The Stupid 'Smoking Gun' Argument on Syria

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security, education and food for Bloomberg View. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper's letters editor.
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Critics on the left and rightare arguing that the lack of a "smoking gun" tying President Bashar al-Assad to the chemical-weapons attack near Damascus last week is a reason to back off from a missile strike against the Syrian regime. Actually, the possibility that some underling bears responsibility might be the best justification I've seen yet for U.S. military action.

Listen, there are plenty of good reasons not to attack Syria, and my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg has spelled out most of them, here and here and here. Basically, I'd see any short-term, narrowly targeted attack as little more than a fit of pique by a superpower painted into a corner by President Barack Obama's "red-line" comment last year.

This is no time for symbolic bellicosity, especially at $1.4 million per Tomahawk missile. If we are really going to use our military might against Syria -- and that is a big "if" -- we should go all-in and commit to regime change, getting rid of a murderous despot under the thumb of Iran at a vital geopolitical crossroads. Yes, that would mean sustained air and missile support and a free flow of arms to a group of rebels we maybe cannot trust; even, perhaps, U.S. boots on the ground.

In the end it comes down to weighing the pros and cons, so let's consider how this chemical-weapons attack tilts the scale. (Nobody, at this point, seems to doubt that there was one, or to think that the rebels might have been responsible.) To my mind, that the assault may have been carried out by some junior military commander, either empowered to do so or going rogue, adds significant heft to the pro-war side of the fulcrum. It's one thing to think that Assad is desperate enough to use sarin on his own people -- we knew that -- but it's terrifying to think he is stupid enough or careless enough to allow his underlings to do so at their own discretion.

It reminds me of how we found out, long after the fact and to the astonishmentof the John F. Kennedy administration's "best and brightest," that during the Cuban Missile Crisis the Soviet leaders had given their commanders on the ground the authority to use tactical nuclear weapons as they saw fit. Thank God, those generals were wiser than their Kremlin overseers and kept their cool. We cannot expect as much from a bunch of Syrian army thugs. We may have no choice but to take these weapons of mass destruction out of their hands.

(Tobin Harshaw writes editorials for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)

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