Let's Avoid the Fog of War

As the Obama administration considers military action against Syria as retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons, it’s important to consider what such strikes could actually accomplish, and at what cost. As I understand them, the two main arguments for strikes are: 1) Having set a red line, the credibility of the United States now requires that the Bashar al-Assad regime be punished for crossing it; 2) Military action is necessary to uphold the international norm against chemical weapons and to deter future use.

The first case is fairly easy to dismiss. Supporters of military intervention tend to place a great deal of weight on “credibility,” which is almost exclusively defined as “a willingness to bomb something.” As this argument goes, the United States needs to use deadly force to maintain its table image, to use a poker term. If we get caught bluffing, other players will be more likely to call or raise us in the future. But there’s just not a lot of real-world evidence that one’s table image is so easily lost or maintained. As political scientist Jonathan Mercer, author of Reputation and International Politics, wrote in Foreign Affairs in May, it’s impossible to know what conclusions America’s adversaries will draw from specific action or inaction. “They might think that Obama has no credibility, that he is, in fact, resolute, or that he is driven by other U.S. interests. Whatever conclusion they come to will be driven by their own beliefs and interests.”

The second case I take a bit more seriously. Upholding the international norm against chemical weapons is both in the U.S.’s interest and a broader progressive goal, but there’s no evidence that that norm will collapse in the absence of strikes against Assad. Last week, Foreign Policy published a piece citing newly declassified CIA documents showing that when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons in the waning days of the Iran-Iraq war, “America's military and intelligence communities knew about and did nothing to stop a series of nerve gas attacks far more devastating than anything Syria has seen.” The fact that Saddam went unpunished for those attacks did not result in a wave of chemical weapons attacks by dictators across the world.

It’s worth noting here that, given the prominent role that the memory of Iraqi chemical attacks— and the acquiescence of the international community in those attacks—continues to play in Iranian political discourse, the use of chemical weapons by Iran’s client, Syria, has started to exacerbate tensions within the Iranian government. “The moderates seem to be concerned about the use of chemical weapons in Syria and want to distance Iran from this, but the hardliners, especially the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps), don't seem to be taking that line, at least publicly,” Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli Iran expert, told me. “So there is a gap in the Iranian leadership, however as the IRGC has a bigger say on Syria, they seem to be winning the day.”

As for the idea that strikes would deter further use by Assad himself, it’s unlikely that any amount of international punishment would deter Assad from using any means necessary to what he clearly sees as an existential threat. “In Assad’s mind, he is fighting, literally, for his life,” wrote foreign policy analyst Josh Foust, “so any perceived outcry over using chemical weapons is going to be outweighed by his need for survival.”

The benefits of the limited strikes currently being discussed, then, are sketchy at best. The potential costs, however, are considerable. First, there’s the possibility that strikes could serve as a rallying cry for the regime, as some rebel commanders fear. “If it's a major strike, we are with it. If it is minor, it won't matter at all,” Col. Ahmed Hamada of the Free Syrian Army told the Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon. "The regime might use the attacks and say: ‘we are victims.’ They could grow more powerful.”

There’s the possibility that Assad could retaliate against Israel, as he has threatened to do, either from Syria or via its ally Hezbollah, and to which Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has promised to respond, which could quickly spiral into a larger conflict into which the U.S. would undoubtedly be drawn.

Among the most significant consequences is that strikes could dramatically undermine the possibility of an agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (the countries with permanent membership on the UN Security Council, plus Germany) over Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s new president, Hassan Rohani, came into office promising to better relations with the international community. A strike against Iran’s major ally could empower Iranian hardliners while marginalizing more moderate voices, which is exactly what happened in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, while also raising the perceived value of a nuclear deterrent among Iran’s key decision makers, making any nuclear deal significantly more politically costly, perhaps prohibitively, for Rohani and his allies.

This list of costs is by no means an exhaustive one. I haven’t even addressed the international legal aspects of a U.S.-led coalition strike on Syria, the constitutional issues at play, the almost non-existent public support for a Syria intervention, or the remaining options for international diplomacy. While I’m not convinced that limited strikes against Syria would result in the U.S. becoming enmeshed in another Iraq-like cataclysm, neither am I convinced that such strikes would make that much of a difference. Putting it simply, I think a responsible progressive position, and, frankly, a sane one, is biased against the use of force, especially in the absence of clearly articulated and achievable goals, which I don’t see on offer here.

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