Are We Attacking Syria Under False Pretenses? [With Comment By Paul]

Years ago, Democrats loved to accuse President Bush of attacking Iraq under false pretenses. That claim was entirely without merit. But isn’t this exactly what the Obama administration is doing in the case of Syria?

President Obama’s stated rationale for attacking Assad’s regime has been limited to its use of chemical weapons. Obama has made a broad and rather inchoate argument to the effect that any nation’s violation of the international norm against chemical weapons threatens, in a general sense, our national security and that of other nations. Obama has never gone so far as to imply that the object of any attack on Syria is regime change; in fact, he has rejected such an inference. And I am quite certain that he has never mentioned Iran in the various speeches he has given, urging support for an attack on Assad’s government.

But when we read articles written by the smart supporters of action in Syria, Iran immediately leaps to the fore. The principal arguments advanced in support of attacking Assad have little or nothing to do with chemical weapons; rather, they relate to weakening Iran’s influence in the region. One could cite many examples; this post by Paul, citing Tom Cotton’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, is pretty typical. See also Charles Krauthammer, in an interview with Hugh Hewitt:

The reason I’m for staying out is because this President doesn’t know what he’s doing. And he, unless he says in public that he is, if you’re going to use the military, you use it for effect. And if the effect is to alter the balance and the trajectory of the civil war so that Assad falls, and therefore Hezbollah, Iran and others are set back, then I am all in favor of this. But I need to hear it from the President, and I don’t hear it.

Lefties are starting to notice. Bob Dreyfuss writes in The Nation:

The dirty little not-so-secret behind President Obama’s much-lobbied-for, illegal and strategically incompetent war against Syria is that it’s not about Syria at all. It’s about Iran—and Israel. And it has been from the start.

Being a lefty, Dreyfuss can’t resist dragging Israel into the picture. Israel does, of course, regard Iran as its principal strategic enemy.

By “the start,” I mean 2011, when the Obama administration gradually became convinced that it could deal Iran a mortal blow by toppling President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, a secular, Baathist strongman who is, despite all, an ally of Iran’s. Since then, taking Iran down a peg has been the driving force behind Obama’s Syria policy.

That probably attributes too much coherence to Obama’s “Syria policy,” but the broader point is valid: when talking to a better-informed audience, supporters of a Syrian attack generally place considerable emphasis on its geopolitical implications vis-a-vis Iran, something that until now has been completely absent from the Obama administration’s public justification for bombing Syria. This morning White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows, and dropped at least a hint that the administration’s calculations might involve Iran:

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said Sunday that an impending U.S. attack on Syria would send a message to Iranian leaders that they should not feel free to develop nuclear weapons.

McDonough said on NBC’s Meet the Press that “to communicate with them we have to be very clear, very forthright. This is an opportunity to be both with the Iranians….”

Tomorrow President Obama will hit the TV trail. It will be interesting to see whether Iran figures prominently in his explanation of why we should bomb Syria. If so, it will be a radical departure from his pronouncements to date. It will also lend credence to the hypothesis that the administration’s supposed humanitarian concern with chemical weapons has been, all along, a smoke screen.

In general, I am sympathetic to any proposed action that will set back Iran’s mullahs. I am not convinced that sending a few cruise missiles Syria’s way will achieve that objective, but am happy to debate the point. But isn’t there a serious problem with an administration that is trying to win over Congressional and public support for its proposed bombing of Syria, when the administration won’t even mention the main considerations that are advanced by well-informed people in its support? If that isn’t going to war under false pretenses, what is? Denis McDonough says that to communicate, we have to be “very clear, very forthright.” But he was talking about communicating with Iran. How about if the Obama administration tries to be “very clear, very forthright” with the American people?

PAUL COMMENTS: I agree with John that President Obama should strive for greater clarity with the American people. But I don’t believe he proposes to attack Syria under false pretenses.

If Obama wants to attack Syria primarily for one reason and “smart supporters” of such action (I appreciate John’s compliment) want to attack Syria primarily for another reason, then Obama isn’t proposing an attack under false pretenses. Rather, he is proposing an attack under a different, and arguably weaker, main rationale.

I think that’s the case. I have argued that an attack might well advance three important objectives — upholding the norm against using chemical weapons, deterring future use of these weapons by Assad, and setting back Iran by preventing its proxy from winning the civil war in Syria. For me, the third objective is decisive.

From what I can tell, and contrary to what the lefty at The Nation claims, Obama’s rationale centers on the some combination of the first two objectives. Presumably, he is also thinking about geopolitics, including (importantly) the desire to deal a blow to Iran. But the decisive consideration almost certainly is chemical weapons. Otherwise, Obama would have done much more than he has in the past two years to support Syrian rebels.

Obama’s stance is similar to that of President Bush prior to the Iraq war. Bush was focused on the WMD capacity he (and nearly everyone else) believed Iraq possessed. He was also thinking geopolitically, but probably considered the WMD sufficient reason to attack.

As for the situation in Syria, if, like John, you are convinced that the action Obama plans to take will not set back Iranian interests, then arguments based on this rationale aren’t persuasive. But if Obama’s attack might well set back Iranian interests, then the rationale cannot be so easily dismissed, even though Obama hasn’t advanced it. And if Obama has an eye on Iran — as I believe he does, whatever his primary objective — then there is good reason to believe that his attack might well be forceful enough to set back Assad and his Iranian masters.

A final point. Absent an event like Pearl Harbor, the decision whether to take military action will almost always involve a weighing of multiple considerations. This gives rise to complexity. And as any decent litigator knows, it’s easy to score points in this context through spurious claims of inconsistency of rationale and “pretext.” This was the kind of “gotcha” game to which President Bush was subjected over his decision to go to war in Iraq.

John isn’t doing this — like Scott, he is asking important questions that arise from Obama’s lack of clarity. But I believe that some opponents of intervening in Syria are indulging in the same kinds of games that the left employed in the run-up to the Iraq war. It wasn’t serious analysis then, and it isn’t serious analysis now.