Time for the Big Stick in Syria

There are times when President Obama seems intent on reversing the terms of Theodore Roosevelt’s advice to “speak softly, and carry a big stick” when it comes to foreign policy.  By combining tough talk about “red lines” with inaction on Syria, he is eroding the deterrent power of the United States. And that is no small thing in this new world disorder of ours.

This week the president called a chemical weapons attack that took place outside of Damascus … “troublesome.” For the leader of the free world, the man who owns the biggest bully pulpit in the world, the commander of the armed forces of what remains the indispensable nation, to call a terrible atrocity of this kind “troublesome” is so weak as to be a virtual provocation to President Assad to escalate. Indeed it is possible that Assad ordered this attack—and the accumulating experience in Syria tells us that actions of this kind are indeed sanctioned from above—precisely because he knew he would not pay any price.

Of course Obama is right to seek concrete proof of the origin of these chemical attacks. Still, the regime has the possession and skill to use the weapons and there is no evidence that the rebel groups do, as Michael Herzog, a retired brigadier general of the Israel Defense Forces, noted in a recent briefing. More: the area attacked was controlled by rebels. And there is precedent for the regime using chemicals.

And of course Obama is right to distrust those voices calling for a full-blown “intervention.” For the armed forces of the West to wade into the middle of a vicious sectarian civil war, with our liberal allies so weak on the ground, would be folly on stilts. And he is rightly skeptical about the ability of the Western democracies to simply swing a big stick and achieve higher order goals (nation-building, freedom, women’s equality, democracy) in faraway places.

But when we can act to stop enormity, we should. And we can; there are other options than “boots on the ground.”  

One that might be considered is a one-time surgical strike against certain regime capabilities to send a very strong message and to restore deterrence. The testimony by General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to the US Senate Armed Services Committee in July left the impression that any option would require multiple sorties, huge forces, and immense risk. But is that really so? The US could hit delivery systems—it is probable that rockets or artillery shells were used to deliver the chemical agents in this week’s attack—or airfields. The goal would be to alter the calculations of the Assad regime and make it think twice before travelling any further down the terrible road it is already on. And the regime’s defenses plainly have vulnerabilities, as Israel has shown.  

Roosevelt called for “the exercise of intelligent forethought and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis.” Well, the time for intelligent foresight has passed: the US and its major European allies should have moved a couple of years ago to arm non-Islamist rebels, but they did not. That radicalized elements of the opposition and gave an opening to the jihadists. And now we are where we are. Now the goal must be more limited: Assad must know there is a price for crimes against humanity so that he pauses and decides against committing them.

That is a righteous goal, for sure. But there is another reason to act decisively in its pursuit. In a letter to John Jay sent on this day in 1785, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Weakness provokes insult and injury, while a condition to punish it often prevents it.” Indeed. In a disorderly world of thugs and fundamentalists, it is prudent to show that the democracies still carry a big stick and are willing to use it.

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