The Two Big Reasons Obama Might Strike Syria

Enforcing a threat and a taboo--not starting a war

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Bashar Assad may finally have gone too far. In the wake of the Syrian dictator’s suspected nerve-gas attack last week, escalating rhetoric from Washington, Europe and Israel suggests a growing consensus for a military strike in response. But given Barack Obama’s well-known aversion to becoming entangled in that country’s savage civil war, and a growing belief that a stalemate might best serve U.S. interests anyway, any attack on Syria is unlikely to signal the start of a major American intervention there. Instead, it would likely be in the service of a pair of abstract—but very important—principles.

The first principle is American credibility. It was almost one year ago that Obama declared the use or movement of chemical weapons in Syria a “red line” that would force him to rethink his “calculus” about that country’s conflict. When regime forces went ahead and launched chemical attacks anyway, the White House—after months of delay—announced in June that the U.S. would increase the “scale and scope” of its support for the Syrian rebels. But the move seemed halfhearted at best, reflecting Obama’s fear of being dragged into a messy sectarian conflict. Earlier this month the Los Angeles Times reported that “U.S. weapons and ammunition have not reached America’s allies among the Syrian rebels, and their delivery date remains unclear.” It would be little surprise if Assad concluded that Obama’s red line was empty talk.

(MORE: Obama Can Strike Syria Unilaterally)

It’s dangerous for a President’s threats to seem empty. Foreign leaders listen carefully to pronouncements from Washington to determine what they can get away with. Bad things often don’t happen because the consequences are made clear to America’s rivals beforehand. This principle is especially important now, as Iran weighs whether Obama’s vow to use military force to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon is serious. The more likely Iran thinks Obama is to use force, the less likely he’ll need to do it. “When you do have a red line, you’ve got to do something about it,” says Dennis Ross, a former Obama national-security aide who handled Iran policy. Particularly after the world has seen images of dead children.

The second goal is about enforcing a taboo. Obama wants to send a clear message—not only to Assad but to the world—that the international community views chemical weapons with special contempt. Here’s how Obama explained it in May:

[T]he use of chemical weapons would be a game changer, not simply for the United States for but the international community. And the reason for that is that we have established international law and international norms that say when you use these kinds of weapons, you have the potential of killing massive numbers of people in the most inhumane way possible, and the proliferation risks are so significant that we don’t want that genie out of the bottle.

(VIDEO: Obama Blurs Red Line in Syria)

Skeptics may wonder why nerve gas is any more inhumane than explosives that blow off limbs and rip bodies open, or the organ-crushing thermobaric bombs used by the U.S. and Russia. Some even question whether chemical weapons really can kill on a “massive” enough scale to be considered weapons of mass destruction. But along with the instinctive revulsion toward poison is the fear that the more Assad mixes and transports his chemical arms, the more likely they are to fall into the hands of terrorists who might try to use them against Israel or Western targets. And it is true that a well-executed terrorist attack with nerve gas could be terrifyingly lethal.

Obama could serve his two goals with limited strikes on a handful of military targets, probably by means of cruise missiles that involve no risk to U.S. personnel. The goal would be to impose a cost on Assad that outweighs whatever he thinks he gained by gassing hundreds of people near Damascus last week, as he is accused of doing. In doing so, Obama could hope to deter Assad from using his chemical arsenal again. And to demonstrate to the rest of the world, and especially to Iran, that he means what he says. Anyone hoping for more will likely be disappointed.

MORE: White House Muted on Alleged Syrian Chemical Atrocity

125 comments
WimRoffel
WimRoffel

When you hear someone in a bar talk about is credibility you know that he is quite likely to start a fight. Wise people refrain from using such heavy terms.

It would be perfectly "credible" for the US to walk the legal road, collect and show evidence and discuss it in the international community. Russia and Iran are not the no-saying morons as Obama likes to paint them. Iran was even so brave to refuse to use chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war when it was gassed by Iraq. These countries - and the rest of the world - deserve convincing evidence and a preparedness to discuss them.

