In a line, that pretty much describes our Syrian national security dilemma.
While it is a truism, it isn't necessarily trite to note that the choice of solution depends upon framing the problem. The opening sentence itself contains a frame: what happens in Syria is important to US national security. Obviously, context matters. It isn't necessarily true that Syria's civil war should amount to anything but a particularly murderous current event. Think Rwanda.
Except that the Assad regime used sarin gas. To which the enquiring mind might ask, "So?" There has been plenty of slaughter to go around, and there seems to be no obvious reason to prefer death by shrapnel evisceration over succumbing to sarin.
That the reason isn't obvious should be put down to improperly framing the problem. Sarin gas is one leg of the triumvirate that comprises Weapons of Mass Destruction. Aside from pointless wordiness (why not Mass Destruction Weapons?), nerve agents are distinctly different from nuclear and bacteriological weapons. All three are the antithesis of precise application of force, but nerve agents are unique. Like bacteriological weapons, and unlike nuclear weapons, they do not cause any infrastructure damage. Unlike bacteriological and nuclear weapons, nerve agents like sarin have no persistent effects.
Which means we always needed a different term for nerve agents. Something along the lines of PMW: Profitable Murder Weapon. It requires no intellectual exertion to demonstrate that some people, given sufficient power, will start from the basest convictions and create hecatombs. What makes PMWs different is that it not only makes hecatombs easy, it makes them profitable. For the price of a few crop dusters, entire districts can be had intact with only the bother of clearing corpses. Ethnic cleansing without having to queue up the cattle cars.
That should frame the problem exquisitely.
The Assad regime's undeniable use of sarin presents a meta-problem. By that I mean a problem that exists above other problems in the same realm. In national security terms, resorting to a PMW requires a response independent of normal Hobbesian international relations. And, unfortunately, the only country able to transcend Hobbes is the United States.
Which is one of the reasons why President Obama is stuck between the devil and the deep blue Sea. Taking the appropriate action against the meta-problem could run directly counter to our Hobbesian interests; since it is impossible to say which victory is worse for us, Assad's, the Sunni's or the Shia's, our national security policy should be aimed at all of them losing for as long as possible. Indeed, the Obama administrations seeming fecklessness in this regard might well be a cover for a far more cynical foreign policy than his worshipers would ever be willing to acknowledge.
Therefore, if I was the National Security Advisor, my advice would be: 1. Doing nothing is, counterintuitively, doing something. 2. This is a meta-problem; doing nothing isn't an option. 3. The goal of doing something is not to dissuade the Assad regime from using PMWs again, but to make it (or others similarly inclined) sorry they ever thought about it in the first place.
Mr. President, I grant doing so could shift the balance of power to a party that is contrary to our national interests, but since they all are, that is, practically speaking, an imponderable distinction without difference.
Presuming the President took my advice, the speech I would have written would have made the punitive point clear, and left the suggestion that the Snowden affair might well be a false flag operation: "Everyone significant in the Assad government and military -- our PGMs have you on speed dial." The clear goal to make those loyal to Assad, and their families, start to fear us more than him.
Clearly, this isn't what has happened. Yet just as clearly even President Obama's most fervent critics must admit that what to do about Syria is a dilemma for which either horn could be argued effectively, solely based upon how the problem is framed.
So, no matter the decision, I won't criticize the President for making it.
However, there is criticism aplenty for his administration. That the Assad regime had significant quantities of a PMW was no secret, nor should the possibility of its use in a regime-threatening civil war have come as any surprise. That the Obama administration reacted like a headlight-pinned deer when the first small PMW uses occurred is bad enough, but that it should maintain that glassy-eyed posture when Assad stopped fooling around and got busy is almost unfathomable.
Unfortunately, Obama himself, and the Left in general, are responsible for their own paralysis. Having excoriated President Bush for having made a far more thorough case for eliminating Saddam, then gotten Congress's approval for doing so, Obama faces charges of gross hypocrisy on one hand, or dereliction in the face of eminently foreseeable provocation on the other.
Just because I framed the problem as I did doesn't make it right. It would be easy to frame this horrible situation purely in terms of amoral state interests. I think that would be risking the long term consequences of short term thinking, but there is no denying that the only way to the long term is through all manner of short terms.
Leaving aside the administration's curious incompetence -- which I think we should, because even competent foreign policy would likely be in the same position -- I have a great deal of sympathy for him. There is simply no good way out.
Oh, one other thing. I have learned to absolutely loathe the term "boots on the ground". If there was ever a dehumanizing term with which to refer to those who swear to risk their lives on our behalf, that must be it. They are soldiers, people, not boots. It is bad enough that all manner of people thoughtlessly use that wordy slander, but for the Commander in Chief to include it in a state speech is appalling.