So, what then?
Carney declared "there must be a response" to the chemical attacks and other "administration officials" have said that the strikes would "send a message." Any message sent by launching military strikes explicitly not designed to achieve one's stated strategic goal would be cryptic, and should probably be accompanied by a decoder ring.
An editorial in the German business daily Handelsblatt, helpfully translated by Der Spiegel, puts the case brilliantly:
Humanitarian wars are also wars. Those who jump into them for moral reasons should also want to win them. Cruise missiles fired from destroyers can send a message and demonstrate conviction, but they cannot decide the outcome of a war. Neither can a "we'll see" bombardment. There has to be a strategic motivation behind the moral one, and it demands perseverance.
To paraphrase military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, humanitarian wars have their own grammar but not their own logic. That is, they're fought to achieve political objectives and judged on whether they have been achieved. Regardless of what modifier accompanies it, wars are fought, in the words of the British military theorist Basil Liddell Hart, to "obtain a better state of the peace."
While Secretary of State Kerry's August 26 speech setting the stage for US response was eloquent and emotionally satisfying, its fundamental argument makes no strategic sense. Who could argue against the idea that "The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity”? As Fred Hof, President Obama's former special advisor for transition in Syria and my colleague at the Atlantic Council, rightly notes, "Such slaughter is, in fact, morally obscene and criminal irrespective of the weaponry employed."
Chemical weapons account for less than one percent of the more than 100,000 killed in this conflict. Yet, while I'm sympathetic to international relations expert John Mueller's argument that chemical weapons are not inherently more horrible than many modern conventional weapons, their "development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer or use" are technically prohibited as a matter of international law. While Syria is one of seven states who have not signed and ratified the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, they acceded to the 1925 Geneva Protocol in 1968.
But enforcement of these agreements is the province of the UN Security Council, not the executive branch of the U.S. government. And, rather inconveniently, Kerry's speech was delivered on the same day that Foreign Policy reported that the U.S. government aided and abetted Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons against Iran in 1988.
If the goal is to send the message that using chemical weapons is unacceptable, as security specialist Charli Carpenter notes in Foreign Affairs, it would be unfortunate to use "Tomahawk missiles, which are capable of carrying cluster munitions and which have been decried on humanitarian grounds by numerous governments and civil society groups." Additionally, "the planned strikes would likely involve the use of explosives in populated areas, which is in violation of emerging international concerns about such behavior." If, on the other hand, the primary goal is protection of the civilian population, the Responsibility to Protect doctrine:
requires policymakers and military planners to weigh just cause against the question of whether there is a reasonable prospect of success at reducing civilian bloodshed, given the available resources and constraints, and to select the best type of intervention to meet the goals, which generally means a much longer commitment of blood and treasure than punitive air strikes.
Leaving aside the niceties of international norms—odd though it might be when they are ostensibly the entire point of the operation—there's little reason to think that punitive strikes actually have the intended deterrent effect. A Los Angeles Times analysis notes that similar actions, including strikes against Libya and al-Qaeda in 1986 and 1998, respectively, were not only ineffectual but quite probably counterproductive. The Libya raid was followed by—and apparently inspired—the Lockerbie bombing. And, of course, al-Qaeda carried out the 9/11 attack three years after the widely derided strikes on the pharmaceutical factory in Sudan.