I've written enough for a public audience in my day to know the importance of the "hook" -- the clever metaphor, historical analogy, provocative statement, or autobiographical anecdote that will hook the reader into paying attention long enough for me to make my more substantive point about world politics. Hell, I've written a few things in my day that had a ratio of ninety percent hook and ten percent substance. A great hook combined with a great argument can make you proud that someone actually pays you to write things.
A bad hook, though... well, a bad hook causes the reader to feel manipulated by a writer with a hardened agenda and no knowledge of how to persuade. It's the difference between flirtation and harassment in social intercourse.
Which brings me to the opening paragraphs in Tom Friedman's column today:
I was at a conference in Bern, Switzerland, last week and struggling with my column. News of Russia’s proposal for Syria to surrender its poison gas was just breaking and changing every hour, forcing me to rewrite my column every hour. To clear my head, I went for a walk along the Aare River, on Schifflaube Street. Along the way, I found a small grocery shop and stopped to buy some nectarines. As I went to pay, I was looking down, fishing for my Swiss francs, and when I looked up at the cashier, I was taken aback: He had pink hair. A huge shock of neon pink hair — very Euro-punk from the ’90s. While he was ringing me up, a young woman walked by, and he blew her a kiss through the window — not a care in the world.
Observing all this joie de vivre, I thought to myself: “Wow, wouldn’t it be nice to be a Swiss? Maybe even to sport some pink hair?” Though I can’t say for sure, I got the feeling that the man with pink hair was not agonizing over the proper use of force against Bashar al-Assad. Not his fault; his is a tiny country. I guess worrying about Syria is the tax you pay for being an American or an American president — and coming from the world’s strongest power that still believes, blessedly in my view, that it has to protect the global commons. Barack Obama once had black hair. But his is gray now, not pink. That’s also the tax you pay for thinking about the Middle East too much: It leads to either gray hair or no hair, but not pink hair.
So, a few things:
1) I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the United States also has pink-haired clerks flirting with girls (and boys) on the street. Maybe not where Friedman buys his nectarines, but still...
2) The logical proposition "pink hair = does not care about the rest of the world" feels a bit... wrong.
3) While U.S. military primacy does contribute to protecting and preserving the global commons, the extent to which it does so is a bit more complicated than Friedman suggests.
4) Maybe don't stereotype a country that headquarters the International Committee of the Red Cross and that, according to one well-respected index, appears to care just as much about the rest of the world as the United States.
5) Friedman's biggest sin is writing such a hackneyed opening that readers will drift away before reading the last two-thirds of his column, which is both contemplative and thought-provoking. This paragraph in particular suggests that the Syria debate will require America's foreign policy community to engage in some critical reflection:
The fact that Americans overwhelmingly told Congress to vote against bombing Syria for its use of poison gas tells how much the divide on this issue in America was not left versus right, but top versus bottom. Intervening in Syria was driven by elites and debated by elites. It was not a base issue. I think many Americans could not understand why it was O.K. for us to let 100,000 Syrians die in a civil war/uprising, but we had to stop everything and bomb the country because 1,400 people were killed with poison gas. I and others made a case why, indeed, we needed to redraw that red line, but many Americans seemed to think that all we were doing is drawing a red line in a pool of blood. Who would even notice?
I'm very curious about where mainstream foreign policy punditry will go after they recover from losing the argument on Syria and bewailing things like lost credibility and so forth. I'll be even more curious if Friedman's editors exercise a wee bit more discipline and tell him when his metaphors don't work. At all.
In the wake of the yet-to-be-implemented and agreement to remove Syria's chemical weapons, there's been a geyser of analyses explaining who "won" and who "lost" from these latest diplomatic exchanges. Yes, such exercises have an element of superficiality to them, and it's possible that outcomes like Syria have no impact whatsoever on larger questions of "credibility". Still, perceptions matter in world politics, so these kind of assessments are inevitable. But to develop these perceptions, you need to figure out your reference point. When looking at the situation on the ground, what is the old status quo against which one compares the current situation?
