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.


jayhawklawrence 7 months, 2 weeks 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.


In_God_we_trust 7 months, 2 weeks 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?


roadwarrior 7 months, 2 weeks 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.


Steven Gaudreau 7 months, 2 weeks ago

Why do we need to choose a side on this issue? It's not our problem. Is it smart to attack Syria and kill 5,000 citizens to avenge the 500 dead while piling up American bodies and debt? It makes no sense. Yes, it is horrible what is happening but the world is full of horrible people and the U.S. cant police the world. 1 in 6 Americans struggle to feed themselves and their families. Why not take the $100,000,000,000.00 we will use in a war and take care of Americans at home? I am sick and tired of the U.S. being the watchdog/bully of the world. Our way is not always the right way in other cultures which is why Americans are hated so much in some parts of the world. The U.S. needs to focus on the U.S. and bring us back on track because right now, the U.S. is looking like Rome just before it crashed. Some believe Rome failed due to Christianity, decadence, lead, monetary trouble, and military problems. Sound familiar?


jonas_opines 7 months, 2 weeks 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.


Beer Guy 7 months, 2 weeks ago

Obama...winner of the first noble bell war prize


seebarginn 7 months, 2 weeks 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.


snitty 7 months, 2 weeks 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.


justanotherlowlifeonthebus 7 months, 2 weeks 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.


50YearResident 7 months, 2 weeks 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.


verity 7 months, 2 weeks 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.


Ron Holzwarth 7 months, 2 weeks ago

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


Steven Gaudreau 7 months, 2 weeks ago

Jafs, would you be willing to sacrifice the life of one of your loved one's over a Syrian conflict? That is what is being asked if we start another war.


woodscolt 7 months, 2 weeks 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.


russkie10 7 months, 2 weeks ago

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


Paul R Getto 7 months, 2 weeks 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.


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