Does Obama want a yea or a nay on Syria?

Samuel Tenenbaum and I were talking Syria this morning, and Samuel said if POTUS really, truly wants us to act in Syria, he’ll address the nation about the importance of the proposal passing Congress. If he doesn’t, if he remains in the background, he’s not sufficiently committed to it.

Later this morning, Samuel passed on an update from Politico that said, “President Barack Obama will address the American people on Syria from the White House on Tuesday, he announced Friday.” That prompted Samuel to say, “I think he is going for it !and willing to risk defeat by the whomever.”

Perhaps so. In fact, I think so, and hope so. But for a time this morning — and I had shared this suspicion with Samuel and others — I was wondering whether, by taking the extraordinary step of ask Congress to approve action in Syria, the president was playing out a very subtle gambit designed to extricate the nation from a risky situation with minimum damage to its ability to act in the world in the future.

Here’s the way that thinking went…

I’ve been reading all sorts of indications the last couple of days of the potential fallout from acting against Assad. For instance: we knew that this was very important to the Russians, but not since the Cold War have we had a Russian leader supplying the regime we’re about to strike with weapons in the present tense, and promising, mid-crisis, to continue doing so. Which Putin just did. Not in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else have we faced that sort of risky situation.

Iraq is a mess since we left (which we shouldn’t have done with a Status of Forces agreement going forward, but let’s not argue that right now), and our anticipated action in Syria is expected to further inflame passions among the Shiite majority there for Assad and against the United States. The NYT had a pretty compelling story about that yesterday.

The lede story in the WSJ this morning (“Iran plots revenge“) was about Iran’s threats to attack the U.S. embassy in Iraq and carry out other violent reprisals. Rhetoric, yes. But Iran has a lot of experience in recent years killing Americans and has no compunctions about it. So we have to assume that’s something we’d have to deal with after a Syria strike. Which is why the Navy is getting ready to defend the Strait of Hormuz from an Iranian attack that could cripple the world’s economy.

Note that this morning, the administration ordered nonessential U.S. embassy workers out of Beirut — presumably to protect them from Iran client Hezbollah. And Iraq has moved troops to the Syrian border to brace for what might happen after a U.S. strike.

An American president could not be seen to back down in the face of any of those direct and implied threats. That would be very bad for the president in question, this nation, and the world. But if he gives a compelling case that we should act (which he did last weekend), but then turns responsibility over to the famously ineffective, incompetent and dysfunctional Congress, we end up not acting — but it’s not his fault.

Thus he has (sorta, kinda, in a weak sort of way) stood up for doing the right thing — although a thing that no one expects to have much effect this late in the game — while avoiding a whole series of bad consequences from Russia, Iran, et al.

I really don’t think the president is that manipulative and subtle. So I’ve rejected this line of thinking. But it’s an intriguing one, I think…

24 thoughts on “Does Obama want a yea or a nay on Syria?

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    It just occurred to me that I may have been wrong to say we haven’t faced a situation in which the Russians were supplying the opposition since the Cold War. That may have been the case in Serbia, which enjoyed ties to Russia every bit as close as Syria’s and in some ways closer.

    But I’m pretty sure that nothing the Russians said at the time came close to the kind of bluster we’re hearing now from Putin. So my point remains.

    1. Mark Stewart


      The other question is: Who has been supplying more destabilizing weapons (ballistic & cruise missiles and long range rockets) since 2001 – China or Russia?

      I would guess that it’s the Chinese who have been improving and proliferating the old Soviet designs more widely and more covertly. Russia seems to do it to subsidize their own military complex more even than they seek to profit from foreign sales. China does it for the old geo-political reasons most of all; and those seem to be the more dangerous to us.

  2. Kathryn Fenner

    As far as credibility goes, the wizards on NPR say it doesn’t work like that. It’s not like some despot decides to do some despicable thing, the US says don’t, but he decides to do it anyway because once a POTUS drew a line and didn’t back it up. The despot, if s/he is rational, assesses the likelihood of a current US government to respond, and if s/he is not, and so many are not, does not even consider our response.

    1. FParker

      I wouldn’t consider getting my military information from NPR a credible source.

      Why are we going into Syria when we’ve back-burnered Benghazi? What’s the latest on that?

  3. Bryan Caskey

    Brad: I think you’re over-thinking it. There are so many different moments of dumb at the Senate hearing, it’s hard to pick my favorite, but if pressed, I would say this is in the top 5:

    Sen. Bob Corker: “What is it you’re seeking?”
    Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “I can’t answer that, what we’re seeking.”

    Seriously guys. our cause, whatever it is, is just.

    I think we should now call this OPERATION: WHATEVER.

  4. Bryan Caskey

    Now the creative juices are flowing.


