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Obama threatens Assad but misses the point

The faltering regime of Bashar Assad reportedly is preparing to use chemical weapons against insurgents. President Obama responded by saying that such action would be “totally unacceptable” and that Assad would be held accountable for it. Secretary of State Clinton added that any use of chemical weapons by Assad would constitute “a red line for the United States” and that the U.S. would “take action” in response.

It’s not clear to me what Obama means when he calls an action contemplated by a foreign government “unacceptable.” He has often used this word in the context of Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, yet that development proceeds apace.

If the statements of Obama and Clinton have any meaning in the Syrian context, I imagine they mean one or both of two things. First, Assad will be held accountable before an international tribunal if he uses chemical weapons. Second, the U.S. may intervene military if Assad employs that option.

The first threat — a trial — is probably meaningless at this point. Assad, that former favorite of John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi, and Assad’s top lieutenants have already committed enough crimes to face the ultimate sanction if they end up before a tribunal. But Assad and his crew probably believe they can make a safe passage to Iran if things disintegrate entirely in Syria. Alternatively, to the extent the regime fears being tried, that fear provides it with an added incentive to cling to power, even if this means gassing Syrians.

The second threat — U.S. intervention — would be an inappropriate response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. The decision of whether to intervene militarily to bring about regime change should be based on a traditional cost-benefit analysis. Such an analysis should turn primarily on such considerations as the danger posed by the regime to U.S. interests, the cost in blood and treasure of bringing down the regime, and the nature of the likely replacement regime.

A regime’s criminality toward insurgents should be far down this list of considerations. And where, as with Assad, the regime has already waged a brutal, bloodthirsty war, its use of chemical weapons shouldn’t tip the scales in favor of intervening. If intervention in Syria is the proper course for the U.S., we should already have intervened.

Early intervention, before al Qaeda in Iraq and other jihadist groups poured into the country and gained a foothold, would have increased the likelihood of a stable, non-hostile post-Assad government. Now that prospect seems remote. By contrast, the prospect that Assad’s chemical weapons will fall into the hands of jihadists seems substantial.

It’s far from clear, therefore, that America’s interests would be served, on balance, by the fall of Assad. But, since his fall may be inevitable, we shouldn’t completely rule out the idea of substantial U.S. engagement in Syria.

There probably are no good options at this point, but this much seems clear: the decision of whether to intervene should not turn on whether Assad resorts to chemical weapons.

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