Opinion: Has Obama been shamed into war?

August 31, 2013


— Having leaked to the world, and thus to Syrian President Bashar Assad, a detailed briefing of the coming U.S. air attack on Syria — (1) the source (offshore warships and perhaps a bomber or two), (2) the weapon (cruise missiles), (3) the duration (two or three days), (4) the purpose (punishment, not “regime change”) — perhaps we should be publishing the exact time the bombs will fall, lest we disrupt dinner in Damascus.

So much for the element of surprise. Into his third year of dithering, two years after declaring Assad had to go, one year after drawing — then erasing — his own red line on chemical weapons, Barack Obama has been stirred to action.

Or more accurately, shamed into action. Which is the worst possible reason. A president doesn’t commit soldiers to a war for which he has zero enthusiasm. Nor does one go to war for demonstration purposes.

Want to send a message? Call Western Union. A Tomahawk missile is for killing. A serious instrument of war demands a serious purpose.

The purpose can be either punitive or strategic: either a spasm of conscience that will inflame our opponents yet leave not a trace, or a considered application of abundant American power to alter the strategic equation that is now heavily favoring our worst enemies in the heart of the Middle East.

There are risks to any attack. Blowback terror from Syria and its terrorist allies. Threatened retaliation by Iran or Hezbollah on Israel — that could lead to a guns-of-August regional conflagration. Moreover, a mere punitive pinprick after which Assad emerges from the smoke intact and emboldened would demonstrate nothing but U.S. weakness and ineffectiveness.

In 1998, after al-Qaeda blew up two U.S. embassies in Africa, Bill Clinton lobbed a few cruise missiles into empty tents in Afghanistan. That showed ‘em.

It did. It showed terminal unseriousness. Al-Qaeda got the message. Two years later, the USS Cole. A year after that, 9/11.

Yet even Clinton gathered the wherewithal to launch a sustained air campaign against Serbia. That wasn’t a mere message. That was a military strategy designed to stop the Serbs from ravaging Kosovo. It succeeded.

If Obama is planning a message-sending three-day attack, preceded by leaks telling the Syrians to move their important military assets to safety, better that he do nothing. Why run the considerable risk if nothing important is changed?

The only defensible action would be an attack with a strategic purpose, a sustained campaign aimed at changing the balance of forces by removing the Syrian regime’s decisive military advantage — air power.

Of Assad’s 20 air bases, notes (retired) Gen. Jack Keane, six are primary. Attack them: the runways, the fighters, the helicopters, the fuel depots, the nearby command structures. Render them inoperable.

We don’t need to take down Syria’s air defense system, as we did in Libya. To disable air power, we can use standoff systems — cruise missiles fired from ships offshore and from aircraft loaded with long-range smart munitions that need not overfly Syrian territory.

Depriving Assad of his total control of the air and making resupply from Iran and Russia far more difficult would alter the course of the war. That is a serious purpose.

Would the American people support it? They are justifiably war-weary and want no part of this conflict. And why should they? In three years, Obama has done nothing to prepare the country for such a serious engagement. Not one speech. No explanation of what’s at stake.

On the contrary. Last year Obama told us repeatedly that the tide of war is receding. This year, he grandly declared that the entire war on terror “must end.” If he wants Tomahawks to fly, he’d better have a good reason, tell it to the American people and get the support of their representatives in Congress, the way George W. Bush did for both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

It is rather shameful that while the British prime minister recalled Parliament to debate possible airstrikes — late Thursday, Parliament actually voted down British participation — Obama has made not a gesture in that direction.

If you are going to do this, Mr. President, do it constitutionally. And seriously. This is not about you and your conscience. It’s about applying American power to do precisely what you now deny this is about — helping Assad go, as you told the world he must.

Otherwise, just send Assad a text message. You might incur a roaming charge, but it’s still cheaper than a three-day, highly telegraphed, perfectly useless demonstration strike.

— Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Paul R Getto 4 years, 9 months ago

There are horrors across the globe. What criteria should we use when we decide to blow up something in the name of "morality?" If dead children are the criteria, there are lots of targets. Settle down.

jafs 4 years, 9 months ago


We should just ignore those horrors, I guess. How does one justify that if one has the ability to intervene and protect those people?

Maddy Griffin 4 years, 9 months ago

Why must the US always be the world police? This is a civil war. Let them deal with it themselves. Has anyone asked for our help?

jafs 4 years, 9 months ago

Well, we have a large and powerful military.

Is asking for our help the criteria for intervention? I'm sure that many people around the world have asked us for help - according to your criteria, we should help them all, I assume.

