Nick Kristof thinks that the threat of attacking Syria “worked”:
In short, the mere flexing of military power worked — initially and tentatively. And while it seems that neither Congress nor the public has any appetite for cruise missile strikes on Syria, it will be critical to keep the military option alive in the coming weeks or Russia and Syria will play us like a yo-yo.
Kristof fails to explain how “the threat worked” when it seemed more than likely that at least one house of Congress was on track to refuse authorizing the use of force. If Obama was on the verge of having his policy repudiated in Congress and the “mere flexing” of military power was soon to be nothing more than that, why would Russia and Syria jump at the chance to offer up all of Syria’s chemical weapons? I can understand why administration officials feel compelled to pretend that “the threat worked,” because it could make Obama’s decision to make the threat look less risible than it did a few days ago. That doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to take this for granted. Obama’s position before Monday was increasingly untenable, and if the votes in Congress had gone ahead as planned the threat of military action would have very likely evaporated. Considering how few supporters military action had, it is hard to see how the threat could have “worked” when the threat was daily being revealed as an empty one. Many Syria hawks have been terrified all month that Congress’ rejection of the AUMF resolution would make attacking Syria politically impossible, but we’re supposed to think that no one in other governments noticed what was happening?
It’s true that Russia didn’t and still doesn’t want the U.S. to attack Syria, so it may have occurred to Moscow to find some other way to ensure that an attack would be indefinitely delayed. If preventing an attack on Syria is Russia’s reason for making the proposal, it hardly seems likely that Russia is going to accept either “a binding Security Council resolution confirming the deal” or “a reference in the resolution to “serious consequences” for noncompliance.” Russia would assume that Western governments would interpret this as an authorization for some future military intervention, and after Libya there is no chance that Russia is ever going to allow the passage of another resolution that in any way authorizes the U.S. and other Western governments to intervene. In exchange for Russian support, Putin has said that he wants the U.S. to “renounce the use of force” against Syria, and this is the one thing that Syria hawks absolutely won’t renounce.
So it may not be true that “the threat worked,” and saying that it did will encourage many Americans to draw the wrong conclusions from this experience. Instead of learning that it is foolish to threaten unnecessary military action when U.S. and allied security are not at risk, many will conclude that it is the best way to “get results.” U.S. foreign policy is already far too militarized, and learning the wrong lesson from this episode will just reinforce that.