A “Johnny Football suspension” for Assad; *UPDATE*

Cynical toddlers in the White House.

My colleague Howard Portnoy highlighted yesterday the report that a U.S. official who had been briefed on the planning for a strike on Syria characterized the objective as “a level of intensity ‘just muscular enough not to get mocked’ but not so devastating that it would prompt a response from Syrian allies Iran and Russia.”

As Howard says, it’s too late for the “not getting mocked” objective.  The mocking, moreover, is not because people don’t like Obama; it’s because watching him and his administration burble and leak their way through this exciting national-security moment is like watching a toddler try to be devious.

Want to reassure Russia we aren’t trying to dislodge Assad?  “Leak” it out that our planning is deliberately designed to produce an operation that will fall short of dislodging Assad.  A leak will be clever and clear, right?  Keep Team Obama from looking like a bunch of, you know, cowboys?

With the leaks, at this point, we’re well beyond questions of achieving operational surprise.  Surprise, schmise, who cares about surprise.  If we went in with sufficient force – if we had the funds and combat readiness to, in fiscal year 2013 – we could call Assad’s lieutenants and talk them through the strike while it was happening, and still destroy everything they’ve got and leave Assad cowering in a spider-hole, eating grass and out of options.

The issue isn’t really tipping our hand about the particulars of the strike here.  (If we go in with insufficient force, of course, that could be an issue.  Don’t assume we won’t.)

The issue is tipping our hand, with such industrious, sophomores-in-a-seminar thoroughness, about the objective of the strike.  When we tell the Russians and Iranians in advance that we have no intention of dislodging Assad, we’re telling Assad that too.  We’re telling the entire world, including al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban, and Dennis Rodman’s BFF in Pyongyang.

Team Obama’s performance is an elaborate version of the toddler wandering the halls looking for an adult to lie down and have a tantrum in front of.  Everyone else can see what our presidential administration is doing: see the deceptive intent, see the ulterior motive – see the seeming unawareness, on the part of the little role-player, that everyone else can see through him.

The toddler doesn’t know any better than to try to get what he wants with his patented deception campaign.  But a presidential administration should have the adult situational awareness to know the thing that’s of overriding importance: that this, of all times, is the time to announce your intentions.  Don’t leak them, for crying out loud; state plainly what they are.  This isn’t the moment to annoy the perpetrator and his patrons; it’s the time to stampede them.

The rhetorical posture – the statesman’s presence – matters as much as the hardware, or even more.  Shading your potential meaning with leaks is inherently pusillanimous at a time like this.  It’s begging for understanding, at a juncture when the only sound thing to do is impose and enforce your meaning.

Indeed, if you plan to use force, that’s the only sane thing to do.  Military action is a tool of will, not a substitute for it.  You cannot send a more forceful message of intent with military action than you are willing to have or put into words.  It just doesn’t work that way.

In any case, if you can’t announce your intentions because it would be embarrassing to, well, you’ve just answered every question that matters.

In the annals of transparently meaningless punishments, cooked up in a transparently cynical deliberation process, the proposed have-no-impact strike on Assad ranks right up there with the half-game suspension of Johnny (Johnny Football) Manziel, quarterback of the Texas A&M Aggies.

Now, of course, Manziel’s autograph-signing, while it violated NCAA policy, bears no resemblance as an infraction to the use of chemical weapons on civilians.   But as an example of carefully refining a punishment that will have zero measurable impact on anything, the half-game suspension makes a very nice analogy.

Let’s be clear on the signal the Obama administration has been at such pains to send through leaks.  The United States will react to the thought of Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons on Syrians.  Not try to affect Assad’s future, mind you.  Just react.  Maybe drop a few bombs.  But it doesn’t bother us at all to think of Bashar “Chemical” Assad reclaiming all of Syria and ruling over the Syrians again.  To that possibility, we assure Putin, Rouhani, and Assad, we will have no reaction.

If you think that’s an effective message to send about the evils of using chemical weapons, you probably think military action is a magic wand you can wave, when you’re afraid to actually confront a security problem and try to change what’s causing it.

*UPDATE*:  Obama has now called for a vote in Congress on conducting the strike against Syria.  Since Congress won’t be back in session until 9 September, and there is no information on a plan to reconvene sooner in order to hold this vote, everything is apparently dead-in-the-water for the moment.  It’s not clear what the forces assembled in the Mediterranean will do for the next 10 days.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard online. She also writes for the new blog Liberty Unyielding.

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19 thoughts on “A “Johnny Football suspension” for Assad; *UPDATE*”

  1. “It’s not clear what the forces assembled in the Mediterranean will do for the next 10 days.”

    Troll for blue fin tuna?

    or, if sequestration creates a bunkers issue they can always drift a chum line for Mako.