The majority of these columns seem to start from the August 21st attacks, and conclude that Russia and Assad are big winners and the United States is the big loser. A minority of observers -- oh, and the American people -- would dissent from that view. Fred Kaplan astutely notes that it's possible that a deal like this can be win-win for everyone but the Syrian people.
I've had considerable qualms with how the Obama administration articulated its aims over the past month. Hell, I think Miss California articulated a better Syria policy than the Obama administration, and in less than ten seconds too. Still, I can't get quite as exercised about perceived "losses" for the United States. This might be because my status quo reference point is pre-Arab Spring. In early 2011, Bashar Assad was a stable, loyal ally to both
Syria Russia and Iran, his wife was profiled in Vogue, and Syria was seen as a linchpin of any future Middle East peace.
As a result of the past week's worth of supposedly brilliant machinations, Russia has managed to bolster... a very wobbly ally with a government that is a shell of its former self, a pariah of the international community, under heavy United Nations Security Council sanctions, and about to be overrun with chemical weapons inspectors to destroy its WMD stockpiles. Even if this agreement improves the odds of Assad staying in power, he's in charge of a radically depleted asset.
So, in other words, compared to where Russian influence in the Middle East was at the start of 2011 to now, I'm not terrifically impressed. And it's not like Russia's prospects improve when you look elsewhere, I might add.
Now, to be fair, if your reference point is, say, the middle of 2011 or the middle of 2012, when the rebels seemed poised to deal the Assad regime a mortal blow, the picture changes slightly. From that perspective, Russia has salvaged some degree of influence from a rapidly deteriorating situation. Except that: A) it was never clear if Assad was truly on the ropes; and B) it was pretty clear that the Obama administration, while wanting Assad to go, does not necessarily want the rebels to stay.
So I'm afraid that I can't quite agree with assessments that conclude that this deal created, "the worst day for U.S. and wider Western diplomacy."
But that's me. What do you think?
One of the more fascinating aspects of the Syria debate has been the divide between policymakers and academics over the question of credibility and reputation in international politics. In essence: Does Washington's reversals of course in Syria signal to allies and adversaries alike that the U.S. will not honor its other defense commitments?
I bring this up because -- tucked into the Wall Street Journal's tick-tock on the Obama administration's post-August 21 gyrations on Syria policy -- there was this little nugget:
The U.K. parliamentary vote happened as National Security Adviser Rice, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were beginning a conference call with congressional leaders. During the call, Mr. Hagel, who was traveling in Asia, raised the question of U.S. credibility. He said South Korea was concerned U.S. inaction would make North Korea think it could get away with using chemical and biological weapons. [Emphasis added.]
This is not the only time Hagel has brought up this connection:
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel cited North Korea as a country that he said could be emboldened if global norms against use of chemical weapons are weakened by US inaction in response to the Aug. 21 attack that killed more than 1,400 people in the suburbs of Damascus.
The focus of US diplomacy with North Korea has been its expanding nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. But Hagel told US lawmakers that Washington and Seoul were also concerned about chemical weapons.
"I just returned from Asia, where I had a very serious and long conversation with South Korea's defense minister about the threat that North Korea's stockpile of chemical weapons presents to them," Hagel told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He described the North Korean stockpile as "massive."
While Secretary of State John Kerry has made similar references, Hagel seems to be asserting that it's not just a valid comparison to make, but that South Korean officials have actually been making it to American officials. This would be direct evidence to support the claim that credibility matters more in world politics than the current academic research indicates.
The thing is, it's not at all clear whether Hagel's assertions have any grounding in fact. First of all, Korea experts have seen almost no chatter inside the ROK making this comparison as the Syria debate has heated up.
