Questions for Both Sides on Syria

Syria whiplash is to be expected at this point.

Barack Obama
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You may be forgiven if you're suffering from Syria whiplash these last few weeks. In a matter of days, the Obama administration started at a position of strong rhetoric (Assad must go), scrambled right up to the edge of action, walked back from there to a congressional holding pattern and growing prospect of an unusual defeat on the Hill, before seemingly randomly lurching into a possible solution whereby Bashar Assad's regime would give up its chemical weapons rather than become the unwilling recipient of American munitions.

If this were a movie, the Russian solution would be dismissed as an implausible deus ex machina suddenly ending a convoluted plot. And it is implausible, for several reasons, starting with the unlikelihood that Assad will voluntarily give up the totality of his chemical weapons. Might he turn over a portion of them to buy a few more weeks or months while he continues to grind down the opposition? Possibly. But a full-blown surrender? Not bloody likely. And do we really think that Vladimir Putin, who until very recently professed ignorance of Assad having chemical weapons at all, has suddenly discovered their presence and become concerned about them?

And even if Assad and Putin have had Saul-to-Paul conversions on the proverbial road to Damascus, the logistics of finding and neutralizing a far-flung chemical weapons program are overwhelming. As Bloomberg's Jeffrey Goldberg wrote this week, "the process of securing several hundred tons of chemical weapons, and thousands of warheads and rockets, would take years, even if Syria were at peace. The U.S. has been destroying its chemical weapons stocks for roughly 15 years, and it still isn't finished." And Syria is in the middle of a civil war that is metastasizing as greater numbers of foreign fighters are drawn there. "In Syria, Hezbollah and al-Qaida, among others, are struggling violently, even nihilistically, for supremacy," Goldberg notes. Appearing on CNN Wednesday night, former U.N. weapons inspector David Kay estimated that dealing with the Syrian arms in the middle of an ongoing civil war could take 10 years. The Russian plan, then, at best promises a long, drawn-out process with limited success, but more likely it will prove an endless opportunity for stalling and delay.

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There's a good chance, then, that before much time has passed, we'll be back to where we were at the start of the week, with President Obama trying to rally Congress and the international community to punish Assad for gassing his own people. Circumstances might change by then, but as of now polls show majorities of Americans think bombing Syria would be a bad idea. I wish I could share the certainty so many people on both sides seem to have about the prospect, but I find myself with more questions than answers.

For the critics of Obama's plan, for example, what about the next dictator and the one after that? "If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons," Obama said Tuesday night. "As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas, and using" it. And the more conventional these weapons become, the more likely that they could move from states to nonstate actors like al-Qaida. So what happens if the no-chemical-weapons norm is allowed to fade?

And for the reflexive Obama critics who dismiss the idea that his threat of U.S. military force was unrelated to Syria's sudden – if questionable – willingness to give up its chemical arms, what was it then? Just remarkable timing?

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Those favoring the strikes must also explain why there aren't larger risks with the U.S. going to war in yet another Middle Eastern country. Sure our bombs would be serving a higher purpose, but who believes that that's the perception that would come across to people in the region? Would they be more likely to see U.S. strikes as noble efforts to save them, or would our actions be seen through the prism of an unconstrained superpower bombing yet another Muslim country? Sure they'd be "limited" strikes, but to what extent is that a distinction that matters more in the U.S. media than to the rest of the world? If you're lobbing cruise missiles into someone's country, how much do they care that you're doing it in a limited fashion? Haven't the last dozen years taught us that people don't greet you as liberators when you're invading or bombing their country?