A Grave, Obscene, but Separate Matter

Obama’s slippery strategic separations in Syria.

President Barack Obama answers questions during his new conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 30, 2013. The president said the US doesn't know how or when chemical weapons were used in Syria or who used them. 
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Major Garrett
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Major Garrett
Aug. 27, 2013, 3:10 p.m.

See if you can fol­low this lo­gic.

The Syr­i­an re­gime, led by dic­tat­or Bashar al-As­sad, used chem­ic­al weapons against ci­vil­ians in the sub­urbs of Dam­as­cus — a “mor­al ob­scen­ity” that should “shock the con­science of the world,” in the words of Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry.

As­sad, des­per­ate to cling to power, de­ployed chem­ic­al weapons to an­ni­hil­ate ci­vil­ians and in­tim­id­ate op­pos­i­tion forces gain­ing ground on the out­skirts of the cap­it­al city.

The U.S. is as­sem­bling a co­ali­tion to sup­port a mil­it­ary at­tack against Syr­ia.

The at­tack is de­signed to be of re­l­at­ively brief dur­a­tion and in the mil­it­ary term of art “sur­gic­al” and “pro­por­tion­al.” To say the re­cord of such mil­it­ary ac­tion is un­im­press­ive is an un­der­state­ment. What’s worse, a key ar­chi­tect of the emer­ging mil­it­ary strategy in Syr­ia has deep mis­giv­ings about a lim­ited en­gage­ment with As­sad.

The at­tack, however, will not be aimed at top­pling As­sad or tip­ping the mil­it­ary bal­ance in fa­vor of op­pos­i­tion forces. “We are not fo­cused on tak­ing ac­tion to de­term­ine the out­come of the civil war,” said a seni­or Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial. “We in­tend to send a mes­sage to the world that this is not busi­ness as usu­al.”

As­sad is sup­posed to prop­erly in­ter­pret the motives be­hind the mil­it­ary at­tack, sep­ar­at­ing the in­tent of cruise-mis­sile strikes meant to pun­ish him from cruise mis­siles meant to oust him.

In fact, it is es­sen­tial As­sad not only com­pre­hend this dis­tinc­tion — a tall or­der — but he must be kept in power. Why? Be­cause there can be no ne­go­ti­ated peace without As­sad in power

To re­view, the dic­tat­or who is re­spons­ible for an ob­scene in­ter­na­tion­al crime against hu­man­ity must be pun­ished but not ous­ted so he can preside over his own ne­go­ti­ated de­mise — whereupon he would, lo­gic­ally, face pro­sec­u­tion be­fore the In­ter­na­tion­al Crim­in­al Court in The Hag­ue.

Based on everything the world has learned about As­sad, does this sound like a likely scen­ario, a work­able strategy, or a co­her­ent plan?

Wheth­er it does or does not, that is where we are.

Oh, and the United Na­tions and Con­gress are not ne­ces­sary to form­ally val­id­ate the mil­it­ary re­sponse or even eval­u­ate the evid­ence.

White House press sec­ret­ary Jay Car­ney on Tues­day said the use of chem­ic­al weapons was “a sep­ar­ate mat­ter” and dis­tinct from U.S. sup­port of As­sad’s ouster. The re­sponse of the U.S. and oth­er col­lab­or­at­ing na­tions would be dir­ec­ted at As­sad’s use of chem­ic­al weapons and noth­ing else.

“The pres­id­ent is en­gaged in a pro­cess of re­view­ing his op­tions in re­sponse to the un­deni­able use of chem­ic­al weapons and our con­vic­tion that those weapons were used by the re­gime,” Car­ney said.

Can you sep­ar­ate chem­ic­al weapons from the re­gime? Can you sep­ar­ate the bar­bar­ism of a chem­ic­al-weapons at­tack from the mur­der­ous mil­it­ary as­sault on op­pos­i­tion forces that have left more than 100,000 dead and dis­placed 1.5 mil­lion Syr­i­ans? Is any­thing in Syr­ia a sep­ar­ate mat­ter? Stra­tegic­ally, how can a U.S.-led mil­it­ary cam­paign, es­pe­cially one with tele­graphed brev­ity and lim­ited mil­it­ary am­bi­tions, make a sub­stant­ive dif­fer­ence?

Pres­id­ent Obama has not spoken pub­licly about Syr­ia since Fri­day, leav­ing the mor­al out­rage to Kerry and de­flec­tions about tim­ing and de­cision-mak­ing to Car­ney. Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden ad­ded his voice Tues­day, say­ing “an es­sen­tial in­ter­na­tion­al norm had been vi­ol­ated.” This is not a pure va­cu­um, but it does sug­gest Obama is sub­con­tract­ing the es­sen­tial ob­lig­a­tion of bring­ing the Amer­ic­an pub­lic and Con­gress along as he de­lib­er­ates a fate­ful course of ac­tion.

