The realities of the coming Syrian war

There have been two important and thoughtful pieces today about Syria, from two nearly opposite corners, and both of them include lists. Both of them have moved me to write one of my own.

One was “The Syria Lessons,” by Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former top foreign policy adviser in the State Department. Her bottom line, and one with which I agree, is:

In Syria, the moral, strategic, and political arguments all converge in favor of decisive action to stop the killing, if not forever, at least for now, to create a space for peace. But if the lessons of the past two years are any guide, the wheels of violence will keep on turning.

The other is “Thinking Strategically About Syria,” by my colleague (and on this, my intellectual opponent), John Schindler.  Schindler reaches this conclusion:

OSF (ie Operation SYRIAN FREEDOM) is what this administration must avoid, and presumably will at nearly any cost. Using TLAMs and limited conventional bombing to damage Syrian’s chemical capabilities, plus the C2 nodes that support WMD, is a reasonable goal, though it’s far from a panacea.

Both Schindler and Slaughter raise points in favor of, and against, intervention in Syria. While these are two of the best opposing views on the coming war, most of the chatter out there has become maddeningly silly.  The debate has become a tiresome mess, with advocates of intervention pointing to the videos of dying children in a nakedly emotional plea for a massive response, and anti-interventionists dredging up disingenuous analogies about Iraq to buttress straw-man arguments about the craziness of invading Syria (which no one is advocating).

I am particularly tired of the retired generals out there hitting the airwaves, each of them gravely intoning the List of Horrible Consequences while offering almost nothing in the way of actual solutions. Over the past few days, I have watched Colin Powell do his usual equivocating, Robert Scales rumble about doom, and James “Spider” Marks affirm the need to do “something” while shooting holes in all the “somethings.” The generals, it seems, are busily hedging their comments so that nothing will come back to bite them no matter what happens.

My list is directed both to pro and anti-interventionists, in hopes of pointing out things that are true and need to be addressed no matter which side you’re on. In the end, I agree with Slaughter’s argument that we’re reaching a perfect storm where all the reasons to engage in military action are intersecting, but herewith some points to consider:

1. Chemical weapons have been used by the Syrian regime against civilian non-combatants.

You’d think that one would be easy, but you’d be wrong, and if you don’t believe that this has happened, you might as well stop reading right here.

More reasonable critics claim a right to be skeptical after the failures of the Bush administration in 2003. But that’s a flawed comparison: unlike the fruitless hunt for Saddam’s WMDs, this is the actual use of WMDs. It’s not notional or hypothetical. Of course, Bashar Assad could hold up a sign on CNN saying “I did it,” and some in the tin-foil hat crowd would claim it’s a put-up job.

There is a question out there whether Assad gave the order, at least according to Noah Shachtman’s piece today in Foreign Policy:

“It’s unclear where control lies,” one U.S. intelligence official told The Cable. “Is there just some sort of general blessing to use these things? Or are there explicit orders for each attack?” Perhaps it was a lone general putting a long-standing battle plan in motion; perhaps it was a miscalculation by the Assad government….”We don’t know exactly why it happened,” the intelligence official added. “We just know it was pretty fucking stupid.”

Here’s the point: it doesn’t matter. Indeed, it’s almost worse if Syrian generals are slinging chems around, because that would mean the regime has lost operational control of its own stockpile. But chemical weapons, delivered by rockets only the regime has at its disposal, have been used.

2. No U.S. president would be able to take a pass on acting in some way against the Syrians. Not one.

Get over it: the use of chemical weapons in this way and on this scale against civilians would trigger a response from the United States no matter who’s in office.

There’s been some stupidly ahistorical sniping about Ronald Reagan ignoring chemical use during the Iran-Iraq war, which is exactly the kind of analogy that means exactly nothing in 2013. Leave aside both of the Bushes, who we know would have acted against something like this. Or Clinton, who we also know would have acted, and did.

That leaves the guys who lost: McCain, Kerry, Romney, Dukakis, Dole, Gore. If you think any one of them would have sat idly by while Syria gassed a thousand civilians, you do not understand the permanence of the Republican and Democratic foreign policy establishments that would still have existed under any of them.

Asking President Obama to be the one guy to look the other way — which, in my view, he’s already done more than was prudent with Syria — is unrealistic to the point of science fiction. Progressives, more than anyone, are angry at the President, but that’s because their expectations of him were ridiculous to begin with.

