"I think we come out lose-lose,” Cohen, who led the Pentagon from 1997 to 2001 under then-President Bill Clinton, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s "Political Capital With Al Hunt” airing this weekend. "There’s no win-win proposition for us.”
The US may be perceived as "feckless” if the Obama administration takes limited action against Syria after concluding that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical weapons against civilians, Cohen said, while tougher measures that could help oust Assad would create political uncertainty for the US.
"If we take action, it’s going to be limited in nature,” said Cohen, who led the Pentagon during US military strikes against Kosovo in 1999. "It’s going to be seen as being too weak. If you take strong action, you’re going to be seen as toppling the regime and bringing in people that you’re not too sure will be on your side.”
Obama has said he is considering military options to respond to what the US and allies say was the regime’s use of chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb as part of the fighting in a civil war that began more than two years ago.
"I have no interest in any kind of open-ended conflict in Syria, but we do have to make sure that when countries break international norms on weapons like chemical weapons that could threaten us, that they are held accountable,” Obama said in an August 28 interview with PBS’s "NewsHour.”
Obama must present compelling reasons to the US public and engage in greater consultation with Congress before taking any action, Cohen said.
"The real issue is, can the president of the United States persuade the American people that this is such a heinous act and persuade the international community they must stand behind this?” he said.