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What does Obama have on offer?

In the torrent of words produced by Obama administration officials to support finely tuned, perfectly calibrated military action against Syria, I have looked for two propositions: (1) a statement of the national interest of the United States in the action, and (2) some idea of the means to be dedicated to achieving the ends.

Obama himself has given us little along these lines. At his recent press conferences in Stockholm and St. Petersburg, for example, the statement of America’s interest by Obama asymptotically approaches zero. Obama’s case for action based on his own — or, most recently, the world’s — red lines on the use of chemical weapons has been weak, to say the least.

We’ll hear much more from Obama this week. I’ll be looking for something better than this, which is what Obama had to say at his press conference in St. Petersburg: “The national security of the United States requires that when there’s a breach this brazen of a norm this important, and the international community is paralyzed and frozen and doesn’t act, then that norm begins to unravel. And if that norm unravels, then other norms and prohibitions start unraveling. And that makes for a more dangerous world. And that, then, requires even more difficult choices and more difficult responses in the future.”

The administration’s performance has left supporters of action — supporters I respect such as Bill Kristol and Frederick Kagan and Eric Edelman and Paul Mirengoff — to formulate a strategic case for action. So far as I am aware, the strategic case for action is not one that the administration has bothered to make publicly. If the administration has a strategic case to make, if that is indeed their case, the administration needs to make it. It might be a good case, but if the administration doesn’t bother to make it, it shouldn’t be imputed to them.

Take a look at the longest written statement of the case for action of which I am aware by an Obama administration official: the speech given by United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power to the Center for American Progress. It’s a serious speech. It’s an interesting speech. I would even say it’s a good speech.

Power essentially makes a humanitarian case for action. A clear statement of our own national interest is attenuated at best and otherwise missing in action. (Suffice it to say that I try, unsuccessfully, to resist Schadenfreude in reading Power’s account of the frustrations of the administration’s efforts to work through the United Nations. Do tell, sister Samantha!)

Power is champion of a version the so-called Responsibility to Protect doctrine (“R2P”), as in her book A Problem From Hell. If this is what the administration has on offer, it should be rejected.

Power’s speech is also interesting for the care she takes to formulate the action contemplated. I take it that her speech was carefully vetted and calculated to appeal to the left-wing audience she was addressing, but also that it accurately represents the administration’s thinking. Here are the various formulations Power uses, more or less in the order they appear in her speech:

Any use of force will be limited and tailored narrowly to the chemical weapons threat….

…targeted, limited military action…

…limited military action…

…degrading Assad’s capacity to deliver chemical weapons, we will also degrade his ability to strike at civilian populations by conventional means…

Limited military action…

…a limited military strike…

…limited use of force…

…the action being contemplated is limited…

Okay, I’m slow, but I get it. It’s limited!

This is a case that is itself narrowly tailored to American public opinion, which ranges from skeptical to hostile on the case for proposed military action. Public opinion may be mistaken. Public opinion can err. Public opinion has given us Barack Obama himself as president of the United States, twice over. Given what Obama and the administration have publicly offered in support of proposed action, however, public opinion in this case seems to me warranted.

FOOTNOTE: For the record, let it be noted that Power also said this: “[W]e thought perhaps a shared evidentiary base could convince Russia or Iran – itself a victim of Saddam Hussein’s monstrous chemical weapons attacks in 1987-1988 – to cast loose a regime that was gassing its people.” Power and her colleagues really deserve special recognition in the annals of liberal cluelessness.

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