I agree with Barack Obama. Not the President Obama of the last few weeks. The Barack Obama of 2002:
Now let me be clear—I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity.
He’s a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.
But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.
There is very little that can be said about Bashar al-Assad that was not even more true of Saddam Hussein. Not only had Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons, he had used them against his own people. He killed an order of magnitude more Iraqi Kurds, civilians including women and children, than Assad has killed Syrians (assuming that it was the Assad regime that used chemical weapons in Syria rather than the rebels).
There are many things we should have learned from our experience with Iraq but, apparently, haven’t. Dictators of Saddam Hussein’s and Assad’s sort cannot be deterred by air power alone. Removing such a dictator requires “boots on the ground”. And it’s darned hard if not impossible to control the aftermath of the removal of such a dictator even with “boots on the ground” and impossible without them.
A futile, short term bombing campaign is not the only possible way of dealing with Bashad al-Assad. The other day Tom Friedman proposed a very different approach:
That’s why I think the best response to the use of poison gas by President Bashar al-Assad is not a cruise missile attack on Assad’s forces, but an increase in the training and arming of the Free Syrian Army — including the antitank and antiaircraft weapons it’s long sought. This has three virtues: 1) Better arming responsible rebels units, and they do exist, can really hurt the Assad regime in a sustained way — that is the whole point of deterrence — without exposing America to global opprobrium for bombing Syria; 2) Better arming the rebels actually enables them to protect themselves more effectively from this regime; 3) Better arming the rebels might increase the influence on the ground of the more moderate opposition groups over the jihadist ones — and eventually may put more pressure on Assad, or his allies, to negotiate a political solution.
By contrast, just limited bombing of Syria from the air makes us look weak at best, even if we hit targets. And if we kill lots of Syrians, it enables Assad to divert attention from the 1,400 he has gassed to death to those we harmed. Also, who knows what else our bombing of Syria could set in motion. (Would Iran decide it must now rush through a nuclear bomb?)
But our response must not stop there.
We need to use every diplomatic tool we have to shame Assad, his wife, Asma, his murderous brother Maher and every member of his cabinet or military whom we can identify as being involved in this gas attack. We need to bring their names before the United Nations Security Council for condemnation. We need to haul them before the International Criminal Court. We need to make them famous. We need to metaphorically put their pictures up in every post office in the world as people wanted for crimes against humanity.
It may be that mobilizing world public opinion against Bashar al-Assad and his regime is beyond the core competencies of the Obama Administration. Is the only thing they themselves believe they’re good at is bombing that no one really believes will have much effect?