Second, these really are apples-and-oranges cases. Syria's government used chemical weapons on its own people during a civil war; the DPRK would be using such weapons against another sovereign state that happens to be an important U.S. treaty ally. Any decision by the DPRK to use its chemical weapons would trigger an international war -- a fact that Pyongyang knows already.
Third, as Scott Snyder noted a few days ago, the North Koreans can spin any U.S. action or inaction in Syria as an argument in favor of bolstering their WMD:
North Korea has successfully avoided accountability for its persistent efforts to expand its WMD capacity. The United States intervened in Iraq at the same time that North Korea was on the verge of conducting its first nuclear test. North Korea has publicly stated that the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya affirms that North Korea has taken the right path by pursuing its nuclear development. A U.S. focus only on Syria, despite evidence of North Korea’s support for the latter’s WMD programs, will strengthen Pyongyang’s belief that its nuclear weapons program is successfully deterring U.S. and international efforts from holding it accountable for its actions.
Thus, a precision strike to teach Syria a lesson on WMD use will not deter North Korea from building a capacity to directly threaten the United States or from using WMD if it deems necessary. It may instead strengthen the position of North Korean hardliners that it must build this capacity to strengthen deterrence.…
North Korea is indeed watching, but its leaders are unlikely to take a lesson from U.S. intervention in Syria and instead will use whatever happens in Syria to its advantage. It is self-delusion to tell ourselves that action or inaction in Syria will prevent North Korea’s efforts to build a nuclear blackmail capability.
Finally, there's the fact that South Korea has publicly welcomed the chemical weapons deal on Syria.
To be fair, Snyder also suggested that "A U.S. strike on Syria will however provide a measure of assurance to U.S. allies who live under the threat of North Korean chemical and nuclear weapons use." So there's that, and whatever the ROK defense minister said to Hagel.
These things can't be dismissed out of hand. I do think they can be dismissed after further reflection, however.
What do you think?
Until yesterday, Elizabeth O'Bagy was a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War and an increasingly prominent expert on the Syrian rebel groups. Then the institute announced the following:
The Institute for the Study of War has learned and confirmed that, contrary to her representations, Ms. Elizabeth O'Bagy does not in fact have a Ph.D. degree from Georgetown University. ISW has accordingly terminated Ms. O'Bagy's employment, effective immediately.
O'Bagy's exact academic status was unclear in the reportage. According what O'Bagy told Politico, "she had submitted and defended her dissertation and was waiting for Georgetown University to confer her degree." However, according to BuzzFeed, "O’Bagy has a masters from Georgetown University and was enrolled in a Ph.D program, but had not yet defended her dissertation." So there was already some confusion from O'Bagy's initial explanations.
Zack Beauchamp, however, suggests that O'Bagy's "representations" were a bit more extravagant than the distinction between defending a dissertation/receiving a diploma:
O’Bagy was enrolled in the Arab Studies Master’s program, which only partners with three departments for joint doctorate programs: Government, History, and Arabic Language, Literature, and Linguistics. Given her purported topic, she would have partnered with Government — according to one Georgetown PhD student who met O’Bagy, she had claimed a distinguished member of the Government Department as her adviser.
She is not listed as a PhD student on the Government department’s website. She does not exist in the university directory. A search of the entire Georgetown website turns up only one hit, a congratulations notice for her Master’s graduation.
There is “no evidence that she is associated with our department in any way; she’s not among our students as far as we can tell,” Daniel Nexon, a Government Professor who served as the Director of Admissions and Fellowships for all but one of the years she could have applied. The professor who was supposedly advising O’Bagy’s dissertation has never heard of her.
When I asked Kagan about the evidence of O’Bagy’s initial, ongoing deception, she demurred. “That I actually need to refer you to Georgetown for.”
My deep network of
spies sources at Georgetown confirm Beauchamp's account, telling me that there is zero evidence that O'Bagy was ever enrolled in any Ph.D. program at Georgetown.