Such behavior by the US would show true international leadership - and be a great improvement to Obama's present buccaneerism. 

Onepatriot
Onepatriot

If we wanted more oil, we wouldn't be quarreling over the Keystone pipeline which will be exported.    Which, by the way, I don't want to see built, precisely because of that.  We don't need it.

enawga
enawga

Watching the whole thing at a distance forced me to all this question. Who is the goon here, the American people or its corporations. Who gains if the US enters the war, obviously the corporations!!! Who dies, the American people obviously!!! Asad should have been thrown out of his power for his atrocities, but I doubt it if he had ever used those weapons, he is smarter than that. And this discussion will go on as the decession will be made by the President with no consideration to this discussion or similar ones. That's the way it is!!!

RichardSiegers
RichardSiegers

90% of the Syrian people supports Assad but the US dont care they want Syrian oil

RichardSiegers
RichardSiegers

"When regime forces went ahead and launched chemical attacks anyway"


Assad NEVER used Sarin gas 


The US made this up so they can attack Syria and get their oil.


There are many documents and videos proofing FSA used Sarin gas against SAA.


SO STOP SELLING BS HERE



MikeGieser
MikeGieser

Was it a thin red line, a thick red line, a squiggly red line or a dotted red line?

Lexx
Lexx

Given how well every single conflict since the end of WW2 has gone for America, who told Obama that "this time" it was going to go good? What type of short sighted, incompetent, history averse baboon is advising the US president on all of this? 

I'm sorry but please help me understand this, does somebody say, "ok lets get involved here because the last one went so well"? How do you loose one conflict after the next, for like 50 years, and the people are still not rioting? America you are truly exceptional...I mean it.

Americans you deserve this, both Obama and Bush; two different parties that have run things basically identically. Oh yeah, and I hear the total debt is not 16 trillion but 73...wait until the chickens come to roost on that one. What a great time to be spending more huh? 

abid.raza
abid.raza

Why USA is not taking action against the imperialism in Bahrain and atrocities committed upon the peoples and human violation by the King's forces. Testimony from victims strongly suggests that it was the rebels not the Syrian Government tht used Nerve gas during the recent incidents,  a senior U.N. Diplomat disclosed. When USA is against Assad's regime and is willing action action Syria for violation of human rights then  why there is no action against the Bahrain's King.  In the case of  

renfieldc
renfieldc

Good ol' USA.  Always available to poke its nose in other peoples business. And get stuck in more mire.

LenSimpson
LenSimpson

Looks like he's fixing to sacrifice & mutilate a few more of our boys.

Regio121
Regio121

Surely an strike on Syria could or would be disastrous to the USA interest specially after so many attacks and (1000's) massacres against Syrian people, an early stage too close to a 3rd world war. That's may serve China and Russia best interests that's for sure, a financial broken country its a easy prey.

Oriental
Oriental

坚决反对帝国主义入侵叙利亚,坚决支持叙利亚人民反对帝国主义保卫国家的正义斗争!

sushilpershad
sushilpershad

No It Went To China To Convert Them Into Capitalists !!

LupitaGonzales
LupitaGonzales

Oh i see.  Good for a second there I had thought we were going to have another war.

meddevguy
meddevguy

Hooray -- at last we have evolved a President that understands how dangerous it is for us and the rest of the world to think he is a wuss. Nobody can tolerate sending any weapon against another country, but if the President makes a rational promise and other leaders spit in his face, he has to act.

Yes the analysis of two reasons seems reasonable, but somehow there has to be a third that involves politics -- our most political President every has to have that motive hidden someplace in the actions -- probably to counter the other political party that is calling him a wimp.

But get prepared for a verbal and possibly more reaction. This will be a two-part lesson.

poliphobic
poliphobic

 It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it. 

