09/06/2013 03:51 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2013

If Limited Strikes Don't Work, Does Obama Have a Plan B?

The mass slaughter of civilians in Syria is sickening, and Syria's leader Bashar al-Assad is a monster. Furthermore, the apparent use of chemical weapons by the regime two weeks ago in an attack that killed perhaps 1,400 people represents an escalation of the brutality of Syria's civil war. Given these realities, it is entirely understandable that people of good conscience would want to do something to stop the carnage or, at least, punish the perpetrators thereof -- whether to send a message that such conduct is simply unacceptable in "civilized society," or to marginally lessen the likelihood that future wars will involve chemical weapons use, or to uphold a well-meaning, if muddled, norm in international law prohibiting the use of certain kinds of armaments.

But if we start bombing Syria, we are potentially committing ourselves to a deeper level of involvement than the administration is now acknowledging. Secretary of State John Kerry has insisted that we are only going to engage in "a limited and targeted military action, against military targets in Syria, designed to deter Syria's use of chemical weapons and degrade the Assad regime's capabilities to use or transfer such weapons in the future." It's first worth noting that there have been claims, since the spring, of chemical weapons use by Syrian rebels, including by a member of a UN Commission investigating possible gas attacks earlier this year. And the UN is still trying to determine the exact provenance of the August 21 attacks. But even if we accept the administration's certitude about those recent attacks, what level of certainty do we have that the limited strike the president is considering will work? Secretary of State Kerry says we have to act because he has "no doubt" that Assad will use chemical weapons "again and again" unless we stop him.

If Assad is as committed to using such weapons as Kerry claims, it seems unlikely that a limited strike would stop him, unless we somehow managed to take out his entire stockpile in one shot. If Assad is not immediately deterred, which must be considered a possibility, is the United States committed to further strikes? By the logic of the administration's main justifications for attack -- deterring future breaches of a global norm and maintaining its own credibility to do so -- it would seem compelled to. And if we are committed to something deeper, instead of giving Assad pause, might not such a prospect spur him to intensify his offensive against the rebels? After all, he might reasonably conclude, the threat of further American bombing could mean that he must finish the job more quickly, rather than risk a longer war of attrition in a battle now being joined by the United States. After all, there certainly can't be any doubt that he will be as ruthless as necessary to maintain power.

I don't know whether or not this will be Assad's response. Neither does Kerry or anyone else in the administration. But as Joan Walsh wrote today, the proposed attack "is so exquisitely poised as to be untenable: a military strike that's effective enough to deter Assad from using chemical weapons again, but not enough to tip the balance of power to the rebels. It's the military equivalent of a unicorn, and nobody seems to believe in it."

So either President Obama and his chief strategists really believe with 100 percent certainty that our first bite at this apple will be our last, or the administration is already preparing for further escalation. If credibility (as absurdly circular as such arguments are) were the justification for an attack, it's hard to imagine a bigger blow to American credibility, as elite policymakers understand it - than an attack that does not deter future chemical weapons use. Therefore, the administration really already has to be committed to subsequent and perhaps more comprehensive and invasive strikes, at which point we're moving in the direction of bombing for the sake of instigating regime change. One can defend that end, though that conjures its own hair-raising possibilities. But the administration is emphatically denying that regime change is a goal. Walsh noted that, during Senate hearings on Tuesday, Kerry seemed to be indulging Senator McCain's open support for more fully degrading the Syrian military's capabilities, which certainly would constitute a step on the road to regime change, or else even more protracted civil war. But that is a far cry from transparency about the possible consequences of a decision to begin military intervention.

Many critics have noted, reasonably, that the entire exercise of debating intervention and putting it to a Congressional vote is a sham, since the president has already asserted his authority to act without such authorization. But what value inheres in a public debate about the pros and cons of bombing Syria hinges on the administration being as forthright as possible about plausible outcomes.

If Obama is only interested in "saving face," because he made an off-the-cuff comment a year ago, then maybe the administration will engage only in a one-off bombing campaign. But that would be a nearly senseless exercise. If on the other hand, he wants to send a message to enforce an international norm, he must be prepared for the prospect that the target of that message might not receive it in the way Obama intends, at least not the first time, especially given what is at stake for Assad. I can't help but note here that the largest scale chemical weapons attacks in recent times, by far, were ordered by Saddam Hussein, against Iran as well as Kurds in his own country, during the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s. As Foreign Policy magazine recently spelled out, newly released CIA documents show that the Reagan administration, despite early denials, was fully aware of Hussein's mass deployment of sarin and mustard gas against Iran. As the war entered a critical stage in 1988, the Reagan administration was feeding vital intelligence to Saddam about Iranian troop movements and other key logistical information. Hussein had been using chemical weapons against the Iranians, with American knowledge, for years. But Saddam's large scale use of sarin and other agents in 1988 helped decisively to turn the tide of the war in his favor. It was also during this time that he gassed a Kurdish village in Iraq, killing thousands. Since defeating Iran was the Reagan administration's priority, it became complicit, in Foreign Policy's words, "in some of the most gruesome chemical weapons attacks ever launched."

Our willful denial of our own misdeeds is germane to the current debate over Syria because, among other things, it casts doubt on the principles we say we're upholding. Past bad acts do not necessarily preclude actors from doing good in the present or future. But as Paul Waldman recently cataloged, America's long history of intervention prompts understandable skepticism from much of the world about America's motives and standing to use our military might as often as we do and about the noble ends for which we say we are fighting.

So while pro-intervention administration officials might imagine that we are sending Assad a clear and unmistakable message about moral norms, to which he is bound to accede, and can't really understand how the rest of the world, including Russia and China, might disagree, he might see things very differently. Perhaps in Assad's mind, we already lack credibility when it comes to chemical weapons, given our own (unacknowledged) history. Surely he is very well aware that sarin was used to great effect by an American client -- a neighbor of Syria's, by the way -- well within the 47-year old Assad's adult lifetime. Consequently, it's not at all obvious that a perhaps increasingly desperate Assad will draw the conclusions about chemical weapons use that the administration so confidently asserts he must draw.

And if he doesn't, then what?