WASHINGTON –- The planned military strikes on Syria would be “targeted, limited” and wouldn’t seek to topple the government of President
They would also be punishing and "consequential" and would so scare Assad that he would never use chemical weapons again.
U.S. airstrikes would change the momentum on the battlefield of the
As administration officials lay out their case in favor of a punitive attack on Syria, they have been making all of these seemingly contradictory contentions, confusing supporters and providing rhetorical weapons to their opponents.
The contradictions stem from the basic challenge the
It's possible to square most of the administration's arguments – if one believes that a military strike can be so precisely calibrated as to harm the Assad government just enough, but not too much. But as a political case, the effort has so far proven hard to sell.
If officials lean too far in one direction, they risk losing supporters on one side or the other. But when they voice both sides of their case, they risk presenting an argument that is incoherent.
Former House Speaker New Gingrich said on "Meet the Press" that Obama was promising to punch Assad a little bit, but not too much, and such a goal was too nebulous to sell to the public.
When the administration is talking to Sen.
“And it leave us with a big question: What is our overall strategy on Syria, and how does this fit into it?” asked Doran, now with the
The sometimes-tortured quality of the argument was apparent over the weekend as some officials claimed that the strikes would shift the momentum of the Syrian war, and others said it would largely be unchanged.
But the day before, a senior administration official briefing reporters on Secretary of State
“I think it will grind on without the use of chemical weapons, but I think it will grind on,” said the official, who the
At the same time, the official said other U.S. efforts to help the rebels – presumably U.S. overt and covert training, military supplies and medical help – did have the objective of changing the "balance on the ground."
"This is an objective the administration has long supported," the official said.
As administration officials make their arguments, different members of the audience are taking away different points.
McCain came away from a private meeting with Obama on Tuesday convinced that the president had shifted his goals and now intended to do more to “degrade” the Syrian military machine. He offered an amendment to a proposed
It is difficult for the administration to argue that the strikes would help topple Assad because officials have been arguing for some time – and Obama repeated Friday -- that only a massive military intervention could force an end to the 2 ½-year-old civil war.
The White House wants to stay clear from suggestions that it is seeking "regime change" with the strikes, because that phrase, associated with the Bush administration, will alarm foreign allies as well as many Americans.
Officials have insisted all along that there is no military solution to the civil war and that eventually, the Assad government and the disparate rebel forces will have to reach a negotiated settlement.
At the same time, the administration wants to deflect accusations that it is preparing to launch only "pinprick" strikes with a symbolic value.
The Clinton administration was battered by accusations in 1998 that it had turned to strategically meaningless cruise missile strikes against Saddam Hussein and against Osama bin Laden's Afghan training camps, which were largely empty when they were hit.
One more complication for the White House arguments is that the mission appears to be becoming more ambitious as time passes.
The senior administration official speaking on Kerry’s plane insisted the addition of new targets did not represent “mission creep” because the objective was the same even if the
"I define 'mission creep' as shifting the objective, not the means," the official said.