Did the children decide to fight a civil war? How exactly do you propose letting them "deal with it themselves"?

deec 4 years, 9 months ago

We have no moral authority to intervene in Syria in light of our own history of installing and/or supporting brutal regimes who committed atrocities against their own citizens. Argentina, most of Central America, North American Indigenous people, Vietnam all come to mind.

jafs 4 years, 9 months ago

Well, I can't argue with that, since I agree with it.

But, does that mean we can't ever make the right choice? Our past mistakes could/should serve as a guide to making better ones, don't you think?

deec 4 years, 9 months ago

Perhaps, but bombing or invading a sovereign nation in retaliation for alleged attacks isn't a right choice. I'd guess hundreds or thousands of people have been killed in Syria over the last few years due to the civil war there. Perhaps hundreds of thousands were killed in Iraq in this century due to American intervention. Suddenly, since we are in a diplomatic snit with Russia (Syria's ally) over Snowden, we suddenly CARE about dead Syrians.

jafs 4 years, 9 months ago

So, what is the right way to intervene when innocent children are being killed (or other innocent civilians)?

deec 4 years, 9 months ago

Why do we need to intervene at all? Why there and not Sudan or Rwanda? Why is it the responsibility of the U.S. to "fix" atrocities in some countries and not others? How is blowing up more of Syria going to help protect its citizens?

Let's take the money we'd spend on million dollar bombs and build good homes and schools for impoverished children in the U.S instead. Or create community gardens so hungry children can have healthy food.

jafs 4 years, 9 months ago

Well, that's a bit too isolationist for my taste.

There are any number of ways in which we use the military that I'd like to see changed, like the ones you mentioned in your first post, but intervening to protect innocent lives isn't one of them.

Now, if we did cut way back on our military, and use the money for other things, then we wouldn't have such a strong military force, and perhaps that would stop us from using it around the world. But, right now, we have a strong military, and one of the best uses is to prevent innocent deaths, in my opinion.

If you saw a woman getting raped, would you just ignore it, or would you intervene and do something to stop it?

The fact that these atrocities occur in other countries doesn't change things that much for me. I don't feel that American lives are somehow worth more, or more worth protecting and defending than lives in other nations.

Trumbull 4 years, 9 months ago

The only way to protect innocents is by engaging military as a police force. And as we have seen recently, this does not work. It creates even more violence and distrust.

It also looks like the people of Syria themselves do not want US intervention. They are in fear of where the next bomb is coming from....be it from the good guys or the bad guys.....whoever they are.

My 1st inclination is to think of a way to help, my 1st thought is then military action. But then I look at the cold hard facts and realize that military intervention does not work.

Trumbull 4 years, 9 months ago

The only thing that has a chance is to leave this one to the UN. This way, the action taken is collective. It is the duty of the United Nations to seek justice....which I hope happens, not the duty of the US acting alone.

jafs 4 years, 9 months ago

Given the structure of the UN, which lets Russia simply veto any actions, I seriously doubt they'll do much.

And, what exactly would they do, other than military intervention?

Trumbull 4 years, 9 months ago

I think the UN should revise its rule book if it is this weak. One nation should not carry enough weight so that it alone can veto action. Beyond that, I think the UN might 1) provide humanitarian relief, 2) provide testing and documentation of crimes committed, 3) bring those responsible to a court of law 4) provide a minimal level of police support.

jafs 4 years, 9 months ago


All of those involve agreement by existing leaders to let the UN in. And, bringing people to a court of law will involve force.

seebarginn 4 years, 9 months ago

No, unfortunately, those hundreds of civilians murdered through the use of chemical weapons aren't able to ask for help, or for anything anymore.

Trumbull 4 years, 9 months ago

The US does not have the ability to protect the Syrians. Intervention by the US will only cause more casualties, collateral damage, and escalation. This is what happened in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan etc.

I am not in support of military intervention. But this does not mean that I don't despise the use of chemical weapons and the catastrophic harm it caused. We need to pursue this action by the Syrian regime and use the UN and diplomatic means to apply pressure and seek justice.

seebarginn 4 years, 9 months ago

The US does have the ability to wipe out Syria's air force so they won't be able to massacre so many people so easily. Anyone who wouldn't applaud that has little regard for human life.

Michael Lindsey 4 years, 9 months ago

Protect those people? How in hell is launching a few cruise missiles is going to help them..

woodscolt 4 years, 9 months ago

"Barack Obama has been stirred to action."

"Or more accurately, shamed into action. Which is the worst possible reason. A president doesn’t commit soldiers to a war for which he has zero enthusiasm. Nor does one go to war for demonstration purposes."

Hmm, wonder where all this advise was when GW needed it.

Nevertheless, this is a lose lose proposition. Neither the current regime nor the rebels are going to be anyone we will be able to reason with. The syrian people can't win either.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 9 months ago

It's a wonderful idea to take the side opposing Russia, China, and Iran. Right?

verity 4 years, 9 months ago

This, of course, is only anecdotal---

"The MCC [Mennonite Central Committee] representative for Syria and Lebanon reports on her numerous conversations with Syrians in the last few days: “Without fail they are all saying the same thing. ‘We are all very worried. We hope the U.S. won't do anything.’”

