September 10th, 2013
12:33 PM ET

Will Obama silence critics of his Syria policy?

Reihan Salam is a fellow at the R Street Institute, a contributing editor at National Review, and a CNN contributor.


  • Reassuring some of his critics will inevitably alienate others
  • The president's Syria policy is not interventionist enough
  • Critics want a broader military, diplomatic effort to drive Assad from power

Skepticism regarding the wisdom of President Obama's call for a U.S.-led military strike against the Assad regime comes from several different directions, and so the president will have to choose which concerns he wants to allay.

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Reassuring some of his critics will inevitably alienate others.

For example, one critique of the president's Syria policy is that it is not interventionist enough. That is, if the U.S. attacks the Assad regime yet fails to decisively tilt the balance of power against it, it is not at all clear that such a limited U.S. intervention will deter rogue states from deploying chemical weapons in the future.

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Rather than focus on the attack itself, rogue states might instead focus on the protracted debate that preceded it, and the general war-weariness of the U.S. public. To really deter future rogue states, the argument goes, the U.S. would have to commit itself to regime change.

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Hawkish critics will want President Obama to make the case for a broader military and diplomatic effort to drive Bashar al-Assad from power and to foster a moderate-led opposition coalition that can fill the post-Assad security vacuum. Arizona Sen. John McCain, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, and Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton fall into this camp, as do leading conservative intellectuals like Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard. But while this hawkish critique has a number of articulate spokesmen, it is not particularly popular in the wider public.

The president could thus go in a completely different direction and insist that (a) he envisions a limited aerial campaign designed only to degrade, not eliminate, the Assad regime's ability to deploy chemical weapons and (b) he intends to limit U.S. exposure to the fallout from Syria's humanitarian crisis, which is sending hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring countries, and growing numbers as far afield as Australia.

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All indications are that President Obama intends to go the latter route. The problem, however, is that if the Assad regime survives such a limited strike, as seems plausible, it's not clear that the strike will have done more good than harm.

If the Assad regime does indeed hand over its stockpile of chemical weapons to an international body, it won't just have averted a U.S.-led military strike. It will also have reinforced perceptions of its legitimacy as Syria's sovereign power, an outcome that will greatly undermine Syria's opposition forces.

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