Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
In a prime-time speech on Tuesday night, President Barack Obama made a forceful case for a possible strike against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. He reiterated the argument that the United States has both a humanitarian obligation to respond to the horrific use of chemical weapons against civilians, and a national security interest in preventing Assad from using such weapons again and signaling to other tyrants that such attacks will not be tolerated. The president tried to deploy both emotion (referring to the dreadful images from the August 21 chemical weapon attack near Damascus) and logic (contending that an assault would lessen the odds of future attacks, limit the possibility that chemical weapons fall into the hands of extremists, and prevent US troops from facing chemical weapons in conflicts down the road). He tried to respond to the main reservations raised by lawmakers and voters. (Should the United States be the world's policeman? No, but no one else can respond to this particular attack now.) The news of the night was that he asked Congress to put off any vote on a resolution authorizing him to launch a limited strike against Syria so that the United States could pursue the deal proposed by Russia that would place Assad's chemical weapons under international control. And Obama announced he was sending Kerry to negotiate with the Russian foreign minister. Still, the speech was aimed at bolstering support on Capitol Hill and within the public for military action against Syria, if diplomacy fails. Obama summed up his case:
Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used. America is not the world's policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.
There's no telling whether this speech will win over skeptical citizens and legislators. But with a diplomatic resolution possible—though by no means a given—and a showdown in Congress postponed, perhaps Obama did not have to.
Members of the Free Syrian Army chatting in front of a T-72 tank parked in a secret location close to al-Rami village.
In search of popular and congressional support for a limited and narrow strike on Syria, President Barack Obama has contended that the aim of military action would be to punish Bashar al-Assad's regime for its presumed use of chemical weapons and deter it from the further use of such horrific arms. The possible Russia-brokered deal that has emerged in the face of Obama's threatened attack—Syria submitting its chemical weapons to international control—could prevent a US assault on Syria and yield Obama a diplomatic victory. But he would have to settle for an incomplete win. Assad would presumably not be able to launch another massive chemical weapons attack, but the Syrian dictator would not be truly punished for his military's use of chemical weapons.
Under the no-details-yet arrangement being pursued by Washington, Moscow, and the United Nations, Assad would presumably give up control of his chemical weapons stock. How that happens remains to be seen. Will he hand over these arms to the UN or another international agency for destruction? Will he allow inspectors to monitor and guard his storage facilities? Will he truly honor the agreement and not stash some chemical weapons in a hiding place? But any regimen would certainly make it difficult, if not impossible, for Assad to once again use chemical weapons against his foes. Moreover, Vladimir Putin and Russia would now be on the hook, essentially guarantors that Assad would not again resort to such arms. And given that Russia is Assad's No. 1 sponsor, Assad could not afford to tick off Moscow. So no matter how imperfect the international control system might be, there will be plenty of incentive for Assad to keep his hands off chemical weapons—and for Russia to lean on him. (Of course, in extreme circumstances—say, a situation in which the survival of the regime is at stake—Assad and his Russian pals might rejigger their calculations.) Consequently, a deal would likely achieve what Obama has sought: deterring Assad from further chemical weapons attacks.
Yet the accord in the works has no punitive aspect. Assad will not be held accountable for the August 21 attack near Damascus that killed 1400 civilians, including many children. And he will be able to continue slaughtering others with conventional means. Will other tyrants get the message that using chemical weapons will not be accepted by the international community?
Still, the possible unintended consequences of a punitive strike on Syria remain: civilian casualties, shifting the balance of power in favor of Al Qaeda-connected rebels, and creating more chaos and conflict in Syria and the region. Is punishing Assad worth potentially destabilizing the country further? (A collapse of the Syrian regime could lead to a WMD free-for-all there.) If this deal solidifies—and that's a good-sized if—Obama might have to accept deterrence as the net gain. Afterward, he can focus on the tougher challenge of resolving the Syrian conflict and bringing Assad to justice.
Here's why President Barack Obama is in a jam: He cannot obtain support for a military strike against Syria within Congress and the public at large by simply saying "trust me," and he cannot (at least with the public) provide a full explanation of the costs and benefits of this military action.
On Tuesday night, Obama will deliver an Oval Office speech to try to sway the American public to support the assault (unless somehow the Russia-brokered deal to place Syria's chemical weapons under international control comes together), and he and his aides keep emphasizing that the attack will be limited, narrow, and tailored—"unbelievably small," as Secretary of State John Kerry put it. But the task at hand remains a difficult one. The strike would have to achieve a very particular aim (punishing Bashar al-Assad and deterring his regime from the further use of chemical weapons) without yielding a variety of negative consequences, including causing excessive civilian casualties, changing the balance of power on the ground to the benefit of opposition forces aligned with Al Qaeda, triggering counterattacks against US or Israeli targets, and/or prompting more chaos and conflict in Syria and the region. And for a war-weary public, it is not easy to sort out the odds of success and failure without access to the best information the administration possesses.
