White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on Meet The Press this morning:
MCDONOUGH (WH Chief of Staff): How Congress chooses to answer that question will be listened to very clearly in Damascus, but not just in Damascus. Also in Tehran, and among Lebenese Hezbollah.
GREGORY: You’re saying look, if we don’t do this, Iran which you believe is developing a nuclear weapon, looks at that and says, aha, the United States can be trifled with.
MCDONOUGH: I think it’s very difficult to know exactly what is happening in Tehran but what we do know is to communicate with them we have to be very clear, very forthright. This is an opportunity to be both with the Iranians. To make sure that they understand that they do not have greater freedom of action, they do not have greater operating space to pursue a nuclear weapon which would destabilize that entire region, threaten our friends and allies, and ultimately threaten us.
So the idea here is that we 'make an example' out of Assad as a proxy for Hezbollah and Iran? As a practical matter, that doesn't make sense.
Let's try that argument out in some other real-life situations.
Say, for example, that someone's child and a friend are playing, and the friend uses a forbidden word which the parent overhears. Rather than reminding the friend that their behavior isn't acceptable, the parent reaches over and slaps the friend, explaining that they simply want to teach their child that it's not ok to use language like that. You think the parents of that friend might be furious enough to escalate things into a full-blown fight between parents?
Two neighbors are feuding over a fence bordering their properties, and one of them burns the fence in the middle of the night, so the neighbor down the street decides they're compelled to toss a canister of tear gas into one of the feudsters' open windows to teach cranky neighbors five doors down that burning fences isn't acceptable even when feuds are underway.
This argument doesn't wash on any level. Making proxies out of bad actors to teach lessons to others who haven't actually done anything yet doesn't quell resentment. It increases it.
Let me suggest an argument which, if honestly made, might work better. Simply explain that we need some way to put pressure on Assad and the bad actors in the region to arrive at a diplomatic solution. As long as Russia and China give Assad cover with the United Nations to not be accountable for anything he does, there is no space to negotiate. Putting some counterpressure on him by authorizing force, whether or not it is used, gives leverage to come to a diplomatic solution.
Will that strategy work? Will it work particularly when it's out there in public? I don't know. But it is at least more intellectually honest than suggesting we have to retaliate against Assad to teach Iran and Hezbollah a lesson. What McDonough and Kerry are saying right now doesn't pass the gut test.