One of the odd things about Obama’s intentions on Syria is that the general plan has been leaked to the press. And unless it turns out be be a case of releasing incorrect information with the deliberate purpose of misleading Assad, it’s hard to figure out exactly why the administration would leak like this.
Obama’s defenders, such as Max Fisher, seem to think it’s a wise and well-thought-out move on the part of the administration:
Actually, publicly revealing when, how and where the United States (and some allies) will likely strike makes sense, given what Obama wants to accomplish. If his goal were to fully enter the Syrian civil war and decisively end it, then, yes, secrecy would be the way to go. But the administration has been very clear that it has a much more modest goal: to punish Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad for his suspected use of chemical weapons so that he, and future military leaders, won’t do it again.
What’s about to happen, if the United States and allies do go through with the strikes, is less of a war and more of a ritual. This isn’t about defeating Assad, it’s about punishing him. And that calls for being really precise about how much punishment the United States imposes…
…[W]hat the Obama administration appears to want is a limited, finite series of strikes that will be carefully calibrated to send a message and cause the just-right amount of pain. It wants to set Assad back but it doesn’t want to cause death and mayhem. So the most likely option is probably to destroy a bunch of government or military infrastructure — much of which will probably be empty.
Aside from the fact that it is probably a fantasy that we could ever read Assad’s mind to that extent and calibrate our strikes so precisely, there is the mystery as to why telegraphing the scope and intent of the attack in advance would be necessary for the success of the plan as described. Fisher indicates that letting Assad know how limited the strikes will be is likely to keep him from escalating and would also deter him from future chemical (or other) attacks, but as Bruce McQuain points out at Hot Air:
Since it is a limited strike and it is going to be against specific units, Syria has the option of dispersing them, an option I’m sure they’ll take. They’ll also likely disperse them in to highly populated urban areas where they can…
Since they have thousands of artillery pieces capable of firing chemical shells, it is unlikely a limited strike is going to even seriously dent that capability. Moving artillery into the cities would likely deter the US more than the US would deter Syria. Helicopters can be moved as well. They don’t need long runways. Other aircraft will be dispersed And finally, command and control are easily moved and dispersed.
McQuain goes on to add that Assad is likely to use chemical weapons again afterwards, just to prove he can and that he is undeterred by the likes of Obama. And, as the WSJ editors point out:
…[T]he attacks are primarily about making a political statement, and vindicating President Obama’s ill-considered promise of “consequences,” rather than materially degrading Assad’s ability to continue to wage war against his own people.
It should go without saying that the principal purpose of a military strike is to have a military effect. Political statements can always be delivered politically, and U.S. airmen should not be put in harm’s way to deliver what amounts to an extremely loud diplomatic demarche. That’s especially so with a “do something” strike that is, in fact, deliberately calibrated to do very little.
Even then, I’m not sure why an advance announcement would be necessary. Perhaps the intent is just to accentuate what a brave and intimidating guy Obama is, and how he keeps his word when he talks about red lines? I think this move might be another subset of Obama’s well-known propensity to overvalue his own rhetoric, and to think that words can substitute for works, and bluster can serve as well as brawn.
[ADDENDUM: Ace takes us for a stroll down memory lane, to that long-ago time when Bush was president and Senator Barack Obama had these ringing words to say about the possibility of Bush's launching strikes on Iran:
The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.
That was then. This is now.]