  2. Maybe the leaks will stop, now that they leaked that a team from Israel is at the Pentagon.

    Unlike Britain’s Parliament, which knows how to hold a debate and a vote same day, this punt means that a vote by Congress will happen maybe, ok, realistically? never. How would they even know what they were voting about once Erdogan demanded regime change?

    I would like to know who Obama was on the phone with that caused his tardiness. Maybe the Swedish rabbi called to ask him to NOT pay a visit on Tuesday…

    Gibbs Rule 13:
    “Never, ever involve lawyers.”

    (yes, there are so many of Gibbs’ Rules that apply to this mishegoss, but too many lawyers are destroying America):

  3. On a serious note.

    USS San Antonino was supposed to make a port call at Souda Bay, I hear she’s enveloped by destroyers instead.

    They worried about something?

    1. I doubt it. But in a cash-strapped defense-spending environment, which undoubtedly describes our current state, the Navy always thinks about how much cheaper it is to sit pierside when a ship isn’t doing much of anything. Yet San Antonio was underway at the time of your update.

      My question is the same one I raised about the use of Cypriot airfields. Will certain allies even let us mount this operation from their bases? My bet is that Greece would say no to us, if Cyprus would. Both are strongly influenced by Russia, and neither has a sense of reliable protection by NATO or the EU. Greece has religious and historical ties to Syria also, and most particularly, to Syria from long, long before Islam came.

      If Greece denied us Iraklion as back-up airfield for a strike, that might explain not making our date with Souda Bay. Nothing is impossible with Obama at the helm.

      San Antonio may, conversely, be in port as we speak. She has no role in a strike on Syria. The only reason she’s in the area is that scheduled port visit. Do let us know if you hear more, jgets.

      1. Russia has nothing to do with this. Greece knows her treaty obligations, she is not Italy. You are mistaken on access to Hellenic defense facilities. Full access is in effect for the US when push comes to shove. That is SOP. The US must decide on how she wishes to proceed. It is her role to lead.

        Regarding Cyprus, I wouldn’t blame her if she said no after all the suffering the West put her through in 1974. The nerve of the West, asking her to support the same barbarians that invaded and partitioned the country. “Humanitarian intervention” for Kosovo, Syria… forgotten ethnic cleansing, murder and rape for Cyprus. Then some wonder why the West isn’t trusted in the Levant.

        San Antonio has a pilot rescue unit on board if I am not mistaken. Her previous positioning might have something to do with that. Evidently there will be no air strikes till after the 10th. This might explain why she is now proceeding on course. Although, I’ll have to confirm that somehow, or choose not to.

        It is good that you realize there are regional ties long, long before Islam. I’m banking on the current American political leadership realizing it as well.

        Forgive me but war, idiotic war, makes me ill, as I’m certain it does you.

        1. With respect, jgets, it’s you who are wrong, if you’re saying Greece does not have the option of denying her bases for a strike on Syria. Of course she does.

          All of our NATO allies except Britain denied the use of their airfields AND their air space for the 1980s strike on Libya after the Berlin nightclub bombing. It’s happened before.

          If you know for certain that Greece has agreed to the use of her bases for a strike on Syria, that would be useful information. But she always has the option of denying them, whether an operation is to be a US unilateral one, or a NATO op.

          The point that it’s up to the US to lead is, of course, correct. Credible leadership makes allies much more likely to accept involvement and implication. If Greece did deny us her bases, I would view that as a failure of American leadership. Russia is a collateral, amplifying factor.

          It is, of course, an even larger failure of leadership that we find ourselves in our current situation with respect to Syria.

          1. With respect, you’re nitpicking. Obviously a sovereign country can say no. On this issue, Greece is open for Syrian business and I’m not going to get into explaining all the Byzantine reasons why

            Is it a deal dear optcon? 🙂

              1. Kindly refrain from using “slam dunk” in the future for my sake Optcon.

                The image of George Tenet articulating that phase disturbs my nightly sleep patterns. That and having to live with the image of Tenet and Negroponte flanking Powell with that vial in his hand… 🙂

        2. With at least four destroyers in the area, there are plenty of pilot-rescue packages to be deployed. The swimmers come from ashore these days, and marry up with the helos (60-Romeos) when they get in theater on the small boys.

          That said, it’s a real question how much manned TACAIR would even be used in a strike campaign. USAFE has a real, and significant, readiness deficit since the sequester flying-hour axe fell in May.

          1. Ok JE, we can’t know the total TACAIR line up, or the plan. Granted that there were additional rescue team available, probably.

            What I know is there is about a 10 day window for all interested parties from DC to Teheran and Moscow to Riyadh to get their sh*t together, put some more skin in the game, cut each other some slack, and avoid going to war over nothing in Syria.

