Since the Syrian government allegedly used chemical weapons on its own people in August, President Obama has been urging anyone who will listen to consider the merits of a military strike. Tuesday night, he presented his case to America in a televised speech.
Obama’s argument has two parts. First, he said that the U.S. government has a moral duty to act, in order to prevent future chemical attacks. A strike, he said, will act as a disincentive to the Syrian government headed by Bashar al-Assad. Second, he argued that failing to intervene will risk the spread and normalization of chemical weapons (though the U.S. has not consistently opposed their use).
Americans are right to be skeptical of the president’s proposal. While he has better evidence than George W. Bush did when he fooled the nation into supporting the invasion of Iraq, Obama’s rhetorical appeal is identical to his predecessor’s: “The bad guy is hurting innocents, so we have to hurt the bad guy.” Both Obama’s moral appeal and his security appeal depend on the claim that a “limited,” “targeted strike” will dissuade Assad from using chemical weapons in the future.
But there’s no reason to buy that claim. Remember that the Assad regime is fighting for its life. Deterrents are fine behavioral motivators for an entity which knows that it’s going to be around for a while, but since Assad’s government’s very existence is threatened, Obama’s proposed strike will be like threatening to punch someone who’s already dying from blood poisoning.
Because there is no reason to believe that a “limited, targeted strike” will effectively persuade Assad to forgo chemical weapons in the future, Obama’s argument that such a strike will save Syrian lives and protect American interests is unconvincing. The rhetorical strategy of his speech tonight was to trigger Americans’ emotions by emphasizing the Syrian children who died in the August attack and the threat that unchecked chemical weapons pose to regional stability. Obama largely passed over the concrete ways in which a strike would supposedly prevent more chemical attacks. Unfortunately for the president, the previous commander-in-chief eroded the credibility of such rhetoric and put an entire generation of Americans on guard against emotionally-justified military intervention.