PREBLE: Obama bombs in Syria speech

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Russian proposal buries the president’s promise of success

In his prime-time speech on Tuesday night, President Obama tried to make a convincing case for intervening in the Syrian civil war. He failed. It wasn’t enough for the president to describe Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. To succeed, he had to persuade a skeptical public to get behind his plan for punishing the Syrian regime, by showing that U.S. intervention would advance U.S. security. This he could not do.

His decision to postpone a congressional vote to consider Russia’s proposal to have Mr. Assad turn over his chemical weapons to international inspectors is similarly unlikely to win much popular support. If such a proposal hinges on the threat of U.S. air strikes — or worse, the involvement of U.S. military personnel — he will eventually be back to where he began: confronting countrymen exhausted by more than a decade of war, deeply skeptical that U.S. intervention in Syria will serve U.S. interests, and fearful that it might harm actually them.

Before the president stepped behind the podium, many Americans already thought Mr. Assad used chemical weapons, so the shocking stories he told — for example, a father holding his dying children — were unlikely to change many minds. Americans oppose U.S. military intervention in Syria because they know cruise-missile strikes won’t bring these people back from the dead, and are unlikely to improve the situation for those Syrians still alive.

After all, “even very limited, very targeted, very short-term” military operations of the “unbelievably small” variety, as Secretary of State John F. Kerry described them, risk killing or injuring people on the ground. Meanwhile, if the strikes degrade Mr. Assad’s military power — but not enough to enable the opposition to seize power outright — they will have had the effect of prolonging the Syrian civil war. In that sense, U.S. air strikes will not make things better for the Syrian people.

They might, however, make things worse for the American people. The president assured his audience that the mission would be limited, would not involve U.S. boots on the ground, and would not result in retaliation against U.S. interests elsewhere in the region or here at home. However, an equally compelling case can be made to the contrary.

Take, for example, the president’s claim that a dictator with chemical weapons is a threat to the United States. Chemical weapons in the hands of anti-American terrorists would pose an even greater threat to U.S. security, and such weapons are more likely to fall into terrorists hands if Mr. Assad’s government collapses precipitously.

Other questions remain. For instance, the president did not adequately account for the risk that a war could escalate following U.S. intervention, and that American troops might eventually be drawn into the conflict, despite his assurance that they would not be.

Though some might hope that a diplomatic solution could avert military action, the act of monitoring and eventually removing Syria’s chemical weapons would still be a costly and time-consuming operation, and one that is likely to include a military component. In this way, a “diplomatic” solution could well end up with American forces in the middle of a multisided shooting war.

No one can reasonably question the U.S. military’s capabilities, but it is designed for defending this country, not repairing broken countries elsewhere. Nor should anyone question the American people’s willingness to defend our vital interests. The public is unwilling, though, to use the military in ways that do not advance U.S. security and might actually undermine it.

There are serious doubts that the United States could have averted the death and destruction in Syria 2 years ago, when the civil war broke out, and even more serious doubts that we can do so today. The war is a tragedy, but U.S. air strikes cannot stop it.

The president faced a very difficult task in trying to rally the public behind U.S. involvement in yet another civil war in the Middle East. It was a hard case to make, perhaps an impossible case to make. He has not made it.

Christopher Preble is vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute.

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