Obama's slippery strategic separations in Syria

President Barack Obama speaks on education at University of Buffalo, the State University of New York, on August 22, 2013 in Buffalo, New York. Obama is on a two-day bus tour through New York and Pennsylvania to discuss his plan to make college more affordable, tackle rising costs, and improve value for students and their families.

This post originally appeared in National Journal.

See if you can follow this logic.

The Syrian regime, led by dictator Bashar al-Assad, used chemical weapons against civilians in the suburbs of Damascus--a "moral obscenity" that should "shock the conscience of the world," in the words of Secretary of State John Kerry.

Assad, desperate to cling to power, deployed chemical weapons to annihilate civilians and intimidate opposition forces gaining ground on the outskirts of the capital city.

The U.S. is assembling a coalition to support a military attack against Syria.

The attack is designed to be of relatively brief duration and in the military term of art "surgical" and "proportional." To say the record of such military action is unimpressive is an understatement. What's worse, a key architect of the emerging military strategy in Syria has deep misgivings about a limited engagement with Assad.

The attack, however, will not be aimed at toppling Assad or tipping the military balance in favor of opposition forces. "We are not focused on taking action to determine the outcome of the civil war," said a senior Obama administration official. "We intend to send a message to the world that this is not business as usual."

Assad is supposed to properly interpret the motives behind the military attack, separating the intent of cruise-missile strikes meant to punish him from cruise missiles meant to oust him.

In fact, it is essential Assad not only comprehend this distinction--a tall order--but he must be kept in power. Why? Because there can be no negotiated peace without Assad in power.

To review, the dictator who is responsible for an obscene international crime against humanity must be punished but not ousted so he can preside over his own negotiated demise--whereupon he would, logically, face prosecution before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Based on everything the world has learned about Assad, does this sound like a likely scenario, a workable strategy, or a coherent plan?

Whether it does or does not, that is where we are.

Oh, and the United Nations and Congress are not necessary to formally validate the military response or even evaluate the evidence.

White House press secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday said the use of chemical weapons was "a separate matter" and distinct from U.S. support of Assad's ouster. The response of the U.S. and other collaborating nations would be directed at Assad's use of chemical weapons and nothing else.

"The president is engaged in a process of reviewing his options in response to the undeniable use of chemical weapons and our conviction that those weapons were used by the regime," Carney said.

Can you separate chemical weapons from the regime? Can you separate the barbarism of a chemical-weapons attack from the murderous military assault on opposition forces that have left more than 100,000 dead and displaced 1.5 million Syrians? Is anything in Syria a separate matter? Strategically, how can a U.S.-led military campaign, especially one with telegraphed brevity and limited military ambitions, make a substantive difference?

President Obama has not spoken publicly about Syria since Friday, leaving the moral outrage to Kerry and deflections about timing and decision-making to Carney. Vice President Joe Biden added his voice Tuesday, saying "an essential international norm had been violated." This is not a pure vacuum, but it does suggest Obama is subcontracting the essential obligation of bringing the American public and Congress along as he deliberates a fateful course of action.

British Prime Minister David Cameron did speak Tuesday and largely foreshadowed the emerging coalition's impetus for a military attack and its inherent inhibitions.

"Any action we take or others take would have to be legal, would have to be proportionate," Cameron told the BBC. "It would have to be specifically to deter and degrade the future use of chemical weapons. Let me stress to people: This is not about getting involved in a Middle Eastern war, or changing our stance in Syria, or going further into that conflict. It's nothing to do with that. It's about chemical weapons. Their use is wrong, and the world shouldn't stand idly by."

On the legal side, the administration is looking toward the Geneva Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention as justification for a military response. Obama ordered those briefs Saturday after reviewing intelligence and developing a consensus within his national security team that military strikes should be prepared. Obama also ordered a report on the best available intelligence on the Aug. 21 chemical-weapons attacks and ordered it be prepared for declassification before any attacks were launched. Senior officials do not promise a so-called smoking gun in the intelligence report, saying there will be no "huge surprises" in its findings. Nevertheless, Obama wants a report that is more precise and detailed than the circumstantial evidence discussed so far. The process on Tuesday was bogged down in declassifying certain details.

All of this obscures the larger risks involved. As Anthony Cordesman, a top analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told my CBS colleague Bill Plante, this moment requires deeper strategic thought.

"The problem is action to do what," Cordesman asked. "Do we have a strategic purpose? You don't need chemical weapons if you're Assad to go forward as you've been going forward over these past months. This is an existential struggle for Assad. If we simply punish him for using chemical weapons by destroying a few high-value politically sensitive facilities and leave our intent unstated and don't show we're willing to follow up by supporting the rebels, by working with our allies, it will be a hollow message. At some point in the future, we will either be remembered as having taken token action and done nothing or have to use force under even worse circumstances than we face today."

It may not be possible to imagine worse circumstances than we face today. But Obama said something important about warfare at his extraordinarily martial acceptance speech upon winning the Nobel Peace Prize. In it he quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose legacy Obama will celebrate Wednesday on the 50th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream Speech." It is quite possible Obama will later this week, possibly as early as Thursday, make the same distinction between war and peace that he did in Copenhagen on Dec. 10, 2009.

"We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes," Obama said. "There will be times when nations--acting individually or in concert--will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified. I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: 'Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem. It merely creates new and more complicated ones.' As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there's nothing weak--nothing passive, nothing naive--in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King. But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world."

Obama has now found evil in Assad sufficient to justify a military attack. That did not exist before Aug. 21. It is now a White House imperative--separate and distinct from previous strategic calculations that kept the U.S. out of the Syrian civil war. If they are launched, cruise missiles will put the U.S. in the civil war. And many hard truths and strategic consequences will follow. And nothing in Syria will be a separate matter anymore.