In case you think I’m saying this as a post-hoc rationalization for what I clearly want President Obama to do, let me just self-servingly refer you back to the book I wrote about this — over five years ago. When I wrote Eve of Destruction, I said point-blank that for better or worse (my guess was worse), partisan affiliations or ideologies were not going to change the fact that the major powers, including the United States, have all moved toward far more permissive norms about using force, especially where WMD were concerned.

I was a little ahead of the curve, but I wasn’t alone: people like John Gaddis at Yale and Bob Lieber at Georgetown were likewise warning that viewing the 2003 Gulf War as some kind of bizarre hiccup was too short-sighted.

This time, I literally do hate being able to say I told you so.

Anyway, you can argue that the President’s options all stink, and they do. But to argue that the White House should sit this one out is a non-starter. When President Kucinich is elected, that might be a better argument (and I actually admire Kucinich’s consistency), but until then, progressives and antiwar folks need to join us in the real world of politics.

3. Yes, we’re all aware that all the options are bad. Thank you for your interest in national defense.

Look, everyone on every side of this debate does or should get it: there are no good options. Ignoring the use of weapons of mass destruction isn’t going to happen. We know that there is a sectarian problem so complicated it looks like political string theory. We know that Al-Qaeda, or a bunch of bastards using that brand name, are loose in the conflict. We get all of that. But those are all reasons to be careful in planning and executing operations, not reasons to forego those operations.

Nothing, in my view, has become more tiresome than people making lists of things not to do while offering no alternatives other than generalities like “working with partners to help end the Assad regime.” Yes, we’ll get right on that — as soon as we’ve dealt with this WMD use.

The Syrian regime is going to pay some price for using WMD; if you’re not interested in figuring out what that price should be, you can probably stop telling the rest of us how gosh-darned complicated Syria is. We knew that part already, thanks.

4. The international community wants us to act. By “community” I mean our closest friends, and perhaps the Arab League shortly.

This is not a U.S. rush to war. If you’d like to argue that Britain and France are making the same mistake we are, that’s one thing. To argue that this is all the sinister manipulations of the White House is to grant to this administration a facility and strength in foreign affairs that has not been apparent before.

Here’s an idea: maybe it’s not a plot. Maybe they’re seeing what we’re seeing.

5. The Russians aren’t going to do a damned thing.

The Russians not only will not go to war over Assad, they can’t. I don’t know where people get these ideas (first guess: Google University), but the Russian Navy isn’t even remotely capable of getting in NATO’s way in the Med. Unless Vladimir Putin wants to threaten a nuclear war for Bashar Assad, this is not an issue. The Russians, as my colleague Nick Gvosdev points out, will get their pound of flesh for this in some way later, but not in a war.

6. There are no “end states” or “exit strategies.” More to the point: there never are, and we need to stop using those terms.

Few concepts have polluted American strategic thought as badly as the “Powell doctrine,” a Cold War relic from Colin Powell’s days in uniform that never made much sense and has since been consistently misapplied in recent years. In its various forms and emendations by Powell, it basically says: Never fight unless you absolutely have to, and only fight wars you know you can win. Buy low, sell high. Rotate your tires. Never poke your sister in the eye with a stick. That sort of stuff.

War, however, is a series of contingencies, and unless you’re going to declare a clear goal like “unconditional surrender,” you’re not going to get far with faux exit strategies. Even successful wars have gone to places and ended in ways their combatants could not have foreseen.

People who demand plans for “end states” all sound highly intelligent, because they’ve taken the time to script out all kinds of detailed scenarios. Even the simplest of those, however — like, say, “expel Iraq from Kuwait” — can get tangled up in things that happen along the way, and some of those things will surprise you, some might hurt you, and some might actually turn out to be in your favor. It’s not blind luck, but we have to let go of the fantasy that we should have complete control over any military engagements we seek. It’s never happened that way, and it never will.

The more intelligent goal of national security planning is not to map out a series of conditions under which you declare you’ve “won,” like some sort of victory checklist, but rather to know what kind of situation you’re trying to create during and after the conflict without too much prejudice about how you’re going to get there.

Schindler got off a nice zinger in his piece when he said:

Negative aims are fine, but not having clear, achievable aims is a good way to lose quick.

Okay. But no one is arguing for just blundering in and killing everything that moves. (And what would “losing” look like? Terms like “win” and “lose” are being used without any definition in all this.)

John also says limited strikes might do some good, but are not a “panacea.” But again, who’s looking for a panacea?

