If Obama wants to deter future chemical attacks, then he should focus on deterrence instead of punishment

President Obama announced this afternoon that he has decided to launch an attack on Syria but will not move forward until Congress has had an opportunity to debate the issue and has voted to authorize the attack.

Earlier this week, Politico reported:

As President Barack Obama moves closer to calling for military action against Syria, a powerful ally that could help him win over skeptics is staying quiet.

The Israel lobby, including the high-profile American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other Jewish groups, isn’t pushing for intervention even as evidence emerged this week that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its citizens.

The silence could be a problem for Obama, since the Jewish groups are connected across the political spectrum, wielding influence from the far right to liberal Democrats on issues critical to the Middle East — especially when it comes to the use of military force.

And while Obama has been willing to strike a foreign country without Congress’s approval — as he did in Libya — this time he not only faces a reluctant Congress, but a vocal chorus of Republican and Democratic lawmakers publicly advocating against entanglement.

Since AIPAC and the rest of the lobby have thus far remained silent, will they now start lobbying on behalf of the White House? Possibly, but it seems just as likely that they will not want to be held responsible for pushing Congress to make an unpopular decision.

As for what Congress will do, Obama is taking a gamble, but not as big a gamble as Britain’s prime minister David Cameron took when he got defeated in parliament. Chances are, Congress will bloviate on the issues, tip their hats in the direction of a president who was polite enough to ask their opinions and then, since they don’t really have any, they’ll mostly line up behind him support his decision and sing the praises of the men and women of America’s armed services.

Since Obama has introduced an element that up until now was not part of the debate — that this attack once authorized could come at any time at all — there is another course of action that the White House should consider and that might actually make more sense even to those who remain mesmerized by the supposed utility of America’s military strength: use it as an ongoing deterrent rather than an instrument of punishment. In other words, once Obama has been given the green light from Congress, U.S. battleships can then hold their positions off the coast of Syria indefinitely ready to strike without warning.

If the goal is simply to prevent further use of chemical weapons, the threat of an attack of indeterminate scope is likely to have much more impact on Assad’s calculations than the memory of an attack his forces managed to survive.

Obviously, there are more constructive courses of action that America and its allies should pursue that would not involve either the threat or use of military strikes, but since strikes themselves are the focus of the current debate, then it’s surely preferable to think about using that particular form of power in the most intelligent way possible.

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6 thoughts on “If Obama wants to deter future chemical attacks, then he should focus on deterrence instead of punishment

  1. rosemerry

    1. The “evidence” has not been verified.
    2. Who is the USA,covered in blood, to “punish” another country for what is has so often done itself, expecially without proof of the attack.
    3. Kerry “forgot” the provision by the USA of chemical weapons used by Saddam Hussein against Iraqis and Iranians. Iranians have not forgotten (see post by Franklin Lamb in counterpunch today).
    He also seems to forget the Vietnam War he was part of. Napalm, anyone?
    4. Why is there this sudden horror at a particular type of weapon, when Israel is constantly helped by the USA to use all these weapons against Palestinians and Lebanese civilians?

  2. delia ruhe

    What happens if Congress says No and Obama says, “The people have spoken”?

    ‘ “We” don’t necessarily want Obama to bomb Syria. Public opinion is against it, for all sorts of rational, reasonable reasons. But there is also an American public that demands a president who says what we might have difficulty saying ourselves: that America is the best, the biggest, and the boss. … we expect America to make the rules which others follow—but if Obama didn’t behave like a king on the world stage, if he didn’t act like the leader of the free world, he would be seen as weak. And so would we. We would be unsettled. Which is the real problem, the need to believe that “we” are better than “them.” If they get uppity, we smash them down, and if we don’t, who are we? It is natural for us to be on top, so if we have a president who does not maintain that position—especially if that president is a black man whose middle name is Hussein—we will look at him and make him the problem. You do not represent us, we will say; we are American and you are… something else.’


  3. eugene

    There’s an old saying: new boss just like the old boss. We have a long history of this. I keep wondering if there is a point at which Americans will become ashamed of our trail of blood and chaos. Truth is, I don’t think we have it in us.

  4. Paul Woodward

    Delia – My speculation is based on the expectation that Congress doesn’t have the backbone to oppose the president on a foreign policy/military issue. I will be happy to be proved wrong.

  5. Paul Woodward

    Rosemerry — the evidence has not been verified, but if it is then you’ll be back claiming it was faked.

    America has a history filled with outrageous hypocrisy. Indeed. But that’s no revelation. If all the hypocrites were to leave Washington the city would be deserted.

  6. Norman

    Of course, if the U.S. didn’t go around whacking other nations with real or made up short comings, slights, snubs, etc., as well as stayed in our own back yard taking care of business here at home, then perhaps this sort of dilemma wouldn’t be plaguing us. Face it, the Bushies overreacted to the 9/11 catastrophe by claiming “the war on terror” and implementing it, which has no end, but has made the war machine makers and the financial backers, fabulously rich, at the expense of the economy. Oh, and now, the “O” has to save face, so the bombing will take place, but wont achieve anything good, instead will only create more hatred toward the U.S. The fools errand for the fools cause.

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