Is Obama thinking strategically about Syria?

During yesterday’s House Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Syria, Tom Cotton asked Secretary of State Kerry and the two other administration witnesses about the connection, in the context of the contemplated air strike, between President Obama’s stated goals of (1) responding to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons and (2) seeing Assad removed from power.

Kerry responded with what has become his mantra — the two goals are separate and the latter goal isn’t part of what the administration is trying to accomplish through an attack on Syria, though the attack would probably have a “downstream” adverse impact on Assad’s ability to prevail against the rebels.

From a strategic point of view, Kerry’s insistence on this “separation” makes no sense. Surely, a sensible administration that has two objectives would try to formulate a military attack with a close eye on both of them. It would not focus solely on one objective and be content to rely on nebulous “downstream effects” when it comes to the other. That would not be strategic thinking.

Is the Obama administration’s approach to Syria really as haphazard as Kerry portrays it? You never know with this crew, but I doubt it.

More likely, Kerry’s mantra is designed to reassure Congress that the attack Obama contemplates isn’t about regime change, even though he’d like to see it, and therefore our involvement won’t escalate. I hope, and believe but without total confidence, that the administration is thinking carefully about how the various military options for responding to the use of chemical weapons will affect the respective military positions of the parties to the civil war, even though the military options do not include “boots on the ground” to help topple Assad.

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