The anti-interventionists who are good students of history (like John) know that this is the “Nicias strategem,” in which you try to undermine political support for a military operation by insisting that it should be a full-blown war requiring a commitment that no one wants. This was what the Athenian general Nicias did when he told the Athenian assembly in 415 BC that any Greek invasion of Sicily would require a far larger force than the citizens would want to send. (It didn’t work: they sent it anyway. Worse, the Athenians lost the subsequent battle.)

With that said, I think in the first phase of this conflict, we should aim for two achievable goals: (a) no more chem use, and (b) prevent Assad’s forces from exercising control (read: killing thousands) over large swaths of Syrian territory. That should be in our power. If it isn’t, then I think we should ask the U.S. military what it did with all the money we gave it to prepare for that much larger war in the Med with Soviet Union years ago — or how it is that a country like ours, which is planning to deal with China as a peer, cannot handle a third-string power stuck in a brutal civil war.

7. Someone awful is going to win this war one day. But that’s not what military action should be about right now.

The object should not be to win the peace, create a Syrian democracy, kill Assad, or save the Unicorns. In the immediate circumstance, limited strikes can degrade Syrian operations, buy some breathing room for the rebels, deter (or suppress) the use of chemical weapons, and generally make life a lot harder for Assad so that others can control parts of Syria and he can’t. Those in favor of intervention need to stop overselling this, and accept that it’s going to be awful no matter how it comes out.

But those arguing for inaction — or as it would appear at this point if we choose it, paralysis — should, as Secretary Kerry said a few days ago, “check their moral compass.”  Schindler and Slaughter are right: it’s going to get worse. That doesn’t mean we have to stand by impotently while Syria turns into a charnel house.

There are options that lie between invasion and doing nothing.They do not have the perfect exit strategies and democratic Syrians or meet any of the other impossible conditions anti-interventionists insist on as surrogates for the fact that they simply do not want to intervene. But (as Jeffrey Lewis argued yesterday) they can acheive the immediate goals of establishing consequences for WMD use, and maybe even save some lives.

That’s more than enough — for now.



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  1. If you’re going to take this view, I have to ask — to what extent are U.S. losses acceptable to you in order to intervene effectively in Syria? How many U.S. soldiers could die or be injured and you would say, “well worth it”?

    How do you justify using U.S. volunteers to end this when these people enlisted to defend the U.S. against real threats that just don’t seem to exist here?

    I’m asking these questions not to say, “There are no good options.” I agree with you about the weakness of that as an objection. I am asking because the question of cost for individual U.S. volunteer soldiers seems conspicuously absent in this debate.

    • If I had my way, no U.S. soldier would ever be injured doing anything that isn’t in the exact defense of our shores. But the world doesn’t work that way. We have created a global system of peace, trade, and cooperation, we benefit from it, we insist on its existence, and we cannot outsource the policing and defense of that system. Moreover, we are signatories to treaties, including some on WMD, and we cannot now say that we thought all of those commitments to alliances, norms, and traditions don’t matter simply because we happen to find it inconvenient at the present moment.

      • An interesting and thoughtful response, though I don’t think the issue here is one of convenience so much as one of priorities and obligations. The first, I’d venture, is to the people who have volunteered to do our dirtiest work. Did they reasonably enlist to wind up fighting in Syria, possibly in the aid of Syrians who mean the U.S. more harm than Assad does? Because that’s the reality. I make no apologies for Assad here but all of his opponents do not have the best interests of the U.S. or the west in general, near their hearts. Some of them are Al-Qaeda sympathizers. Is it worth any of our enlisted dying on their behalf?

        Then, there’s our government’s obligation to its own people. We’ve been through two wars, both of which were an order of magnitude longer than promised and two orders of magnitude more expensive. In the meantime, we have been subject to budget austerity. We have money to lob missile at Syria while we’re slashing food stamps? Really?

        Your argument about the system of global trade that we insist upon is the most persuasive. But, others benefit from that system as well, often at our expense. Global commerce would not be possible without the U.S. Navy. Given all the U.S. does already for global trade security, are you seriously arguing that we owe the world something in Syria?

        As for treaties, if they oblige the U.S. to act, I sincerely doubt that don’t oblige the other signatories as well. Why should the U.S. go first?

        Ultimately, it seems like the argument for intervening in Syria rests on the “Responsibility to Protect,” which is a notion that the U.S. electorate has never been able to weigh in on explicitly. If that doctrine is going to define our foreign policy I think that the people should be asked to endorse it and that it should be made explicit to anyone who is approached by a military recruiter.

  2. Last I checked, people who joined the military do not get to pick and choose where the President sends them. (They can vote like anyone else. But they do not get to veto military operations they don’t happen to like. This isn’t Brazil or Nigeria in the 1960s.)

