If an app existed that could maximize the number and breadth of strong arguments against a policy decision as well as the potential damage that policy could cause while minimizing the possibility that the policy in question could accomplish anything, it would produce the administration's proposed strike against Syria.
The most striking thing about the debate, to use that word in a general sense, regarding the possibility of the U.S. attacking Syria has not been the coalescence of the foreign policy establishment behind the president. That is to be expected in a town where being alone is far more damaging than being wrong. Rather, it is that the arguments against the proposed Obama policy from both the left and the right.
The arguments on the left revolve around a battery of issues questioning things like why the U.S. should act as the adjudicator of international law, what the longer term plan for Syria would be, and the wisdom of completely ignoring precedent from places like, for example, Iraq. Many critics on the left cannot help but notice the disturbing parallels between the sudden urgency which now characterizes the Obama administration's call for action against Syria and the tone of the Bush administration during the runup to the war in Iraq.
Critics on the right have argued that the type of small-scale limited strike against Assad will accomplish little, especially given that the administration has said that it will not seek to bring down Assad's regime.These arguments raise the question of what the Obama administration hopes to accomplish by a limited strike and what the President will do the day after the strike when Bashar al-Assad is still in power and still committing atrocities against his own people. It is quite possible that surviving a limited strike will not, as the Obama administration hopes, send a message to Assad that continued use of chemical weapons will lead to more attacks, but instead will allow Assad to turn to the rest of the region and argue that he has stood down Obama and the U.S.
Both the left and the right, generally speaking, make very strong arguments, but these arguments lead to very difficult policy recommendations. The left arguments suggest either doing nothing or seeking some kind of either non-military or multi-lateral solution, while the arguments on the right often call for a broader military intervention than the one proposed by the president. It is flabbergasting that while the war in Iraq is still going on, there are those who think another large intervention in the Middle East, or anywhere for that matter, to address an issue that is not directly related to US national interest is a good idea. Promises that there will be no boots on the ground notwithstanding, a long involvement in Syria would be a disaster. Perhaps conservative policy makers and kibbitzers don't see or want to believe that, but the American people do.
Intervention in Syria will be a true triumph of the foreign policy echo chamber where ideas like the U.S. reputation for upholding international law are discussed with no sense of irony. In the world more broadly, while there are certainly forces that value U.S. support and even protection, the notion that the U.S. stands for international law and is uniquely positioned and perhaps even obliged to mete out punishment to violators of those laws, is not one that is taken seriously in many places. Any policy maker who does not recognize this, particularly after the last decade of conflict in Iraq and elsewhere, or even the last few months of revelations about U.S. surveillance, is either willfully ignorant, deluded, or not capable of the basic functions of acquiring and analyzing information.
Syria is not an easy situation. Assad is a terrible dictator who very likely has, on multiple occasions, used chemical weapons on his own people, and who has beyond a doubt used conventional weapons to kill tens of thousands of his own people. Moreover, Syria is a trading partner of Russia and China and thus will likely continue to have support on the UN security council. There are also no alternatives to Assad that, from Washington's angle, are particularly appealing. Although the victims of Assad have been mostly innocent people, the leadership of the opposition is substantially Islamist. It is thus very possible that the post Assad regime could be as bad for Syria and worse for the U.S. than the current regime.
For the U.S., the hardest part of crafting a Syria policy is not deciding on an approach, but recognizing the limits of what the U.S. can do and the realities that U.S. action could lead to making the situation much worse. Again, the last decade in Iraq, as well as numerous other examples from history, not least in Southeast Asia, have demonstrated that frequently U.S. intervention does not lead to the upholding or enforcing of international law, but to massive numbers of casualties, consolidation of authoritarian regimes and increased anti-American sentiment. Intervening in Syria in the face of all this is a mug's game. Senator Obama would have known that.