In an extraordinary series of disclosures this week, Obama administration officials said that the United States will launch only cruise missile strikes in Syria. The attacks will last roughly two or three days. And the administration’s goal will be to punish President Bashar al-Assad, not remove him from power.
But those clear efforts to placate opponents of military action appear to be failing. Warnings of “another Iraq” are fueling opposition to the use of force on both sides of the Atlantic. And the Obama administration’s contradictory record on secrecy is coming back to haunt it.
In Washington on Wednesday, one-third of the members of Congress asked that they be allowed to vote on any use of American force. In London on Thursday, Prime Minister David Cameron’s effort to gain support in Parliament for strikes failed, despite the release of an intelligence assessment which said Assad had used chemical weapons fourteen times since 2012.
The risks are high but President Barack Obama should follow Cameron’s example. Obama should allow the UN inspectors to complete their work, unveil any U.S. evidence of Syrian government involvement in chemical attacks and give Congress an opportunity to vote on the use of force.
Post-Iraq skepticism of American military action is extraordinarily high. Obama should lead an open debate that helps restore confidence in the public’s control over the use of military force.
Americans fear that faulty intelligence could drag the U.S. into another conflict in the Middle East. And they apparently don’t trust Obama himself. The president’s unfulfilled promise of being more transparent than George W. Bush sows suspicion. So does the White House’s failure to fully disclose its counter-terrorism operations, from covert drone strikes to global cyber-surveillance.
This week’s leak of detailed American military planning was unprecedented. It was also enormously hypocritical. An administration that has carried out more criminal leak investigations than all other administrations combined is giving itself a pass on sharing secrets. When it suits its political goals, this White House leaks like a sieve.
The danger of disclosing the limited scope of the potential strikes is that it undercuts a central goal: deterrence. Assad knows he can wait out a brief bombing campaign, emerge from a bunker and declare victory.
In Afghanistan, the Obama administration followed the same pattern. The president placed an 18-month time limit to the 2009 troop surge before it even started. The deadline eased concerns among the American public. But it also telegraphed to the Taliban that they could simply wait out the surge in their safe havens in Pakistan.
On Syria, White House promises of limited American action have so far failed to ease public concern. Stay out is the most common refrain. A new legacy is emerging from the presidency of George W. Bush: opposition to the use of American force in any form.