President Barack Obama has a tough task this week, as he seeks to win congressional support—particularly among his skeptical Democratic comrades—for a limited military strike on Syria in retaliation for the regime's presumed use of chemical weapons. But as the White House tries to whip up support on Capitol Hill and within the public at large, it is conveying something of a mixed message.
On Monday morning, UN ambassador Samantha Power was on NPR, as part of the administration's full-court press. A onetime journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for a gripping book on modern genocides, Power is a particularly effective spokesperson for Obama on an issue concerning mass murder and humanitarian imperatives. She was asked about GOP Rep. Tom Cole's opposition to the resolution authorizing the president to strike Syria. Cole has argued that the Syria conflict is "particularly intractable and particularly nasty. It's a war on many levels. A civil war, a religious war, a proxy war between the Iranians and the Saudis." He contends that there is "no direct security threat to the United States" or its allies and that limited strikes "are not likely to work." Power replied:
President Obama does not want to get involved in this conflict. He wants to degrade Assad's capability of using his [chemical] weapon[s] and affect his cost-benefit calculus because he will use again and again and again. And it's only a matter time before these weapons will fall into the hands of nonstate actors, again imperiling some of our closest allies in the region, but also in the long term hurting the United States.
The key part of that answer was her assertion that the president seeks to stay out of the conflict in Syria. But that's not what the resolution passed last week by the Senate foreign relations committee says. Section 5 of the resolution presents a "statement of policy":
(a) CHANGING OF MOMENTUM ON BATTLEFIELD.—It is the policy of the United States to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria so as to create favorable conditions for a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict and leads to a democratic government in Syria.
(b) DEGRADATION OF ABILITY OF REGIME TO USE WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION.—A comprehensive United States strategy in Syria should aim, as part of a coordinated international effort, to degrade the capabilities of the Assad regime to use weapons of mass destruction while upgrading the lethal and non-lethal military capabilities of vetted elements of Syrian opposition forces, including the Free Syrian Army.
And Section 6 of the resolution calls for the United States to work for a negotiated political settlement in Syria by providing "all forms of assistance to the Syrian Supreme Military Council and other Syrian entities opposed to the government of Bashar Al-Assad that have been properly and fully vetted and share common values and interests with the United States."
Though these parts of the resolution are closer to recommendations than authorizations of specific actions, they do put the Obama administration on record as being involved in the conflict, if only by assisting one or more of the warring factions. And, of course, Obama in June authorized the CIA to covertly train and arm supposedly moderate rebel forces in Syria—though the CIA has reportedly not yet begun handing out weapons to opposition forces. (The program may soon be turned over to US special forces.)
So the United States is already involved in the conflict. When Power insists that the president does not want to get involved, what she really means is deeply involved (as in, with combat troops). This parsing shows how complicated the situation is, and how difficult it is for the White House to present a clear message. Obama wants to launch a military assault to deter Assad from the use of chemical weapons, but he doesn't want to defeat Assad; he wants to steer clear of participation in the wider conflict, though he is providing support to players in that ongoing civil war. The White House can certainly defend such a policy, given the complexities of the situation, but it does contain a fair bit of yin and yang. No wonder many of his own Democrats have yet to rally to Obama's call.
The conventional snark on President Barack Obama's Syria strategy is that he's made a hash of it. The other day, I bumped into a former Obama administration official who informed me his jaw hit the floor when he watched the president on Saturday announce he would seek congressional authorization for a limited military strike on Bashar al-Assad's regime in retaliation for its presumed use of chemical weapons last month. "Why make this more complicated?" this frustrated ex-official asked. And a House Democrat I encountered who supports a strike—and who has been enlisted by House Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to persuade progressive Ds to vote for the president's Syria resolution—was apoplectic: "The one thing this president knows is how dysfunctional and obstructionist the [Republican-controlled] House is. Why would he stake his presidency on it?" This lawmaker was pessimistic that enough House Democrats could be coaxed into voting for the resolution; he was not making any progress with his partymates opposed to a strike. "We don't have the votes," he declared—and he was damn angry at Obama.
With his decision to seek congressional approval for an attack, Obama created a political whirlpool. He exacerbated the growing schism on the right that pits tea party isolationists—led by possible presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), with Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), other likely 2016ers, rushing to catch up—versus the coalition of hawks commanded by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and neocons who yearn for a deeper and larger intervention in Syria than the president envisions. This split has the potential to turn into an ideological civil war within the GOP during the next presidential campaign. Meanwhile, House Republicans are deeply divided (unlike during the run-up to the Iraq war), with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his leadership crew on the president's side and rank-and-file House GOPers, enwrapped in Obama hatred, accusing the president of misleading the world and engaging in conspiratorial warmongering.