak after all.
By Wednesday, Obama had declared the chemical-weapons “red line” and questions of credibility belonged not to him but to Congress and “the world.” He’s only right in the sense he shot his own credibility by issuing a threat that, we can see now, he hadn’t fully considered.
Our potential action, it has been reported, will be “just muscular enough not to get mocked.” Officials have been at pains to let everyone from here to Damascus know just how limited and symbolic our actions will be — to the point Kerry said it was not “going to war in a classic sense.” That such an action would discourage future use of chemical weapons, by Assad or another tyrant, is ludicrous.
None of this is to make the case for a larger intervention in Syria. It is unclear what that might accomplish, given uncertainties about the rebels we would be backing and the lack of an obvious U.S. interest at stake.
That said, it is dishonest and irresponsible for the Obama administration to talk as if a large intervention absolutely will not follow a smaller one.
Wars do not adhere to plans, as we know almost 12 years later in Afghanistan, more than a decade after the Iraq invasion, and nearly one year after our ambassador and three other Americans were killed in Libya — the last country where we intervened out of a “moral” sense of duty but with no follow-through.
The notion Assad will simply take whatever punishment we dole out to him is naive and reckless. The question is whether his inevitable response can be contained or, as in the scenario Kerry sketched out and hastily erased, will compel more involvement.
To that end, it would be helpful to know what we mean to achieve in Syria. Obama and Kerry have suggested Syria will not have peace as long as Assad is in power, but they insist we will not oust him ourselves. It seems we can countenance tens of thousands more dead Syrians as long as they die from bullets, not sarin gas.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday our goals are to “degrade” Assad’s capabilities and “deter” him from using chemical weapons again. These are not synonyms for “destroy” and “prevent.” If we fire some missiles in the name of accountability, only to watch Assad cross the red line again, who will have taught whom a lesson? And then what do we do?
Some people suggest the difference between the Iraq invasion and Syria is we no longer have a “cowboy” in the White House. This is to mistake Obama’s ad libbing for preparation, his bromides about responsibility for leadership, his “thinking out loud” for thoughtfulness. I say all this as someone who also opposed the Iraq invasion because it was sold as easier, safer, morally clearer and better-conceived than seemed possible.
This administration has not shown the preparation, competence or resolve to be trusted on this matter. It should not take us to war in Syria.