The first principle is American credibility. It was almost one year ago that Obama declared the use or movement of chemical weapons in Syria a “red line” that would force him to rethink his “calculus” about that country’s conflict.
And this is the second:
The second goal is about enforcing a taboo. Obama wants to send a clear message — not only to Assad but to the world — that the international community views chemical weapons with special contempt.
It shouldn’t take much reflection to recognize that these are poor reasons to order military action. The first principle is not so much a principle as it is a phobia: the irrational fear that something bad will happen somewhere else if the U.S. doesn’t back up a president’s vague threats. It’s true that presidents shouldn’t make threats if they don’t intend to back them up, but following through on foolish threats primarily for the sake of saving face is inexcusably irresponsible. If an administration finds itself in the position of preparing to launch military attacks against another country in order to avoid embarrassment, it should stop and seriously reconsider what it is doing. As we’ve already discussed ad nauseam, U.S. “credibility” on other issues isn’t threatened by failing to back up a vague threat regarding Syrian chemical weapons. Other governments don’t judge U.S. intentions on Iran, North Korea, or any other issue by what the U.S. does or doesn’t do in Syria. Likewise, Assad ignored the intervention in Libya that was supposed to deter him from trying to crush his opponents with force. The signals that the U.S. thinks it is sending to intimidate authoritarian regimes don’t intimidate them, and the signals that supposedly undermine U.S. credibility with other states don’t undermine it.
The taboo argument is less obviously ridiculous, but it’s still mistaken. There is a broad, almost universally shared taboo against the use of chemical weapons. Attacking Syria doesn’t strengthen or reinforce that taboo. Choosing not to bomb a country whose government has used these weapons does not signal approval of that use, and launching some cruise missiles at government forces in response to that use isn’t going to keep them from being used in the future. All that it does do is potentially invite Syrian retaliation against the U.S. and its clients and allies. At best, it is a reaction designed to show that the U.S. will “do something” while achieving nothing, and at worst it is the beginning of the slide towards escalation to a major war.