So what? Why does this matter?
A few reasons. First, there's the Syria issue. Back to Politico:
O’Bagy’s Aug. 30 op-ed piece for the Journal, “On the Front Lines of Syria’s Civil War,” was cited by both Kerry and McCain last week. McCain read from the piece last Tuesday to Kerry, calling it “an important op-ed by Dr. Elizabeth O’Bagy.” The next day, Kerry also brought up the piece before a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing and described it as a “very interesting article” and recommended that members read it.
But the piece had also come under fire for misrepresenting her affiliations. Originally the op-ed only listed O’Bagy, 26, as only “a senior analyst” at the ISW, later adding a clarification that disclosed her connection to a Syrian rebel advocacy group.
“In addition to her role at the Institute for the Study of War, Ms. O’Bagy is affiliated with the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a nonprofit operating as a 501(c)(3) pending IRS approval that subcontracts with the U.S. and British governments to provide aid to the Syrian opposition,” the WSJ added in its clarification.
Or, as CNN's Jake Tapper pithily put it: "It's all part of the weird world of Washington – a doctor who is not a doctor writes an op-ed testifying for the rebels, without disclosing that she is paid for by a rebel advocacy group, and her words are seized as evidence by experts – Kerry and McCain."
So there's that. It is certainly possible that O'Bagy's WSJ op-ed is 100% accurate. The thing is, misrepresenting one's affiliations and credentials go to credibility, and O'Bagy now has two strikes against her.
The other thing is why O'Bagy felt the need to misrepresent her credentials, and why the hell it took so long for Kagan and the ISW to ferret this out.
To answer this question, let's go to this recent Duck of Minerva blog post about how to land a policy position in D.C. Some telling portions:
All interns in this city are smart. Really. All of them. So there is a lot of competition about “who’s smarter than who” or “who produces more".…
In all reality, you don’t need a Ph.D at this town at first- though an M.A. is a near-must.... The people who need Ph.Ds are at the fellow level- and these are people who also have about a decade of government experience. Coming in with a Ph.D and no government experience means you price yourself out of the Research Associate market without the value added of experience....
Whichever way you go with grad school/law school/experience, start to carve out your own voice. Have a “thing” that you want to claim as your little slice of expertise. The strange thing about this town is that what you claim to be an expert on, your are perceived to be an expert on until proven otherwise (which can be a really good thing or a dangerously bad thing!) (emphasis added)
And here we get to the heart of the matter. In a community where the interns have master's degrees and the competition for remunerative jobs is fierce, the Ph.D. actually does count for something as a credential, no matter how much pundits and textbooks like to mock it. But going to get a Ph.D. in political science comes with lots of sacrifice and great risks as well as great rewards. [And for those of you who immediately react by thinking "this is what's wrong with a pseudo-scientific discipline that values the credential over real-world knowledge," let me assure you of two things: Political science Ph.D.s actually do accumulate a healthy amount of "real-world knowledge," and political science is hardly the only profession where people have exaggerated their credentials.]
O'Bagy is hardly the first person to misrepresent her academic credentials -- nor is she the most egregious example. And everyone "embellishes" their accomplishments on a CV or a résumé. But this episode suggests that maybe, just maybe, think tanks and consulting firms in Washington should do a little more due diligence in their hiring. And for those 20-somethings thinking about faking it so they can make it, bear this parable in mind about the possible consequences.
What do you think?
Sure, I could blog about the substance of Obama's Syria speech last night, but John Dickerson captured the problem with its political optics and Joe Weisenthal has captured the market reaction and Andrew Sullivan has the pro-Obama spin and Shibley Telhami or Micah Zenko has the anti-Obama spin.
