In an extraordinary series of disclosures this week, Obama administration officials said that the United States will launch only cruise missile strikes in Syria. The attacks will last roughly two or three days. And the administration’s goal will be to punish President Bashar al-Assad, not remove him from power.
But those clear efforts to placate opponents of military action appear to be failing. Warnings of “another Iraq” are fueling opposition to the use of force on both sides of the Atlantic. And the Obama administration’s contradictory record on secrecy is coming back to haunt it.
In Washington on Wednesday, one-third of the members of Congress asked that they be allowed to vote on any use of American force. In London on Thursday, Prime Minister David Cameron’s effort to gain support in Parliament for strikes failed, despite the unusual public release of an official intelligence assessment which said Assad repeatedly used chemical weapons.
President Barack Obama should follow Cameron’s example. Obama should make sure there is a open debate that helps restore confidence in public control over the use of military force. The president should allow the U.N. inspectors to finish their work, give Congress an opportunity to vote on the use of force and unveil any evidence of Syrian government involvement discovered by American intelligence agencies.
Public skepticism about an attack is understandable. Americans fear that the United States is being dragged into another quagmire in the Middle East. The Obama administration’s unfulfilled promise of being more transparent than the Bush administration is curbing its ability to gain the trust of the American public.
First, this week’s extraordinary leaks about the nature of any U.S. attack on Syria. In short, an administration that has carried out more criminal leak investigations than all other administrations combined is giving itself a pass on sharing secrets. When it suits its political goals, this White House leaks like a sieve.
The biggest danger of the administration’s approach is that the release of so much detailed information about the scope of the strikes undercuts their central goal: deterrence. This is not new from Obama.
In Afghanistan, Obama placed an 18-month time limit to the 2009 troop surge before it even started. The deadline eased concerns among the American public. But it also telegraphed to the Taliban that they needed to simply wait out the surge in their safe havens in Pakistan.
On Syria, publicly leaking the limited nature of what Obama intends to do appears not to be easing public opposition. A new legacy is emerging from the presidency of George W. Bush: opposition to the use of force in any form.
Whatever one’s view of the invasion of Iraq, the credible threat of military force is a vital foreign policy tool. The potential of lethal force can help defuse disputes and bring people to the bargaining table in some situations.
By telling Assad that the strikes will be limited, the White House is already handing the Syrian leader an easy way out. He can simply wait out a brief bombing campaign, emerge from a bunker and triumphantly declare that he has defied a superpower.
As Jeffrey Goldberg argued in Bloomberg View on Wednesday, too tepid an approach can backfire.
“If this is indeed the goal of the Obama administration,” Goldberg wrote, “to look tough without being tough, to avoid threatening the existence of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and to avoid angering Iran and Russia — then, really, let’s not bother with this attack at all.”
The best way for Obama to boost his credibility at home and abroad is to allow a congressional vote on the issue. Obama is not Bush. For two years, Obama has resisted calls for intervention in Syria. And he remains deeply reluctant about intervening now.
Yet few Americans trust him to resist being drawn into the conflict, intentionally or unintentionally. A public debate will allow Obama to make his case. It will give him and his aides a chance to argue why cruise missile strikes are not the equivalent of a ground invasion.
Finally, Obama must release all the evidence American intelligence agencies possess about Syrian government involvement in last week’s attack in the suburbs of Damascus. The administration’s pattern of promising transparency — from online surveillance to drones — but failing to deliver it must end.
A credible case for a cruise missile attack exists. If U.N. inspectors and American intelligence assessments conclude that the Syrian government carried out chemical attacks, I believe Assad should pay a military price.
A cruise missile attack would send a message to autocrats that the use of a weapon of mass destruction will not be ignored. Acting will restore credibility to American threats of force against other leaders and nations in the future.
At the same time, Americans are understandably wary of being drawn into Syria’s conflict. The goal of any military action should be to punish Assad for using chemical weapons, not quickly topple him. Under no circumstances should U.S. ground troops be deployed in Syria.
If there is congressional support for altering the military balance on the ground in Syria, the United States should arm moderate members of Syria’s opposition as a counter-weight to jihadists. A best-case scenario is a negotiated settlement in Syria that includes talks with Russia and Iran and prevents the dissolution of the country. That will not occur until the military balance is changed on the ground.
And, of course, it may simply be too late to salvage Syria.
Airing in Congress the complexity of the choice that the United States faces in Syria is vital. It may help exorcise the ghosts of Iraq. Or it may show how that war changed American power forever.
David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a former reporter for The New York Times. His latest book, "Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East," was published in April.