09/03/2013 11:55 am ET Updated Nov 03, 2013

Kerry Should Avoid Overstating What Syria Attacks Can Achieve

Secretary of State John Kerry unveiled five reasons to attack Syria.

1. The Assad regime needs to be punished.
2. The Assad regime must be prevented from using chemical weapons again.
3. Other WMD aspirants will take inaction as license to proceed.
4. The century-old ban against the use of chemical weapons needs to be enforced.
5. We are the United States, and we need to enforce our/the world's values.

The evidence for the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime seems clear, and it is not hearsay from an unreliable agent we never interviewed named "curveball." No one is planting stories with Pulitzer prize seeking journalists and then quoting them the next day as an independent source.

Hence, this is not going to be a mission where evidence is based on lies. This president does not want war. He is president today because he opposed the Iraq war. Secretary of State Kerry was a Vietnam war hero who became a celebrated anti-war activist, challenging Congress by asking how you ask the last person to die for a mistake. His entire public career has been devoted to bringing people to the negotiating table (e.g., Palestinians and Israelis, and his attempts with Syria) and, domestically, for example, enlisting fellow war hero senator, John McCain (R-AZ), to close the chapter on missing-in-action from the Vietnam war.

Nonetheless, it is easy to overstate what a mission, even if undertaken for the noblest and most honest of reasons, can achieve.

I strongly urge the President and Secretary of State to avoid that mistake and thus provide Congress and the American people with a realistic basis for taking action.

The Assad regime needs to be punished. As a goal, this is a no-brainer. We can certainly punish Assad and his regime.

The Assad regime must be prevented from using chemical weapons again.
It is not clear that the punishment will dissuade Assad is from future use. He is, after all, fighting for his survival (see below).

Other WMD aspirants will take inaction as license to proceed. This is not as obvious as it seems. The Reagan Administration took no action against Saddam Hussein's Iraq when he gassed Halabja and may have even facilitated Iraq's use of chemical weapons against Iran (just one hint why Iran may not have the warmest and fuzziest feelings about the US). Hence, the 'do-nothing' precedent already exists, courtesy of President Reagan. One has not heard that inaction linked to the initiatives of other rogue states to acquire WMD.

Suppose, on the other hand, that there is that connection, and that Iran, North Korea and others will feel emboldened because the US does not act in Syria. That provides only a partial answer.

The key question is: How limited can the response be, and still have the deterrent effect it is designed to engender? Might we have to do much more than we need to punish or cripple Assad in order for the message Secretary Kerry wants us to send is sufficiently strong? It is worth noting that in Gulf War I, when Saddam Hussein really did have WMD, Secretary of State Baker traveled to Baghdad and informed Hussein of massive retaliation "that the American people would demand" if he, Hussein, WMD against American troops.

But, we are not proposing massive strikes against Syria. Unlike Reagan's failed attempt to kill Qaddafi in reprisal for PanAm103, we apparently are not seeking to strike Assad himself.

We invaded and occupied Iraq supposedly to rid Saddam Hussein of the WMD he did not have. We deposed, captured, tried and executed him, but it does not seem to have deterred others from their WMD aspirations. Indeed, if anything, it accelerated them, so they might deter American regime-change attacks.

Why would cruise missiles striking key targets in Syria have a greater (i.e., more than zero) deterrent effect on other rogue nations than invading and occupying Iraq did?

On the other hand, if Assad's use of chemical weapons is a sign that his hold on the country is crumbling, and thus is the last-ditch effort to survive or take everyone else with him, then a targeted strike may tip the balance against him.

The century-old ban against the use of chemical weapons needs to be enforced. The century-old ban that arose from the horrific experiences of the First World War was not an American ban, indeed the US was not the world's policeman at the time. Is the US, acting without international authorization, going to send an effective message? Should not the United Nations General Assembly, under a "Uniting for Peace" resolution, provide the authority? One hundred eighty (180) of those nations have signed the convention banning the use of chemical weapons. Why not bring this to the General Assembly?

We are the United States, and we need to enforce our/the world's values that condemns the use of chemical weapons. President Reagan's inaction when Iraq deployed chemical weapons against his own people and against Iran may perhaps be redeemed by acting now. On the other hand, acting without authorization in international law may undercut the moral value of the action, especially if it leads to more casualties and is unable to prevent Assad from employing chemical weapons again.

What, then, can the attacks as contemplated actually achieve? They can punish Assad, and that may be sufficient rationale to respond to a heinous and dangerous act. They may cripple his capacity to use them again, although that is highly questionable.

History does not suggest that attacks or invasions deter others determined to acquire WMD, and Baker's warning to Saddam prior to Gulf War I, seems to have achieved its goal despite Reagan taking no action after Halabja.

Enforcing the world's ban on chemical weapons, and living up to our values, would both be better achieved by asking the United Nations General Assembly for a "Uniting for Peace" resolution. One hundred eighty nations have signed the chemical weapons convention--let us see them vote to enforce it.

With the need to make a strong case to Congress to obtain their support, it is easy to fall into the trap of overstating what the attacks can achieve.

Secretary Kerry would be well-advised to avoid that trap. It only returns to haunt you.