    As for others helping: the British and the French are actually ahead of us on this, as they were in Libya (where the French actually fired the first shots in anger). If you don’t like the idea of this intervention, that’s understandable, but simply saying that you don’t think anyone should be sent into harm’s way is not an answer. Most U.S. operations around the world are discretionary (Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq, many others). Even Afghanistan, I suppose, could have been bombed flat rather than risking the lives of troops.

    Finally, I think you drastically underestimate what the people who join the military think about the notion of service, and I believe they are far more willing to serve in various parts of the world — sometimes for multiple tours — than you think. I think you’re on weak ground indeed if your opposition to this action rests on some kind of mistaken notion that people who will participate in it — especially the officers who will fly the missions, if it comes to that — didn’t know what they were signing up for.

    • Hmmm… Somalia was a travesty, imposed by a defeated president during his last days in office that led to needless deaths. The second invasion of Iraq got so out of hand that soldiers who tried to leave the service when their enlistment periods were up found that they were not allowed out. The Bosnia intervention was low risk, though we seem to get a sanitized version of it these days (when it was happening, I was friends with a couple of Serbian immigrants in America and heard what their family back home, war criminals none of them, went through under our bombing campaign.

      My objection doesn’t rest even a bit on presumed ignorance on the part of soldiers. It’s about whether or not we actually have a good enough cause to ask these people to risk their lives. The second invasion of Iraq is a great example here. That debacle wasn’t worth a single dead soldier.

      But, again, maybe this should all be put to a broader test. It’s time to let the “Responsibility to Protect” face an election. Let’s see where it falls as a priority.

      • For what it’s worth, I cannot stand the way “R2P” has been intellectualized and turned into an academic pursuit. (When something gets its own acronym, it’s usually headed for oblivion.)

        But it’s pointless to ask where it would fall as a priority during an election, because to even ask it in that way is to load the question for failure. People in the US do not vote on foreign policy as a priority, and they will never vote for an abstract intellectual principle; they need concrete cases on which to decide, which is how such things become (or do not become) “norms.”

        Your approach would be like saying: “Where do you think the United Nations racks and stacks as a priority in the 2016 election?” You and I both know the ranking would be somewhere around…wait, let me do the math….zero.

        So shall we defund the UN, withdraw our forces from any UN missions, and move it out of New York? That’s not completely off the table for the crazypants libertarians and others, and they would use your “put it to a vote” criterion as exactly their rationale.

        I’d prefer to avoid plebiscites on anything, but especially on foreign affairs, which most people do not understand — and insofar as they do know anything about it, most of what they know tends to be wrong. (“We have a huge foreign aid budget!” is my favorite Wrong But Ubiquitous Fact.)

        • Well quite aside the libertarian calls to defund and eject the UN, it would be a good idea to move the UN elsewhere ( out of the US or Britain) to avoid NSA spying. As for the “experts” in government viv a vis foreign affairs, they brought us ALL the multitude of failures in our foreign policy for decades. I don’t see their value.

  3. Very persuasive piece. And yet, what happens if we do whatever we’re going to do, show Assad that there’s a price to be paid, and that still doesn’t deter him? What if he makes the calculation that we’re willing to hurt him, but not so badly that he falls from power (because if that’s what we really wanted, we could have had that a couple of years ago)? How far are we willing to push Assad towards defeat in order to persuade him that we’d rather see al Qaeda win by fair, than to see him win by foul?

    • I worry about every single issue you’ve raised, but none of that will be anything we can try unless we start. Let’s put it this way: nothing has deterred him for two years, and he’s only gotten worse. At the least, we can try to carve out a pause for the rebels, and see if they can regroup enough to hang on to the territory they already control.

      • That’s an honest reply. Prior to reading your article, I didn’t think there was a good course of action. Now, I’m open to the idea that there might be, but have no faith that the administration will find it. Given yesterday’s leaks by the administration about their intent, it looks as though they’re just going to give him 5 yards for gassing.

          • Ugh. It is CLEARLY better that civies be killed by artillery, bombs, bullets than by gas because…magic. Of course it’s also a good idea to step into a sectarian civil war, Iraq is a great example of how well that turns out. Hell, Afghanistan is a great advertisement for Western meddling in these alien countries. We can all agree that replacing a dictator with Islamic radicals is always the best plan for peace and stability.

