Mr. Malinowski said that “complexity can’t be an argument for paralysis.” Even if the White House has valid reasons to avoid intervening, he said, it is useful to raise the possibility of military action — as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, did in an interview Monday — if only to prod the diplomatic process.
If there is no intention of following through on the threat of U.S. and allied military action (and by all accounts there is none), raising the possibility of such action isn’t useful at all. This sort of bluffing is valuable only when the other party thinks that it is more than a bluff. What Malinowski is saying here is that the U.S. should hint that it might do something that the Syrian regime knows perfectly well that the U.S. isn’t going to do, as if that would make Assad more likely to negotiate an end to his rule. Making transparently empty threats doesn’t strengthen one’s bargaining position. If outside governments are unwilling to wage war on the Syrian government directly (and they are correct to want to avoid this), nothing is served by pretending that there is a good chance that this will happen when everyone understands that there isn’t.
One genuine problem with current Syria policy is that Obama is trying to have it both ways. He correctly wants to keep the U.S. from waging yet another war, and members of his administration have correctly explained why arming the opposition would be a mistake, but he also wants credit for a plan to facilitate the arming of opposition forces via some of the Gulf states. Administration officials claim that they don’t want to “further militarize” the conflict, as one of them said in yesterday’s NYT article, but then the administration draws attention to its plan that would do exactly that. The administration’s Syria policy is suffering from what we might call intervention creep. They gradually adopt some of the same proposals that they ruled out as misguided just a few weeks ago, because they have no principled objections to interfering in another state’s internal conflict, and they have gone out of their way to justify such interference in the recent past.
Romney’s position is a predictable one. As he often does, Romney has bashed an administration policy that is identical to the one he favors. According to Romney’s statement, he supports doing exactly what the administration plans to do. Both Obama and Romney are wrong on this, but there appears to be no difference between their positions. Given the apparent lack of disagreement, one would think that Romney would simply keep quiet on this subject. There is no political advantage to be gained by appearing to be more aggressive on Syria while simply echoing administration policy, but it seems that Romney cannot help himself.