September 11, 2013

Who got to the president?

Who persuaded the president that after standing by while 100,000 Syrians were slaughtered, he had to stake America’s prestige and possibly his entire second term on a military response to Bashar Assad’s second (or sixth, or is it his tenth?) use of chemical weapons?

I’m reminded of the way George H.W. Bush at first seemed noncommittal in the hours after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990. He and Margaret Thatcher were scheduled to speak at a conference in Aspen the next day, and Bush approached Thatcher the morning after the invasion and (according to an oral history in which Thatcher participated) immediately said, “Now Margaret, what do you think?”

Thatcher, who had collected her thoughts overnight and on a walk alone in the woods that morning, told President Bush what she had concluded: that “aggression must be stopped. That is the lesson of this century. And if an aggressor gets away with it, others will want to get away with it too, so he must be stopped, and turned back. You cannot gain from your aggression.”

The other factor, she argued, was oil. As she recalled telling Bush: “Oil is vital to the economy of the world. If you didn’t stop him, and didn’t turn him back, he would have gone over the border to Saudi Arabia, over to Bahrain, to Dubai........and right down the west side of the Gulf and in fact could have got access and control of 65% of the world’s oil reserves, from which he could have blackmailed every nation. So there were two things, aggressors must be stopped and turned back, and he must not get control of this enormously powerful economic weapon.”

Think of the power of those arguments – their tangible connection to American and global interests, and the boost they therefore gave to Bush’s emerging resolve that “this will not stand” – and compare them to the case the president made Tuesday night.

Yes, the president acquitted himself well. In rehearsed and eloquent remarks, in his recitation and (attempted) rebuttal of the key arguments against military action, Obama traded in the wobbly mien he displayed in recent appearances for the confident bearing Americans need from their commander in chief. Whether you support the president’s call for military action or not, this recovery of presidential presence was important.

But an effective presentation isn’t the same as a persuasive case. To my view, at least, once he turned to his argument that Assad’s behavior “is also a danger to our security,” it fell short.

There was the false, off-key macho boast that “the American military doesn’t do ‘pinpricks.’

There was the weirdly false claim that in asking Congress to vote he was restoring some lost congressional role, when in fact much larger military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan were approved by Congress.

There was the too-pat dismissal of the threat of terrorist retaliation as “no different than the threats we face every day.” But it is not every day that we attack another country that has not taken direct hostile action against us. The reaction of extremists and violent America-haters in the region may therefore go beyond their “everyday” response. I fear hostages being taken and awful things being done to them, all broadcast via ubiquitous modern media in ways that will make the hostage crisis under Jimmy Carter look like the high watermark of American power.

Then there are the children. Of course what Assad did is heinous. But there’s something selective in the president’s outrage. Assad has killed tens of thousands of people. He’s killed many more children with knives, bullets and bombs than with gas. Perversely, he may keep right on killing more children even as some phalanx of inspectors is shipped in to verify that this untrustworthy last-ditch offer from Russia and Assad is “enforced.”

Ann Telnaes animation: Obama tries to convince Americans to follow him on Syria. (Ann Telnaes/The Washington Post)

By what moral calculation will it be an achievement to stop Assad from gassing children while he remains free to kill them in countless other ways? By what moral calculation does a dictator get to gas the first 1400 victims without paying with his life, so long he promises not to do it again?

Are we really thinking this through?

Ronald Reagan and George Bush did nothing when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons throughout the 1980s. As Michael Dobbs of The Post reported in 2002, “U.S. condemnation of Iraqi use of chemical weapons ranked relatively low on the scale of administration priorities, particularly compared with the all-important goal of preventing an Iranian victory [in the Iran-Iraq war].”

Reagan’s intervention as part of a multinational force in Lebanon’s civil war in 1983 led to the suicide bombing of the Marine barracks and the death of 241 American servicemen. Reagan swiftly withdrew our peacekeeping forces thereafter.

Is the only way to deter Iran to act now against Assad? That’s not obvious.

I don’t pretend there are good options. But sometimes prudence in the face of unknowable consequences argues for restraint.

Putin may have bought the president the breather he craves. But between the long-running box he’s now put himself in on Syria, and the prospect of the White House botching another debt ceiling showdown just ahead, the president’s authority in his second term is in danger of collapse .

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