            I’m looking forward to our representatives in Congress having a historic debate on this issue… The result of which will hopefully, reestablish the foreign policy of the Republic on sounder foundations, deal a death blow to both.. special interest neoconservative overreaching.. AND arbitrary so-called liberal humanitarian interventionism. Amen

      2. I thought the USS San Antonio joined the destroyers in the Eastern Med for a different reason. The USA left some troops behind in Jordan after that joint exercise a few months ago.
        I assumed the USS San Antonio was/is for possible evacuation/support of those troops, and/or evacuation of Americans from Lebanon.

        The other two ships in that MEU (Kearsarge+) are still in the Red Sea (I think). Just in case the 700 American troops stationed in the Sinai need help, or the Egyptian military needs help in stabilizing Sinai/protecting the Suez Canal, although, so far, Egypt seems to be doing what needs to be done in Sinai/Suez.

        On Oct. 6, 2013, the Olympic torch will be lit in Greece, then flown to Moscow for the 40,000+ mile tour of Russia before Sochi2014 in February.

        I think Oct. 6 is the deadline window for anything to happen in Syria, more likely Russia figures out a way to guarantee no more chemical weapons use in order to protect Russia’s image with Sochi2014.

  4. I agree we need as tough as response as possible. The only silver lining to the delay is that the process of holding a vote may allow public opinion to shift behind intervention (as it is gradually starting to do) especially with hard evidence of the use of Sarin.

    Ironically, although intended to buy him some time, it also may force Obama to commit himself to a long-term campaign against Assad rather than the wrist slap he was originally planning.

    1. With all due respect. You folks that support intervention and taking out Assad like this, are gonna have to come to terms with the fact that we will be responsible for the slaughter of innocent Christians in order to further the goals of Islamic extremism.

      That is the dilemma. Unless Syrian Christians aren’t quite “Christian” enough in your world view sir.

    2. PS


      How many kids do you have in the Armed Forces of the United States Dr.?

  5. Regarding the vote in Congress: This is going to be an embarrassingly shallow debate. First, the Administration (even if it knows) cannot reveal its intentions in detail, so we won’t be able to publicly assess and debate the risks/rewards before action is taken. Second, I think Obama is asking for very broad authority and secretly hoping that he can find someone else to blame for this failure. He may not push real hard or make a very good case. Third, Obama has never relished a real debate. All he wants is a Kangaroo Court Kabuki Dance in a Potemkin Village to provide cover to reach his desired result. And the media will sit rapt like three year olds watching Saturday cartoons.

  6. Naval forces update:

    Most of TOC’s highly informed readers no doubt know that USS Nimitz and USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) are headed for the Red Sea. Of course, as we have discussed, USS San Antonio (LPD-17), from the Kearsarge amphibious ready group, is already in EASTMED.

    The Nimitz movement is not a surprise in the sense that it was likely Obama would want a carrier air wing option for any Syria operation. It does surprise me that Nimitz was the carrier dispatched for this. Truman is in CENTCOM, and as an East coast carrier, she and her air wing have spent more time training to Mediterranean problem sets and studying the intel and targeting data on Syria. Truman also just got to the theater, and has months left in her deployment. All things being equal, it’s not clear to me why Nimitz, the West coast carrier at the end of her deployment, was sent on this transit.

    Kearsarge will not have a role in a Syria strike, per se. Period. She’s the wrong asset for the job.

    Kearsarge ARG and 24 MEU have been deployed since March, and that’s why she’s headed toward the Med from CENTCOM. Kearsarge probably has about 6 weeks left in theater; ARG deployments have been running to 8 months or so rather than the old standard of 6. San Antonio was on her way to an AFRICOM exercise after her port visit in Souda Bay when she was put on standby in EASTMED. She too is ultimately on the way home. The third amphibious ship in the ARG, USS Carter Hall (LSD-50), started a port visit in the Seychelles (Indian Ocean) on 26 August.

    Slowly positioning for her homeward-bound journey to the East coast, it is opportune for Kearsarge and the MEU elements on her and San Antonio to be on standby for a NEO (evacuation contingency) for Americans in the Levant and Egypt, should there be blowback from a strike on Syria.

    I have yet to see Obama break an ARG away from tasking elsewhere to deploy it to a hot spot. In each case up to and including this one, the ARG was always headed for or in proximity to the problem area for another reason anyway. Civilians are routinely making too much of every ARG movement, and it’s a virtual certainty they are making too much of this one too.

    The same has largely been true of carrier movements. Obama didn’t deploy a carrier away from prior tasking for Libya, in 2011. Carriers have occasionally wandered through the problem areas that have erupted, because they were previously scheduled to. The Nimitz movement toward the Red Sea right now is the first time I can remember Obama actually retasking a carrier.

    That said, everyone keeps trying to read tea leaves from military movements, and Obama keeps changing the game on us. It’s kind of a fool’s errand right now.

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