This is a guest post by Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest. It is cross-posted from his blog elsewhere on this site. Be sure to bookmark his page!
It is often remarked, mainly by frustrated parents and disrespected teachers, that two wrong do not make a right. But then what do they make? The scolds never tell us that. Well, judging from the skein of events, now more than two years old, that appear to be leading to a U.S.-led attack on Syria, one would have to conclude that two wrongs make a mistake.
The first wrong was the President’s declaration that Bashir al-Assad “must go”, and then doing less than nothing to redeem his own words. “Less than nothing” because the Administration actually discouraged other parties who were inclined to act early in the Syrian civil conflict to keep it from worsening and spreading—if only they could secure U.S. pledges to “lead from behind” with diplomatic cover and logistical support. They could not secure such pledges.
The second wrong was the Presidential declaration of a “red line” concerning the use of chemical weapons, followed by, once again, doing nothing when the Syrian regime crossed that red line. Not that the line made any sense, since it implied that killing 1,000 innocent people with chemical weapons was somehow worse than killing 100,000 in more old-fashioned ways, but the equivocations that the U.S. government displayed at the time made Bill Clinton’s peregrinations over the meaning of “is” look quaint by comparison.
As a result of these two wrongs, the credibility of both the President and the United States more broadly has suffered grievously, and now the Syrian regime—apparently—has forced the issue (whether deliberately or not we will take up below). The sense now is that if the United States does not draw blood, the presumption of U.S. fecklessness will worsen, rendering the real target of American strategic concern in the region, Iran, less fearful than ever that America will redeem its pledge to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. That, in turn, would hasten the day when Israeli fears may drive it to act alone. No one wants that, particularly the Israelis.
So whatever the Administration has said about the purpose of an attack being to “degrade and deter” Syrian capabilities, but not to change the regime, everyone expects the attacks to be modest and brief, thus not to much affect the battlefield balance, and once ceased to stay ceased. That is because the Administration’s reticence at being drawn into the bowels of Syrian madness is both well established and well justified. The attacks, then, will likely not degrade or deter anything really; they will be offered up only as a safety net to catch the falling reputation of the President as it drops toward the nether regions of strategic oblivion.
If that is the case—if the military activity in prospect is of only wrist-slap symbolic magnitude—then better to forgo it altogether. It would be a mistake.
* * *
An attack designed manifestly for reputational purposes—and we have once again foolishly told the world, Hamlet-like, everything we’re thinking if not everything we’re planning—will be counterproductive precisely in that reputational vein. It will enable al-Assad to say he faced down the United States and survived. It will bolster the morale of his side and crush that of rebel forces. It may encourage the Syrian regime to accelerate and deepen the use of chemical weapons (which we cannot effectively neutralize with air power alone) against his enemies, just as the Kosovo air campaign worsened dramatically the humanitarian horrors we said we were trying to stop. It will cheer the Russian thugs who have supported Assad and benefitted from it politically at zero cost to themselves.
Above all, it will illustrate for the whole world to see that a great military power— indeed, the greatest in the world—either does not know how to use force to achieve political ends, or that it cannot stomach the sacrifices it might entail. The use of force to no deliberate political end is worse than no use of force at all. It expresses strategic illiteracy. It predestines failure even if it hits every target on its short list.
Moreover, if undertaken only with European and Turkish support—and no public Arab endorsement (who gives a duck shadow flying backwards about the UN?)—an attack will come across to most Arabs as yet another example of heartless and arrogant imperial hubris visited on their poor, helpless heads. Indeed, with the Turks associated with the effort (prospective U.S. Air Force participation might base itself from Turkish soil), we risk compounding the humiliation with not one, not two, but three consecutive eras of imperial assault—Ottoman, French and American—all rolled into one. (Yesterday’s British parliamentary vote gets the UK surprisingly off the hook.) That this represents a warped and distorted caricature of present political realities is certainly true. It also certainly doesn’t make a whit of difference; we cannot disabuse the Arabs of their victimization syndrome or their broader grievance culture, however much we may wish to do so.
The potential downsides of a sharply limited attack do not stop there. Iran has threatened to respond to attacks on its ally, and it may have means to do so within the United States. The reason no al-Qaeda “sleeper cells” have been uncovered in the United States in the past dozen years is because there weren’t any. One cannot be so confident about Hizballah cells, or about the FBI’s ability to do anything in this regard beyond entrapping clueless amateurs. Sleeper cells aside, there may be lone wolves like Nidal Malik Hasan or the Tsarnaev brothers who will feel compelled to respond to a U.S. attack on a Muslim country in the terrorist tense. Please do not misunderstand me: The United States of America should never be deterred from using force in the national interest by such piddling, third-order threats. But what is the point of running even such modest risks when the use of force is expressly designed to achieve no strategic or political objective?
A feckless use of American force could also have negative reputational effects both within and far from the greater Middle East. The recently indicted Ahmed abu-Khatallah in Libya will have himself a time dancing a Cyrenaican jig to the tune of an old Dave Clark Five song called “Catch Us If You Can.” Egyptian generals will take the full measure of our sagely advice to them, and of our punchless posturing over sequestering their aid money. Such a squandering of reputational capital might pivot all the way to the Pacific. The nutbags in Pyongyang will dance for joy, Gangnam-style presumably (boy, what a picture that conjures). Our friends in Tokyo, however, will hard-swallow much sake.