            I’m sure glad that none of you meddlers were around in foreign countries during the US civil war. You would have inserted yourselves ‘for the children’ and pushed compromise…resulting in something like the Missouri Compromise. A GOOD thing because it is ‘compromise’. Oh wait, compromising helped CAUSE the civil war. So why was it good we got to settle our own civil war but those Middle Easterners must NOT be allowed to?

            How many of you military interventionists without end have ever actually worn the uniform? Where is the money for it? There are top cancer researchers at my local university that can no longer get funding because of budget cuts, my street is a pothole hell, firefighters and police are laid off but there’s always money for foreign “adventures” that have zip to do with real national security…but it is PRIDE that matters more than national security. Finally, if Syria’s near neighbors like Saudi Arabia with all those modern weapons and training we provide them won’t or can’t do it then what the hell have we been wasting money on them for? Apparently so they can get us to do the heavy lifting while they fund and train Islamist radicals the world over…setting up the NEXT terrorist attack to get us to respond to.

            • This bit about the budget has to be addressed. I’ve never seen an answer. Where, given all of the unmet domestic spending needs, does the money come from to pay for Syria.

              The usual answer is that the budget doesn’t work that way, with an appeal, perhaps to modern monetary theory. Which, I guess is okay. If you believe that the money supply is unlimited, budgets don’t matter, etc. then that’s an argument to make. Though, in that case, you fix this poster’s potholes first, you fund his causes, and more and then you do Syria because, hey, it doesn’t matter.

              If you think it does matter, or if you acknowledge that the way we debate the budget in public assumes that it does matter, then how is intervening in Syria more important than, say, stopping home foreclosures in the U.S. or helping a U.S. citizen get a four year college degree without debt, or funding food stamps?

              If the budget is not an issue, all other needs should be met. What we’re dealing with is the likelihood that Syria gets budgets while domestic needs are unmet. How is that okay?

              • Firefighters, police, and pot hole fixing is paid with local money. Not federal. Nice red herring though.

                • That’s really no answer. The Feds have cut support for localities since the Financual Crisis. Also, federal programs have been cut. This question can’t be danced away from.

      • This sounds an awful lot like an open-ended commitment to more and more war.

        Nothing good will happen until we start blowing things up!

        You said “to argue that the White House should sit this one out is a non-starter.” Yet you’re clearly pushing for a strategy of regime change, which Obama explicitly said was not a goal. I guess we should bow to political realities unless Tom doesn’t like those realities.

  4. As I might have mentioned before, I’m in favor of ousting Assad for a stooge fronted government. If the US is incapable of doing so, then why not the Russians? Surely there’s a deal to be made here with Putin. I can only assume that Russia is not willing to go to bat over Assad. Who is he to the Russians anyway? He’s a customer at best, a business partner, but as long as they maintain access to Syrian treasure, why do they need Assad? Is it possible to convince the Russians to toss Mr. Wonderful under the bus for something they truly want? Without a central government to hold Syria together, the result might be bloody chaos followed by a new Al Qaeda state. (What fun!) Maybe it’s time for a back room deal to get rid of this prick and let the big boys run the show.

    • “Is it possible to convince the Russians to toss Mr. Wonderful under the bus for something they truly want?”

      That makes complete sense. Let’s replace one Russian stooge with another Russian stooge in an area where the US has very limited vital interests and in exchange give something to the Russians that they truly want.

      Like what? What are we selling now? Estonia?

      So long as you could get your way of having reliable authoritarians in the area, would you care how much national treasure was handed over? Would you shed a tear at least?

    • All the more reason to get back on the right side of the moral equation. We did a lot of hideous things during the Cold War, and during our long grudge match with Iran. Screwing it up 25 years ago shouldn’t mean replicating the same mistake twice.

      • Or “grudge” with Syria now is not about chemical weapons. They have been used repeatedly in this civil war, so why is THIS incident special? Iran. And oil/gas. The ONLY reason we give a flip at all is oil and gas and, in this case, Iran. Syria is a close ally of Iran. They recently finalized a pipeline deal with Syria via Iraq. Can’t have that can we? We are STILL holding our grudge against Iran for them having the audacity to toss our murderous dictator to the curb. This is not about humanitarian anything and chemicals are merely an excuse.

  5. US is driven by its own interests which is not wrong. But, as someone who is tagged with “SuperPower” status it should be doing more. To start showing and actually acting in the genuine interest of development of developing countries is the best way to start with.

    Iraq Invasion is a blot starring at its face. All that rhetoric it is currently engaged in to, will only damage its reputation further in International Community.

    Ideas such as support rebels in Syria definitely did not go well with every one. Attacking Syria will only help Alqueda rebels if not ordinary Syrians.

