09/05/2013 08:41 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2013

Stand-off Capability

President Obama's appeal to Congress for permission to lob cruise missiles into Syria, officially to punish the Assad regime for using poison gas against civilians, is flawed in at least two respects. The first and most obvious is the highly public way he is going about it which alerts the enemy of his intent, offers unrealistic hope to Syrians under siege, and poses the prospect of further humiliation of the administration if Congress does not go along.

The latter prospect is disconcerting in the extreme. If Congress should disapprove the president's request, his hands will be tied for the remainder of his second term. The petty dictators of this world are already running amok; an impotent United States military would surely incite them to more outrages.

The second, and in my book larger, flaw is Obama's reliance on our military standoff capability -- the power to exert power and wreak havoc without sending real people into harm's way. I can understand his reluctance to put boots on the ground, but though drones and cruise missiles can be used to limited effect in some circumstances, in the long run they tend to create more problems than they solve. Our goal is to help lead a backward part of the world away from its deadly embrace of ignorance and violence. Changing a culture is a very complex challenge that cannot be achieved with pinprick military assaults on a few selected targets that tend mainly to make people angry and more determined oppose us.

Over my 35 years in the military, I was continually engaged in traditional military activities generally focused on application of hard power -- planes and guns, bombs and bullets. My job was to manage the command and control and intelligence networks that guided our decisions in support of national strategy. We had some successes, but more often our efforts backfired, creating more problems than they solved.

I have come to believe that we would fare much better if we focused on soft power -- by which I mean using persuasion and practical incentives to promote our goals. We would serve ourselves and our cause much better by investing more time and resources in the development of a more professional corps of diplomats who devote their lives to the countries they are assigned to, who are empowered to give our leaders in Washington wise advice about the realities on the ground and who are afforded the respect and deference their highly demanding craft deserves.

Most of all, we need wise leadership in Washington. President Obama is a highly intelligent man, but has limited experience. The military advisers on the White House staff should have dissuaded him from his current course of action. He has put himself into a corner and now has few viable options. Even if Congress gives him the go-ahead he seeks, a few pinprick bombs on Syria are unlikely to improve that situation, or enhance U.S. power.