Brit­ish Prime Min­is­ter Dav­id Camer­on did speak Tues­day and largely fore­shad­owed the emer­ging co­ali­tion’s im­petus for a mil­it­ary at­tack and its in­her­ent in­hib­i­tions.

“Any ac­tion we take or oth­ers take would have to be leg­al, would have to be pro­por­tion­ate,” Camer­on told the BBC. “It would have to be spe­cific­ally to de­ter and de­grade the fu­ture use of chem­ic­al weapons. Let me stress to people: This is not about get­ting in­volved in a Middle East­ern war, or chan­ging our stance in Syr­ia, or go­ing fur­ther in­to that con­flict. It’s noth­ing to do with that. It’s about chem­ic­al weapons. Their use is wrong, and the world shouldn’t stand idly by.”

On the leg­al side, the ad­min­is­tra­tion is look­ing to­ward the Geneva Con­ven­tion and the Chem­ic­al Weapons Con­ven­tion as jus­ti­fic­a­tion for a mil­it­ary re­sponse. Obama ordered those briefs Sat­urday after re­view­ing in­tel­li­gence and de­vel­op­ing a con­sensus with­in his na­tion­al se­cur­ity team that mil­it­ary strikes should be pre­pared. Obama also ordered a re­port on the best avail­able in­tel­li­gence on the Aug. 21 chem­ic­al-weapons at­tacks and ordered it be pre­pared for de­clas­si­fic­a­tion be­fore any at­tacks were launched. Seni­or of­fi­cials do not prom­ise a so-called smoking gun in the in­tel­li­gence re­port, say­ing there will be no “huge sur­prises” in its find­ings. Nev­er­the­less, Obama wants a re­port that is more pre­cise and de­tailed than the cir­cum­stan­tial evid­ence dis­cussed so far. The pro­cess on Tues­day was bogged down in de­clas­si­fy­ing cer­tain de­tails.

All of this ob­scures the lar­ger risks in­volved. As An­thony Cordes­man, a top ana­lyst at the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and In­ter­na­tion­al Stud­ies, told my CBS col­league Bill Plante, this mo­ment re­quires deep­er stra­tegic thought.

“The prob­lem is ac­tion to do what,” Cordes­man asked. “Do we have a stra­tegic pur­pose? You don’t need chem­ic­al weapons if you’re As­sad to go for­ward as you’ve been go­ing for­ward over these past months. This is an ex­ist­en­tial struggle for As­sad. If we simply pun­ish him for us­ing chem­ic­al weapons by des­troy­ing a few high-value polit­ic­ally sens­it­ive fa­cil­it­ies and leave our in­tent un­stated and don’t show we’re will­ing to fol­low up by sup­port­ing the rebels, by work­ing with our al­lies, it will be a hol­low mes­sage. At some point in the fu­ture, we will either be re­membered as hav­ing taken token ac­tion and done noth­ing or have to use force un­der even worse cir­cum­stances than we face today.”

It may not be pos­sible to ima­gine worse cir­cum­stances than we face today. But Obama said something im­port­ant about war­fare at his ex­traordin­ar­ily mar­tial ac­cept­ance speech upon win­ning the No­bel Peace Prize. In it he quoted Dr. Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr., whose leg­acy Obama will cel­eb­rate Wed­nes­day on the 50th an­niversary of King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” It is quite pos­sible Obama will later this week, pos­sibly as early as Thursday, make the same dis­tinc­tion between war and peace that he did in Copen­ha­gen on Dec. 10, 2009.

“We must be­gin by ac­know­ledging the hard truth: We will not erad­ic­ate vi­ol­ent con­flict in our life­times,” Obama said. “There will be times when na­tions — act­ing in­di­vidu­ally or in con­cert — will find the use of force not only ne­ces­sary but mor­ally jus­ti­fied. I make this state­ment mind­ful of what Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr. said in this same ce­re­mony years ago: ‘Vi­ol­ence nev­er brings per­man­ent peace. It solves no so­cial prob­lem. It merely cre­ates new and more com­plic­ated ones.’ As someone who stands here as a dir­ect con­sequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am liv­ing testi­mony to the mor­al force of non­vi­ol­ence. I know there’s noth­ing weak — noth­ing pass­ive, noth­ing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King. But as a head of state sworn to pro­tect and de­fend my na­tion, I can­not be guided by their ex­amples alone. I face the world as it is, and can­not stand idle in the face of threats to the Amer­ic­an people. For make no mis­take: Evil does ex­ist in the world.”

Obama has now found evil in As­sad suf­fi­cient to jus­ti­fy a mil­it­ary at­tack. That did not ex­ist be­fore Aug. 21. It is now a White House im­per­at­ive — sep­ar­ate and dis­tinct from pre­vi­ous stra­tegic cal­cu­la­tions that kept the U.S. out of the Syr­i­an civil war. If they are launched, cruise mis­siles will put the U.S. in the civil war. And many hard truths and stra­tegic con­sequences will fol­low. And noth­ing in Syr­ia will be a sep­ar­ate mat­ter any­more.

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