  6. Funny how you ignore the use of chemicals by rebel forces several weeks ago. Only the recent use of chemicals count because the Assad government MIGHT be in some way responsible. Bollocks. Assad may be nasty but the Islamists and Al Qaeda forces among the rebels are worse. No thanks to turning the US Navy and Air Force into branches of Al Qaeda’s forces.

  7. Very good points but very frustrating as well. I’ll explain why.

    For the past 8 years or so a popular popular topic of discussion in international politics/economics has been the emergence of the BRICS states(Goldman Sach’s 2001 name for emerging markets). This trend which pundits like Zakaria refer to as “the rise of the rest” has seen the greatest reduction in poverty in human history. Along with the rise of these powers you hear alot of talk about how we’re headed towards a potentially contentious future in politics because the orientation of power is turning to South/East Asia and Latin America so we’d better learn to play nice. More multilateralism, etc, etc.

    So you have these formerly dysfunctional states who for so long resisted integration into the post ww2 global system of institutions designed by the US and W.Europe which promoted more open trade and security. Now they’re benefited immensely economically but they don’t really care about the international security/norms aspects unless it affects them. If it doesn’t affect them, meh, just let the US handle it and if they screw up well complain about the being too unilateral even though we don’t want to help carry the load.

    I just get the feeling that these countries are free-riding off the global public goods that the US provides. They don’t particularly caring about upholding these values of these institutions but if the US does act you’ll get a lot moaning about hegemony/imperialism or whatever.

    What have the so called emerging countries had to say about the atrocities in Syria?

    • I think the “free-rider” problem is real, but I also think there’s not much you can do about it. It’s sort of like having the one guy in your neighborhood who won’t join the volunteer fire department: you still have to put out fires, with or without him 🙁

      • But just to carry the analogy … if he won’t join (or pay the fee), you may not put out the fire on his property when the time comes.

        • That’s the problem with a fire in crowded neighborhoods: it’s not much of a strategy to hope that it’ll burn down the one house you don’t care about — especially if the guy who owns it has a lot of innocent kids living there. (We’re beating this metaphor a little hard, but you know what I mean.)

      • Yes, assuming (1) you are part of the fire brigade and (2) the fire will spread to your house. Some big assumptions there that most people in this country would not agree with.

  8. Just wanted to say thank you for highlighting the salient considerations. I’m not sure what to think about it all, but you’ve made me pause and reconsider some of the things on my mind.

  9. My position on this definitely cannot be mistaken for “interventionist” as I am not sold on the idea of attacking Syria. My belief stems from the “History Perspective” you mentioned. I think that, much like Iraq and Afghanistan, this will turn out into yet another Pandora’s Box for the US military, but my finger is not on the pulse of the Middle East, either, so it’s a straight-up coin flip for me. I do agree examples of “quick” conflicts in recent years (Bosnia, Somalia), but as volatile as things are in the Middle East, I’m worried about the long-term.

    Also, I’m sorry, but John Kerry and “moral compass” do not belong in the same sentence. If there’s anyone who’s lost the right to speak about a moral compass, it’s him. That’s like saying members of the Westboro Baptist Church are quintessential Christians.

    • I liked Kerry’s speech, and I think it’s important to separate the man from the message. It it’s also important to maintain respect for these offices, no matter who holds them. Doesn’t meant they’re above criticism (I was deeply upset by Clinton’s “What difference does it make” show of disrespect to Congress), but I don’t think equating any of our Cabinet officers with the thugs from Westboro helps very much.

  10. We also ignored Halabja in 1988. Despite Saddam getting away with using CW, there doesn’t seem to have any proliferation of CW as a result, nor was it used. And there have been plenty of situations where one could see it being used: Soviets in Afghanistan, Gulf War, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, the Iraq war, any number of other conflicts.

    So… what’s the urgency again? Especially when 100 times as many Syrians have died through boring old bullets and bombs?

    • Saying that we didn’t do something 25 years ago during the Cold War has, to me, absolutely zero relevance now. (That’s like saying we should have done something about Stalin’s forces engaging in mass rapes in occupied Germany. Well, sure, as soon you invent a time machine, we can go back and get right on that.)

      Chemical weapons are a specific taboo, and worth stopping. It’s bad enough people die by the thousands, but we don’t need to allow this on top of it. And by the way, gas was not used in Rwanda, the Gulf, Yugoslavia, or the Iraq war. Might want to brush up on some history there.

