What Will President Obama Do About Syria?

Why does the Syrian situation seem so much more difficult than that of Libya, for instance, or than Egypt was?  Why didn’t Obama just handle it the same way, instead of making threats to attack Syria unilaterally?  Syria comes with some built in problems that didn’t apply to those two countries and their uprisings and revolutions.

The Practical Problems

We have problems with our intelligence. That is, the people whom we count on to give us accurate information don’t seem to be in agreement about the situation in Syria. We don’t know the makeup of the anti-Assad groups, for instance. We may not truly know whom to support against Bashar al-Assad, although they claim they do.

Even with perfect intelligence, the future isn’t just unknowable, its degree of uncertainty is extremely high and many-faceted. Among other things, we don’t know how our action or inaction will affect the civil war, or how it will be perceived by either our adversaries or our friends. We don’t know what the consequences will be, intended or unintended. We don’t know who will end up controlling the ChemWeapons, nor how we can insure the threat level will be lower after an attack than it is now. How can it be better if they remain in the hands of ANY Syrians? How can we get them out of their hands without putting our soldiers into the action on the ground?

We don’t know how big our involvement will eventually become. Will it stop with the “shot across the bow,” or will it by necessity of circumstance grow into a full invasion?

What is our objective? Is it to deter future use of ChemW’s on the part of Syria, or of other countries? Is it to affect the course of the war itself? Do we take different actions for one that we wouldn’t take for the other? Some “experts” tell us that it will be unacceptable for Assad and his Hezbollah supporters to eventually prevail, creating a situation ripe for Iranian hegemony in the Middle East, at Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia’s (and our) peril. That tight connection with a much stronger nation, Iran, was missing from the other revolutions, and it matters a lot.  Yet that doesn’t seem to be what the President is talking about.

And we can’t forget both the cost of the operation and the drain on our military resources.  We have been stretching the limits of our capabilities for ten years, and the Obama Administration has been quietly cutting the Pentagon’s budget for several years now.  We have less capacity to engage in foreign wars now than we did in 2003.  If we were to put the burden of a new campaign on our military, it might have a tremendously demoralizing effect in all the services, which would in turn further degrade our ability to fight, which is ironically one of the objectives President Obama has laid out for the attack–only he says his intention is to degrade Assad’s capabilities, not ours.  Consequently, any attack at all should be one that is absolutely necessary for our own national security.

An operation with so many unknowns and such a high degree of uncertainty is simply begging to either go wrong (the Carter debacle in the desert) or more properly, be canceled.

The Political Problems

We are told that we MUST react to the use of ChemW because we (President Obama) said we would, and/or because if we don’t, we’re inviting the next use of it. That our threat of force followed up by our use of force gives credibility to the policy of deterrence. If we don’t follow up on our warnings, that policy will be nullified.

Our President is in an unenviable position. He has essentially made threats that he doesn’t seem now to want to carry out. Does he need to do something just to maintain some measure of credibility?

Congress has been asked to pass judgment on the military option. If it says “No,” should the President back off, and if so, should it be philosophically or acrimoniously? Or if he goes ahead with an air strike, what will that do to his relationship with Congress, and how will the people take it politically?

The people are overwhelmingly against attacking Syria. This is a political problem for some of those in Congress who believe a strike is necessary to maintain the credibility of the US in the world community of civilized nations. Simultaneously, the people don’t have access to all the facts about the situation. Maybe we, the people, shouldn’t have the last word. Or maybe we should be told more of the facts so that our last word is more likely to be right.

A different type of political problem is faced by the President. His approval ratings have recently been at low tide so he doesn’t want to take any political chances, yet he is already on record as favoring an action the electorate dislikes. He isn’t up for re-election, but he needs his popularity to help him get more of his policies in place. Yet if he backs out of the strike, he looks weak on the world stage, which also hurts him politically at home.

The Presidential Problems

The President isn’t getting much traction for several reasons. He isn’t really out there selling his program. He talks about it, but he doesn’t say enough about why it’s better than some other program, or even about why it’s necessary. He can send out his emissaries to talk to us, and John Kerry could be effective at it, but the President undercut his Secretary of State last week, and that cost Kerry a lot of credibility on his own right.

The President’s indecisiveness hurts him tremendously. He says he doesn’t need Congress and he will strike quickly. Then he thinks it over, and decides to ask for the blessing of Congress.  This in turn makes him seem to be too quick to threaten and too slow to act.

He can’t convince our traditional good allies to help him with the job. Why?

He has no personal credibility with about half of the population, and about half of the rest are skeptical. He said he intended to make just a one-day air strike. Senator John McCain also assures us there will be no “boots on the ground.” But the Pentagon has estimated it would take 150,000 boots on the ground (75,000 troops) to secure Assad’s ChemW’s. And he can’t honestly rule out the possibility of the need for those soldiers, because he hasn’t convinced anybody that he doesn’t really want to remove Assad and secure the ChemW’s.

He compounded his credibility problem by claiming that HE didn’t draw any red lines, everybody else did, even though the video is right up there for everybody to see. That’s inexplicable, because it’s unnecessary.

He announced his battle strategy two weeks ago (firing a warning shot), which made it immediately ineffective and meaningless. His eagerness to tell us the good ideas he has leads him to tell everybody everything about them. This trait doesn’t inspire confidence in his judgment.

He has no experience as a leader of large operations, and he doesn’t project the image of a man who can do it the first time he tries. He is looked upon as particularly unsuited for the task he is setting up for himself. In fact, there may be a majority of Americans who think he’s incapable of pulling it off, and they don’t want to have a military operation that is destined to fail from the start, costing us even more lives.

And finally, among and beyond those who don’t believe in the President’s ability to successfully lead our military in battle, there are more than a few who don’t trust the man, Obama.  They don’t trust his words, they don’t trust his motives, and they don’t trust his wisdom. They may not be a majority, but their numbers aren’t small and they are vocal, and they are gaining adherents. It behooves this President to give them nothing to hang their suspicions on.

Putting it together

We have a situation with a great number of unknowns and very few knowns. The situation may be critical, but it hasn’t been convincingly explained as to why it’s critical.

Absent the explanation, there is little public support for the action.

Absent a track record on the President’s part, with a widespread lack of confidence in his military leadership abilities, and without a pressing need for immediate action, this operation seems unlikely to proceed.

I believe it’s much more likely that the President will change direction before Tuesday, September 10, 2013, and that he will start a new initiative of some kind, perhaps diplomatic, perhaps through the U.N., and he will tone the belligerent rhetoric way, way down.  The speech Tuesday night could kick that off.


Cross-posted at Terriers of the Right.