The World Is Watching Obama Stumble

Obama’s messy Syria response is scaring our allies and emboldening our enemies.

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President Barack Obama said Congress' credibility is on the line in a press conference on Syria on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in Stockholm, Sweden.
Several of President Obama's advisers have spent the week making the case for a military response to Syria's use of chemical weapons.

Before Labor Day weekend, Syrian President Bashar Assad had every reason to believe that the United States was about to unleash its military might on some of his most valuable military assets to deter the Syrian regime from ever using chemical weapons again.

Now, with President Obama's sudden decision to seek authorization from Congress for the military operation, the Syrian leadership is breathing a sigh of relief and repositioning military assets to complicate any future military strikes.

When Obama declared a year ago that Syrian chemical weapons use would be a "red line" and would change his "calculus," he was issuing a deterrent threat. The essence of any such threat contains two elements: first, the certainty of severe and timely punishment for transgression of the line that was drawn, and second, uncertainty about the exact nature of the punishment ("the threat that leaves something to chance," in the words of famous deterrence theorist Thomas Schelling).

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

When Assad's forces used chemical weapons earlier this year, with no such punishment from the U.S. military, the Syrians undoubtedly decided that Obama was not going to back up his threat. So they used chemical weapons again, this time on a much larger scale. Deterrence had broken down. U.S. allies around the world, already concerned about deep U.S. defense budget cuts, waited to see what the White House would do.

At that point, even Obama realized that action had to be taken to restore deterrence. The U.S. national security machinery grinded into action, headed toward the severe, prompt military response that would make it clear to the Syrian leadership that it should never use weapons of mass destruction again.

If such an attack were executed swiftly and robustly, there is little doubt that Assad and his advisors would have understood, and they would have relented. They would have, at minimum, felt their offices and headquarters shaking around them, as warheads exploded on multiple military targets for a terrifying, extended period of time. Some of them even would have lost their lives.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

But just as the response plans began to kick into gear, the White House broke all the rules of deterrence. Officials repeatedly leaked details of the plans, and, in other cases, the president himself stated that the operation would be "limited" and "narrow," that it would involve roughly fifty targets attacked only by cruise missiles, and that neither regime change nor changing the balance of power in the Syrian civil war were the goals.

The message to Assad and his cronies was clear: you have nothing to fear.

The folly of the president's subsequent announcement on Labor Day weekend that he would he seek congressional authorization for the planned, short, and limited operation – unprecedented in modern presidential history – was compounded by the fact that he would not even ask Congress to return from vacation for the vote. Syrian use of weapons of mass destruction was important enough for the nation to go to war, but not important enough to call members of Congress back from vacation. This means that the vote would not occur for another ten days at the earliest, further weakening any deterrent effect that remains. [See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Swift, effective Operation "Syrian Response" had become Operation "Slow Motion Pinprick."

In one week – albeit in the context of President Obama's consistent emphasis on withdrawing the U.S. military from foreign entanglements – the president ruptured the critical link between U.S. strategy, diplomacy and the threat of military force. Close U.S. allies and partners from Israel to Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, to South Korea and Japan in the Pacific, grew alarmed by their perceptions of reduced U.S. commitment to come to their defense if attacked. Potential military adversaries such as North Korea and Iran no doubt are emboldened, seeing a pusillanimous U.S. president hemmed in by domestic politics, reduced budgets and a lack of resolve to wield American power when needed.

And what of Assad? He has much more time now to prepare for an attack, probably in a couple of weeks, which he knows will not hurt him. When it is over, he will emerge from his bunker and continue fighting for his regime's survival. And he will use chemical weapons again.

Barry Pavel is a vice president at the Atlantic Council and served as special assistant for defense policy and strategy on the National Security Council staff for President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama from 2008 to 2010.

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