Skip to main content

Obama is mulling the least bad option

By Aaron David Miller, Special to CNN
August 30, 2013 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
An undated photo shows current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, second from left, posing with his family. Al-Assad's parents, then-President Hafez Assad and his wife, Anisa, in front, and his siblings in the second row; Maher, Bassel, Majd and Bushra. An undated photo shows current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, second from left, posing with his family. Al-Assad's parents, then-President Hafez Assad and his wife, Anisa, in front, and his siblings in the second row; Maher, Bassel, Majd and Bushra.
HIDE CAPTION
Bashar Al-Assad's political career
Bashar al-Assad's political career
Bashar al-Assad's political career
Bashar al-Assad's political career
Bashar al-Assad's political career
Bashar al-Assad's political career
Bashar al-Assad's political career
Bashar al-Assad's political career
Bashar al-Assad's political career
Bashar al-Assad's political career
Al-Assad's political career
Bashar al-Assad's political career
Bashar al-Assad's political career
Bashar al-Assad's political career
Bashar al-Assad's political career
Bashar al-Assad's political career
Bashar al-Assad's political career
Bashar al-Assad's political career
Bashar al-Assad's political career
Bashar al-Assad's political career
Bashar al-Assad's political career
Bashar al-Assad's political career
Bashar al-Assad's political career
Al-Assad's political career
Bashar al-Assad's political career
Bashar al-Assad's political career
Bashar al-Assad's political career
Bashar al-Assad's political career
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aaron Miller says President Obama seems to be leaning to the least bad option in Syria
  • He says limited strike may be risky but less so than doing nothing or trying for regime change
  • Miller: If Obama doesn't act after large chemical weapons attack, he'll be written off as ineffective

Editor's note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Among the most enduring urban legends about high-level policy-making in the U.S. government is the proverbial memo with three options: 1. do nothing; 2. do everything; 3. find a middle ground and muddle through.

And yet in truth, Barack Obama really does have only three options in Syria. It appears that the president, rightly the avoider-in-chief when it comes to Syria, has chosen option three, the least bad alternative. And here's why.

Do nothing

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller

This isn't really an option. Forget the fact that the president a year ago drew his own red line against Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons. Disregard the reality that this is reportedly the largest single deployment of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein used them against the Kurds in 1988; dismiss the fact that 100,000 Syrians have died in this civil conflict; and the president is accused of fiddling, Nero-like, while Syria burns.

Just focus on the events of the past five days in Washington. What has been emanating from administration officials both on and off the record is the most well-advertised and telegraphed military action in the history of modern warfare. Rarely do we get this kind of preview of the operation, its size and character.

Combine that with the Secretary of State John Kerry's brief but powerful statement of moral outrage the other day and the president's PBS interview, and you get as authoritative a commitment to strike as is humanly imaginable.

Indeed, forceful statements and actions of the past few days have now constituted their own red line. And if the president doesn't enforce it, he will be truly damaged goods when it comes to foreign policy for the remainder of his term.

Neither his regional allies (Israel and the Saudis) nor his adversaries (Iran, Hezbollah, Russia) will find him credible or believable. As it is now, everyone says no to the U.S. without much cost or consequence.

Do everything

From the beginning, Sens. John McCain and Lindsay Graham and a whole host of liberal interventionists and neoconservatives outside the government have repeatedly called for a more robust policy on Syria, even suggesting that the president, by not acting sooner, enabled all of this misery to unfold. Syria, the president's critics maintain, is a major threat to U.S. interests -- and to our allies in the region -- and only a takedown of the al-Assad regime through supporting the opposition and direct application of U.S. military power will begin to address the problem.

The argument has not called for boots on the ground but for extensive use of no-fly zones, the use of U.S. air and missile power to degrade the regime and military support for the opposition.

Obama: Syria strikes would be limited

President Obama has wisely and willfully avoided this approach. And he continues to avoid it now. The reason has to do with the general problem of an open-ended military commitment and the lack of correlation between the use of U.S. military power and its relation to the end state.

Syria is in the throes of a brutal civil war. The opposition is composed of more than 1,000 disparate rebel groups, the most effective allied with al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists. A victory of the latter would be a blow to U.S. interests. Ousting al-Assad won't be cheap or easy. It took eight months to get rid of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, and he had no weapons of mass destruction, no serious air defenses or military capacity and no credible allies. And look at the end result: a post-Gadhafi environment in which there are too many guns, grievances and regional rivalries and no credible central authority.

And Libya pales in comparison with Syria's complexities. Devising a serious military strategy to get rid of al-Assad -- serious weapons for the rebels; no-fly or -drive zones; and sustained air/missile strikes against Syrian military units, infrastructure and leadership targets -- also means U.S. responsibility for what follows. Barack Obama has avoided this option because he rightly doesn't want America getting stuck with the check for Syria.

Muddle through

The option the U.S. is likely to undertake -- focused more narrowly on trying to deter the Syrians from using chemical weapons again and degrading al-Assad's military capacity in the process -- is far from ideal. Although I think the administration's military actions will be far more devastating than the limited strikes being talked about, it is unlikely to change the arc of the battlefield balance.

There are other downsides, too. Once the glass ceiling against the use of force is broken, the expectations and pressures to use it again will grow. There's always the danger too of a response by Hezbollah or Syria against Israel, however unlikely. And sooner or later, al-Assad will commit some other horror that will require another U.S. response. This kind of episodic intervention without a real strategy can undermine American credibility, too.

To be sure, there are real risks in acting on option three, and Obama most assuredly is a reluctant warrior. Indeed, in view of the parliamentary opposition to British Prime Minister David Cameron's willingness to join the U.S., he may be a lonely warrior, too. But he's going to war with Syria nonetheless. Al-Assad's apparent use of chemical weapons, the president's own words and those of others in his administration leave him no other choice.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron Miller

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT