Regardless of where you stand on the question of U.S. military action in Syria, you have to be appalled by the lack of cohesive thought articulated by the two principal leaders in the debate last week. On one side you have Russian President Vladimir Putin essentially throwing verbal spaghetti against the wall in his New York Times op-ed page "Plea for Caution" essay in an apparent effort to see which counter arguments will stick. And on the other side you have President Obama making an emotional appeal for a tactical action that is bubbling with strategic implications. Unasked in Putin's argument and unanswered in Obama's are the three central questions that must be addressed anytime the use of U.S. military force is contemplated.
If the goal of Putin's essay was to build confidence and support among Americans for the Russian offer to manage control of Bashar Assad's previously denied stockpile of chemical weapons, it was a failure. It was a meandering list of reasons against U.S. action, ranging from the need to keep the United Nations from following the League of Nations into irrelevancy to a denial of the concept of "American exceptionalism."
Maybe it's because I have been watching DVDs of the old Cold War miniseries "Smiley's People," and maybe it's because it was reported last week that Putin's American public relations firm had helped place his essay in the Times, but I have to believe the guest column with the former KGB agent's byline was designed to serve a strategic purpose. Otherwise one is left to conclude, as comedian Jon Stewart hilariously did, that Putin is the Larry David of diplomacy, sabotaging his own efforts to build relationships by his compulsive need to have the last word.
If the Russian goal is to delay action in Syria, but not to actually help achieve a truce, starting a number of side arguments over obtuse issues is probably a good tactic to employ. If opinion-leaders and decision-makers get drawn into abstract discussions instead of focusing on Syrian atrocities and the geopolitical considerations of action, it sucks some of the energy out of the room. But it does nothing to help advance a serious effort to control dangerous weapons.
With President Obama's address to the nation last week, his goal was clearly to convince people that a military strike in retaliation for the Syrian government's nerve-gassing of a thousand people is not only appropriate, but necessary. The president focused much of his argument on the sheer horror of hundreds of children dying in especially agonizing ways. This much we can probably all agree on.
What the president failed to articulate, however, is how firing a bunch of cruise missiles stops such a slaughter from happening again or what we do if attacks continue. Or what, if anything, we do if Assad never uses chemical weapons again, but continues to blow civilians – including children – to smithereens using conventional weapons, as he has for the last two years? These questions have gone unaddressed.
When I was a congressional aide in the previous century, I helped my boss develop a three-question test for the use of military force. I think these questions are still the central ones that must be answered before the American people decide to unleash hell on some other people:
In the Syrian debate, the American people are still looking for the answers to these questions.