Could there be a better way to punish Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons than a “limited and tailored” military strike, as President Barack Obama and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at his urging, would have it?
It’s such a bad plan that not even the president, who is feverishly pushing it, seems to like it. That’s why he gets tangled in shifting rationales and dubious promises, such as assurances the trouble will be over before we know it and not so much as a U.S. soldier’s toe will touch the ground in Syria. Only good rebels will benefit; with more and better arms, these fighters will find some indeterminate way to bring peace to Syria. None of this, after the initial bombs, would involve us militarily even a teeny, tiny bit.
You can be for punishing Assad and still realize these are preposterous statements. Assad could end up as strong or stronger after a strike. We could end up as flummoxed and hamstrung as ever. The biggest change might be that we killed some innocent civilians, too.
Enter into this political quagmire Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who is as uncertain about the wisdom of the president’s plan as the president himself appears to be.
Unlike the president, however, Manchin is offering all sides a way out. Last week, before he announced he would be voting against the president’s resolution, he called every one of his fellow senators, which is more than the president has done. He found most of them were where he was: Assad’s evil attack using sarin gas did cross a red line that must be enforced but in a smart, not uncontrollable, way.
He then reached across his own personal aisle to an arch nemesis, Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, one of the few Democrats who voted to kill his bill to strengthen background checks for gun purchases after the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.
Heitkamp, too, had announced she was against the White House plan for Syria. War makes strange bedfellows. The two drafted a resolution that would give Assad 45 days to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, joining 189 nations, including Syrian friends China and Russia (Assad’s father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, refused to sign). That refusal puts Syria in very bad company -- with the likes of South Sudan, Angola and North Korea.
Would the Syrian leader do what his father refused to do? In an interview with CBS’s Charlie Rose over the weekend, Assad lied about using chemical weapons. But part of the motivation for that lie must be shame.
The Manchin-Heitkamp resolution calls on Assad to take “concrete steps” to comply with the convention, which would mean getting rid of his chemical weapons. Failure to comply within the 45-day period would clearly demonstrate “a disregard of international norms.”
What Manchin means, of course, is “another” instance of disregard for international norms, given the more than 1,400 of Assad’s citizens who have been killed already. But when you are trying to get a political concession, you have to employ political words. Manchin points out the singular improvement of this resolution compared with the one out of the White House. “If chemical weapons are the problem, what Obama has proposed is not going to do anything about that problem,” he said. “My resolution with Heidi does.”
It also reduces the known unknowns. We don’t know what Iran will do, but it would give that country’s new president, Hassan Rohani -- a centrist cleric who is an improvement over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- time to figure out what he can do. It puts off a military strike, which could hurt us more than it hurts Assad, without taking force off the table. It gives our allies time to come around; Saudi Arabia has joined up, and even Russia may be showing some give by proposing that Syria put its stockpile of weapons under international control. Both Obama and his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said the proposal could be worthy of consideration.
What Assad now knows is that the consequences of having used gas far outweigh the benefits, if any. He’s a pariah, even to Russia, an international outlaw. The stubborn, chinless, lisping ophthalmologist in Damascus may soon be looking for a way out.
Pursuing limited strikes, which are explicitly meant to do little harm, may do so little harm that they empower the regime. Afterward, if Assad has a breath left in him, he will declare victory, go all in against the rebels, and possibly use gas again. If the regime is mortally harmed -- which is unlikely because that is specifically not the U.S.’s goal -- we’re in the terrible position, Manchin says, of having a dog in the fight but not a friend. As has happened with other Middle Eastern regimes, the most likely beneficiary of U.S. intervention is our enemy.
Obama, at best, could win a vote in the Senate and then -- as President Bill Clinton did with Kosovo -- proceed with military action without waiting for the House, where he will almost certainly face a humiliating defeat partly at the hands of his own party.
Manchin offers all parties a timeout. There’s no element of surprise that would be lost. That’s gone. We only lose 45 days during which, in the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad situation we find ourselves in, something positive could happen.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
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