September 6, 2013

One of the least compelling arguments of opponents of military action in Syria is that if we don’t go all in to topple Bashar al-Assad, we should do nothing. Rhetorically that is appealing (no half-measures!), but with this president, the aim of conservative hawks must be realistic and constructive. Simply put, the solution to President Obama’s utter failure to do anything effective to remove Assad (or to consider the implications for Iran) is not to tie his hands so he can continue to do nothing; it is to push him to devise a coherent strategy and become bolder.

President Obama in Germany
President Obama appears at the Brandenburg Gate in Germany. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

This is essentially what Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have been doing. In public and in private, they’ve been urging the president to combine military action to degrade Assad’s forces with meaningful aid to the rebels (including military assistance) and significant regional involvement from countries like Jordan and Turkey. In the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, McCain was able to add language stating that “[a] comprehensive U.S. 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.”

This certainly seems to be the view of Secretary of State John Kerry, who has spoken of doing much more than making a symbolic gesture. (“The consequence of degrading his chemical capacity inevitably will also have downstream impact on his military capacity”). In fact, since we are talking about hitting Assad’s ability to deliver chemical weapons (e.g. airplanes, helicopters), we are going to impact Assad’s ability to wage war.

The New York Times reports:

President Obama has directed the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of potential targets in Syria in response to intelligence suggesting that the government of President Bashar al-Assad has been moving troops and equipment used to employ chemical weapons while Congress debates whether to authorize military action.

Mr. Obama, officials said, is now determined to put more emphasis on the “degrade” part of what the administration has said is the goal of a military strike against Syria — to “deter and degrade” Mr. Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. That means expanding beyond the 50 or so major sites that were part of the original target list developed with French forces before Mr. Obama delayed action on Saturday to seek Congressional approval of his plan.

This smacks of the beginning of a bolder and more productive plan than a “shot across the bow.” The report goes on to explain that the “degrade” part of the mission is expanding and that there is now talk of “using American and French aircraft to conduct strikes on specific targets, in addition to ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles.” And Gen. Martin Dempsey (who arguably has been all over the place on military action) “has said that other targets would include equipment that Syria uses to protect the chemicals — air defenses, long-range missiles and rockets, which can also deliver the weapons.”

Conservative hawks have every reason to be skeptical that Obama would commit himself wholeheartedly to the objectives McCain laid out. We know Obama’s preference for half-measures, and we know his delay in Syria has made our task infinitely more complicated. But the alternative of doing nothing suggests that the United States will not take any meaningful action so long as Obama is president; Republicans shouldn’t be the ones encouraging that stance.

More is better in Syria, but something meaningful is better than nothing. The actions the administration is talking about undertaking will in fact aid the Free Syrian Army. Fewer regime helicopters and fewer rockets improves the rebels’ chances.

Through public and private cajoling the advocates of intervention can build on the president’s egotistical motivations for doing much more than a “shot across the bow.” (The Times quotes a U.S. official as saying, “The worst outcome would be to come out of this bruising battle with Congress and conduct a military action that made little difference.”) This is far from ideal, but given the president we have and will have for over three more years, it is better than a declaration of impotence that will have repercussions in the Middle East and around the world.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.