It has been some time since this blog has addressed foreign policy, but the Obama administration is about to make a mistake so reckless, ill-conceived, and cataclysmically stupid that failing to speak out about it before it happens would be a travesty.
Why Are We Contemplating Intervention in Syria?
The administration’s case for war appears to boil down to two arguments: the US has a moral obligation to help Syrian civilians and the US’s credibility is at stake if it does not intervene. While these arguments are certainly necessary for war, they are not sufficient reasons to expend American blood and treasure in Syria.
Humanitarian Intervention As Casus Belli
The moral argument goes something like this: while Assad has been indiscriminately killing civilians for some time now, using chemical weapons against them involves a whole new level of brutality akin to genocide. As such, as the world’s sole surviving superpower, the US ought to set a precedent in which it punishes such behavior to discourage future WMD use by greater enemies like Iran.
The problem with this line of reason is obvious: the US has limited resources, so while a moral case for war is necessary, it is not sufficient. For one thing, the standard the United States is setting is an impossible one to achieve in practice. That is, it is impossible for the American military to punish every country that violates human rights or uses chemical weapons.
Becoming the world’s humanitarian champion is a pretty high bar, and one that has dangerous consequences. For instance, what if China were to use chemical weapons on its own citizens? Would the United States intervene there? Of course not, so why should the US set itself up for credibility gaps like this in the future?
Moreover, much of the current situation stems from the president’s own misinterpretation of long-standing US policy. The red line is not whether a country uses chemical weapons, but whether that country uses chemical weapons against the United States or its allies. And if the Obama administration thinks the rebels are its allies, it hasn’t been paying attention to the events of the last decade.
And there’s the rub: President Obama misapplied the “red line” comment to the wrong country (Syria rather than Iran) for the wrong reason (use of WMD against US enemies vs. use of WMD against US interests and/or allies), thereby cementing the United States to an ill-advised policy that none of Obama’s foreign policy advisors (with the exception of Samantha Power) would have ever recommended. And that brings us to the administration’s second argument: credibility.
The War to Maintain Credibility
To be blunt, that President Obama’s moment of ill-conceived policy improvisation requires the country to go to war with a country that is killing our enemies with chemical weapons is insane.
That’s right. Insane.
For President Obama, a failure to plan or study policy on his part does not justify dragging three hundred million people to war on their part.
It is…wait for it…insane.
What’s even more objectionable is that if the Obama administration gave one whit about credibility, particularly over WMD issues, it would never have bombed Libya. Why? Because the Qaddafi regime had given up its WMD precisely because it trusted that such an act would protect it from future US military action. Instead, bombing Libya made the case for every would-be proliferator on the planet that if they gave up their WMD programs, they would open themselves up to US military intervention.
Moreover, the United States has a long-standing precedent to not interfere with chemical weapons use against non-US allies. For example, chemical weapons use by Iraq in the 1980s against Iran did not provoke a US military response. In fact, the United States supplied the Iraqis with grid coordinates to maximize Iranian casualties!
So this is not about credibility. The Libyan intervention destroyed our credibility. It is about pride. The president’s pride. And rather than suck it up and admit that he screwed up, the president is dragging three-hundred plus million Americans to war with him.
Just How Stupid Is War with Syria?
The short answer is: incredibly stupid. The long answer is: Incredibly, colossally, insanely, drastically stupid.
In any menu of policy options, foreign policy practitioners should always include the status quo as an option. In most instances, the status quo is a straw man against which analysts can compare other, more likely, policy options, but in this instance, the status quo is the best option for several reasons.
First, Assad is fighting and killing many of the same actors US forces fought in Iraq, particularly elements of al Qaeda. In fact, Assad’s regime sent many of them to Iraq in the first place in buses to fight US forces. Now, after having trained against the greatest war machine on the planet, these jihadists have returned to fight Assad in a classic manifestation of the platitude: “you reap what you sow.” Why should the United States care whether Assad dispatches them with conventional or chemical weapons? America’s enemies are slaughtering each other, and it is costing tax payers nothing. Why intervene?
Second, what is the United States trying to accomplish here? The president has already made it clear that he does not seek regime change nor does not expect Assad to change his behavior as a result of these potential cruise missile strikes. Instead, Obama wants to send Assad a “message”? I suppose the message is that Assad ought not use chemical weapons on his own people. However, the last time the United States launched cruise missiles into Afghani pup tents following al Qaeda’s bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, it emboldened rather than cowed America’s enemies, ultimately culminating in the 9/11 attacks in New York. So does the president really believe these attacks will influence Syrian behavior? Even worse, isn’t there a risk that by weakening the Syrian regime, the Obama administration might force Assad to rely increasingly on chemical weapons to win?
Third, it is not obvious that the administration has clearly thought through the end game here. Unfortunately, this is nothing new, because from events in Libya and Egypt, it is pretty clear that the administration was flying by the seat of its pants in those events too. For instance, how will the strikes impact Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile? What if a US strike weakens the Assad regime to the point that it loses control of its chemical weapons much like Qaddafi’s regime lost control of much of its heavy weaponry, which is currently dispersed among Islamists who are wreaking havoc throughout Africa? Given that many of the rebels literally represent al Qaeda, is taking action even remotely worth such a risk? Which is a greater national security threat to the US: Assad with chemical weapons or al Qaeda with them?
Fourth, the enemy always has a vote, and Syria has Hezbollah, which makes al Qaeda look like a chihuahua. Imagine if Syria retaliated by dispatching Hezbollah operatives to the US and blowing up Starbucks and mini-malls. How would Americans react? If you don’t think most Americans wouldn’t demand boots on the ground, you didn’t learn anything from 9/11. And if you think Assad wouldn’t take such an action, you should remind yourself that he’s gassed his own people. To him, Americans are probably just another breed of cockroach in need of extermination.
Fifth, in addition to escalation between the US and Syria, this war also threatens regional escalation. Imagine if Iran gets involved to the point that it threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz and attempts to destabilize Iraq and/or Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. The world would have $200 oil in no time. So when it comes to the potential for escalation, the United States is playing with fire here.
Sixth, since the United States lacks UN, NATO, and probably Congressional support, any war on Syria will lack legitimacy from the get-go. UN approval is a nice-to-have, but not necessary. However, when America’s closest ally (Britain), many American politicians and 91% of US citizens think this war is a bad idea, the president should listen.
Ultimately, the situation in Syria is nothing more than an internecine conflict between Sunnis and Shia, Saudi Arabia and Iran. All of them are bad actors. If we intervene and Assad wins, we lose. If Assad loses, we lose even bigger – a Sunni Caliphate run by al Qaeda in Syria is about the worst conceivable scenario, and a US attack on Assad would push the region closer to its realization.
In case I didn’t make it clear: a war with Syria is insane.