THE BLOG
08/27/2013 12:02 pm ET | Updated Oct 27, 2013

Obama's War of Choice in Syria Isn't Defensive or Humanitarian

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The seemingly impending war the U.S. is about to launch on Syria is not about saving people from the Assad regime's violence. That is glaringly true given what the Obama administration is actually planning to do.

Airstrikes. No, not the kind that will last for months until the Assad regime is toppled. Regime change is pretty explicitly not the goal. Instead, the Obama administration and senior officials speaking to the press have suggested the airstrikes will be limited.

Limited to what? Is the goal to bomb the Assad regime's stockpiles of chemical weapons so that he can never again use them on his own people? According to Mark Thompson at Time, taking out Syria's chemical weapons caches "is fraught with perils," because not only is the U.S. unsure of where they are located, but bombing them could create "plumes of deadly vapors that could kill civilians downwind of such attacks." If Obama takes this route, he'll kill more civilians with chemical weapons than would have died without a U.S. military response.

Instead, Obama may target "military, and command and control, targets -- including artillery and missile units that could be used to launch chemical weapons -- instead of the bunkers believed to contain them." Ok, and what appreciable effect will this have? On the one hand, such strikes wouldn't amount to leveling Assad's entire military infrastructure since Obama is intent to "maintain the functions of the state" in order to avoid a power vacuum that would boost the al-Qaeda-linked rebels and possibly allow them to get their hands on Assad's chemical weapons (which they have said they would use).  As Phil Giraldi, former CIA intelligence officer, told me back in March, "Obama has come around to the view that regime change is more fraught with dangers than letting Assad remain."

On the other hand, these limited airstrikes against a selection of military targets might encourage Assad to act out with even more fury and indiscriminate violence, just as Clinton's initial bombing of Serbia caused Milosevic to dig in his heels before eventually giving up (most of the Serb atrocities against Kosovar Albanians occurred after the U.S. bombing).

So U.S. airstrikes won't neuter Assad's ability to continue to fight, may prompt worse violence from Assad, and may even directly kill more Syrian civilians.

It seems clear these airstrikes are not about preventing more regime violence or saving the Syrian people. So what are they about?

According to Thompson, "U.S. defense officials are weighing air strikes to punish Assad's government for their suspected use of chemical weapons." As former State Department official Aaron David Miller wrote yesterday, Obama is planning "a single retaliatory attack that strives to make a point rather than a difference."

Punitive war. That's something I'm betting the Norwegian Nobel Committee never would have predicted a recipient of their peace prize engaging in. This is not defensive war, since the Assad regime doesn't present even the remotest threat to America. It isn't a humanitarian war either, since U.S. airstrikes won't cripple the Assad regime's military capacity and may even get more civilians killed.

Obama is waging a war, as Miller explained, "to make a point." Given the fact that a mere 9 percent of Americans actually support a U.S. military intervention in Syria, I wonder what it would do to public opinion if Obama was honest with the American people about his petty disciplinary war. If the president sat in the Oval Office and told the American public that he was bombing another country, not to protect Americans or even Syrians, but "to make a point" or "punish" the Assad regime, with no greater utility, I seriously doubt the mission would gain any legitimacy in the eyes of voters.

With a backbone like an earthworm, President Obama is bowing to pressure - not from the American public or from Congress, but from "foreign-policy experts and politicians," as Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, described it -- to go to war for his own "credibility."

Obama told the world that Assad's use of chemical weapons would be a "red line" that would prompt U.S. military action. So, to protect Obama's reputation as a reliable war-maker who keeps his promise to bomb people, we have to go to war in Syria? It's difficult to imagine a weaker case for using international force.

Which brings us to a final point: for this apparently imminent U.S. bombing raid to be legal, it has to get the approval of both the U.S. Congress and the United Nations Security Council. Congress is likely to push back on Obama's call to war and Russia and China are sure to veto any proposal at the UN.

So on top of this being a war of choice with no humanitarian utility beyond making Obama feel tough and reliable, it is also sure to be a violation of the Constitution and international law. Couple this with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey's warning back in April that "unintended consequences are the rule with military interventions of this sort," Obama's new war in the Middle East is shaping up to be a doozy.

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