It’s August, again, and the muffled thunder and rhetorical rumbling of guns can be heard around tables where ‘fallible men’ are gathering to design ‘perfect plans’ in the service of sending a message to a rogue regime that has not understood the meaning of ‘red line.’
We heard those guns in the fall of 2002 as the war council of America’s 43rd president made preparation for a full-scale invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, based on a series of assumptions that turned out to be false. Now it is August 2013, and the locus has moved 750 kilometers west to Damascus where the embattled regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is hearing ‘the guns of August’ from the war council of America’s 44th president.
A dozen years later and America is still slogging its way through the Levant, the part of the world once known as the ‘cradle of civilization,’ but which has become something of a tar pit or a sinkhole for a fatigued superpower.
Of course, this time it’s different. It always is. History doesn’t repeat itself, it just rhymes.
Instead of basing a decision on what might happen – Vice President Cheney’s ‘one percent doctrine’ -- the Obama administration is responding to the actual use of chemical weapons and napalm in attacks that have scorched, maimed, and killed more than 1400 children, their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. And before that, another 100,000 by other violent means.
Had it not been for the regrettable overreach of February 2003, when the Bush administration offered up its most trusted official to persuade members of the United Nations that there was incontrovertible proof of a WMD program in progress and in place throughout Iraq, we might be witnessing a more supportive response to the President’s call for international action from all points along the political spectrum.
Absent that strategic misstep a decade ago, America’s assertions about the actions of the Assad regime today might be carrying more weight – at home and abroad. But, as mothers and fathers have been telling their children for ages: “actions have consequences.”
In spite of the ubiquitous video clips showing bodies in bags, skin peeling off innocents of every age, and other equally gruesome scenes, the level of skepticism or disbelief about solemn assurances from the American intelligence machine runs high around the globe.
Add to that, in the midst of this certainty – that America will attack; will do it soon; will use air and naval power; will not aim to take out the supply of chemical weapons; will not attempt to effect regime change and/or the elimination of Bashir; will not have a goal of changing the dynamic of the current conflict – the President has not clarified what America’s policy response to the Syrian scenario will be, except to provide assurances that it will be limited in scope and duration.
This is hardly the hallmark of how great powers exercise authority, and is adding questions about this President’s political resolve and strategic judgment, while eroding his public support.
Beyond that, there is a form of cognitive dissonance at work here.
On the one hand, we have a Secretary of State who denounces the stark inhumanity of Assad’s alleged attacks in the most impassioned and moralistic terms; and on the other, a President who speaks in cool terms and tone about a seemingly restrained response that the U. S. and its ‘coalition of the willing’ partners will levy. It is in this substantial space between moral outrage and measured rhetoric that we are left to wonder whether there is intention to have the punishment fit the crime.
If Assad’s indiscriminate use of chemical weapons on his own civilian population isn’t a prime candidate for ‘retributive justice,’ then why the hew and cry from the Oval Office and elsewhere? And if there is no policy of proportionality, then what are we to make of all this? To what end and with what desired outcomes are we to be engaged again in the Levant?
These and other questions speak to the imperative for presidential leadership, which calls for a candid conversation with the nation before the first rockets are launched. And the War Powers resolution be damned.
We are where we are not because America is under threat from an attack, but because an American president has made a public commitment, and not just once but on several occasions -- that any use of chemical weapons would cross a ‘red line.’
That such actions would lead to a change in his ‘calculus’ and ‘equation,’ euphemisms fully understood by all adults who were listening: a presidential commitment in unequivocal terms.
And this brings us to a consideration about the history of presidential commitments, the centerpiece of an important new book by the distinguished journalist and Harvard professor emeritus, Marvin Kalb: “The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed.”
In his Introduction, Kalb makes this observation:
“As we learned in Vietnam and in the broader Middle East, a presidential commitment could lead to war, based on miscalculation, misjudgment, or mistrust. It could also lead to reconciliation. We live in a world of uncertainty, where even the word of a president is now questioned in wider circles of critical commentary . . . on foreign policy, when an international crisis erupts and some degree of global leadership is required, the word or commitment of an American president still represents the gold standard, even if the gold does not glitter as once it did.”
Thanks to Kalb’s careful reexamination of how presidential commitments put America on the ‘road to war’ in Korea and Vietnam, and have forged an iron-clad ‘commitment through correspondence’ with Israel, we can better judge what the stakes are in Syria, circa 2013.
• If America takes no action, its credibility and resolve, its ability to summon the ‘better angels’ of the global community, and its global indispensability suffer irreversible losses.
• If America’s response is seen as tepid or inconsequential, the results are much the same, except that there will be the inevitable loss of lives and treasure in another kinetic action where too many non-combatants lose life or limb – aka, ‘collateral damage.’
• If America’s response is too robust and crosses a ‘red line’ of its own, then we are at war again in the Middle East in a country where there is little strategic value to be gained and much to be lost.
Thus the country finds itself at another of those perilous junctures where the mandate for a forceful response and the margin for error are on a collision course – not quite ‘no win’ or ‘zero sum,’ but awfully close, a classic conundrum.
So if you are President Obama, you are probably feeling much like all those dancing partners of Fred Astaire who heard his words of encouragement each time they stepped out onto the dance floor with the Master:
“Don’t be nervous; but don’t make any mistakes.”
On the other hand, if you are a simply a citizen wondering what to think about America’s options, now would be a good time to give that some thought, and to give voice, however limited or grand in scale, before the guns of August have been readied for use . . . or left in their place.
R. Garrett Mitchell
The Mitchell Report
August 31, 2013