So, instead... I'm going to risk the wrath of XKCD and talk about the role of social media:
What I found really interesting was what happened after the speech on Twitter. Namely, Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting, took to Twitter in response to two influential foreign policy pundits, The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg and the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof. For example:
@NickKristof CW is in distinct category. Banned by international law - threat to civilians, global security, and international order— Ben Rhodes (@rhodes44) September 11, 2013
@JeffreyGoldberg Increased support for Syrian opposition. Regime cut off from global economy. Geneva process to transition to new government— Ben Rhodes (@rhodes44) September 11, 2013
I've never seen this kind of spin room dynamic play out on Twitter on foreign policy substance. Campaign stuff, sure, but not foreign policy substance.
Dylan Byers noted it too, and reports that Rhodes was part of a larger White House communications push:
While Rhodes worked on Goldberg and Kristof, White House press secretary Jay Carney tweeted quotes from Obama’s speech — “Getting the word out by all available means!,” he tweeted at one Time Magazine reporter — and Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s assistant and senior advisor, tried to counter journalists who argued that Obama’s speech was “old news.”
“[W]e don’t assume the public follows the news as closely as leading political columnists,” Pfeiffer wrote to The Las Vegas Sun’s Jon Ralston. And to Goldberg, he tweeted, “[P]residents don’t ask for time to address columnists who follow every minute of the news, it’s for the public that doesn’t.”
So, on the one hand, this is a New Thing -- which means that, like foreign cyber-espionage, there's a new way to measure status in the foreign policy community: If you're in power, are you important enough to be authorized to tweet in response to a Big Foreign Policy Event? If you're a pundit, are you important enough to have Ben Rhodes tweet at you? I mean, is he at least following you? Somewhere, Mark Leibovich is rubbing his hands together with glee as he starts his sequel, This Foreign Policy Town.
On the other hand.... if you read to the end of Byers' story, it doesn't seem like the spin had much effect:
Leading minds on foreign policy were unforgiving, and panned the speech as contradictory and inconsequential.
“He should have postponed,” Goldberg told POLITICO. “Basically he said — our military is ready; John Kerry is going to Geneva, and poison gas is very bad.”
In an email to POLITICO, Rothkopf called the speech “a string of his recent arguments culminating in a punt.”
“It seems clear he wishes this would all go away and that he is very uncomfortable with the spot he finds himself,” Rothkopf wrote. “The thing he feels strongest about is his own ambivalence.”
Ceding a little ground, though not much, Phillip Gourevitch, the New Yorker staff writer, tweeted: “That it’s pure rhetoric w/no substance may be understandable w/confused state of play but it clarifies nothing.” He added: “Obama did make strong case for likely ineffectiveness of action in Syria, while declaring its necessity.”
So, to sum up: XKCD is right about social media.
Am I missing anything?
Well, quite a bit has happened on Syria in the last twenty-four hours. It started with an offhand suggestion by John Kerry that Syria could avoid external military intervention by giving up a chemical weapons stockpile that Bashir Assad has never admitted to possessing. Then a funny thing happened -- Russia embraced the proposal, Syria's government responded positively as well, and then President Obama signaled cautious support. Even John McCain and Lindsey Graham seemed willing to give the idea a try. Or, as Andrew Kydd put it, "operating out of sheer malice, Syria and Russia are offering him a face-saving way to back out of the crisis gracefully by disingenuously accepting a disingenuous and unauthorized proposal from his own Secretary of State."
Which leads us back to the United Nations Security Council:
An unexpected Russian proposal for Syria to avert a U.S. military strike by transferring control of its chemical weapons appeared to be gaining traction on Tuesday, as France said it would draft a U.N. Security Council resolution to put the plan into effect, and China and Iran voiced some support.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters in Paris that by bringing the proposal to the security council, the world would be able to judge the intentions of Russia and China, which until now have blocked efforts to sanction Syria for any actions during its two-and-a-half-year-long civil war.