― Robert E. Lee
 President Obama seems to not find it so.

ModernSage
ModernSage

Why are we even discussing becoming involved in a civil war on the other side of the planet? Because we disagree with their tactics?  Chemical weapons are abhorrent, to be sure, but this is frankly not our fight. That, and we aren't even sure it wasn't the rebels that used the gas, to provoke the US to entering the fray and finishing off Assad. It would make far more sense than Assad simply deciding to gas his own people, the very moment the UN inspectors show up. That just seems ridiculous. Not to mention Assad has nothing to gain from Chem weapons use, as he had the rebels on the run already with conventional weapons. This whole scenario is "fishy". We (the US) should be VERY wary of involvement here.

DrinkerOfTheRye
DrinkerOfTheRye

““The United States has a moral obligation anytime you see humanitarian catastrophes. When you see a genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia or in Darfur, that is a stain on all of us, that’s a stain on our souls…We can’t say ‘never again’ and then allow it to happen again, and as a president of the United States I don’t intend to abandon people or turn a blind eye to slaughter.” Sen Obama

swagger
swagger

we're once again being duped.

hzviluft
hzviluft

The Assad family has insured decades of stability and tranquility of the critical Northern border of Israel...The "opposition"elements which might replace the current,ASSAD REGIME will,most likely, inflame the border...So, just why is Israel so interested to "unseat" Assad ? Would a "busy" border distract attention from the current peace talks and offer some relief from the international pressures for the establishment of TWO STATES FOR TWO PEOPLE  ???

Altold
Altold

Red line, brown line, black line or whatever line is not important. If it were possible, the best thing would have been to expose all those who are fanning the wings for war to a real war situation. Any military intervention will worsen the situation. The best tactics is to vigorously champion a peace talk. Mark my words.

eagle_blue
eagle_blue

From where I am it looks as a very complicated matter. I have no idea what is going on there. I would like to see the regime of that guy finished. But, who knows, I may be wrong. Seeing those children dieing is certainly more than we can stand. Probably the only country capable of solving this problem is Russia. If they are not doing anything about it there should be a reason. A very careful re-evaluation by the international community, of the whole situation, seems to be required.

Chosun1
Chosun1

The US doesn't have a dog in the fight in Syria.  Both sides are (1) anti-American, (2) human rights abusers extraordinaire and (3) linked to terrorists.  Even as atrocious as Asad is, the rebels appear to be a bit worse.  

Obama made a big mistake discussing a red line in a fight that isn't his to fight.

enawga
enawga

Please refer to the shop called documents and videos. ..I doubt it.

TomFlowers
TomFlowers

@c0ri w/ regard to syria, it's far beyond "hope" now, Cori; it's a "given"; maybe we should save our hope for russia's response ;)

c0ri
c0ri

@TomFlowers maybe so. are they saying what the nerve agent was? I saw they shot up the UN cars yesterday.. they had to leave

c0ri
c0ri

@TomFlowers u catch more flies with honey. i feel another FujiStick slogan coming on haha

c0ri
c0ri

@TomFlowers haha are u kidding? the sheer size of our Fuji sticks should scare him to death ;)

TomFlowers
TomFlowers

@c0ri prolly in a bunker in damascus. we'll need several fuji sticks :P

c0ri
c0ri

@TomFlowers ya that about sums it up. any idea where he is? lets saddle up and go snatch him up by his ears

TomFlowers
TomFlowers

@c0ri Here's my psychological profile of Assad: He will stop at nothing to retain power; he's a psychopathic mass murderer.

c0ri
c0ri

@TomFlowers that guy is a mad man. maybe his own ppl will lynch him for that

TomFlowers
TomFlowers

@c0ri Assad used it, Cori. So Help Me God, it's true he personally ordered it. :(

TomFlowers
TomFlowers

@c0ri sarin, vx; here's the "ringer" tho; prolly "directly on the orders of assad" and i'm NOT making this up