The muddled, confused message out of the Obama administration on punishing Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons is the primary cause of its flailing prospects in Congress. When you announce what you are not willing/planning to do instead of keeping all options on the table, you have already lost: a) the element of surprise, b) the uncertainty of the consequences for the enemy and, c) the people in Congress who would have normally supported the military action on humanitarian or strategic reasons. But since the strike will not address either of those two problems, it leaves the President seeking support from a very narrow segment of Congress and thereby diminishing the likelihood of passage. President Obama has to be more forceful and determined in his approach to sway public opinion on the war. The sales pitch can begin with the debunking of a few myths purported by the White House and the Secretary of State.
Myth 1: This is not a war.
Secretary of State John Kerry has refused to call the proposed military action a war in multiple hearings, interviews, and press releases. The nonsensical nature of the statement that ‘this is not war in the classical sense’ should be clear to everyone but since it has continued to be used as a selling point by Mr. Kerry, it deserves debunking. Shockingly, nary a reporter or a Congressman has asked Mr. Kerry if he would consider a two-day missile strike on Washington, DC by Syria or Iran as war. One can stipulate that ‘not war in the classical sense’ is technically true, because for most of human history, war was fought on horses and through hand-to-hand combat, with no hostilities at night. So unless that’s what Mr. Kerry is getting at, attacking a sovereign nation is most certainly war by any stretch of the imagination. The administration should definitely make the case that this is not an invasion but to dismiss an act of a preemptive missile attack as simply a targeted, limited, and restricted strike (which sounds more like labor union activity than a military action) is misleading at best and dishonest at worst. You cannot get a little bit pregnant.
Myth 2: Said strikes will deter and degrade Assad’s chemical weapons capability.
Although true in the short term, this is a myth simply because ‘deter and degrade’ by definition is not prevent or eliminate. Besides, the administration has made clear (through mind boggling leaks) what it does not intend to do. Those leaks have resulted in a ‘yes’ answer to all of the following questions:
a) Will Bashar al-Assad remain in power?
b) Will Assad have access to the chemical weapons after the strike?
c) Will the majority of Assad's forces still be operational (i.e. alive)?
d) Will the Syrian regime's supply routes through the Russian naval base and land routes from Iran (through Iraq) remain operational and viable?
e) Will Assad be allowed to continue to cluster bomb, torture, and destroy entire neighborhoods with artillery shells and napalm?
Yes, yes, and yes. Evidently, all Mr. Assad has to do is hunker down for a week or two in his glorified spider hole and ignore the loud bangs around him. Besides, whatever the military strike by the United States degrades, can potentially be replaced by the Syrian regime through Iran and Russia. As for deterring Mr. Assad, deterrence only works if there is a will to follow through on violation of the underlying activity. The administration has made clear that the Syrian leadership is not a target and that an invasion or sustained bombing campaign is out of the question. It begs the question, what exactly is the deterrence for Mr. Assad to not use chemical weapons after the 90-day window expires?
Myth 3: Mr. Assad will be deterred by a few cruise missiles and is unlikely to use WMDs again.
This is the most presumptuous aspect of the administration’s case. Mr. Kerry has asserted that if Assad is foolish or irrational enough to continue using these weapons, there are ways to make him pay that do not involve war. It escapes the author what those ‘ways’ are, but if they exist, why aren't they being used now? Clearly the killing, torturing, and gassing of thousands of innocent people are not the actions of a rational, logical, and moral person. Therefore to assume that an evil, irrational, and immoral person will act irrationally and immorally by doing it again is not a far-fetched proposition. The Obama administration has to answer for that possibility and the steps it would take to counter it.
The Congress can be convinced to support the punitive strikes on Syria if the President lays out an honest, strategic, and convincing case in his address on Tuesday. However, if he continues on this path of arguing on semantics, declaring a one-sided end date to an uncertain conflict, and refusing to even discuss the possibility of a retaliation by Syria then the Congress will be right in rejecting this authorization of going to war.