Now, there are valid reasons to be dubious about the likelihood of this working out well. First, this does nothing to address the prior uses of chemical weapons, nor does it really stop the ongoing bloodshed that is Syria's civil war. Second, even assuming everyone wants to cooperate, the logistics of getting the chemical weapons stockpile out of Syria seems... tricky. Third, it's not obvious that the Syrian government really wants to cooperate. Which means that the U.S. could agree to a deal that wouldn't eliminate all of Syria's chemical weapons.
Still, if I was advising the Obama administration, I'd tell them to take this deal -- it's a foreign policy gift from the gods.
First of all, this solves the inherent tension between Obama's goals in Syria. He really does want to enforce the chemical weapons taboo, and yet he really doesn't want either side to claim victory in the civil war. Essentially, this deal creates a liberal solution (Security Council resolution, Syria joining the Chemical Weapons Convention) to the liberal problem (enforcing the chemical weapons taboo). Richard Price would be proud. At the same time, minimizing the chemical weapons issue allows all the major parties in the conflict to do what they wanted to do anyway: revert to the pre-August 21 status quo.
Second of all, it's not like Obama was gaining much political traction with Congress or the American people or even the foreign policy community on this issue. Politically, this solves a brewing political fiasco and would permit both the executive and legislative branches to focus on other things like, you know, funding and staffing the U.S. government.
What about the problems? What if the Syrian government tries to evade the deal? The worst-case scenario is that, after a spell, we're back to where we are now -- with the benefit of the United States observing that it gave the UN route a fair shake. Diplomatically, that's still a win. This also holds, by the way, if the Syrian government defects and uses chemical weapons again. Such an action after this kind of agreement puts far more diplomatic pressure on Assad's backers than its critics. Furthermore, chemical weapons are not like nuclear weapons -- Syria possessing them isn't really much of a military game-changer, nor are they really much of a proliferation risk. Unlike with nuclear, enforcement here does not have to be 100 percent perfect.
What does this do to solve Syria's civil war? Absolutely nothing -- but it was never clear that U.S. military intervention was going to end the civil war or solve Syria's worsening humanitarian crisis. I agree with my Bloggingheads diavlog partner Heather Hurlburt that Syria is not going away as a foreign policy problem. This problem will recur. But sometimes, in foreign policy, the best way to treat an intractable and seemingly incurable disease is to ameliorate the symptoms in the short term. That's what this deal would do.
Despite a series of mistakes, screw-ups, u-turns, and flubs, it's possible that the Obama administration can, at the end of the day, claim credit for forcing Syria's regime into relinquishing its chemical weapons stockpile and signing on to the convention banning its use.
Take the deal. Take it now.
As the congressional debate on Syria plods along, Politico's Alex Isenstadt and James Hohmann observe that some formerly hawkish Republicans are sounding a very different tune now:
Of all the unexpected turns in the Syria debate, one stands out most: The GOP, the party of a muscular national defense, has gone the way of the dove.
A decade after leading the country into Iraq and Afghanistan, Republicans have little appetite or energy for a strike aimed at punishing Bashar Assad for allegedly gassing his own people. To the contrary, many of the party’s lawmakers are lining up to sink President Barack Obama’s war authorization vote.
Of the 279 Republicans currently in the House and Senate, 83 were also serving in October 2002. All of them voted to give George W. Bush authorization to invade Iraq. Now, just 10 of those 83 have come out in support of striking Syria. Most of the others have expressed serious reservations or are leaning against voting for the authorization.
Isenstadt and Hohmann go on to note that some Democrats have performed the reverse-180, but more Republicans have shifted from hawk to dove.
Look, this isn't rocket science: the opposition party will always be more skeptical of administration policy. Throw in a nation that's pretty sick of war and pretty hostile to taking action in Syria and this is a no-brainer position to adopt for most Republicans. This is particularly true since I suspect enough Republicans will join with most Democrats to give the administration the necessary authorization.
So, for most Republicans, this is a costless vote against a not-terribly-popular president for a not terribly-popular or not-terribly-well-articulated or not-terribly-well-thought-out policy action that -- if everything breaks just right -- could end as well as Bosnia. As I said, this isn't rocket science.