      • ” And by the way, gas was not used in Rwanda, the Gulf, Yugoslavia, or the Iraq war”

        Yes, that’s what I said. Despite Saddam using gas with impunity, on civilian and military targets, gas wasn’t used in any of the conflicts that followed. Until now, 25 years after Halabja.

        Some are arguing that we need to take action against Syria because if we don’t, it would encourage the use and proliferation of gas. But there isn’t anything to suggest that would actually happen, and empirical evidence to suggest that it would not happen.

  11. I think what we are seeing is that appeals to a vague humanitarianism to justify action in Syria are not convincing to a broad swath of Western public opinion worried about the costs of military action, nor the traditional U.S. attempt to cram sides into “the good one” and “the bad one”–especially given the activities of some of the opposition groups.

    What will be interesting instead is whether we are groping towards some sort of norm that it is the use of weapons of mass destruction (as defined by common agreement) which triggers automatic sanctions from every other power. Syria might not be the case where this happens, but, to go back to the close of your book Eve of Destruction, is there the possibility that in the future we see some sort of compromise emerging–the West reluctantly accepts that governments, even non-democratic ones, can use a pretty wide range of force to put down revolts/insurrections (the Chinese and Russian position) in return for ironclad acceptance that the use of WMD crosses the line. I can’t help but think that if this had been the thrust of US-Russia conversations in 2011 and 2012, rather than an immediate insistence to Moscow that “Assad must go”, we might have been in a better position now rather than contemplating unilateral action.

    Tom is more of the liberal internationalist than I am but I’ve always felt that FDR combined a pretty cold realist sense that he tried to marry to Wilsonian idealism (I think Reagan also falls into this camp). The reality is that countries are happy to advance ideals only when the costs are low or non-existent; they tend to accept sacrifice when things are couched in impact on interests. Most Americans right now, even with all the deaths in Syria, are still John Quincy Adams acolytes: well-wishers to the Syrians, prepared to send help–but not get involved. Does the calculus change if Syria is seen as a deproliferation mission? If so, then the stance of the British parliament suggests that while they were unwilling to endorse a humanitarian mission, they are open to a deproliferation one, and are waiting for more evidence (here, of course, we are paying the price for how the run-up to Iraq was handled).

    The risk, of course, to the US is that embracing a great convention approach means that any use of WMD by anyone triggers sanctions–other countries won’t sign up to enforce the norm against Syria if they think there are plenty of opt-out clauses for US friends. With the US government applying Clinton’s famous dictum of it depends on what the meaning of is is to events in Egypt (not prepared to call it a coup), it may be difficult to get support.

    These are just some opening thoughts and speculations, not a honed set of conclusions …

    • You bring up another issue that I don’t think is getting enough attention — whatever we have learned about Syria and Assad over the last 2 years has not been enough to really sway public opinion, at least in the U.S. My guess is that if we intervene and it goes well that there will be no real negative political repercussions. Americans tend to support victory and success. But, the fact remains that this is a representative democracy and, right now, the people being represented do not want to get involved.

      Sometimes, the government best represents its people by acting in opposition to current sentiment. But I’m not convinced we’ve reached that point here.

      • We agree on one important point here: in a republic (rather than a direct democracy), sometimes it’s necessary for leaders to buck short-term popular opinion. That’s why we have fixed-terms of office; that’s why I’m so glad we don’t live in a parliamentary system.

        One problem for me is that “current sentiment” is based on such low levels of political literacy that I am loath to take it as seriously as I know I should in a democracy. When polls show the public is “against” or “for” intervention, I always wish there was a follow up question: “Now tell me where you think Syria actually is.” The issue has gained no traction for two years because until now, Assad’s been smart enough to stay off the radar of international opinion by killing people steadily with conventional weapons, leaving us to debate important stuff like whether Paula Abdul should stay on American Idol.

        In a country where so many people have no command over even the basic facts of how their own system of government operates, I wince at anything that involves the strongly-held opinions of people who know more about their sports teams than their members of Congress.

        I think, however, that even normally politically illiterate people have an allergy to things like chemical weapons as a normal tool of statecraft. But since the President has now laid exactly that question on the table, I guess we’re going to find out.

        • And we will find out whether a deproliferation norm carries more weight than a humanitarian norm. Syria is a wake-up call; what’s going to happen when it is time for difficult, messy and expensive missions to deal with WMD in collapsing or imploding states elsewhere in the region and around the world?

