The heart-breaking fact of Syria is that the regime will commit atrocities to avoid defeat. When you have the power, and the dread of being undone, you act with otherwise unimaginable cruelty; Thucydides knew this, Hobbes knew this, and no doubt Obama's read Thucydides and Hobbes. Egyptian generals just killed almost 1500 people to thwart the Moslem Brothers and Israel killed almost 1500 (and 400 children) in Gaza to try to end missile strikes in 2009. Chemical weapons are worse than phosphorous bombs, presumably, but mainly to bystanders.
The question is, how to curtail the violence that produces more desperate violence? The McCain-Graham answer is that, ultimately, you end violence by killing violent people and supporting peace-loving people to victory. There is a grain of truth here; Grant's armies committed atrocities in defeating the South and Eisenhower's armies committed atrocities in defeating Nazism. McCain and Graham want us to believe that, while the Free Syrian Army, General Idris, etc., do not represent established democracies, they and their forces have democratic principles in mind--and can win. Just for the sake of argument, let's pretend that we never heard of Kanan Makiya and Achmad Chalabi.
So, will Obama's strike preempt or curtail worse violence? Maybe. But maybe it will precipitate a Hezbollah strike on Israel, or an Iranian-sponsored act of terror against American "assets." It is hard to see how when you strike at Assad, but limit the mission to something short of toppling him, you can then avoid being drawn in to toppling him. If your prestige is at stake when Assad crosses your red line line, how can it not be at stake when he retaliates or simply refuses to lose? Then again, can Assad's Shi'a forces ever simply lose anymore than Saddam's Sunni forces or Bashir Jamayel's Maronite forces simply lose, without, that is, taking down what's left of their civil societies with them?
Yes, Obama can attack and throw the dice. He's been lucky before. Much better, and much more Obamaish, would be some kind of diplomatically engineered transition, which allows Assad to save face, his life, and allows his regime to reinvent itself with guns silenced--something like the ugly peace in Lebanon, where everyone is unhappy, except when they compare the result to fighting starting up again.
Make no mistake. President Putin is the key to this diplomatic process. He may just be cynical enough to go along--if he believes that Obama is serious, that is, a little dangerous.
And here is where the Congressional vote comes in. Putin is certainly cynical enough to doubt that Obama, of all people, has the political will to hang in militarily if he finds himself isolated in his own turf. By mobilizing Congress, Obama is buying himself (initial) credibility with Putin, and maybe with Assad, too. If Obama goes on the attack, he does so with "the American people" behind him. Hey, are you sure you want to mess with an empowered Obama and the Sixth Fleet?
Obama, in other words, will be in just another quagmire if he attacks, but he'll never again have as much diplomatic leverage as he will in the first couple of weeks after a Congressional vote. He's scheduled for a G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg this week. Now is the time for the president and Secretary Kerry to invite Putin to direct, sustained talks, and press for a formula that he might be impose on Assad, and which might be imposed on the FSA by the Saudis and Qatar.
Remember, after Bush dispatched 100,000 troops to Kuwait, in the very weeks leading up to the invasion, Hans Blix insisted that "Saddam Hussein and the Iraqis were cooperating with U.N. inspections, and in February 2003 had provided Blix's team with the names of hundreds of scientists to interview." I've always wondered how different the Middle East would look today if Bush had used the troops as a lever rather than a sledge-hammer. I've wondered if the invasion came simply because Bush, unlike Obama, thought he had to be a man.
Published also in Open Zion, a feature of The Daily Beast, when I have a regular column.