If the chief danger associated with failing to punish Bashar al-Assad for gassing his people is that it will embolden our supposed enemies, shouldn’t it follow that by punishing him, we would expect it would be less likely for another country to do the same sort of thing? And if so, doesn’t Assad's recent behavior itself stand in refutation of this assertion? Put another way, what didn’t we do to Saddam Hussein? To be sure, he is permanently “deterred”. But his neighbors seem no less deterred than ever.
The key here, to my mind, is that it is a mistake to try and make sense of Assad’s behavior (and Qadaffi's before him) in terms of how US policy affects it. Game it out, from Assad's perspective: he faces an armed insurrection of religious fanatics who will surely execute him if they prevail. If he puts them down with force, he may face recriminations from the US and/or the international community. But if he doesn’t put the insurrection down, he is as good as dead anyway. Ergo, he really has nothing to lose by fighting his rebels by whatever means he deems necessary.
(If there is any lesson we ought to be taking away from Syria, it is that attempting to broker a swift, safe, and peaceful exit for the occasional tyrant is a policy approach that really should be examined. It may offend our sense of justice to have these men living out their days in comfortable obscurity, but how many Syrian lives--never mind US blood and treasure--could have been saved had Assad retired to Tehran 12 months ago? But this is a discussion for another day; that ship sailed for Assad when he gassed his people.)The neoconservatives (and their occasional humanitarian interventionist fellow travelers) worry about the perception of US power on the part of our supposed enemies. What they should worry about is our own failure to perceive the limits of our own power. The unexamined assumption that we can do everything is diminishing our ability to do anything, faster and more thoroughly than any Syrian gas or Iranian nuke ever could.
Brief addendum: I wasn't even going to talk about the president--because I couldn't care less about what all this means for his political fortunes, or those of his SecState or Congress--but Sully's summation is worth quoting in full:
If the Congress votes no – which, given the current arguments, it obviously should – then the president should accede to the wishes of the American people as voiced by their representatives. If he were to do that, the kind of transformation Obama promised in America’s foreign policy would be given a huge boost. This would be a president who brought Congress back into the key decisions of war and peace as the ultimate authority on them, as the Founders intended. It would be seen by history as the first key step away from the imperial presidency and the beginning of democratic accountability for the permanent war machine.
This could, in other words, be the dawn of a new, realist and constitutional age. Or the final death-throes of an empire that won’t quit until it bankrupts us both fiscally and morally. That’s why next week’s debate is so critical. And why Obama can still come out ahead on this, even as the conventional Washington wisdom will surely be all about his humiliation in a zero-sum narrative whose attention span is the next five minutes. If he defers to Congress on a new war in the Middle East, we are definitively in a new era.