For context:


Going from the personal to the financial, we need to see who an attack on Syria would really benefit. We should all have bought stocks in Raytheon at the beginning of August.


50YearResident 4 years, 9 months ago

Food for thought for you pro-war posters. The gas killed 456 children so we are going to bomb the offenders. I bet Assad moves 1000 children into the suspected US Cruise missile strike zone locations. Then they will claim the United States missiles that we fired killed 1000 Syrian Children. Then the blame for killing children is back onto the United States and Obama will go into the history books as killing children in an undeclared war.

justanotherlowlifeonthebus 4 years, 9 months ago

LOSE. LOSE. That is a true story. So glad I don't have this on my shoulders all though we all will bear the response to either action. The US is not invincible and is a target either way we go. Scary stuff.

snitty 4 years, 9 months ago

At this point, not going through with the threatened attack would immeasurably strengthen Obama's hand diplomatically and popularly. Of course that is in comparison with yet another illegal, hypocritical, ineffective and purely murderous display of imperial hubris, for surely that is how another display of shock'n'awe will be seen throughout the world.

seebarginn 4 years, 9 months ago

Yes Mr. Simons, this decision is important and complex, unlike your columns. And I am very glad that Barack Obama is doing the deciding because he did the right thing with bin Laden and in Libya. Hundreds of civilians, many of them children, slaughtered with chemical weapons, and how do Simons, George Will, and Cal Thomas read the situation? As another golden opportunity to gripe about the President and delight in what they mistakenly perceive as his lack of leadership. I'll say it again--we are so fortunate to have President Obama as the "decider," and so fortunate that his political opponents are not in that position.

seebarginn 4 years, 9 months ago

Sorry folks, I cut and pasted the above comment into "Goodtime Charlie"'s column instead of Dolph Baby's. Ah well, same difference.

Phoghorn 4 years, 9 months ago

Yes, but what was your opinion of us going into Iraq? It is well known that the WMDs in Iraq went into Syria by overland truck.

If WMDs are the only reason for going in, then you can argue that action in both countries is justified.

If WMDs are no real threat, than you can argue that neither is justified.

Unfortunately, I don't see any "good" side in Syria.

Liberty275 4 years, 9 months ago

We went into Iraq because they invaded Kuwait (a US ally). After a short period, Iraq agreed to conditions for a cease fires and so we had a cease fire. When Saddam violated the agreements of the cease fire, we destroyed his political party in Iraq as well as his government.

While Hussein may have had WMD and may very well have sent them to Syria, that was really never more than irrelevant excuses to get more countries to go in with us after the regime.

Phoghorn 4 years, 9 months ago

Good thought. Unfortunately, there are too many people who base their support for war based on who happens to be POTUS.

jonas_opines 4 years, 9 months ago

"A president doesn’t commit soldiers to a war for which he has zero enthusiasm."

I think Krauthammar just has difficulty understanding people who are not enthusiastic about starting wars, as he's never seemed to see one that he didn't like.

roadwarrior 4 years, 9 months ago

First of all CONGRESS drew the red line by implementing a chemical weapons ban quite some time ago. What exactly did Congress mean by that ? I personally think Obama is left to apply a law of our land without much direction from Congress of how they intended that to be carried out. Second, if Assad is the problem - why destroy infrastructure for the incoming administration ? If we bomb it, we buy it. None of us want to do that anymore. Personally I think Assad should be immediately arrested to face charges in front of a war crimes tribunal - albeit removed from power. Hence, political solutions. A good opportunity for our friends and enemies to come together for an global leaders solution, even if that solution won't meet the standards of the American Public. And Trumbull - basically what you said. LOL.

In_God_we_trust 4 years, 9 months ago

It appears to me that this war/punishment against Syria, that President Obama wants, is not just about chemical weapons use and international law being violated. It is in hopes that Iran will step in with Syria, so that the nuclear threat from Iran can become war targets. This way the nuclear threat in Iran can be completely neutralized, in an extended strike to stabilize the middle east, eliminating wmd's in the middle east.

Syria is saying that this strike action will make a regional war. Washington may be saying; go for it?

jhawkinsf 4 years, 9 months ago

No, that can't be. Iran says it's not developing nuclear weapons. We all believe them, right? (end of sarcasm)

roadwarrior 4 years, 9 months ago

wow. that's really frightening. I do hope your wrong.

jayhawklawrence 4 years, 9 months ago

Of all the columnists I have read, Charles is like the parrot in the coal mine.

If Americans believe his BS we are in deep doo-doo.

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