          • The real headache here — and I think it’s one that will repeat itself in other cases — is that there’s no way to untangle the anti-proliferation mission from the humanitarian intervention. The latter is the spur to the former. The resolution the White House has sent to Congress tries to split that baby, but I don’t see how one can be separated from the other. (Of course, being the liberal interventionist I am, I don’t see the need to separate them, but that’s another issue.)

        • I feel ya. But, in a representative democracy we don’t get to choose the priorities of our fellow citizens. Sometimes they pick Paula Abdul over Charlie Rose. Another issue is that, no matter what priorities they choose, they are still on the hook for the big decisions. They get the bill for the war, they get the moral responsibility and they are often asked to fight. As tempting as it is, we can’t dismiss the notion of people’s consent just because we sometimes find ourselves at odds with how our fellow citizens have chosen to occupy their minds. That way lies a sort of Bloombergian arrogance that is somehow leaving behind a negative legacy even after a dozen years of success in New York.

          • I’m not dismissing the notion of consent. I’m saying that we would have no foreign policy of any kind if we had a direct decision on “priorities” placed in opposition to each other the way you phrased them. That’s why we’re a republic, not a direct democracy (thank Heaven, Providence, and the Founders).

  12. This is a risible attempt to beat the drums of war. Hardly any effort is expended to say why we should attack or what good would come of it. The best explanation of the goals was hidden here:

    “I think in the first phase of this conflict, we should aim for two achievable goals: (a) no more chem use, and (b) prevent Assad’s forces from exercising control (read: killing thousands) over large swaths of Syrian territory.”

    How do we prevent chem use? How do we prevent Assad’s forces from exercising control? Why are these goals insurmountably important to US interests? Apparently we needn’t bother our heads thinking about such trivialities.

    Hell — as the author says, this is merely the “first phase of this conflict”! We have many more phases of war to look forward to. We can figure these things out during the exciting rounds of violence in the future.

    If this is the best the warmongers can do, then I can’t imagine why we would consider getting involved.

    • You’re against intervening. I get it. If you think that trying to enforce even a bare minimum norm against gassing civilians is “warmongering,” I think we’ve gone as far as that discussion can take us.

      • If you have no explanation for how a limited strike will end chemical weapons use and will “prevent Assad’s forces from exercising control…over large swaths of Syrian territory”, then yes: clearly you don’t have anything more useful to add.

        I asked some clear questions about how to achieve the goals you laid out. You have no answers for them. If those pushing for hostilities can’t answer basic questions, why should we give in to them?

        And if you can’t be bothered to consider the ramifications of an attack, then how is it unfair to say that you’re pro-war?

        • “sometimes it’s necessary for leaders to buck short-term popular opinion. That’s why we have fixed-terms of office; that’s why I’m so glad we don’t live in a parliamentary system.”

          The people who against this war may not know where Syria is but they know who will do the fighting and the dying again – young Christian males (or, as we used to call them “whites”) – all so that the Pritzkers can have their wars while simultaneously calling them “white trash of the flyover country”.

  13. The question is whether the international community can just sit on the side lines while people are being gassed. Whatever else you think of an intervention, we cannot be idle without accepting responsibility to some extent. If that’s the choice, let’s be honest about it – let’s just say “we don’t care” “we would rather be watching college football or the latest Miley Cyrus antics”.

    • You said: If that’s the choice, let’s be honest about it – let’s just say “we don’t care”

      My response: If “caring” is the emotion we need to express, then let’s focus on helping the refugees. That will get support from the American people.

      Bombs will not prove that we care.

  14. Hey, Nicias was right. It was the wrong war (Syracuse hadn’t attacked Attica), the wrong time (the Spartans *were* threatening the homeland), and he had inadequate forces. The Athenians didn’t just lose the battle in Sicily, as you suggest, they lost the war (wasn’t really his fault, but still) and neither he nor any of his men ever came home to Athens again. It also meant that Athens ultimately lost its much more important war against Sparta on the home front. End of empire was nigh. Is this the example you want us to follow?
    For the rest, a very thought provoking post, for one wavering between not knowing what we should do and hoping we won’t do it.

    • Oh, I’m aware of how it turned out for Nicias. I’d rather have a real debate, about real possibilities, than this silly “all or nothing” posturing being taken by each side. I’m amazed to see people say: “I’m totally against this war, because we’re not going in big enough.” We don’t have to go in big, and the opponents of intervention know it; they’re just trying to make unpalatable.

      Likewise, the people who want to go in keep narrowing the parameters of the strike until there’s nothing left but hitting Assad’s forces in a pillow fight — when they know full well it’s going to take a little more than what they’re admitting to; but in that case, they’re trying to make a major strike seem like a trifle.