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How should Obama respond to Assad’s chemical attack?

Secretary of State Kerry spoke publicly today about Syria’s use of chemical weapons. He said that the Assad regime’s use of such weapons is “undeniable,” and that “this international norm cannot be violated without consequences.”

Kerry likes to talk about what’s moral and what isn’t, and he loves the sound of his own voice. Even so, it seems extremely unlikely that the Obama administration would let the Secretary of State hold forth as he did today if it hadn’t decided to take military action against the Syrian regime.

Should Obama order such action and, if so, what form should it take? In my opinion, the U.S. has a strong interest in Assad not winning the current civil war (which is not the same thing as Assad being overthrown). An Assad victory would provide a huge boost for Hezbollah and Iran.

I also agree with Kerry that the U.S. also has an interest in punishing regimes that violate the international norm against massacring people with chemical weapons. And we have a humanitarian interest in deterring, if we can, the Assad regime from committing additional such massacres.

The latter two interests by themselves might not be sufficient to warrant military intervention in a complex civil war in a faraway land — I see this as a close question. Nor would the fact that Obama foolishly said that Assad’s use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line.” However, when our interest in preventing an Assad victory is factored in, I believe the case for military intervention becomes solid.

But that case rests on selecting military action that sets Assad back significantly. Otherwise, our action won’t help prevent his victory, won’t meaningfully punish him, and will have no hope of deterring him — a difficult task in any case, given that Assad is fighting for survival and his supporters see themselves as fighting to avoid genocide against their minority group.

In other words, if Obama aimlessly launches a cruise missile or two, his action will be a mere gesture — a transparent, and transparently weak, attempt to save face in light of the “red line” remark. It will be deserving of ridicule and contempt, and will be worse, in my view, than no response at all.

Whatever action Obama takes should meaningfully degrade Assad’s military capacity. If it doesn’t, then Assad will assume that the military benefits of using chemical weapons outweigh any cost Obama is willing to inflict. And the rest of the world will conclude that, to paraphrase Kerry, the international norm against using chemical weapons can be violated without meaningful consequences.

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