Once again the cable news circuit is abuzz with speculation about options for the United States to respond militarily to Syria’s government employing chemical weapons against it citizens. Members of Congress feed this machine with sound bites about what they think the President should decide, or should have decided, or should not decide.
Crafting an executable and effective policy is much more complicated and risky. The President will be held accountable for the results. Many of the same television personalities who call for strong military action will, without shame, criticize the inevitably ambiguous results of such action. This conversation would not be important except that it dilutes and confuses U.S. national will. In a democracy such as the United States’, national will is essential to sustaining and succeeding in any policy.
Policy makers must first and foremost articulate what the objective is. How do we want Syria to respond to our actions?
Then policy makers must craft a concept of what combination of actions will achieve the objective. This is a taller order than might be expected because Syria is a self-interested and rational actor. Assad reads the newspapers and will take whatever action necessary so the public perception is that U.S. goals are not achieved.
I have heard pundits saying that the United States has a “moral obligation” to alleviate suffering in Syria, and to punish Assad. Consider that the President has a competing moral obligation to citizens and soldiers only to undertake military action, putting blood and treasure at risk, if there is a feasible and executable plan with a reasonable chance of success of achieving the objectives, and proportional to potential security value to the United States.