White House undercuts its professed steadfastness in very public ways

The public run-up to all-but-certain U.S. military action in Syria in response to the al-Assad regime’s chemical weapons usage is undercutting the very message that President Obama feels compelled to deliver.

For starters, Administration officials continue to say that the President still has not made a final decision on whether to respond forcefully – despite the regime’s blatant crossing of Obama’s “red line” on chemical weapons and despite strong language from Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, and other top U.S. officials that would make a forceful response seem inevitable.

That Obama’s continued deliberating after the regime’s widespread use of chemical weapons follows his refusal to respond months ago when Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad used the same weapons on a smaller scale further undercuts Obama’s signal-sending. He looks more reluctant than resolute.

Moreover, the Administration and its congressional allies have increasingly, and publicly, ruled out robust, sustained action that would topple the regime or significantly change the dynamics of the civil war.

What we’ll see – as U.S. officials outlined in enough detail in today’s New York Times that al-Assad can plan around it – is a day or two of attacks in which American destroyers from the eastern Mediterranean Sea would launch scores of cruise missiles on al-Assad’s military units. They would neither target airfields from which the regime is receiving weapons and supplies from Iran (thus ensuring that the weapons will continue to flow) nor fulfill Obama’s demand that al-Assad step down (thus reminding U.S. adversaries that America means what it says only sometimes).

Consequently, al-Assad knows he can wait out the attack, even if it costs him some troops, and then resume his inhuman assault (presumably without chemical weapons) on both rebels and innocent civilians alike. Because al-Assad’s main goal is survival, and because he’s got Iranian and Russian assistance to extend his fight indefinitely, he’ll be well-placed to crow when the U.S. attack ends.

In addition, the Administration has signaled that the timing and duration of its attack will be shaped by unrelated outside factors, further undermining its projection of steadfastness. The President reportedly wants to launch and complete the attack before he travels to Russia next week for a meeting of the G-8 industrial powers. Why Administration officials would telegraph their timing so openly, enabling al-Assad to plan around the President’s travel schedule, is a mystery.

The President’s effort to enforce his red line, of course, has far less to do with Syria than Iran, which is not only al-Assad’s main benefactor but also the target of Obama’s much more important red line – over Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear weaponry.

U.S. allies and adversaries alike undoubtedly question whether, for Obama, “all options” really remain “on the table” when it coming to U.S. efforts to thwart an Iranian nuclear achievement that would mean potentially catastrophic ramifications for regional stability, Iranian hegemony, and Israeli security.

If so, a limited U.S. strike on the Syrian regime may not do much to remove those doubts. After all, a successful U.S. attack to cripple Iran’s nuclear program would presumably require a much larger, longer, and more complicated U.S. commitment to see such a mission to a successful conclusion. A U.S. strike against the Syrian regime that does nothing except allow a reluctant President to say he’s enforced his red line will probably leave the mullahs in Tehran more relieved than frightened.

All of this geopolitical maneuvering of course rests on a simple proposition – that chemical weapons are somehow a step too far in warfare, a tactic that forces the civilized world to respond forcefully.

The implication, however, is far more troubling – that al-Assad can continue his brutal assault on his own people as long as it doesn’t include nerve gas or other chemicals that only the vilest of dictators would tap.

So, Mr. Dictator, keep bombing your people from the air and executing them on the ground. Keep tearing communities and families to shreds, bringing the anguished faces of innocent children to our TVs. Keep deploying your own weapons and forces, along with whatever help you can get from Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia, to defeat the West in what’s becoming a larger proxy war.

Just don’t use chemical weapons.

Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Gore, writes widely on foreign affairs and is author of “Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion.”