    This must be what Draper feels like after 3 highballs

    1. Doug Ross

      OPERATION: BLURRED LINES (goes along with summer’s #1 hit)




      1. FParker


        Now that we’re ramping the strike up even further and will be sending in B-2’s, B-52’s, and B-1’s which will fly over Syrian airspace, what will happen if one of those aircraft is downed and live crews captured? How will that affect the “no boots on the ground” decision?

          1. Bart

            Wrong Kathryn, dead wrong. I am not in the “Faux News” bubble and I still want answers to what happened in Benghazi. The president and Hillary want it closed and forgotten – I don’t. Now, why the hell is he and Hillary not accountable for the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi? If it were anyone remotely associated with Bush or a Republican, all hell would break loose and the press demanding answers 24/7 and it wouldn’t be just “Faux News” either.

          2. Kathryn Fenner

            I think we know what happened in Benghazi. Hindsight is 20/20, but decisions that were reasonable at the time were made, with resources at hand. Resources limited by GOP-led cuts.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      My favorite is “OPERATION; JUST ‘CAUSE.” If not for this operation, for another one. It’s generic enough for that, and good enough that I hate to see it go to waste. The beauty in it is that such a vast proportion of the world’s population would miss the significance of the apostrophe. Making it an insiderish joke among literate people…

      Some of Bryan’s other suggestions remind me of my favorite billboard of all time. The one that was solid black except for white letters saying:
      “Don’t make me come down there.
      – God”

    1. Bryan Caskey

      Kat, the mission doesn’t involve eliminating nerve gas. That would require “boots” on the ground to… know…go get it. We’re just going to blow some random stuff up. with standoff missiles launched from hundreds of miles away.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        OK, I’m going to get all technical on you here…

        Yes, to make sure not a single cubic centimeter (or however you measure it) of nerve gas remained in Syria, you’d have to send in the SEALs or Delta or some of those guys. But even then, of course, there’s no guarantee that they’d get it all; in fact, I’d bet against it. That would require perfect intelligence, perfect execution and perfect luck.

        At the other end of spectrum, you COULD hit a stockpile or two or more of sarin with the standoff missiles you mention.

        You wouldn’t get all of it, but the chances of getting a substantial amount MAY be as good as the chances of getting a similar amount by pulling off multiple flawless commando raids.

        In any case, Assad having fewer such weapons than he has now is a good thing, is it not?

        1. Mark Stewart

          The thing about chemical weapons is that they are easy to produce.

          Therefore, why the worry about “destroying” the weapons. That totally misses the point. It one wants to discourage use of such weapons, one would attack different targets. One would attack the users of such weapons. To me, that doesn’t mean the artilleryman at the end of the chain of command.

          1. Bryan Caskey

            Am I the only person who thinks it’s a bad idea (like crossing the streams kind of bad) to just start blowing up stockpiles of sarin gas? Pretty sure that’s going to release the sarin gas just wherever it is.

            And that would be, as Egon would say….bad.

            Not sure the US wants to be responsible for the deaths of the people who die from the sarin gas at that point.

          2. Brad Warthen Post author

            No, it’s a problem.

            I read the other day that we have weapons that essentially destroy the munitions, then destroy the gas with intense heat.

            But this discussion of the options shows that there are no particularly good ones.

            The one bit of good news I saw in it is that some of the weapons are binary, which may mean we could destroy the separately-stored components without releasing anything dangerous.

            The surest weapon to use, short of a nuke, is one of those bombs that expands a gasoline mist over a wide area, and ignites the gas, producing temperatures over 4,000 degrees F. But in an urban area, those would kill more people than the gas did.

        2. Bryan Caskey

          Yeah, you could hit a sarin stockpile with a missile (assuming you know where the stockpile is). But if you’re the discerning Syrian despot, where do you put your sarin stockpiles these days? Fashionable locations are deep underground or between the baby-milk formula plant and a neighborhood, in the apse of a church.

          You don’t want to have a 1,000 lb. warhead blowing up a sarin gas stockpile anywhere, much less in a densely populated civilian area.

          Likely, the targets will be Syrian air-power related; and maybe against artillery, but I doubt it will have much of an affect on Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. It’s not exactly difficult to deploy chemical weapons. It was done with technology existing in WWI. It’s not rocket science.

          The best hope (f your goal is to prevent future use) is to rain down total disaster on other parts of Assad’s forces (aircraft, strategic power generators, ammo dumps, fuel and oil depots, air-defense, heavy weapons, etc.) to show him that he will lose substantial conventional forces by using chemical weapons.

  5. FParker

    What’s the point of bombing Syria at this point, we’ve given them enough warning that they’ve had time to move everything? Any targets of interest are empty and their contents are being stored in hospitals and schools. Attacking them now is nothing more an expensive target practice lesson, might as well go out back and shoot a tin can.


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