Finding himself rushed into ordering a symbolic attack about which he had serious doubts, President Obama called time out and put the question to “the American people’s representatives in Congress.” Whether asking congressional leaders to authorize limited, proportionate air strikes on Syria will turn out to be a wise choice remains uncertain. But Obama’s self-confidence in rejecting what most advisers thought had already been decided—immediate military action—reminds one of JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when he refused to choose between what the system insisted were the two, and only two, alternatives: attack or acquiesce.
In confronting the challenge of Syria, Obama has identified an overriding American national interest: preventing the major use of chemical weapons or their transfer to terrorists. Making its case for a limited, surgical attack, the Obama administration has focused like a laser beam on a single objective: demonstrating that chemical weapons cannot be used with impunity. In the President’s words, the world should “send a very clear, strong message in favor of the prohibition against using chemical weapons.” If Assad can violate that constraint without serious consequences, what will other nations like Iran or North Korea conclude? Again to quote President Obama, “what’s the purpose of the international system that we’ve built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world's people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced?”
If we accept this as the defining operational objective at this point, is a limited U.S. attack on one or two dozen military targets the best way to achieve that objective? Can we think of other actions the United States and others could take that would be equally or even more effective in moving toward that goal?
When analyzing punishment and deterrence of thugs in the course I have taught for many years at Harvard, I ask students to consider “WWGD.” An adaptation of the evangelical saying “What Would Jesus Do?,” it asks: “what would the Godfather do?” When the Godfather wanted to persuade a Hollywood movie mogul to reconsider his decision to reject casting his godson for a star role in a film, the producer awoke to find the severed head of his prized racehorse in his bed. When the Godfather wanted to define an enforceable constraint against incursions into his territory that other competing mobs would observe, he enlisted the leaders of the strongest other mafia families, isolated the two offending dons, and executed them overnight, along with several of their key enforcers.
President Obama should challenge the community of strategic analysts to exercise their imaginations. To strengthen the international taboo against the use of chemical weapons, to punish the Assad regime for violating that rule, and to deter Assad and his military commanders from using these weapons again, what would the Godfather consider? What might be the equivalent for Assad of waking up to the sight of the severed head of the creature he values most? To get the ball rolling, let me offer six clues.
First, begin with the national interests of all the great powers, specifically Russia and China. Do any of these governments view use of chemical or other weapons of mass destruction as acceptable? Absolutely not. On this, all parties’ national interests are entirely aligned. So last month, or maybe even last year, the administration should have engaged Russia and China in serious conversations about how all the powers could work together to realize this shared objective. At this point, should-a-dones are history. But unless we imagine a world in which the United States stands alone as prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner for the globe, building a norm that others agree to observe requires by definition that others in the international community agree. Even at this late date, talking—and listening!—to the leaders of Russia and China about what specifically they think the great powers can do to prevent future use of chemical weapons would be an essential starting point.
Second, if a major reason for punishing Assad is to strengthen an international norm, others must agree that the Assad regime is responsible for the chemical weapons attack that occurred last month. The inescapable fact that Obama’s predecessor took an international coalition to war with Saddam based on claims about weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be false cannot be wished away. Assertions that the American intelligence community has “concluded with high confidence” that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons are no longer persuasive in themselves for citizens and governments around the world. Anyone tempted to forget that truth should reflect on the stunning rejection by the parliament of our closest ally, despite British Prime Minister Cameron’s valiant effort to make the case for military action.
Third, make it crystal clear that this is not about Assad. Given the shifting sands in Syria today, it is likely that some chemical weapons will fall into the hands of opposition groups. Whatever the United States can do in this case, with whatever degree of support it can get from others, must become the standard for action if any faction should use chemical weapons in the future. The more this appears to be a back door justification for attacking Assad, the less effective any action will be in outlawing any use of chemical weapons.
Fourth, in reviewing coercive options, follow the money. Assad, other members of his family, and key military commanders each have their own Plan B by which they hope to survive if the regime falls. Seize half the money in their foreign bank accounts—sending the unambiguous message that the rest is at risk. In 2005, the Bush administration froze $25 million of Kim Jong Il’s funds in the Macao-based Banco Delta Asia. While it was chump change in the larger scheme of things, blocking Kim’s own accounts made the issue personal for him. Moreover, this act caused a run on Banco Delta Asia that brought it to the verge of bankruptcy. The alacrity with which the North Korean regime reacted surprised even those engaged in the effort. Today, Russian banks and investors as well should face an offer they can’t refuse: stop financial transactions with Assad’s government or stop doing business in the United States and Europe.