Old foreign policy hands will likely cluck a bit and disparage the shifting ideologies of GOP members of Congress in the name of political self-interest. To which I say: hooray for political self-interest!! It's not like the status quo in GOP foreign policy thinking had been serving them all that well over the past few years. This isn't to say that I agree with the GOP on this issue, but for once, the American political system appears to be working as intended.
Am I missing anything?
President Obama directed the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of potential targets in Syria in response to intelligence suggesting that the government of President Bashar Al-Assad has been moving troops and equipment used to employ chemical weapons while Congress debates whether to authorize military action.
Mr. Obama, officials said, is now determined to put more emphasis on the “degrade” part of what the administration has said is the goal of a military strike against Syria— to “deter and degrade” Mr. Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. That means expanding beyond the 50 or so major sites that were part of the original target list developed with French forces before Mr. Obama delayed action on Saturday to seek Congressional approval of his plan.
For the first time, the administration is talking about using American and French aircraft to conduct strikes on specific targets, in addition to ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles. There is a renewed push to get other NATO forces involved....
Mr. Obama’s instructions come as most members of Congress who are even willing to consider voting in favor of a military response to a chemical attack are insisting on strict limits on the duration and type of the strikes carried out by the United States, while a small number of Republicans are telling the White House that the current plans are not muscular enough to destabilize the Assad government.
Senior officials are aware of the competing imperatives they now confront — that to win even the fight on Capitol Hill, they will have to accept restrictions on the military response, and in order to make the strike meaningful they must expand its scope.
“They are being pulled in two different directions,” a senior foreign official involved in the discussions said Thursday. “The worst outcome would be to come out of this bruising battle with Congress and conduct a military action that made little difference.”
Officials cautioned that the options for an increased American strike would still be limited — “think incremental increase, not exponential,” said one official — but would be intended to inflict significant damage on the Syrian military.
There are two ways of thinking about this story. The positive spin is that this is the DoD's equivalent of the Federal Reserve's "forward guidance" -- a signal to both allies and adversaries alike about what will come to pass. In monetary policy, forward guidance is a way of crafting stable expectations about the future -- not that this works all the time. In this case, one wonders whether these leaks are trying to signal to Assad and his great power benefactors the wisdom of sitting down and negotiating with the rebels rather than trying to grind out a military victory. At the risk of setting off the Bad Analogy Detector, this is akin to how both Bosnia and Kosovo played out -- and if the Syria outcome matched either of those cases, the after-action assessment would be that this would be a foreign policy triumph for the U.S. and A Good Thing for Syrians.
The negative spin is that, contrary to the Times reportage, Obama's decision to go to Congress is actually leading him to expand rather than contract his policy aims. It had seemed that the initial goal of this operation was to deter Assad (and other possible chemical weapons users) into not using WMDs again. Going to Congress for a few symbolic missile strikes, however, seems like an awful lot of political capital to expend for very little return. In order to curry favor with both the liberal internationalists on the Democratic side and the neoconservative sympathizers on the GOP side, the administration needs to expand its goals to include intervening in the Syrian civil war. Which means this is less about the norm against chemical weapons use and more about trying to bring an end to Syria's conflict. That's a noble cause -- I'm just not sure if it's doable.
We're in the middle of Rosh Hashanah, and at services yesterday, I noted that the siddur at my synagogue had a petty apt prayer that seems worth repeating here:
We pray for all who hold positions of leadership and responsibility in our national life. Let Your blessing rest upon them, and make them responsive to Your will, so that our nation may be to the world an example of justice and compassion.
[You're resorting to prayer?!--ed. Given how this Syria debate is playing out, yes, and given my updated Bayesian priors on how well the United States executes foreign policy in the Middle East, you're damned right I'm resorting to prayer.]
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.