* * *
Of course, it is possible that the Administration knows all this and that, despite its past reticence, it is preparing an open-ended military campaign that would truly degrade and deter, and, if it does, that would necessarily change the state of battlefield play within Syria. To do that, however, the Administration would in effect be taking the country to war in a region it has been trying with all its might for five years to exit. Going large might also touch off an explosion of regional war engulfing the Gulf as well as Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, various and sundry Kurds, Turkey and Israel. It could also touch off a series of more isolated but violent reactions from Morocco to Baluchistan and back again.
To finish an effort just to end the fighting in Syria would take months, cost billions and put U.S. airmen and marines very much in harm’s way. Once the fighting ends, if we can make it end without putting troops on the ground (a dubious proposition), we would still be on the hook (unless we are completely irresponsible…) for managing if not manning a “Phase IV” stabilization and reconstruction effort. That effort, however composed, would take at least 50,000 troops as long as a decade—and at a cost of at least $25 billion—to do adequately, since the Syrian state has been utterly destroyed. I doubt the Administration can work up any enthusiasm for such efforts. The uniformed services are not exactly thrilled by the prospect either.
Well, isn’t there something in between all-out engagement and mere symbolic military fecklessness? Can’t we devise a middle way—this President loves split-the-difference middle ways, after all—that can turn the trick in Syria but not expose ourselves to the dangers and costs of a major, open-ended campaign? Perhaps. If there is such a middle way, it would be worth pondering. Months ago I aired the option of using just a few very big sub-nuclear bombs (MOABs we call then now; we used to call a roughly similar ordnance a “daisy cutter”) to level (pun completely intended) at least Assad’s end of the playing field. And while cruise missiles launched from ships in the Mediterranean cannot readily crater airfields in Syria, the USAF can do so by other means. If I were in charge of such an effort, I would also not hesitate to attack some of the Salafi strongholds on the Sunni side of the street, lest they get the extremely pernicious notion in their fanatical little heads that we will dispatch their enemies for them free of cost.
Still, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that we can guarantee control over either the specific military outcome or the full array of other consequences of a middle-weight attack on Syria. Even assuming we could define such an attack (not so easy, so not so obvious), it would be damned risky to execute it.
* * *
I mooted above two wrongs the Obama Administration committed in Syria. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that these two exhaust the list.
For example, the Administration seems to have adopted the view that diplomacy could do no harm, and might do some good, in trying to deal with the Syria crisis. So in Micawberist fashion it encouraged the Kofi Annan UN peace mission, and it accepted the Russian notion of a conference to negotiate a political settlement to the war, hoping vainly that “something would turn up” to change the trajectory of events. But both of these efforts merely bought time for the Assad regime to change the terms of the war to its benefit. Diplomacy can indeed be harmful if one’s opposite number is not interested in quids pro quo unless and until faced with annihilation.
Very much related, the Administration seems to have adopted the time-honored but foolish view that the use of force or its threat should always be a last resort. The Neville Chamberlain School of foreign policy, as I call it, is blind to the fact that early resolve can sometimes head off nasty greater evils, which are precisely the kind of evils the Obama Administration faces today. So American errors in the Syria crucible have not been limited to unfortunate Presidential statements, not by a long shot.
But the United States need not be the only party to the conflict capable of making mistakes. Some see the recent use of Syrian chemical weapons as a mistake on Assad’s part. It may be, but to come to that conclusion one has to make a series of assumptions: that Assad ordered the attack rather than some other agent of the Syrian regime; that the scale of the attack was deliberate; and of course that the rebels did not somehow, very improbably, figure a way to do this in hopes of eliciting a Western intervention to their advantage. But let’s assume for the sake of discussion that Assad did order the chemical attack: Was it a mistake?
I heard a Washington Post reporter speaking on the radio a few evenings ago (I cannot remember the name, and even if I could I think it’s better left unmentioned) asking aloud, to wit: Why would Assad order such an attack just in advance of a UN inspection team coming to Syria? Why would he risk getting his murderous hand caught in the cookie jar? Well, this reporter, whoever he was, is in need of immediate remedial lessons in Hama Rules competitions.
Consider that when Kofi Annan engaged in his futile mission, lo these many months ago, the Syrian leadership with whom he engaged spared no effort to smile at him, lie through its teeth, and humiliate him at every turn. This is what Levantine Arab males, especially long-oppressed minority types like Alawis, enjoy doing most, particularly in the face of supposedly superior, preening do-gooders from the outside world. They derive exquisite pleasure from such games, and from the impact such engagements have on their endocrine systems, which they describe in ways similar to what our own sailors say about the smell of cordite. (If you cannot supply the punch-line here, it’s probably for the best.) So maybe Assad made a mistake with that chemical attack, and maybe he did not—time will tell, perhaps. But it’s not the least bit puzzling to see how he might have done it in full and conscious deliberation.
Why belabor this point? Because really understanding the enemy is critical to the impact of anything we may try to do militarily in Syria—whether middle-weight, heavy-weight or light-weight. Degrading enemy capabilities is to some extent an objective category, but deterring future Syrian regime behavior depends on subtler psychological and cultural factors. People at war, with their backs to an existential wall, are not as easy to influence as they are these days to kill. Just as no one can make you feel inferior without your consent (wisely said Eleanor Roosevelt), no one can either terrorize or deter you without your consent either. If the Obama Administration really sees a need to degrade and deter the Syrian regime, if it’s not just mumbling speechwriter-quality bullshit for press consumption, it’s got to order up some really serious violence to bend the will of those who are consummate connoisseurs of it. If it’s not prepared to do that, and to risk the consequences that entails, it should shut up and stand down.
[The Salaheddine district of the northern city of Aleppo, Syria. Photo courtesy Getty Images.]