The Obama administration keeps undermining its own case for a punitive strike in Syria. If the president wants permission from Congress and support from the American people, he and his aides had better get their story straight.
The "messaging," to use an unfortunate Washington term, has been confusing, contradictory and halfhearted. The nation simply will not approve going to war if its leaders cannot coherently explain what they want to do, how they plan to do it and why.
Secretary of State John Kerry threw mud into turbid waters Monday when he said the attack would be an "unbelievably small, limited kind of effort." This punch line came at the end of a string of similar assurances: no "troops on the ground," nothing "prolonged," merely a "very targeted, short-term" affair.
But if the attack is designed to be so limited, why bother? Why not just send a special envoy to give Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad a stern talking-to, followed perhaps by a reassuring hug?
Kerry was speaking at a London news conference, and maybe he was jet-lagged or sleep-deprived. He has seen combat firsthand in Vietnam and knows that to anyone on the receiving end of bombs or missiles, war never looks "unbelievably small." He also knows that the stated mission -- to punish Assad for using chemical weapons and "degrade" his capacity to do so again -- cannot be accomplished in an afternoon.
In trying so hard to convince everyone that Syria will not be another Afghanistan or Iraq, however, Kerry and others speaking for the administration -- including President Obama himself -- have undermined their own case for a strike.
On Aug. 21, according to the administration and a host of solid evidence, the Assad regime fired rockets containing sarin gas into a rebel-held Damascus suburb, killing hundreds of men, women and children. U.S. officials put the death toll at more than 1,400 -- and say this horror followed a series of smaller-scale chemical weapons attacks.
Even in the context of a civil war, the use of poison gas -- a forbidden weapon -- should shock the world's conscience. If Assad and his brutal government face no consequences, they will draw the conclusion that they may use chemical weapons with impunity. Other tyrants around the world will be tempted to follow suit.
These are the arguments -- moral and geopolitical -- that the administration was making forcefully two weeks ago, when it appeared a strike was imminent. But Obama's decision to consult Congress, yet not call legislators back from recess, drained the case for war of any urgency.
Obama's words Friday at the end of the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, only added to the confusion. He was theoretical and professorial, as if he were discussing a case study in international relations rather than a crisis obliging the nation to go to war.
"I did not put this before Congress just as a political ploy or as symbolism," Obama said. "I put it before Congress because I could not honestly claim that the threat posed by Assad's use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians and women and children posed an imminent, direct threat to the United States."
I fail to see how the headline "President Says Syria Poses No 'Direct Threat'" helps Obama's cause.
I also fail to see how this standard jibes with Obama's own record in office. Without consulting Congress, he ordered military action in Libya -- where the rebellion against Moammar Gaddafi posed less of a threat to U.S. interests than does the multisided civil war in Syria, which could easily spill across borders and spark a much wider conflict.
Obama justifies the Libya action on grounds that the population of Benghazi was in imminent peril. But it is hard to argue that the danger to civilians in Syria, with more than 100,000 dead and millions displaced, is somehow less grave.
Assad, at least, was clear and purposeful in his interview with Charlie Rose. The urbane ophthalmologist-turned-ogre warned that in the event of a strike, the United States should "expect everything" in retaliation. "What do wars give the United States? Nothing. No political gain, no economic gain, no good reputation," he said.
Nobody is going to be dissuaded from military action by smarmy lectures from a thug. But nobody is going to be persuaded to back a missile strike unless Obama and his aides clearly explain the rationale for war -- and sound like they mean it.
Contact Eugene Robinson at email@example.com.