For additional clues and analogies that could complement a limited cruise missile attack, challenge the wider community. Experts in the U.S. government know many things that outsiders do not, for example, about the capabilities of some American weapons systems. But those serving in government, even at the highest levels, have no monopoly on strategic imagination. Indeed, because of the tyranny of overloaded inboxes and the maddening difficulty of getting anything decided and done, bureaucratic processes tilt toward what is easy to do. As has often been observed, presidents of all persuasions find themselves gravitating to military options because military officers say: “yes sir” and just do it.
In Syria, President Obama has only damnable choices: certain to be damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. Having thrown the gauntlet to an inherently obstreperous Congress, he is wrestling with the reality that many members are clearer about their opposition to him than about what we should do about Syria. Understandably, he and his team will be consumed by efforts to persuade Congress to vote yes.
But as the debate continues, the President should begin by releasing much more evidence about the attack and Assad’s responsibility for it. This should include photographs and intercepts that will make many in the U.S. intelligence community uncomfortable. Nonetheless, the test must be to present evidence sufficient to lead any fair-minded observer in Congress or a foreign government to come to this conclusion for himself—not in deference to U.S. assertions or appeals for trust. British, French, Saudi, and other nations should present more of their own intelligence in making their case. Simultaneously, the United Nations should be pressed to expedite analysis of evidence their inspectors collected on the ground last week and to report their conclusions. By stretching an extra mile in presenting evidence and argument, even if in the end the United States is forced to act alone, the President will have earned a measure of credit.
If at the G20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Obama took Xi and Putin aside and proposed to send a small team of intelligence, military, and diplomatic experts to spend three days seriously exploring together their best ideas about preventing future chemical attacks and making a maximum effort to develop a joint approach, could they find some common ground? Uncertain, and perhaps unlikely, but even if that failed, Obama would again get credit for trying. At the same time, he should challenge American strategic planners to think way outside of the box, asking WWGD.
With these strands and others, by the time Congress returns from vacation on September 9, the President should be able not just to ask for a positive vote authorizing U.S. military strikes when he thinks appropriate. He should also be able to demonstrate that this is one strand in a comprehensive strategy that employs all instruments of U.S. and international power to strengthen a pillar of the international order that prohibits use of weapons of mass destruction in the longer run—and causes sufficient pain now to Assad and his key commanders to instill fear about what they personally will suffer if they cross this line again.