Bluster Loudly and Carry a Small Stick

By Mike Dorf

Over the weekend, I wrote a column asking whether President Obama might bomb Syria even if Congress voted down the resolution authorizing him to do so.  The column was finalized and went live yesterday.  We live in world of short news cycles and so events have arguably already overtaken the column, although I think that it says some things that have salience beyond the immediate crisis.

In any event, the action now focuses on a Russian-brokered proposal for Syria to turn over its chemical weapons to an international team.  With the endorsement of Russia, China, France, the U.S., and perhaps the Assad regime itself, the proposal could well render the prospect of a missile strike moot.  That would surely be for the good.  An internationally supervised transfer will be much more effective at preventing a future chemical strike by Syria and securing the chemical weapons than would be the necessarily cruder tool of a U.S. cruise missile attack.

The chemical weapons transfer proposal could still bog down, but for now, the episode raises the question of whether President Obama's tough threats "worked" in the sense of bringing credible pressure to bear on Syria and Russia so that they agreed to measures that they would not have agreed to in the absence of the threat of a cruise missile attack.

As the title of this post suggests, the answer could be no--given the Administration's repeated assurances to American domestic opinion that the strike would be limited in duration, scope and means.  That might not have been enough of a threat to create real movement.

Nonetheless, I think the right answer is yes.  For one thing, even though Secretary of State Kerry talked about a precise strike on Syria's chemical weapons assets, Assad may have worried about a "decapitation" strike that would have taken him out.  For another thing, even if a targeted missile strike would have been ineffective from the U.S. perspective because it would have led to the dispersal of chemical weapons into even less stable hands, that could have been bad for Assad as well.  So I'm prepared to say that, for now, it looks like the threat was a key motivator in producing what could be a diplomatic solution to the chemical weapons issue.  And perhaps that in turn might even spark a wider diplomatic effort to end the civil war--although it remains too soon to say that.

Does this all mean that the Obama Administration was right to threaten missile strikes and critics of this approach, like yours truly, were wrong?  I'm always happy to admit that I was wrong when things work out for the best, but here I still think that the threats were misguided ex ante, even if they end up working out well ex post.

Why?  Because in order for a threat to be credible, one needs to be prepared to carry it out--and there was every indication here that the Obama Administration was not merely making threats to gain bargaining leverage but actually wanted to bomb Syria.  This approach is extraordinarily risky.  Perhaps it's an unfair comparison, but I think of the Democratic Senators--including the current Secretary of State and his immediate predecessor--who voted to authorize President Bush to go to war with Iraq as a supposed means to give him leverage in seeking a diplomatic solution.  The comparison may be unfair because Bush probably never would have settled for any sort of diplomatic solution.  But it may not be unfair because that's the sort of posture one must take in order to gain real leverage.

Consider an even more inflammatory comparison.  The country in the world that has the best recent track record of threatening military strikes to obtain negotiating concessions is North Korea.  Is that really the model on which the conduct of U.S. foreign policy ought to be based?