My colleague Howard Portnoy highlighted yesterday the report that a U.S. official who had been briefed on the planning for a strike on Syria characterized the objective as “a level of intensity ‘just muscular enough not to get mocked’ but not so devastating that it would prompt a response from Syrian allies Iran and Russia.”
As Howard says, it’s too late for the “not getting mocked” objective. The mocking, moreover, is not because people don’t like Obama; it’s because watching him and his administration burble and leak their way through this exciting national-security moment is like watching a toddler try to be devious.
Want to reassure Russia we aren’t trying to dislodge Assad? “Leak” it out that our planning is deliberately designed to produce an operation that will fall short of dislodging Assad. A leak will be clever and clear, right? Keep Team Obama from looking like a bunch of, you know, cowboys?
With the leaks, at this point, we’re well beyond questions of achieving operational surprise. Surprise, schmise, who cares about surprise. If we went in with sufficient force – if we had the funds and combat readiness to, in fiscal year 2013 – we could call Assad’s lieutenants and talk them through the strike while it was happening, and still destroy everything they’ve got and leave Assad cowering in a spider-hole, eating grass and out of options.
The issue isn’t really tipping our hand about the particulars of the strike here. (If we go in with insufficient force, of course, that could be an issue. Don’t assume we won’t.)
The issue is tipping our hand, with such industrious, sophomores-in-a-seminar thoroughness, about the objective of the strike. When we tell the Russians and Iranians in advance that we have no intention of dislodging Assad, we’re telling Assad that too. We’re telling the entire world, including al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban, and Dennis Rodman’s BFF in Pyongyang.
Team Obama’s performance is an elaborate version of the toddler wandering the halls looking for an adult to lie down and have a tantrum in front of. Everyone else can see what our presidential administration is doing: see the deceptive intent, see the ulterior motive – see the seeming unawareness, on the part of the little role-player, that everyone else can see through him.
The toddler doesn’t know any better than to try to get what he wants with his patented deception campaign. But a presidential administration should have the adult situational awareness to know the thing that’s of overriding importance: that this, of all times, is the time to announce your intentions. Don’t leak them, for crying out loud; state plainly what they are. This isn’t the moment to annoy the perpetrator and his patrons; it’s the time to stampede them.
The rhetorical posture – the statesman’s presence – matters as much as the hardware, or even more. Shading your potential meaning with leaks is inherently pusillanimous at a time like this. It’s begging for understanding, at a juncture when the only sound thing to do is impose and enforce your meaning.
Indeed, if you plan to use force, that’s the only sane thing to do. Military action is a tool of will, not a substitute for it. You cannot send a more forceful message of intent with military action than you are willing to have or put into words. It just doesn’t work that way.
In any case, if you can’t announce your intentions because it would be embarrassing to, well, you’ve just answered every question that matters.
In the annals of transparently meaningless punishments, cooked up in a transparently cynical deliberation process, the proposed have-no-impact strike on Assad ranks right up there with the half-game suspension of Johnny (Johnny Football) Manziel, quarterback of the Texas A&M Aggies.
Now, of course, Manziel’s autograph-signing, while it violated NCAA policy, bears no resemblance as an infraction to the use of chemical weapons on civilians. But as an example of carefully refining a punishment that will have zero measurable impact on anything, the half-game suspension makes a very nice analogy.
Let’s be clear on the signal the Obama administration has been at such pains to send through leaks. The United States will react to the thought of Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons on Syrians. Not try to affect Assad’s future, mind you. Just react. Maybe drop a few bombs. But it doesn’t bother us at all to think of Bashar “Chemical” Assad reclaiming all of Syria and ruling over the Syrians again. To that possibility, we assure Putin, Rouhani, and Assad, we will have no reaction.
If you think that’s an effective message to send about the evils of using chemical weapons, you probably think military action is a magic wand you can wave, when you’re afraid to actually confront a security problem and try to change what’s causing it.
*UPDATE*: Obama has now called for a vote in Congress on conducting the strike against Syria. Since Congress won’t be back in session until 9 September, and there is no information on a plan to reconvene sooner in order to hold this vote, everything is apparently dead-in-the-water for the moment. It’s not clear what the forces assembled in the Mediterranean will do for the next 10 days.